Seen in this light it was neither arbitrary nor far-fetched for Adolfo Gilly, in his analysis in The Mexican Revolution, to call the experiment in radical land reform, military self-defense and autonomous government sustained in 1914-1915 by the Zapatistas in the towns and villages of the state of Morelos just south of Mexico City the “Morelos Commune.”
What Rhodakanaty presaged in the name of the American Commune, when the memory of thousands of slain Paris Communards was still fresh, would become a reality in the form of what Gilly boldly baptized the Morelos Commune:
What the peasants and agricultural workers of Morelos created was a Commune, whose only worldwide equivalent had been the Paris Commune. But the Morelos commune was not of the workers but of the peasants. They did not create it on paper, but in the facts. And if the Zapatista Agrarian Law has such importance, it is because it shows that beyond the local peasant horizon, there was a wing that had the national will of organizing the whole country on this basis.
Analogously, from the neo-Zapatista uprising of 1994 in Chiapas, via the barricades of Oaxaca in 2006, all the way to the autonomous local government of Cherán in the state of Michoacán beginning in 2011, Mexico has kept alive the fire of this other Commune, other than the one associated with 1871 Paris.
A revision of the history of the Commune from the Americas should be capable of thoroughly transforming not only our geopolitical outlook but also the manner in which the concept of the commune as a political form can be articulated with the commons, the community or communality as forms of life. In fact, even though the majority of his European interpreters prefer to ignore this, we have abundant indications of the fact that Marx himself had every intention, toward the end of his life, of continuing to investigate the possible role of the so-called primitive, archaic or ancestral communes or communities in the revolutionary transition to communism. For this we can count not only on the drafts and letter to Vera Zasulich, but also on his Ethnological Notebooks, in one of which Marx devotes himself to transcribing, translating, and annotating long fragments from the chapter “The Aztec Confederacy” in Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient Society, published in the same year of 1877 when Rhodakanaty anticipated the arrival of the Commune to America.
Because Marx mixes his commentary with direct quotations in English and translations in German from Morgan’s book, the Ethnological Notebooks reach an almost Babelic level of intricacy, which moreover includes multiple sources from Spanish chronicles and not a few words in Nahuatl. Most important, however, is the fact that Morgan helps Marx understands in what consists the possible communism present in the social, political and economic organization of ancient Mexico-Tenochtitlan: “Commune tenure of lands; Life in large households composed of a number of related families u. reasons for believing that they practiced communism in living in then household.”
What is more, even though neither Morgan nor therefore Marx had knowledge of term, which only Morgan’s disciple Alphonse F. Bandelier would study starting in 1878 on the basis of Zorita’s materials, this annotation clearly refers to the social structure of the calpulli. “The houses in Pueblo of Mexico were zweifelsohne in general large communal or joint-tenement houses wie die in Neu-Mexico zur selben Period, gross genug zu accom<m>odiren von 10 bis 50 u. 100 families in each,” Marx thus continues to write down in his notebook: “D. pueblo of Mexico geographisch getheilt in 4 quarters, jedes occupied by a ‘lineage’ (phratry) y. jedes quarter ‘subdivided’; each subdivision occupied by a community of persons bound together by some common tie (gens). [In Mexico nur 1 tribe; der der Aztecs].”
Finally, in spite of being responsible for the linear evolutionary scheme of savagery, barbarism and civilization, Morgan saw in the social structure of the Aztecs by way of the phratry or gens as societas a potentially superior alternative to the political organization of the civitas that would be based on the unity of the nuclear family, private property and the territorial organization of the state. But in order to understand this, the Spanish chroniclers who continued to talk of the Aztec world in terms of a “state” or “empire” with its “king,” “senators,” “parishes,” etc., turned out to be completely useless in the eyes of Morgan, because they ignored the living communism of the social organization of life among the Aztecs. The famous ethnologist, by contrast, suggested to Marx something that he would take up in his letter to Zasulich and later in the preface to the Russian edition of 1882 of The Communist Manifesto, namely, that communism could be the return of the archaic community in superior conditions.
Without referring to the Marxist or communist tradition, but invoking the method of historical materialism and picking up on the old nomenclature from the times of Tenochtitlan as summarized by Zorita, Jesús Sotelo Inclán in his 1943 book Raíz y razón de Zapata would suggest that it is possible to trace a straight line that links the revolutionary leader of Morelos with the social, economic, and political organization of the calpulli, if we consider that on September 12, 1909, in a meeting that would also provide the opening scene for John Womack’s classic study Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, Zapata was elected as calpulec or calpuleque, the leader or chief of what would continue to be lived and experienced as the calpulli of his hometown of Anenecuilco:
The different mentions of the calpuleques of Anenecuilco are so many links in a long chain that perhaps knew no interruption while traversing several centuries. Of course, many links are missing, but is it not admirable that there have been preserved so many concrete indications about them? If from the remotest past onward they form a straight line that reaches all the way to Emiliano Zapata, we have reason to say that he, too, was a calpuleque.
Indeed, is it not admirable? It is as though, in addition to being that Sphinx that continues to torment the bourgeois minds, the Commune in the New World were also capable like a phoenix of rising up from its own ashes.
In 1911-12, Voltairine de Cleyre, closely associated with the Mexican anarchist-communist Enrique Flores Magón, foresaw this possibility and associated it with what was happening at exactly the same time down south in the land of Zapata. In “The Commune is Risen,” published in Emma Goldman’s periodical Mother Earth, she basically asks three questions. First, to the question “What was it the Commune proclaimed?,” she answers with reference to the 1871 example:
The Commune proclaimed the autonomy of Paris. It broke the chain that fettered her to the heels of her step-mother, the State — that State which had left her at the mercy of the Prussian besiegers, refusing to relieve her or allow her to relieve herself; that State which with a debt saddled upon the unborn bought off the Prussians, that it might revenge itself upon Paris, the beautiful rebel, and keep the means of her exploitation in its own hands.
The Commune was a splendid effort to break the tyranny of the centralized domination with which modern societies are cursed; a revolt at artificial ties, which express no genuine social union, the outgrowth of constructive social work, but only the union of oppression — the union of those who seek to perfect an engine of tyranny to guarantee their possessions.
Second, to the question “Why did the Commune fail?” in Paris, she answers:
Why? Because she had not asked enough. Because making war upon the State, she had not made war upon that which creates the State, that to preserve which the State exists. […] In short, though there were other reasons why the Commune fell, the chief one was that in the hour of necessity, the Communards were not Communists. They attempted to break political chains without breaking economic ones; and it cannot be done.
And, finally, to an unasked third question that we might rephrase as “Whither the Commune?” Voltairine de Cleyre looks south of the Río Grande, to what is being worked out in Mexico. Her answer, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Paris Commune on May 28, 1871, is worth quoting at length:
Only here in our America, on this continent cursed with land-grabbing syndicates, into whose unspoiled fatness every devouring shark has set his triple row of teeth — this land whose mercenary spirit is the butt of Europe — only here, under the burning Mexican sun, we know men are revolting for something; for the great, common, fundamental economic right, before which all others fade — the right of man to the earth. Not in concentrated camps and solid phalanxes; not at the breath of some leader’s word; but over all the land, from the border to Yucatan, animated by spontaneous desire and resolution, in mutually gathered bands, as freemen fight, not uniformed slaves. And leaders come, and leaders go; they use the revolution and the revolution uses them; but whether they come or go, the land battle goes on.
In that quickening soil, the sower’s response is ready; and the peasant uproots his master’s sugar cane and tobacco, replanting corn and beans instead, that himself and the fighting bands may have sustenance. He does not make the mistake that Paris made; he sends no munitions to the enemy; he is an unlettered man, but he knows the use of the soil. And no man can make peace with him, unless that use is guaranteed to him. He has suffered so long and so terribly under the hell of land- ownership, that he has determined on death in revolt rather than resubmission to its slavery.
Stronger and stronger blows the hurricane, and those who listen to the singing in the wind know that Senator Lodge was right when he said: “I am against intervention, but it’s like having a fire next door.”
That fire is burning away the paper of artificial land-holding. That fire is destroying the delusion that any human creature on the face of the earth has the right to keep any other from going straight to the sources of life, and using them. That fire is shooting a white illumination upon the labor struggle, which will make the futile wage war conducted in the United States look like baby’s play.
Yes, honorable Senators and Congressmen, the house next door is on fire — the house of Tyranny, the house of Shame, the house that is built by Robbery and Extortion, out of the sold bodies of a hapless race — its murdered men, its outraged women, its orphaned babies.
Yes, it is on fire. And let it burn — burn to the ground — utterly. And do not seek to quench it by pouring out the blood of the people of the United States, in a vile defense of those financial adventurers who wear the name American. They undertook to play the game; let them play it to a finish; let them stand man to man against the people they have robbed, tortured, exiled.
Let it crumble to the ground, that House of Infamy; and if the burning gleeds fly hitherward, and the rotten structure of our own life starts to blaze, welcome, thrice welcome, purifying fire, that shall set us, too, upon the earth once more — free men upon free land — no tenant-dwellers on a landlord’s domain.
In the roar of that fire we hear the Commune’s “earthquake tread,” and know that out of the graves at Père Lachaise, out of the trenches of Satory, out of the fever-plains of Guiana, out of the barren burial sands of Caledonia, the Great Ghost has risen, crying across the world, Vive la Commune!