Science for the People with the EZLN

Against the Current, No. 188, May/June 2017

John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto

LIKE MANY PREVIOUS revolutionary movements, the Zapatistas in Mexico have their share of conventions, encounters, protests and the like. It is not unusual to celebrate the contribution of the arts to revolutionary fervor. Yet something different, and to us unique, happened this past December 25-January 4.

Following a conference on the role of art in the revolution last year, they held a large conference on the role of science in the construction of a new society. Called ConCiencias (literally “with science,” with the double meaning of the Spanish “conciencias” meaning consciousness), it was a large meeting to begin the process of incorporating science into the revolutionary process.

Scientists from across Mexico and the rest of the world (82 scientists from 11 countries) were invited to present both the results of their own research and a perspective on the role of science in the new non-capitalist society. We were among the invitees.

“Never More Mexico Without Us”

Bill Clinton’s trade deal with Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement, saw its formal birth on January 1, 1994. Simultaneously several thousand armed rebels from the mountains of the southernmost state of Mexico  descended on several large towns, including the tourist mecca of San Cristóbal de las Casas, capturing police stations and civic buildings, effectively declaring war on the State of Mexico.

Named after the heroic figure of the1910-20 Mexican Revolution Emiliano Zapata, they called themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and captured the attention of the world. Their attack came as a complete surprise, and their takeover of major towns was a remarkable accomplishment.

The rebellion was an announcement. With slogans such as “never more a Mexico without us,” they gave voice to the poor throughout Mexico and, since the majority of the rebels were indigenous people, a recognition that the indigenous people were no longer going to be silent about their oppression. The Mexican government responded with military force and routed the rebels from their positions, but not before a mystique had been established of a completely new sort of revolution.

Part of that newness was a symbolic figure, taking the name of subcomandante Marcos (“sub,” because the people are the actual commanders), with a pipe, usually mounted on a horse, with a truly profound and sophisticated way of dealing with the press, both national and international, and an excellent commend of the internet.

Subsequent years have seen a continual struggle, with the Zapatistas challenging the Mexican government at every opportunity, and the Mexican government challenging them in kind. The government initially reacted with military force, using both the formal military and organized paramilitary thugs, in a truly dirty war.

The Zapatistas have been extremely clever in responding to the continual challenges (not without serious setbacks), both militarily and politically.  They have not only survived over the past 23 years but prospered, in their own terms, and gained considerable popular appeal.

Local Control

Their fundamental operations remind many observers of formal anarchistic ideas, with local control over political, economic, and cultural conditions. They have five political centers (caracoles, Spanish for snail — a symbol of traditional indigenous governance structure), each of which houses a committee of “good government,” to contrast with the “bad government” that the rest of the world refers to as the Mexican government.

The good government regularly adjudicates local conflicts and has developed a reputation of honesty and integrity.  Part of this current state can be seen in one of the ever-present slogans in their artwork and propaganda — “the people command, the government obeys.”

Members of the good government are elected from their local communities and wield little political power. Indeed, membership in the good government is regarded as a responsibility, not an opportunity for personal advancement.

While the political details of the Zapatista struggle have been extremely complicated over their 23-year history, what consistently stands out is that this is a movement of reinvention toward a new society. As in all such movements throughout history they are “making the path by walking.” This means that visioning a new society is a key part of the struggle.

Such visioning needs to ask questions, at least broad qualitative questions, about what that new society will look like. In short they envision what is needed for their communities to be autonomous and structure educational opportunities towards that end.

In an education center formally run by the Catholic Church (CIDECI), but fairly openly pro-Zapatista, we find classrooms for Zapatista youth. Those classrooms include classes in plumbing, electricity, carpentry, shoemaking, music, agroecology, and so forth. The slogan “never again a Mexico without us” encapsulates a militancy about their visioning, but the Zapatistas’ thinking is in many ways much more pragmatic.

The ConCiencias Conference

Where did the idea for the conference come from? The story of where the idea originated was told by Subcommander Galeano (the “reborn” version of Sub­comandante Marcos) in his characteristic inspiring and artistic style (Note that Subcomandante Moisés is sort of parallel with Subcomandante Galeano in the public leadership of the Zapatistas — this story was told by Galeano):

A young Zapatista woman asked Sub­comandante Moisés,

“What is a flower? Why is it the color it is, why does it have that shape, why does it smell like that?”

Apparently anticipating a poetic or romantic story of the role of flowers in society and the revolution, the young girl then quickly added:

“And I do not want to be told that mother earth with her wisdom did so to the flower, or that God, or whatever. I want to know the scientific answer.”

And thus was initiated the political analysis that led to the idea for this conference, formally titled “With Science for Humanity” (La ConCiencias para la Humanidad). “ And in his typically playful rhetoric,  Galeano told us:

“So, scientists, if, when you are back in your worlds, someone asks you why this meeting was held, or how was it, you can start your long or short answer like this: ‘It’s the flower’s fault.’”

The conference was organized mainly for a group of Zapatista students. Zapatista communities chose which students could participate. A gender-balanced total of 200 students participated, seemingly mainly young people but clearly a few older students in the mix. And the structure of the meeting was very carefully thought out to be not just a single moment in an alternative academic time. In the words of subcomander Galeano:

“These 200 compañeras and compañeros, 100 women and 100 men, were selected to attend — that is to say, to respond to collectives. Their presence here is not for their personal interest or benefit. When they leave here, they will each need to return to their collective and describe what this encounter was all about, what they learned or what they didn’t, what they understood or what they didn’t. In other words, they are obligated to socialize knowledge.”

He then addressed the invited scientists:

“The indigenous Zapatista communities, represented here by these 200 transgressors of the indigenous stereotype that reigns in both the institutional right and left, do not conceive of this encounter as a single event. Please understand: this is not a fleeting moment. They, the Zapatista people, hope that this encounter becomes the beginning of a stable and enduring relationship. They hope to keep in touch with you and maintain an ongoing exchange. Or as the people say, ‘Let this time be neither the first nor the last.’”

In addition to the 200 students, approximately 500 observers from around Mexico were also in attendance, but the presentations were clearly for the students and questions to the scientists were restricted to them.

Each of the scientists was requested to give a presentation of their own work and a separate presentation about the nature of science. Each was allocated 45 minutes for the presentation of their work and then subjected to questions from the students for another 45 minutes.

These students were incredibly engaged. All of them wore ski masks (throughout the entire conference) so only their words came through in their questioning. Although normal facial expressions could not punctuate their interventions, the questions were thoughtful and frequently penetrating.

During the talks you could see all of them taking careful notes, probably anticipating the questions to follow. As part of the whole organizing, the students were required to take back to their local communities all that they absorbed from the conference — presumably their ability to do so being part of the original selection process in those communities. The idea was to socialize knowledge, and in this case science knowledge.


On a personal note, we are professors at the University of Michigan and face both undergraduate and graduate students regularly. Facing the Zapatista students was somehow different. We cannot say for sure if the experience was excellent for the students, but for us it was amazing.

Common trappings of the U.S. university system were totally absent. We could not imagine any of the students worrying about an exam or a SAT test, nor deflecting their attention to an iPhone. All 200 students were taking notes furiously, and the 45 minutes devoted to their asking questions was completely filled with excellent and perceptive questions.

The seriousness, we believe, stems from the political organization of the educational experience. Each student knew that he or she was selected for the privilege of coming to this conference with the responsibility to bring a piece of the conference back to the community — “science for the people” in both theory and practice.

May-June 2017, ATC 188