Review: On Marcos, Man and Mask

— Dan La Botz

Subcommander Marcos:
The Man and the Mask
Nick Henck
Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, 525 pages
photos, maps, notes, bibliography, $24.95 paper.

IN A BLURB on the back of this book, anthropologist Lynn Stephen describes it as “encyclopedic” and “a valuable reference book.” Both of those are right.

Henck narrates the life of Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, better known as Subcomandante Marcos, and tells the story of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation up until 2001. No important event is omitted and many details are included.

Yet few readers will find this book to be informative or rewarding reading. First, Henck’s book collects in one place what those of us who have followed Marcos for more than a decade now already knew; there is little new here.

Second, this book breaks off in 2001, with only a few pages to discuss the last six years of the life of Marcos and the history of his Zapatista movement — a period in which his movement has developed in new directions.

Third, and most important, this book offers little context and almost no analysis of the nature and significance of Marcos and the Zapatistas. This book appears to have been written without ever asking a question.

Henck’s book is principally chronology and secondarily hagiography. The author is not simply an admirer of Marcos; he adulates him as a genius, an inspiration and the direction of the future.

In the introduction the author refers to Marcos as “experimenting with fresh, new concepts and methods.” And in the conclusion he writes, “Marcos represents the most advanced stage so far in the evolution of the revolutionary — a Homo sapiens in the world of Neanderthals.”

Yet nowhere in this book does the author outline, summarize, or discuss — much less critique — any of these “new concepts and methods.” We Neanderthals are therefore left in the dark and doomed to extinction.

Absence of Context

Clearly a biographer has to struggle to stick to his subject, the life of a man or woman; but at the same time, that life has little meaning without context and comparison. Subcommander Marcos does not locate Marcos in the history of modern Mexico, nowhere discusses the significance of the Mexican revolution (1910-20) and its successes and failure, and never describes the politics of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the National Action Party and the Party of the Democratic Revolution, all of which the Sub has had to contend with.

Marcos and the Zapatistas are not put in the context of the guerrilla tradition in Mexico from Zapata to Lucio Cabañas, nor are they contrasted with Cardenismo from Lázaro Cárdenas to his son Cuauhtémoc. While the author constantly refers to Che Guevara, Guevara’s politics and their significance is never discussed.

The one point that is mentioned several times, but never developed, is that Marcos gave up the orthodox Marxism-Leninism of most Latin American guerrillas for his supposed subordination to the will of the indigenous people, the Maya of Chiapas. Yet this book never discusses the history of the indigenous in Mexico, or the Mexican state’s official theory of indigenismo, nor the other existing, cooperating and competing indigenous trends.

What does it mean to be part of an Indian movement? One might have made allusions to the indigenous movements of Bolivia and Ecuador by way of comparison to elucidate what is unique about zapatismo.

What We’d Like to Know

Reading along, one hopes that Henck will stop at some point in his story to take up Marcos’ communiqués, speeches and manifestos and attempt to distill from them some theory of revolutionary practice. Yet as we go on from meeting to meeting, from comrade to comrade, we never learn what Marcos and the Zapatistas think. No attempt is made to lay out the revolutionary theory of Marcos, and we learn little about the practice of the Zapatistas.

Today, thirteen years since the uprising, we all want to know many things about Marcos: Did he ever really give up Marxist-Leninist (i.e. Stalinist or Guevarist) politics? Do the Indians lead him as he claims (doubtful), or does he lead the Indians? Does he really eschew the taking of state power (doubtful, or some would say dumb) or does he still hope that his group will take power one day?

What did Marcos really think of the middle-class reformers of “civil society” to whom he turned in the mid-1990s? Why did Marcos and the EZLN make their sudden turn to building an anti-capitalist movement? Why are Marcos and the EZLN so sectarian that they cannot support popular protests against the fraudulent election of 2006, the miners’ movement against government control of their union, or form an alliance with other popular movements such as those in Oaxaca?

While most of those things have taken place after the period and could not have been discussed in Henck’s biography, still nothing in his book would help us to ask or answer those questions.

Henck’s book adds many facts, but doesn’t add much in understanding. Readers would do better to look at some of Henck’s sources: Yvest Le Bot, Subcomandante Marcos: El Sueño Zapatista; George Collier’s Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion; Neil Harvey’s The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for the Land and Democracy.

While I don’t like or agree with the politics of John Holloway and Eloína Peláez, the authors of Zapatista Reinventing Revolution in Mexico, they attempted to take the experience of Marcos and the Zapatistas and analyze that experience and draw conclusions for the movement. Their conclusions are not those I would draw, but theirs was a book with an idea, the idea of anarchism.

Henck has written a book which as Stephens says will be a useful reference, but lacking analysis and critique, does not build our understanding of Marcos or his Zapatista movement in the context of the problems of contemporary Mexico.

from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)

Marcos has nothing to do

Marcos has nothing to do with the Mexican revolution, except the name, and general theme of tierra y libertad. He was born in Spain.

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