Book Review: Of Marxism and Magic By William Bowles

6 January 2007

Review: Conversations with Durito – Stories of the Zapatistas and Neoliberalism by Subcomandante Marcos

“Neoliberalism is … the chaotic theory of economic chaos, the stupid exultation of social stupidity and the catastrophic political management of catastrophe.” — Subcomandante Marcos


No doubt there will be people who consider that the title of this essay is to say the least, a contradiction in terms and on the face of it I would be forced to agree. However, before all the lefties amongst you start firing off letters of protest to yours truly, Marcos, ‘leader’ of the Zapatistas and indeed the Zapatista movement represents a sharp break with the past, an ‘evolutionary leap’ if you like. A leap which although drawing heavily on the global traditions of the revolutionary impulse, is also one that has its roots firmly in the magical traditions of Latin America and especially, its pre-Colombian cultures.

Now all you crass materialists might wonder why I choose to link Marxism to Magic in the context of the Zapatistas and I assure you I haven’t been bitten by some kind of Satan bug (or its lefty equivalent). No, it’s because in a strange, or perhaps not so strange way, the Zapatistas draw on the magical energy that resides in an appreciation of the power of our ancestors to rekindle the strength needed to resist the pirates. What else explains their ability to enlist the support of many millions of Mexicans to the cause, not only the indigenes of Mexico but the working masses. And not only Mexicans but people from across the planet as they engaged the power of the state and if not vanquished them, at least fought them to a draw and more with prose than with pop guns.


Don Durito, valiant knight errant, or beetle, astride his trusty steed Pegaso, or turtle, rides ever onward, or when the need arises, seeks a tactical withdrawal or is it retreat? Thus we are introduced to Subcomandante Marcos through his insectoral alter ego, Durito, with a straightened paper clip for a lance. These are tales of our times, written in a language that is far removed from the stultifying and repetitive rote of the ‘comrades’.

At first view, the almalgam of Maya and Marx is an unlikely mixture and indeed it can be argued that the indigenous movement of the Zapatistas has little in common with what we in the so-called developed world like to call socialism. Based in the South-east corner of Mexico, the Zapatista movement first came to public notice in the early 1990s when the ravages of the neoliberal agenda were impacting with devastating results on the Mexican people and especially its rural indigenous population. The economy, as a result of the IMF’s ‘structural adjustment’ programme was in free fall and in debt to the tune of $70 billion dollars, an amount that the Mexican government was determined the pesanos were going to pay but not if the Zapatistas had anything to do with it.

Add to this a corrupt government run by the PRI for the better part of 20th century, a de facto party-state mafia adept at assassinating political rivals with impunity, manipulating elections and one gets an idea of the state of affairs let alone the affairs of state in Mexico. Then along comes Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Movement, a movement that defies any of the classical definitions of a revolutionary movement, not the least because it refuses to be identified as a leader, indeed it refutes the notion of vanguard party, long one of the basic ‘commandment’s’ of revolutionary Marxists. Worse still, this is a movement that issues its statements more in the form of allegory than analysis, replete with references to Hollywood movies, classical  and contemporary novels and rock music!


The essays of which this book is comprised cover the period 1994-2003 and take the form of a series of letters written by ‘El Sup’ as the Subcomandante is known, to various Mexican daily newspapers concerning the ongoing (and fruitless) discussions between the Zapatistas and the government over the ‘uprising’ by the ‘insurgents’ (sound familar?) in the province in Chiapas and the onslaught of government troops, police, paramilitaries and death squads on the indigenous population.

The letters, which consist largely of a series of postscripts are like no other political statements one is likely to read, at least from the ‘leader’ of any revolutionary organisation we are familar with.

‘Conversations’ is much, much more than a documentation of a movement, in fact it consists largely of a conversation between a beetle that ‘El Sup’ meets as he and his comrades make the arduous trek into the jungle to escape the government’s troops. Funny and serious all at the same time, the ongoing dialogue explores our current predicament and highlights the fact that disengagement from the political process is not something confined to the so-called developed countries.

The conversations draw on folk tales, love stories, movie reviews, allegorical tales from mythology, indeed it could be said that the Zapatistas are truly revolutionary citizens of Planet Earth, not only Mexico which I think, explains their global popularity and why they strike such a sympathetic chord with all of us.


The beetle, who has the title of Durito or, in echoes of Don Quijote, ‘Don Durito de la Lacandora’, a knight who rides a turtle called Pegasus that carries adverts on its shell, and engages ‘El Sup’ in an ongoing dialogue about the nature of neoliberalism and the human condition, steals ‘El Sup’s’ tobacco and generally pours scorn on the affairs of humans. Durito moreover, refers to ‘El Sup’ as his “squire”.

But I must disabuse you of the idea that the Zapatista movement is some kind of weird Latino aberration, far from it, for it embodies, albeit in a highly personal manner (but then, that’s the point!), much that we (should) have learnt from the preceding century of struggle including the importance of maintaining a sense of humour and a derision for the imperialists and their “catastrophic political management of catastrophe”. For once you realise that ‘our’ leaders are totally clueless, they become like the Emperor, shorn of their clothes and stand naked before us in “stupid exultation of social stupidity”.

The other important aspect of ‘Conversations’ is the central role played by the Web not only in the dissemination of ‘El Sup’s’ letters to the world, but the fact that many people and from the four corners of the world took part in bringing the Zapatista Movement to our attention including the translations and the excellent illustrations that the book contains. In this respect, I contend that the Zapatistas are the forerunners of the form that a future socialist revolution will take. Less a ‘revolutionary vanguard party’ than a party perhaps?

It explains why the MSM has largely ignored their existence, for these are truly dangerous revolutionaries, dangerous because they shatter all our preconceptions about the nature of the revolutionary process. These are people we can hang out with, who speak our language, not the academic bullshit that dribbles from the pens of a thousand theorists comfortably embedded in the campuses of the imperium.

There is much for us to learn from ‘El Sup’ and his alter ego, ‘Durito’ and just as important, it’s a good read.

Conversations with Durito – Stories of the Zapatistas and Neoliberalism by Subcomandante Marcos and edited by the Acción Zapatista Editorial Collective. Published by the excellent Autonomedia Press, Brooklyn, NY, 2005. Buy it from Amazon (UK) and (US).

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