Review by Ramor Ryan
If our real desire is
to destroy global capitalism, when is the time to
propagate the word and when is the time to act? Is
there a time when the word becomes mute and only
actions speak? And when is the time that action
should once more be subsumed under the word? Such
questions of praxis underlie the lifework of the
subjects of the two books reviewed here. Both Rodolfo
Walsh and Subcomandante Marcos write and fight, the
one with the 1970s Argentinean Montonero guerrillas,
the other with the Zapatista Army of National
Liberation (EZLN). Interestingly, the former began as
a writer and ended as a guerrilla fighter. The
latter, Marcos, began as a guerrilla fighter and now,
his rifle becoming rusty, continues ostensibly as a
practitioner of the word.
Michael McCaughan makes direct comparisons between Walsh and Subcomandante Marcos. Both pioneer the radical use of the word as a weapon, alongside their guns, to bring down dictators. The Zapatista slogan Everything for everybody, nothing for ourselves, is equated with Walsh's notion of "living for others."(1) I would add a further comparison: Walsh as a revolutionary did not fight to seize power, but against the power embodied in the dictatorship. He fought and wrote inspired by notions of justice and political and economic freedom for the multitudes. Upon his death, he was fighting for freedom on two fronts; against the dictatorship and against the authoritarian Montonero leadership.
McCaughan's work is well-researched, erudite, and passionate. As well as presenting twenty-one of Walsh's seminal literary works (many translated into English for the first time), he has written a thorough biography of the man using diaries, writings, and interviews with family, friends, and comrades. This methodology works well, and we are presented with a very complete picture of the man—as writer, lover, father, journalist, organizer, and ranking officer and combatant with the guerrillas.
Walsh (b.1927) comes
across as a man who has lived many lives. Already an
accomplished and renowned literary figure in his
native Argentina (his book Operacion Massacre (1957)
was a continual best-seller and he was described by
Eduardo Galeano as "the finest Argentinean narrator
of his generation"(2)), he took off
in 1959 to join in the Cuban Revolution. It was a
time of endless revolutionary optimism. Another world
seemed possible; the revolution was only a guerrilla
struggle away. Walsh's activist life spanned this
cycle, from the euphoria of the early 1960s to the
ecstatic 1968 explosion, through the ensuing
rollback, and terminating in the brutal repression of
Walsh watched with dismay as the Cuban state, securing control to combat the counter-revolution and the threat of U.S. intervention, clamped down on journalistic freedom. The original vibrancy and enthusiasm around the Prensa Latina project was stifled and by 1961 the agency was little more than a mouthpiece for the regime. Unwilling to work under such restrictive circumstances, and as his sign of protest, Walsh left Prensa Latina and Cuba, somewhat discouraged, but still a strong advocate of the Cuban Revolution in general.
And such was Rodolfo Walsh's militant stance throughout his life—he remained loyal and steadfast in his work and contribution to the dominant revolutionary forces of the day, but offered a critical voice against authoritarian tendencies and abuses of power in the organization.
And this position explains in some sense why, of all the revolutionary groups operating in Argentina, he choose to join the Peronist Montoneros. General Peron, while in power (1946-55), had exercised a particular form of populism that was influenced by Italian fascism but successfully presented itself as the defender of the working class. To understand the hysterical mass popularity of Peronism, it is important to realize that before Peron's "popular" dictatorship, Argentina functioned as a kind of feudal system—the majority condemned to a form of servitude and oblivion. Peron bestowed upon the masses a sense of self-dignity and a few crumbs from the country's rich banquet.
His reign ended when a tyrannical and paranoid Military Junta seized power in March 1976. This Junta, representing the upper classes, viewed Peron as a despot of the masses who would open the door to complete "anarchy." Opposition to the Military Junta formed itself into the broad-front "Peronist" resistance.
The Montoneros defined themselves during a violent split with the mainstream Peronist opposition in the early 1970s as a radical left-wing national liberation movement, influenced by the Cuban Revolution. However, the ideologically confused, vanguardist, and authoritarian guerrilla movement that emerged was not the answer to anything except getting everyone killed.
Here is not the place to undertake a full analysis of the Montoneros. Suffice it to say that they are about as close to anti-authoritarian or anarchist positions as the IRA in Ireland, the ANC in the anti-apartheid struggle, or the Sandinistas of pre-revolutionary Nicaragua. Nevertheless, like the three above mentioned groups, it would be folly to dismiss the Montoneros without taking into account that they represented the main revolutionary current in that particular moment in Argentine history. Indeed, the Montoneros were the largest guerrilla movement in Latin America and commanded the broadest popular support among the people who opposed the murderous dictatorship. Anarchists, lacking a mass popular base since Spain in the 1930s, have generally positioned themselves on the margins of the broad national liberation movements, offering conditional (and highly critical) support against the common enemy.
In a complicated and convoluted history that saw the triumphant return of Peron in 1973, his subsequent death a few months later, and a Military coup in 1976 that heralded a veritable genocide of the popular forces (thirty thousand killed or disappeared by the Military Junta), McCaughan struggles to keep the reader abreast of the situation.
Walsh's position as a militant in the Montonero movement was defined by the exigencies of the situation. He wrote:
The daily life faced
by the Argentinean radical in these times was a
simple matter of life and death, dictated by the
extremist ideology of the Junta and the subsequent
thirty thousand casualties, leaving little time or
space for profound ideological formation.(4)
All other roads closed, he went underground. He wrote: "Events are what matter these days, but rather than write about them we should be making them happen."(5)
The word had become anathema to him. This renowned writers' "defection" to the propaganda-by-deed tradition shocked Latin America. Here was a celebrated writer, in earlier days equated with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, sacrificing the word for the gun. "These are different times . . . " he told a comrade, "and this is a time for a bigger undertaking. When you're trying to change important things, then you realize that a short story, a novel, aren't worth it and won't satisfy you. Beautiful bourgeois art! . . . But when you have people who give their lives and continue to give them, literature is no longer your loyal and sweet lover—it's a cheap whore. There are times when every spectator is a coward or a traitor."(6)
These are strong words
of a combatant, forced into a position of total
resistance. And yet in reality Walsh never let go of
the word. Even at the height of his active service
with the guerrillas, he also organized ANCLA,
Argentina's Clandestine News Agency. ANCLA attempted
to monitor the avalanche of disappearances, murders
and general mayhem generated by the Military Junta.
As a kind of Amnesty International Urgent Action
bulletin, it functioned well until most of the team
The Montoneros were among the sole resistance movements still fighting by late 1976.(7) Reminiscent of British Generals ordering their troops over the trenches towards the German machine gun turrets, the Montonero leadership ordered the remaining militants to continue fighting. By 1979, the Montoneros were destroyed militarily, politically, and spiritually. Walsh was just one more fallen soldier in the slaughter on the Argentinean battle fields.
from Walsh to Marcos
In his final year Walsh was openly critical of the strategy of the Montonero leadership. While the Montoneros still had major popular support, that support was hemorrhaging. The public grew war-weary as the Montoneros pursued their suicidal armed struggle to defeat the regime. Walsh recognized this fatal separation between the organization and the support base and argued for class war in place of all-out military confrontation.
Whether out of inspiration or despair it is unclear, but he returned to his original craft—that of a writer. After seven long years focusing solely on popular and armed struggle, the muse returned with vengeance and in his final days he wrote, among other works, a seminal prose essay which directly challenged the military government. The title of the piece was Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta and it skillfully attacked the dictatorship with an arsenal of reason, facts and moral certitude. It would be his most lasting contribution to the struggle and his most effective act of resistance. This was not a work of propaganda sanctioned by the Montoneros, but his own individual contribution as a writer. On the eve of his death, he comes around full circle—from writer to militant to guerrilla fighter and back again, finally, to writer.
He outlines the true crimes of the regime—the murders, disappearances, and tortures which elevate the level of human rights abuses to the barbaric, as well as the economic devastation wreaked by their clientalist policies upon the population. His stated aim was to "bear witness in difficult times"(11) but instead he succeeds in delivering his most effective blow against the regime. And his tactical deployment of literature to bring down dictators did not go unnoticed.
Fast-forward, fifteen years. A clandestine guerrilla sits meditating over a prose essay which directly challenges the Mexican dictatorship. No doubt his companeros thought it strange, that the commander spent so much time writing, when there was so much to prepare for the planned insurrection. Marcos' 1992 essay, A Storm and a Prophecy - Chiapas: the Southeast in Two Winds, appears like a bridge between the failure of past revolutionary projects, and a new formulation of struggle. The word, alongside the pistol and popular power, would take central place in Mexico's revolutionary struggle.
Marcos - The Freedom Fighter As Writer
As the guerrilla militants were killed off one by one, the survivors formulated a new tactical direction, Maoist in inspiration. They would uproot themselves from their familiar urban surroundings, and sink themselves into the ranks of the rural poor, agitating for armed revolution. This strategic path led Rafael Guillen and a few of his mates to Chiapas, to the indigenous communities, the poorest of all Mexican poor. And crucially, a proud people despite their eternal dispossession, with a long history of rebellion.
And so began a story that we are all now familiar with: the young Marxist guerrilla agitator was reborn in the mountains of the southeast as Subcomandante Marcos.
But you wouldn't know any of this basic history from the book Our Word Is Our Weapon. Instead the editor chooses to go along with the myth that Marcos was "born" on January 1st, 1994. The 101 communiqués printed here are accompanied by an Introduction and two essays from distinguished writers.(12) One might have expected, in the first complete English language edition of the collected writings of Subcomandante Marcos, some kind of contextual introduction about the man himself. In this sense, Michael McCaughan's work in uncovering the background and contextual life and times of Walsh the writer proves so useful. Regrettably, there is nothing here in the Introduction or accompanying essays that reveal anything new about Marcos or his writing.
So even the most basic questions are not considered—like why does this masked guerrilla, carrying his submachine gun, spend all his time writing? The editor Ponce de Leon allows Marcos' writings to stand alone. And this, in one sense, is fine—Ponce de Leon's work of gathering the body of the work, translating and footnoting, is a huge contribution in itself—but I cannot help thinking it is a great opportunity lost.
So, if you are interested in a critique
of Marcos or his writing, forget it with this collection. The editor's
introduction, "Traveling Back for Tomorrow," is premised in the usual
fawning adoration, contributing to the Marcos myth and legend—one
that urgently needs to be debunked before his myth becomes his own,
and the Zapatistas', undoing. We need to see Marcos as a real man, foibles
and all—an extraordinary figure, a great military strategist,
a brilliant writer, but a human, filled with the usual inconsistencies
and desperate failings.
In this collection we
find Marcos the military tactician, the politician,
the (anti-) statesman, the storyteller, the wise old
sage, the wit, the clown, the poet, the
philosopher—it just doesn't stop. He can engage
a five year old child as much as the President of the
Republic, as much as the great literary minds of the
age, as much as the peasant farmer. Is he
The anthology is appropriately called The Word is Our Weapon. Strange guerrillas they are, with their complete lack of appetite to engage in armed struggle.(13) Not since the first week of 1994 have the Zapatistas engaged the enemy militarily and this is their strength (but may also be their undoing). Learning from the hopeless carnage of the Dirty War against the popular forces in the 1970s, Marcos steers the EZLN away from military confrontation with the Mexican Army and towards political confrontation with the state.
Marcos is an attentive student of revolutionary history. "The flower of the word will not die," he declares in one of the most poetic and powerful works, The 4th Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (January 1996), "Our words, our song and our cry, is so that the most dead will no longer die. We fight that they may live. We sing so they might live. The word lives. . . . The word becomes a soldier so as not to die in oblivion. . . .(14)
One could imagine Walsh turning over in his undisclosed grave, with pleasure. Marcos and the Zapatistas represent all the dead freedom fighters' phoenix rising. Marcos takes the essential elements of the guerrilla fighter—armed resistance and the will of the people, and, like Walsh argued, expands the arsenal. He explains: "We use the weapon of resistance . . . the arm of the word, the weapon of our culture, the weapon of music, the weapon of dance. . . ."(15)
Ultimately Marcos articulates the great historical paradox of the guerrilla fighters—"we became soldiers so that one day soldiers would no longer be necessary."(16) A philosophical tenet that perhaps was overlooked by legions of dead freedom fighters who, like the Montoneros, fought, not wisely, but too well.
Power flows from the barrel of a gun, says Mao, but what if the guerrilla fighters do not fight for power, but for the deconstruction of power? Autonomy seems a wholly different project, demanding a completely new formulation of tactics and strategy.
The Zapatistas back the word with mass mobilizations, popular plebiscites, road show caravans, popular expressions of support and, most significantly, building concrete autonomous municipalities.
Fighter as . . . Freedom Fighter
So clearly it is
important to know our history well and the background
of the movements we covet (or not). Our beloved
Zapatistas might not fit into an anti-authoritarian
paradigm, as much as we might wish, and
revolutionaries (like Walsh) from armed movements
like the Montoneros are not necessarily macho
Most of all we learn
from these books the necessity to take the word and
employ it in the service of revolutionary struggle.
Writing theses or books is okay. Journalism and
video-making is fine. Teaching and social work is
useful. Raising awareness and funds for international
solidarity is important. But from Walsh and Marcos we
learn we must have the courage to go the whole way,
to write and fight, to back our fine intellectual
endeavors with concrete organizing and action.
Destroy the ivory towers and get down in the streets
and fields of revolutionary struggle where real
change is possible.
The EZLN is a new paradigm, a renewal of revolutionary struggle. The path unfolds before us. Walking we learn.