November 2006    
A Oaxaca Commune?

Paris Commune, 1871
The Paris Commune, March-April 1871. (Engraving: Progress Publishers)

A battle was won, but the war continues. And the outstanding fact about the war for Oaxaca is that, even though today it still takes the form and raises demands characteristic of a democratic struggle, underlying it is the class war. It all began with a teachers strike for rather modest demands (above all for rezonification1 for Oaxaca teachers). After June 14, their main demand has been for the expulsion of the murderous governor. In principle, none of this goes beyond the capitalist framework. Nevertheless, the struggle not only faces a despotic cacique (political boss), but the whole semi-bonapartist regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico uninterruptedly for 70 years and is still intact in Oaxaca. The many thousands of political operatives who ran the single-party PRI-government in the state are still there, but now deathly afraid of losing their sinecures and facing the ire of an irate populace.

In reality, to bring down this regime and defeat its last-ditch defenders will take something approaching a political revolution. Moreover, the struggle takes place in a society characterized by a deep division between a narrow, oligarchic European-derived (criollo) ruling class, and a huge mass of working people largely of Indian origin. With this political and social structure, semicolonial in the strictest sense, “those at the bottom” cannot win without going outside the bourgeois-democratic framework and undertaking a social revolution. Replacing the governor to get another PRI politician, or even a bourgeois “independent,” in his place would not change much, with the possible exception of the level of repression – and maybe not even that. In order for the working people to win their struggle, the popular rebellion must turn into workers revolution.

Some leftists are acting as if this has already happened. In recent weeks, there has been a spate of articles by “progressive” commentators in the bourgeois press and leftist groups referring to a “Oaxaca Commune.” This was the title of an article by Luis Hernández Navarro in La Jornada (25 July). Another by the Agencia Latinoamericana de Información was titled, “The Oaxaca Commune Rises Up” (ALAI, 29 September). Iván Rincón Espríu wrote about “Tlatelolco and the Oaxaca Commune” in the Oaxacan daily Noticias (5 October). “Mexico: Long Live the Oaxaca Commune!” proclaimed the Trotskyist Faction (FT) in a 6 September declaration, and more recently “Defend the Oaxaca Commune!” The FT’s Mexican group, the Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (LTS – Socialist Workers League), refers to “The Oaxaca Commune on Alert” (La Verdad Obrera, 5 October). “The Oaxaca Commune: APPO,” writes the Militante group (6 November). In Brazil on November 2 there were a number of “actions in solidarity with the Oaxaca Commune.” On Radio APPO as well, announcers often say they are transmitting from the Oaxaca Commune, like Radio Habana signs off with the slogan “transmitting from the first free territory of America.”

Is there a Oaxaca Commune? Let’s take a look at the key point of reference: the Paris Commune of 1871. Following the defeat of the army of emperor Louis Napoléon in the war against Germany and the proclamation of the Republic in September 1870, the French capital continued to be besieged by the Germans. The plebeian population of Paris distrusted the bourgeois government, which was enjoying the pleasures of a golden refuge in the Versailles Palace. This government, for its part, feared the National Guard because of its proletarian composition. When the regime tried to dissolve the Guard on 18 March 1871, it rebelled and the Parisian workers suddenly found themselves in power.

The image of a besieged revolutionary citadel is not totally alien in the present Oaxacan context, particularly today as it approaches a near-insurrectionary situation. At the same time, it is certainly not a very heartening image, presaging a bloody defeat. The Paris Commune was smashed after 72 days, with a toll of more than 30,000 dead and 50,000 jailed among the communards. This is what Iván Rincón Espríu was referring to in warning of the danger of a repetition of the 1968 massacre in the Plaza de Tlatelolco, when the Mexican army massacred perhaps 500 students and leftists. “The troops who will try to smash the Oaxaca Commune and drown the popular discontent in blood and fire (in the process increasing it) have already located their attack points and have taken up their positions,” he wrote in early October.

Marcha de la APPO, 9 de octubre de 2006March of the APPO arrives in Mexico City on 9 October. Banner calls for ouster of Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.
(Photo: El Internacionalista)

Hernández Navarro’s starting point is also valid: he writes that the movement begun by the Oaxaca teachers strike is the kind of social struggle that presages others of greater magnitude, like the strikes in Cananea (miners) and Río Blanco (textile workers) that were precursors to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17. His conclusion, however, is to add the Oaxaca rebellion to the struggle against “the cochinero [roughly, swinishness] carried out in the July 2 elections” – i.e., the López Obrador mobilizations under the mantle of the bourgeois PRD.

In the case of protests against repression that seek to express enthusiastic support to the heroic Oaxacan fighters, the reference is understandable. But when tendencies which claim to be Marxist and Trotskyist refer to a “Oaxaca Commune,” above all when they do so as praise and glorification, this demonstrates a dangerous theoretical and programmatic light-mindedness: instead of clarifying, it obscure the necessary lessons and measures to win the battle of Oaxaca. It distorts reality by conferring on it a revolutionary content that has yet to be realized, and it reveals that the authors live in a fantasy world. Even worse, in losing confidence in the working class as the vanguard, they look for substitutes: they replace the class struggle with a “democratic,” or rather, “democratizing,” outlook. Instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, they call for “organs of self-determination of the masses” (LTS, Estrategia Obrera, 21 October).

What was the Paris Commune? Among “the multiplicity of interpretations to which the Commune has been subjected, and the multiplicity of interests which construed it in their favor,” Karl Marx wrote in The Civil War in France (May 1871), “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.” Later on in the same text he calls the Commune a “workers government.” Engels repeats, in his 1891 introduction to Marx’s work, “Of late, the social-democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: 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.”

Those who today refer to a Oaxaca Commune as “real democracy” or the “self-determination of the masses” without class distinction trace their lineage not to the great revolutionary theoreticians but to the great granddaddy of the opportunists, the “social-democratic philistine” par excellence, Karl Kautsky, who in his anti-Soviet screed Terrorism and Communism (1919) distorted Marx’s words in describing the Paris Commune as “the government of the people by the people, that is, democracy.”

Appeal by the Paris Commune calling for the election of delegates to a federal chamber of women workers.

The Paris Commune was a workers government, an incarnation of the dictatorship of the proletariat – two synonymous phrases – not because Marx and Engels said so, but because of its own self-conception, its composition and its actions. The proclamation of the Commune, the Declaration of the Central Committee of the National Guard of 18 March 1871, stated: “The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs.... They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.”

Marx immediately added: “But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” The proletariat had to build its own government, in which “the majority of its members were naturally workers, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.” This was the main amendment Marx and Engels made to the Communist Manifesto since it was written in 1848.

So let’s take a look at the Oaxacan situation today. The leading body of the struggle, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, does not define itself as a government, nor is it one in fact. It is an organ of struggle, whose leadership consists of representatives of different organizations. Until now, the large majority of the delegates have not been elected but rather were named by the leaderships of the groups which make up the APPO. Its backbone is Section 22 of the SNTE-CNTE (the teachers union), and it includes various unions of public employees (workers of the secretariat of health, the Social Security Institute, the ISSTE, the University of Oaxaca, airports) belonging to the FSODO (Front of Unions and Democratic Organizations of Oaxaca), as well as telephone workers and bus drivers, along with semi-labor groups (Associated Women Trade Unionists, retired railroad workers) and leftist organizations (Frente Popular Revolucionario, Comité de Defensa de los Derechos del Pueblo [Committee for Defense of the Rights of the People], Partido Obrero Socialista [Socialist Workers Party, now rebaptized the Movement for Socialism]). But it also includes a number of organizations of indigenous peoples – the Organization of Indigenous Zapotec Peoples (OPIZ), the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca (CIPO), the Union of Indigenous Communities of the Northern Isthmus (UCIZONI), Movement of United Triqui Struggle (MULT) – and peasant organizations.

There is no doubt that the APPO has struck root in the Oaxacan masses by having resisted for so long the siege by state and federal governments and the murderous violence of the thugs and paramilitaries. But it is not a nascent workers government. The APPO has a multi-class character, with a petty-bourgeois leadership in which popular-front politics predominate. The decisions of the National Forum on Constructing Democracy and Governability called by the APPO last August 16 and 17, for example, called to “generate alliances with different sectors and political actors premised on our main demand: for the ouster of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.” At the same time, it urged “the installation of a Popular Government Council” and the formation of a “Great National Popular Assembly.” For many in the APPO, these calls are directed at the PRD, whose representatives have had discussions with the APPO in Oaxaca in recent days.

Forum convocado por la APPO, 16 de agosto de 2006Spokesman of the Grupo Internacionalista speaks to forum called by APPO in mid-August. PRD supporters tried to shout him down.
(Photo: El Internacionalista)

To be sure, the APPO and Section 22 have had to carry out certain governmental functions, constituting the Honorable Body of Topiles (a kind of popular police, derived from indigenous community organizations) and the Oaxaca Teachers Police (POMO) to maintain order in the occupied city, detaining thieves and in some cases submitting them to popular trials. But these are only episodic organs and measures of struggle of the sort that would arise in any general strike that lasted for a time.

It is also true that there are aspects of dual power with the occupation of the capital by the APPO and the installation of popular municipal councils in around 20 municipalities. But this is not dual power of different classes. The APPO has not made any moves against private property whatsoever: it has not taken over hotels, or haciendas, factories or transportation companies. Nor has it seized federal government institutions, like the highways or airport. Above all, with its call for “peaceful” resistance against the onslaught by the forces of Ulises Ruiz and the federal government, it has not called into question the bourgeois state’s monopoly of armed force. In fact, in negotiations with the interior ministry (Gobernación) APPO leaders accepted in principle the incursion of the Federal Preventive Police into Oaxaca.

In December 1905, when Leon Trotsky was jailed as president of the Petersburg Soviet, he wrote a piece titled “35 Years Later: 1871-1906,” in which he stated:

“The Paris Commune of 1871 was not, of course, a socialist commune; its regime was not even a developed regime of socialist revolution. The ‘Commune’ was only a prologue. It established the dictatorship of the proletariat, the necessary premise of the socialist revolution. Paris entered into the regime of the dictatorship of the proletariat not because it proclaimed the republic, but because out of 90 representatives it elected 72 representatives of the workers and stood under the protection of the proletarian guard.”

None of this exists in Oaxaca yet. For now it is Zukunftsmusik, “music of the future” to which we may aspire and for which communists struggle. But to confound our desires with actual reality would be fatal for the future development of revolutionary struggle in Mexico. There is not a proletarian power in Oaxaca, and for it to come into being, the struggle would have to be waged, not in the confines of a predominantly peasant and rural state bur instead by extending the insurgency to the big battalions of the working class in the capital of the country and the industrial centers. To achieve this, it is indispensable to forge a leadership, a party, which fights not for “real (bourgeois) democracy,” but openly for workers revolution.

1Section 22 of the SNTE-CNTE, demanded that Oaxaca teachers’ pay be increased from Zone 3 to Zone 2, citing the high cost of living in this state which is a prime tourist destination. At present, Oaxacan teachers, whose average salary is about US$525 a month, earn less than teachers in Chiapas.

See also:

Oaxaca Is Burning  (10 November 2006) 

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