Zapatista Civic Pedagogy in a Time of War
People of Flour, Salt, and Water (2/9)

Zapatista Civic Pedagogy in a Time of War


To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

— Walter Benjamin

Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror.

— Walter Benjamin

On more than one occasion the Zapatistas have been compelled to speak about the war they prepared for and entered into beginning January 1, 1994. In each instance, they remind us that they are and have always been reluctant combatants. Indeed, they insist they engaged in war to end wars; they became soldiers so that soldiers would no longer be necessary.

“And then I remembered that day when the dead like us began this war to speak. Yes, to speak. Why else would the dead wage war?” So remembered Subcomandante Pedro, killed during the first Zapatista uprising, as told by Subcomandante Marcos. This is from a letter by Marcos to Fernando Benitez where he writes in the first person voice of SCI Pedro.

Yes, to wage war, but not to engage in war as is typical of nation-states or organized forces with the ambitions of empire. Rather, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) engagement with war bears the complications of another war. In the Zapatista case it is the Fourth World War that is at least three wars: a persistent counterinsurgency, a longstanding war against subsistence, and a war of oblivion. Thus, war is not a discreet affair of clearly determined combatants, set battle pieces, territory in dispute, and the strategies and tactics of bristling formations facing one another. It is a complex, ongoing, or permanent, war. It is increasingly less formal and more everyday, no longer exclusively executed by a state, as Rita Segato warns. In every instance it is inextricably intertwined with slavery, colonial occupation, racial violence, and patriarchal excess—the ongoing war organized as racial patriarchal capitalism. The Zapatista refusal to quit the field of battle, so to speak, exposes the complexities of war and the complex relation of forces in specific contexts of dehumanization, criminalization, dispossession, and exploitation at times organized as open (traditional and non-traditional) war and at other times masked, according to Foucault, as simply a “coded war.”

A painting comprised of 4 sections that depict how colonialism has impacted the traditional way of life in Mexico.
Juan GOM, Vargas, Alejandro GOM, and Sergio Hugo GOM, Untitled (2017). Acrylic on canvas, 4-piece polyptych. Photo: Oliver Santana

Against counterinsurgency and the “pedagogy of impunity” it facilitates, the Zapatistas have been engaged in what the Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy[1] has been calling a Zapatista civic pedagogy, a political and cultural praxis that embraces the challenges and opportunities of “learning a new way of doing politics,” but a politics that puts the stress on action informed by learning, research, and listening. It asks, if we don’t know how we know what we know, how can we be autonomous? A civic pedagogy places learning, research, and listening at the centre of a prefigurative politics. It is a commitment to organize ourselves politically for shared decision-making through collective learning, collaborative research, and interdependent listening—a way out of the dense thicket of environmental catastrophe, capitalist violence, racial and gender hierarchy, and the almost total collapse of any pretense of Western democracy. As an alternative to the civilizational catastrophe we face, those of us animated by Zapatismo, as well as those unaware of the Zapatistas but exercising similar commitments, have been (re)learning a variety of arts, or “vernacular competencies,” including the arts of assembly, commoning, and other tools of community regeneration. A Zapatista civic pedagogy explores the possibilities of (re)claiming a range of convivial tools, like assembly and tsikbal,[2] that have been cultivated for centuries, and, in some cases, appropriating them with greater clarity during what we have named the “Zapatista conjuncture.” It opens space for the emergence of new convivial tools, co-generated in the eye of the storm, as they say, reclaiming processes of collective decision-making, and collaborating to find new ways to reclaim community through dignity, obligation, reciprocity, stewardship, and care.

A Zapatista civic pedagogy in a very playful sense can suggest that the Zapatistas have created a space for us to learn, research, and listen to enact together this “new way of doing politics.” They have contributed to that space of learning by activating all of the elements of a “pedagogy,” namely a space of learning, curriculum, key concepts, research agenda, assessment tools, and a facilitation strategy. Extending the metaphor, we can claim our participation in an ongoing encuentro (made possible through the string of encuentros, marchas, consultas as well as later the escuelita, seminarios, and conversatorios) as an extended, distributed, continuous space of learning hosted by the Zapatistas in our own locales. In this context, the space of encounter articulated through this elaborate infrastructure of listening and dialogue is not to organize activist market share or a network barely held together by social media, but to rebuild a social infrastructure of community that is rooted in specific locations. These spaces of encounter proliferate in the many convergences that mark our movement. We also have the Zapatista word promulgated in the declarations, communiqués, interviews, and encuentros as a situated, emergent curriculum. Even the workbooks of the escuelitas and the unique collective ethnographies generated from the communities themselves contribute to the archive. This includes the collective palabra [word] shared at the encuentros over several decades, since 1994. The many statements and analyses shared over the years form the basis for a Zapatista curriculum for an autonomous praxis. Strategic concepts such as dignity, Fourth World War, and Mandar Obedeciendo [To lead by Obeying], to name just a few, bring autonomous praxis into greater clarity for further research and should be included in the co-generated curricula. Assessment is distributed and constant, that is, it is the obligation of participants to be vigilant about our success upholding the seven principles of Mandar Obedeciendo. A collective facilitator, or a collective subject as facilitator, has served to activate and hold an open space of inquiry.

Nine small paintings hung in a row featuring Zapatista themes.
Bladimir, Cristian, Tomás, Camilo, Omar, Bruno, Eduardo, Josué, and Unknown. Acrylic on canvas. Photo: Oliver Santana

The Zapatistas including Marcos/Galeano, other Sub-Comandantes, and the Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena-Comandancia General (CCRI-CG), along with other notables, have made the advance of Zapatismo in and beyond Chiapas possible. Thus, engaging a Zapatista civic pedagogy as a praxis and a space of learning, as a kind of interlocking set of convivial tools, we have been able to advance our own struggles with learning, research, and listening at the centre. We have been animated by a collective inquiry, that is a collaborative convivial research and insurgent learning towards mastery of convivial tools that make it possible for us to minimize the contamination and destructive force of racial patriarchal capitalism.

While our narration of Zapatista civic pedagogy according to a number of strategic coordinates is indeed playful—we pay homage here to Durito,[3] with a sword in the air and a tortoise beneath us—in a more serious way, a Zapatista civic pedagogy invites a focus on how we cultivate Zapatismo in areas where it seems that the seeds of autonomy might not have purchase. In the barren, rocky, hard soil of the “Global North,” a Zapatista civic pedagogy experiments with a range of convivial tools, ones that can be shared, that is, learned across struggles. Most importantly, as is true of any learning space, especially a non-hierarchical one where there are no teachers only learners, we must share our local research across struggles. The point is that this politics is necessarily a politics driven by insurgent learning, convivial research, and engaged listening. Our emphasis on conviviality as an alternative framework does not seek to supersede the necessary interrogation and analysis of a commodity-intensive society. However, our investment in conviviality seeks to draw attention to research of autonomous alternatives, in particular the self-organized efforts of (re)building a social infrastructure of community that includes vernacular practices, knowledges, institutions, and tools.

The Zapatistas have been disciplined and conscientious learners. This unique posture reflects an epistemological break, especially with older forms of organizing that were more about teaching, which, through leading, directing, informing, and disabusing, essentially commits to a hierarchical meritocracy saturated with Western, bourgeois values of modernity. In particular, the older forms of organizing through teaching were aligned with the peculiar form of American modernity and its spread since the 19th century, which Bolívar Echeverría has documented. A commitment to learning, discovery, and listening represents a break from old paradigms in order to refuse, as Ana Esther Ceceña explains, any political paternities. It’s an active refusal or disavowal of vanguard, traditional solidarity, or representative politics. However, while this refusal has been recognized, what has been less well known and celebrated is the overlapping processes and goals of our reclaiming of tools for horizontal political formation.

As previously noted, a politics of learning in relation to the Zapatistas and the emergence of Zapatismo is no more evident than in relation to the question of war. The Zapatista preparation for and execution of war was marked by learning. While it is important to note that the Zapatistas mastered the preparation for war, we must not be stuck in a state-centric, Westphalian conception of warfare. The more provocative pedagogical moment in the realm of war is not the war of mobilized infantry and set battle pieces, troops directed at securing strategic locations, or the submission of an opposing army. Rather, it is the other wars that Zapatistas have been engaging in, the war against oblivion and wars against subsistence. Here, Zapatista civic pedagogy, the commitment to learn, has been directed at exposing the pedagogies of cruelty and impunity that mark the ongoing, permanent, increasingly informal war that is racial patriarchal capital. What the Zapatistas have been helping us learn is how to enter a war that refuses to appear as war—a multifaceted overlapping set of violences not as easily recognizable as what we typically think of as formal war. Elsewhere we have argued that W.E.B. Du Bois named this war “democratic despotism” and provided a conceptual tool to expose how the domesticated wars of the West that organized in the name of Western democracy, simply mask the longstanding plunder of “the darker nations of the world.”

A red, 8-armed creature with a light complexion sends fanged snakes across the globe who represent large corporations.
Unknown, Untitled. Acrylic on vinyl canvas. Photo: Oliver Santana

As has been consistently the case, Zapatista success in the mountains, jungles, and highlands of Chiapas poses considerable challenges for us in urban contexts. Here again, we are reminded of Raul Zibechi’s alert about the richness of those “zones of non-being” even as these spaces struggle against multiple violences directed at them. The question is how to engage autonomy not as an academic question with an arcane etymological interrogation and bibliographic essay of the idea of autonomy but to walk with it in struggle. Similarly, Zapatista autonomy does us no good if we approach it by narrating the Zapatistas as either heroes or villains. In either case, we are objectifying them in an overtly paternalistic or condescending way. If we want to read the Zapatistas politically, as Harry Cleaver suggests for reading Marx’s Capital more generally, we must ask what tools they make available to advance struggle. Engaging autonomy and the specific example of Zapatista autonomy politically, that is as an archive of struggle, requires us to be explicit about what we mean by Zapatista autonomy and what we mean by it in relation to what it does, by way of disentangling us from what Moishe Postone explains as a social mediating system.

We can observe the efforts of the Zapatistas to disentangle themselves from this system. In the first instance they made the war—that is the imposition of capitalist discipline—explicit by exposing what Mark Neocleous insists are the twin processes of the social war of capital: criminalization and pacification. They also drew our attention to the relentless war against subsistence, an aspect of the war that has recently animated debates about primitive accumulation. Equally important is the war of oblivion and the Zapatista poetics along with the archive it circulates, reminding us of Walter Benjamin’s battle cry against capitalism in general and fascism in particular: “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” Part of this reflection asks if we can faithfully posit Zapatismo as something of an antidote to “criminalization” and “pathologization,” “pacification” and “conformism,” that is how certain forms of late 20th-century racial discourses converge to produce Blackness and Brownness as “pathological social subjects, and their bodies and the urban spaces they inhabit as signifiers of illegality” (Ferreira da Silva). The spaces they occupy are readily accepted as spaces of violence where the violence is naturalized. Can we say Zapatismo attempts to disrupt the production of these zones of violence and illegality in the !Ya Basta! [enough!] that they have invited us to declare with them; the preguntando caminando and Mandar Obedeciendo they asked us to engage? They elaborated the unfolding of this war through their unwavering resistance to it, confronting the counterinsurgency directed at them, and further exposing neoliberalization in all its technological, criminal advances to capture collective power. Beyond their confrontation and disruption, they created the space to develop an alternative relation, one of their making and one they invite us to better appreciate from outside of the rebel communities.

Six small, framed paintings showing pastoral scenes and people in blues and greens.
Beatriz Aurora, graphic works. Acrylic and ink on paper. Photo: Oliver Santana

The critical point to make here in reference to Zapatismo’s several refusals, i.e. opposition against criminalization, dispossession, enclosure, privatization, commodification, subjectivation, and abjection, is that Zapatismo as a cultural and political praxis is not pedagogical in the sense that it circulates a fixed, already-established curriculum that is didactic, one that directs. The pedagogy for which the Zapatistas have made a space is a pedagogy that is noteworthy for its convivial dimensions: its fundamental elements, a facilitation strategy, a curriculum, an assessment tool, a space of learning, and key concepts. These are all components that are co-generated in an autopoetic convergence that is a shared space of complementarity and interdependence where the contribution of all present is sharpened in dignified engagement to reproduce the community. An approach to Zapatismo that takes refusals seriously avoids any privileged claims about Zapatismo as the one and only “theory” that can save us, and works towards a “practical comprehension” of a particular rupture—a “theoretical strategy” as Raquel Gutierrez suggests for the autonomy unfolding in Bolivia.

The celebration of Zapatismo, to borrow Gustavo Esteva’s felicitous phrase, transcends the stronghold of the EZLN and the Chiapanecan communities committed to the seven principles of Mandar Obedeciendo. The question whether Zapatismo can move beyond the confines of rebel territory, still militarily protected by the EZLN, has been of special interest for the diverse and dispersed, national and international solidarity community. Zapatismo in this quarter has been understood in relation to the traditional challenges and obligations of solidarity for those facing a low intensity war intended to divide the community. However, it has also been animated by serious debates and discussions about what it means to go beyond solidarity. This is at the insistence of the Zapatistas who have invited comrades to walk with them, preguntando caminando, as we, together, discover new ways and reclaim old ways to resist neoliberalism in our own locales.

Rather than narrate the virtues or sins of the Zapatistas as a guerrilla, Ana Esther Ceceña examines the Zapatista rebellion based on its success in reclaiming a historical knowledge of struggle, stressing how this historical knowledge is at the same time a praxis, inter-subjective, and a horizon with its base being territory where a history can be sown, harvested, and modified. Ceceña reminds us of Benjamin’s declaration: “Not man or men but the struggling oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge.” Thus, for Ceceña Zapatismo refuses unilateral thought, Foucault’s disciplinary science, where that thought denies history. It also attempts to erase the Zapatista utopia, a utopia that forgoes hierarchies and impositions that produce dispossession. Rather, it dreams of “a world where all worlds fit.“ Here, as Ceceña claims, the Zapatista revolutionary subject enacts “a silent everyday resistance” that is not “indebted to political paternities” but rather emerges from social depths of inter-subjectivity and a culture of otherness imposed on the Indigenous, yet reclaimed by them in a subversive way. The insurgent dignity that the Zapatistas exercise not only disrupts the “so-called representative policy,” it also refuses the scripts once written for “proletarians” from the factory. It claims community power that is not imposed but collectively constructed.

A painting on stretched canvas depicting 3 scenes. Left: a woman being mistreated by a man on a farm. Centre: rural women with face coverings fighting back armed soldiers. Right: people who stand on Zapatista symbols forming a circle around the earth. A peace dove emanates from Mexico on the globe.
Unknown, Abuse of Women Before 1994; Resistance and Struggle of Women; The Death of the Capitalism and the Birth of the New Life. Acrylic on vinyl canvas. Photo: Oliver Santana

The historical knowledge of struggle is not a simple narrative that fits into already existing dominant narratives, but attempts to identify multiple trajectories of struggle strategically mapping out successes and critical moments of opposition such as when the Zapatistas narrate their own history of struggle in the Sixth Declaration. In this document, the Zapatistas name critical turning points that highlight what they learned about the Mexican military, national and international civil society, the Mexican political class, and the resilience and inventiveness of their own communities. Moreover, the tool, in this case historical knowledges of struggle, can be shared across struggles as a deliberate effort to circulate struggle. Ceceña deploys a genealogy engaging the Zapatistas. She can do that in part because the Zapatistas themselves have engaged in struggle genealogically in that they have quite deliberately and actively co-constructed a historical knowledge of struggles. A genealogical approach in this instance is warranted not simply on a theoretical level but is useful given that Zapatistas—especially, but not only through, the representative voice of SCI Marcos—are themselves genealogists. The assertion here is that this gesture by the Zapatistas is not only genealogical but it is convivial in that the Zapatistas have refused to narrate themselves as heroic subjects, but rather have created a space to share convivial tools to advance struggle, that is, to further the historical knowledges of struggle.

The Zapatista word—circulated in the many communiqués and several declarations, the archive emerging through the interconnected encuentros, the curriculum co-generated in the escuelitasconversatorios, and seminarios, and the new, insurgent knowledges surfaced in the assertions of dignity and the engagements with war—together help weave the historical knowledge of struggle for the Zapatistas and those others ready to be shared from other contexts outside of Chiapas. There are two key articulations that can help narrate the Zapatista struggle and the emergence of Zapatismo. The first is a commitment to a politics of encounter. Second, related to a politics of encounter are the several agreements necessary for such a space to work politically. Agreements, while often taken for granted by most, are quintessentially convivial tools.

From agreements a whole host of additional convivial tools can emerge.

In this essay approaching Zapatismo as a theoretical strategy, as suggested by Gutierrez, we observe a number of convivial tools, or a new kind of toolkit that Ivan Illich called for as part of his critique of the industrial mode of production. In claiming Zapatismo as a locus of convivial tools we also witness just how central learning, research, and listening are and have been to Zapatismo’s unfolding. We celebrate these efforts, and also ask if what we observe in these struggles is an exercise in conviviality, a praxis that we can make more observable by investigating modes of conviviality. These might include a mode of convivial research and insurgent learning, a mode of tool making, and a mode of (re)subjectivization.

A painted panel depicting the early history of colonization and slavery in Mexico.
Juan GOM, Vargas, Alejandro GOM, and Sergio Hugo GOM, Untitled (detail, 2017). Acrylic on canvas. Photo: Oliver Santana

Self-organized communities of struggle must distinguish between, as Illich suggests, industrial tools and convivial ones. It is a battleground—a space where subjectivization, the subject production of capital as a social mediating system, is disrupted and a collective subject begins to stir. Without a doubt, it is also a space of “human strike”; it resists those biopolitical forces that seek to apportion vulnerabilities in the catastrophic storm that is the current conjuncture. It is above all an effort of conviviality against the modes of production, consumption, signification, and destruction articulated by democratic despotism. What we have taken to calling a Zapatista civic pedagogy is an approach to Zapatismo, recognizing that it is emergent, dynamic, and that its political energy in many ways is animated by a commitment to convivial research and insurgent learning. In this instance, the path that is co-constructed is animated by the Zapatistas’ provocation to learn with others a new way of doing politics (El Kilombo, 2007).

The space of Zapatismo as articulated here is both the site of the dissolution of one relation, that is the relation produced through racial patriarchal capitalism and intertwined around property, value, commodity, labor, race, and patriarchy; and the emergence of another, counter-relation articulated through the convivial—a relation maintained with a new modern tool kit oriented around holding space for learning together. Thus, Zapatista civic pedagogy offers potential alternatives to the liberal project and by extension the Western patriarchal consuming subject (Callahan, 2012).

Accompanying art: Artworks of the Zapatistas

Artworks of the Zapatistas
Installation views of When We Thought We Had All the Answers, Life Changed the Questions. Photos by Oliver Santana.
Curators: Cuauhtémoc Medina and Alejandra Labastida
Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC/UNAM), Mexico City (2017)

The installation Slow Orientation in Zapatismo put in conversation in the same exhibition space the work of Chto Delat with the original works by Zapatista artists and by Beatriz Aurora—one of the most recognized activists and artistic collaborators of the Zapatista movement.

The relation here is one of reciprocity and presencing: Chto Delat had participated at the Zapatista festival CompArte por la Humanidad and presented the film Dead End #17 in San Cristobal de las Casas and in Oventic, followed by discussions with the community.

Later on, for their solo show at MUAC, Chto Delat invited the Zapatista artists. It was the first time that these artworks were exhibited in a museum context.


Acción Zapatista (2005). Conversations with Durito. Brooklyn: Autonomedia.

Benjamin, Walter (1968). “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Schocken Books.

Callahan, Manuel (2019). “Repairing the Community: UT Califas and Convivial Tools of the Commons” in Ephemera 19:2. p.369-387

Callahan, M. (2012). “In defense of conviviality and the collective subject.” in Polis, 33. Accessed April 24, 2023 at

Ceceña, Ana Esther (2004). “The Subversion of Historical Knowledge of the Struggle: Zapatistas in the 21st Century” in Antipode 36: 3, June 2004. p.361-370

Cleaver, Harry (1979). Reading Capital Politically. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B (1915). “African Roots of War” in Atlantic Monthly 115:5, May 1915.

Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (2016). Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra. Durham: Paperboat Press.

El Kilombo (2007). Beyond Resistance Everything, Durham: Paperboat Press.

Esteva, Gustavo (2005). “Celebration of Zapatismo” in Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 29: 1. p.127-167

Ferreira da Silva, Denise (2001). “Towards a Critique of the Socio-logos of Justice: The Analytics of Raciality and the Production of Universality” in Social Identities 7: 3. p.421-454

Fontaine, Claire (2013). Human Strike Has Already Begun & Other Writings.

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Gutiérrez, Raquel (2012). “The Rhythms of the Pachakuti: Brief Reflections Regarding How We Have Come to Know Emancipatory Struggles and the Significance of the Term Social Emancipation” in South Atlantic Quarterly 111:1, Winter 2012. p.51-64

Illich, Ivan (1977). Toward a History of Needs, Berkeley: Heyday Books.

Achille Mbembe (2003). “Necropolitics” in Public Culture 15: 1. p.11-40

Muñoz Ramírez, Gloria (2008). The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

Neocleous, Mark (2010). “War as peace, peace as pacification” in Radical Philosophy 159 (January/February 2010). p.8-17

Postone, Moishe (2015). “The Task of Critical Theory Today: Rethinking the Critique of Capitalism and its Futures” in Current Perspectives in Social Theory 33. p.3-28

Segato, Rita Laura (2014). Las Nuevas Formas de la Guerra y el Cuerpo de las Mujeres. Puebla: Pez en el árbol.

Zibechi, Raúl (2005). “Subterranean Echos: Resistance and Politics ‘desde el Sótano'” in Socialism and Democracy, 19: 3 (November 2005). p.13–39


[1] The Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy (CCRA) is a collective that pursues community based convivial research and insurgent learning imagined as “spaces of encounter,” to share critical analytical skills, investigative tools, facilitation techniques, and community regeneration strategies that reclaim the habits of assembly across struggles. Initiatives weave together autonomous, community well-being, food sovereignty, and community safety.

[2] In the Mayan context “tsikbal” refers to the small, informal conversations that people have in order to manage difficult topics or issues that require a collective decision by the larger community assembly. These moments of interaction can often mitigate the tensions that exist around difficult decisions. From Mayan the term translates into Spanish as “To shred the word,” to diminish its harshness so it can be managed. 

[3] Don Durito is a beetle, a recurrent character in Subcomandante Marcos (now Galeano’s) tales, often interpreted as his own alter ego. 

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Manuel Callahan’s work explores three interwoven areas: the US/Mexico border and borderlands historically and in the present; Indigenous struggles across the Americas including Zapatista struggles located in Chiapas; and convivial research, a community based research methodology that draws on engaged scholarship emerging from the Global South.

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