New Formulation

February 2003, Vol. 2, No. 1


The Writer as Freedom Fighter, The Freedom Fighter as Writer

Review by Ramor Ryan

True Crimes: Rodolfo Walsh - The Life and Times of a Radical Intellectual
True Crimes: Rodolfo Walsh - The Life and Times of a Radical Intellectual
By Michael McCaughan
London: Latin American Bureau, 2002
Our Word is Our Weapon: The Collected Writings of Subcomandante

Our Word is Our Weapon: The Collected Writings of Subcomandante

Edited by Juana Ponce de Leon
New York: Seven Stories, 2001

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.

Rodolfo Walsh - The Writer As Freedom Fighter
Why would the life of an Argentinean leftist guerrilla of a 1970s armed struggle be of interest to anti-authoritarians or anarchists? In Argentina today, heady times filled with revolutionary passion, Walsh's name is one of the few from that era that still holds currency among the contemporary radicals. Unlike Che, he has not been reified into a popular icon, and unlike other well known radical intellectuals of the era, like Regis Debray, he never compromised politically or intellectually--for which he was shot down in the streets of Buenos Aires in 1977 by state assassins. In a time of total war against the popular movement, Walsh is remembered for his integrity--an unassuming, modest, behind-the-scenes player, but a pivotal figure in the secret revolutionary history of the era.

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 the 1970s.

His role in Cuba was to help develop an international, alternative news service to challenge the hegemony of the established news syndicates. A small group of young, inexperienced radical activists started up Prensa Latina, a media initiative that spread across Latin America, opening offices in a variety of countries. Volunteers worked day and night in cramped offices, using borrowed, donated, and stolen equipment. The chaos and energy described by McCaughan sounds like any present day Indymedia office.

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:

I have to say that I am a Marxist, but a poor Marxist because I don't read much. I don't have time for ideological formation. My political culture is empirical rather than abstract. I prefer to draw my inferences from daily life. I throw myself into life on the street, into reality, and then I join that information to an ideological basis which is fairly clear in my mind.(3)

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)

The government's total war on the people (a war replicated in Pinochet's Chile, in Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, and needless to say fully supported by the CIA) left Walsh's position as a union organizer and journalist in the workers' paper Semanario CGT untenable. Most of his fellow trade unionists were jailed or disappeared. His subsequent post as a journalist with the left-wing Noticias daily newspaper also sunk into a grotesque farce as the offices got bombed, journalists were imprisoned, distribution agents disappeared, and eventually (mercifully?!) the newspaper was shut down by order of the courts.

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 was murdered.

As a Montonero Intelligence Officer, Walsh acted implacably with a soldier's ruthlessness. His network of revolutionary agents infiltrated the police and army. He was pivotal in an audacious 1976 guerrilla operation which involved placing a bomb in the police headquarters canteen, killing 42 guards. The military reprisals were predictably swift, beginning with the execution of 30 key prisoners that very evening and continuing afterwards with hundreds of assassinations and disappearances.

McCaughan suggests that the harsh reaction to this bombing, as well as the death of his daughter Vikki while on Montonero active service, caused Walsh to rethink his role and criticize the wisdom of tactics that invited such huge reprisals. Instead of high-impact spectacular attacks, he argued in favor of multiple small attacks, using whatever weapon at hand, whether it be the printing machine, popular culture, the pistol or the pipe bomb. Walsh assumed a heretical position within the guerrilla organization; he questioned the authority of the leadership and dared to formulate a new strategy.

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.

The Bridge from Walsh to Marcos
Among the carnage that consumed Argentina from 1973 until his death in 1977, Walsh's legacy was not his guerrilla endeavors but his continued use of the word as a weapon against the military dictatorship. As he wrote: "The typewriter is a weapon. . . . It can be a fan or a pistol. . . . With a typewriter and a piece of paper you can move people in unbelievable ways."(8)

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.

We must be more self-critical and realistic. Of course there is a class struggle, there always has been, and always will be, but one of the big successes of the government has been to wage war on us, not on the people as a whole. And this is largely due to our own mistakes, we isolate ourselves with ideology and our lack of political proposals for the ordinary people.(9)

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.

The first anniversary of the latest Military Junta has been marked by many official documents and speeches evaluating the government's activities over the past year; what you call successes are failures, the failures you recognize are crimes and the disasters you have committed are omitted altogether. . . .(10)

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.

Subcomandante Marcos - The Freedom Fighter As Writer
As Walsh fell, gunned down by the regime's assassins in 1977, Mexico was undergoing its own little slaughter as the state eliminated the threat of subversive groups with a similar vigor. Still, considering the repressive political climate overseen by the PRI dictatorship (the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, in power uninterrupted since the 1920s), the path of armed resistance continued to be attractive to elements of the politicized youth. A student named Rafael Guillen in Tampico heard the calling. By 1979, he was integrated as "Capitan" in the ranks of a doomed guerrilla outfit, grandiosely called the National Liberation Forces (FLN). An old-school Marxist group, they subscribed to the vanguardist idea of igniting a popular uprising through armed struggle.

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.

Despite these editorial shortcomings, what we do have in this anthology is enough to make any activist tingle with joy. Marcos' writing is beautiful and expansive enough to fit every revolutionary tradition. His great ruse is to make each tradition think of him as representing them—the indigenous say he is one of them, the guerrillas claim him as one of their own, the intellectuals include him in their pantheon, Mexican nationalists see him as a great Mexican hero, NGOs see him as their advocate, Marxists see him as one of their sect, anarchists claim him as part of their tradition, even the base church sees him as a representative of their preferential option of the poor. This potentially complex multiple personality disorder is of course symbolized by the ever-present mask. Would the real Subcomandante Marcos please stand up?!

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 superhuman?!

Here's the good news. A good proportion of his writing, as demonstrated in this anthology, is dirge. He is refreshingly flawed, and human. Here in this anthology you can read some real fucking gibberish.

And here's the better news, the good stuff—which I would say constitutes about half of this anthology—is singularly brilliant, scathing, witty, fantastic: the most inspired radical writings of the end of the twentieth century.

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.

The Freedom Fighter as . . . Freedom Fighter
But what does a reading of these two books together do to contribute towards developing an anti-authoritarian perspective? First of all, since many of our milieu think the sun shines out of Marcos' ass, or his pen, it is useful to understand that he came, ideologically and practically, from the Latin American armed, authoritarian Left. McCaughan's True Crimes plots some crucial years and struggles of the tumultuous times of the armed authoritarian Left, a cycle that began with the Cuban revolution and ended with the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990. (Marcos also spent time in Nicaragua in the 1980s.) Rebels of conscience like Walsh who fought not for power but for justice, realized, albeit too late, the follies of authoritarian organization. Marcos’ political acumen lies in subsuming the authority of the authoritarian guerrilla EZLN to the horizontal organization of the indigenous clandestine assembly.

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 authoritarians.

Secondly, I think a reading of these two books together can help us think tactically and strategically. Both Walsh and Marcos are intellectual tacticians who respond to the political situation they are confronting. Obviously neither are constrained by moral dilemmas over the use of physical force, but they are not warlords either. Walsh recognized the catastrophic consequences of all out military confrontation with the enemy and Marcos learned this lesson well. After a week of battle, the Zapatistas changed strategic direction and pursued a political offensive deploying the word as their weapon. But power has been trying to lure them for years into the constitutional political spectrum. The Zapatistas plainly understand that their arms, or the threat of arms, is their crucial negotiating tool. The word is a weapon deployed in the shadow of the gun.

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 word as a weapon is not enough. Intellectual activity unconnected with grassroots struggle is moot. Conversely, from Walsh's story, it is clear that ultra-militancy is a fool's game. Before his premature death, Walsh was navigating a critical territory away from the authoritarian Left towards a new formulation. This path was crossed a decade later by Marcos, from the FLN to the EZLN.

The EZLN is a new paradigm, a renewal of revolutionary struggle. The path unfolds before us. Walking we learn.

Many thanks to James Davis for his critical input in the drafting of this review.


1. Michael McCaughan, True Crimes: Rodolfo Walsh - The Life and Times of a Radical Intellectual (London, Latin American Bureau, 2002), 300.

2. Eduardo Galeano, cited in McCaughan, True Crimes, book jacket.

3. Rodolfo Walsh, cited in McCaughan, True Crimes, 200.

4. The regime's extremism was articulated well by General Jorge Rafael Videla, leader of the Military Junta, who stated that "A terrorist is not just someone with a bomb or a gun, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian Civilization." (Videla, in A Report by the National Commission on Disappeared People [])

5. Rodolfo Walsh, cited in McCaughan, True Crimes, 203.

6. Ibid., 218.

7. See the interview with Fernando Lopez in this issue for information on anarchist resistance to the dictatorship.

8. Rodolfo Walsh, cited in McCaughan, True Crimes, 177.

9. Rodolfo Walsh, cited in ibid., 260.

10. Ibid., 284.

11. Ibid., 214.

12. The collection is framed by an odd essay by Jose Saramago, equating the indigenous of Chiapas with Persians; a history of the struggle in general by Ana Carrigan; and a Zapatista timeline by Tom Hansen—none of which deals with Marcos directly.

13. Zapatistas in the Northern Zone periodically engage in armed confrontations with Paramilitaries. In San Juan de Libertad in June 1998 Zapatistas unsuccessfully tried to repel a military invasion (although they did down a helicopter). The ensuing execution of militia members on active service is erroneously described as "civilian" deaths in Tom Hansens' scrappy timeline, despite their inclusion in Marcos' roll-call of fallen Zapatistas (Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon: The Collected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos, ed. Juana Ponce de Leon [New York: Seven Stories, 2001], 201).

14. Marcos, "The 4th Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle," in Our Word is Our Weapon: The Collected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos, ed. Juana Ponce de Leon (New York: Seven Stories, 2001), 86.

15. Marcos, "Why We Use the Weapon Of Resistance," in Our Word is Our Weapon: The Collected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos, ed. Juana Ponce de Leon (New York: Seven Stories, 2001), 161.

16. Ibid.