Sun Tzu under the pillow

Statue of Sun Tzu

By Raúl Zibechi

In times of systemic storm, a clear and defined strategy is necessary. Otherwise, shipwreck is almost inevitable. Maybe because of this we have returned to the knowledge embodied by Sun Tzu, military general, strategist and philosopher of ancient China, who summarizes his teachings in the book, The Art of War, which has inspired several generations of revolutionaries.

Returning to Sun Tzu in these times is doubly important for those of us trying to defeat capitalism without involving ourselves in the horrors of wars that characterized the rise of empires and of the current global system. And which may be the sign of their downfall. 

One of his most notable concepts states: the victorious army wins first, and engages in battle afterward; the defeated army fights first and tries to win victory later. 

From the point of view of communities in movement, and the indigenous mayan and nasa people in particular, I believe this to mean: we are victorious because we are here, we have survived the attempts to disappear us as peoples. Wasn’t that the objective of the ruling classes since the Conquest? Is that not the objective of the war against drugs and enterprises like the Mayan Train?

For the oppressed peoples, the concept of victory is not of a military nature, it is not related with death, but with life. To continue to be peoples, continue to construct new worlds, because as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation signaled in its communique (a few weeks ago) A Mountain on the High Seas, it is not a matter of returning to a supposedly wonderful past, like the Aztec empire, constructed at the cost of blood of its fellow people.  (

To continue to be is to continue resisting, not to go back, but to build anew. This is the victory of the Zapatista, of the Nasa/Misak, of the Mapuche, of the Wampis and so many other peoples.

It has to be said — I thought that all which was not achieved the hard way of the Peña Nietos and Pinochets could be achieved through development and the social policies of the Mujicas and the Correas (add the names that you believe to be appropriate, in each geography.) Wrong. The people are being able to overcome the various ways of operating the ongoing extractive neoliberal model, or the 4th World War, as the EZLN calls it.

The notable saying of Sun Tzu takes on greater significance when we note what some communities have been able to endure, through pain and blood, as much the conservative as the progressive administrations of the model. What it shows us is that the battles that are being fought now are the fruits of their strategic victory.

On the relationship between strategy and tactics, Sun Tzu is credited with a saying that, according to specialists, is not found in his book, which reads: Strategy without tactics is the slowest path to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

To my way of seeing the great works of infrastructure, like the brutal Belo Monte dam in Brazil, that destroy the sources of life for entire peoples; the very Tren Maya or the TransIsthmic Corridor, to give a handful of examples, are merely fireworks to cover up the strategic vacuum of a model that has nothing more to offer the people than death and destruction.

The communities in movement who have not allowed themselves to be coopted by one side or the other, who maintain their autonomy (which is not to say that they are never wrong), who don’t give in to either the evil or the good empire, nor to any government, are thos that are in a position to continue their journey for the long haul.

They are the ones that can embark on new types of projects, daring and even dangerous, because they already won at continuing to exist. Thatdoesn’t mean that they can’t attack them and even advance genocide. We receive daily news of this from the Cauca of Colombia, from Wallmapu, from Chiapas, and from all of the geographies that are resisting.

In the midst of this tremendous storm, the strategies of all the lefts and of the old movements have demonstrated their limitations and narrowness. Concentrating on the taking or of the occupation of the State is, as Immanuel Wallerstein stated decades ago, the path of failure because it legitimates the order that it aims to combat.

We need strategies that are not inverse copies of the agendas and the ways of those from above,   whether they be of the left or the right. Resisting without reproducing the same political culture. When the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca declares, count on us for peace, and never for war, it points to a new type of politics. They resist by building other worlds. 

When the EZLN builds autonomous health, education, justice and power, it is showing the path of life that the peoples of Mayan roots travel, and the bases of support, that little by little many other  begin to walk, on all of the continents, in particular in Latin America.

This article was originally published in Spanish in La Jornada on October 9th, 2020. This English interpretation has been re-published by Schools for Chiapas.

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