From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 116, November 1983.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Party Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
“The time of surprise attack, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of the unconscious mass is passed. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that.”
Frederick Engels from the introduction to Marx’s pamphlet, The Class Struggle in France, 1895
With huge areas of the world poised on the brink of revolution, the workers’ movement internationally is forced again and again to the question – how can we best fight the system? Many have turned to the methods of guerillaism and individual terrorism. Marxists, on the other hand, believe that these methods pose grave dangers.
Capitalism, by the very development of industry, has brought into being what Marx and Engels referred to as its ‘gravedigger’ in the form of the working class. For the first time in history, the task posed by the overthrow of the old order is not the rising to power of a new group of exploiters, but the victory of the working class and the creation of a society which will be run by the working class and will lead to the abolition of classes. It was because of this that Marx and Engels declared that revolutions carried out by ‘conscious minorities’ were of the past. The overthrow of capitalism must be a conscious act of the working class.
All of Marx and Engels’ political activity was based on this need. It was a conclusion indelibly stamped on all future development by the great events of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
In a backward country, with only 10% of the population living in cities, where the peasants were the numerically biggest force, it was nonetheless the working class who led the revolution. Russia 1917 is the model, as yet the only model of a successful socialist revolution, where for the period before the Stalinist degeneration, power was democratically exercised by the working class. The only difference between the balance of forces in Russia in 1917 and world conditions today is that the working class is now much stronger.
By the end of this century, 25% of the population of Africa will live in the cities. In Latin America it will be 75%. For most of the colonial word, as for the advanced countries, the model of the Russian Revolution, far from having dimmed, glows brighter and more relevant than ever.
Yet in recent decades other apparent ‘models’ have emerged. The victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, of Castro in Cuba in 1959, of the Vietnamese in 1973, of the guerilla armies in Angola and Mozambique in 1974/5, of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1979 and o other similar movements, have sown huge illusions in guerillaism. It foes without saying that Marxists would salute the courage of those who fought these campaigns and will be the warmest in applauding their victories. However, it is one thing to oppose imperialism in these struggles. It is another thing entirely to replace Russia 1917 with China 1949 or Cuba 1959 as the new models for the world socialist revolution.
Above all, the attempts to recreate the revolutions of China or Cuba in the advanced capitalist countries have led only to a miserable and failed parody of these events.
In a developed country, guerillaism ceases to be guerillaism and descends to the level of individual terrorism. A guerilla army cannot be hidden in the cul de sacs or alleys of a city. Instead all that can be achieved is the lunacy of individual and isolated actions for which there is not, and can never be, the slightest justification.
Across the borders of South Africa the ANC operates bases and exists as a guerillaism force exactly as did ZANU and ZAPU in Mozambique and Zambia during their campaign against the Smith regime of white Rhodesia. In Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) there was only a limited base for guerillaism. In South Africa there is none. Of its 29 million people, nine million are wage earners and two million are unemployed. The rural population are land labourers, forming a rural proletariat, not peasants.
There are ANC camps which have existed since the 1960s creating a guerillaism force which can only be a guerillaism force in exile and provided it does not fight. When it comes to practice, where ANC units infiltrate across the border they are reduced to individual terrorists, capable only of such acts as the SASOL bombings or the senseless car bombings in Pretoria earlier this year.
The reversion to individual terrorism is really a despairing step back to the primitive pre-history of the working class movement, when class-consciousness was at an embryonic stage, when mass organisations had not been constructed, and when anarchistic methods could therefore get an echo.
Individual terrorism places the puny forces of an armed organisation of individuals against the (in comparison) mighty colossus of an advanced state. Its effect is not to weaken the state but to strengthen it, providing the excuse for repression. It does not raise the consciousness of workers, but lowers it, reducing the working class to the role of passive spectators of the ‘great events’ which it organises.
Only in exceptional cases can an organisation adopting such methods gain even a degree of mass support. In Northern Ireland, as in the Basque region of Spain, it has been the twist of national oppression which has given the impetus to the campaigns of the Provisionals and ETA. But temporary popularity and support does more than obscure the direction of such campaigns, which is always to isolation and defeat. Thirteen years on, the Provisionals have advanced not one step, nor has ETA.
In an urban environment, guerillaism becomes individual terrorism and has no justification. However, in an underdeveloped country where the working class either does not exist or has only a nominal strength, peasant guerilla struggles can have a certain legitimacy as the only method of struggle available.
Conditions of existence determine the character of class struggle. Capitalism brought the working class together in the factories and into the cities. It deprived them of any means of survival other than their ability to sell their labour power.
Out of these common conditions workers internationally have learned to fight together. Across the globe they have drawn the same conclusions – to build trade unions, political organisations, to strike, to demonstrate and to engage in other forms of mass united action. Only through forms of mass action, initially more limited, can the working class become conscious of both the need to change society and their ability to do so.
Guerillaism is a form of struggle of the peasantry. It stems naturally from the scattered existence of this class, and from the individualistic ambition of each peasant to own their own plot of land. Guerilla methods are alien to the entire mode of existence of the working class. It is not possible to work alongside thousands of others for 40 hours a week and then go off to the country, rifle in hand, to wreak vengeance on the system.
To do so, a worker would have to give up his/her job and quite simply would no longer be a worker. Just as a worker in a guerilla army rejects his tools and his place on the factory floor, so a revolutionary strategy based on such methods is a rejection of the working class as the force to change society, and as such is a rejection of Marxism.
The country always followed the town. The peasantry plays no independent role in history but eventually tail ends one or other class force in the cities. At very best, peasant guerilla struggles, where they break out, can play a role as an auxiliary to the revolutionary movements of the working class in the towns or in the more developed countries.
To give support to peasant guerilla war, or to back guerilla armies in countries like El Salvador, is one thing. To advocate, as has been done in El Salvador, South Africa and elsewhere, that the working class leave the cities to take up these methods is entirely different.
In most countries in which reactionary, rightwing regimes have been toppled by guerilla methods, it would have been possible to carry out the socialist revolution in the manner and with the results of Russia 1917–23.
When the proletariat of China, especially Shanghai, rose in1927 they were betrayed by Stalin’s false policy of an alliance with the nationalist Kuomintang. In fact for five months after his forces had slaughtered the workers of Shanghai, Stalin advocated that the Chinese Communist Party continue to collaborate with Chiang Kai-Shek.
Mao’s switch to the countryside was a retreat born out of this defeat. With a proper leadership, the working class could have taken power in 1927 and established a state like the Russia of Lenin and Trotsky. In the end, Mao’s army of ex-workers and peasants took power in 1949 and eventually set up a state in the image of the Russia of Stalin.
Likewise in Cuba it was the betrayal of Stalinism which appeared to bar the road of mass action against the reactionary Batista regime. In 1942 two Communist Party ministers actually took seats in Battista’s cabinet, and the CP hailed the return to power of this ‘progressive’ in 1953. In 1956 Castro landed in the country and began an heroic three-year campaign which eventually paved the way for the Cuba of today – a state like China modelled on the regime of bureaucratic absolutism in Russia.
During the years of the post-war boom the examples of China and later of Cuba, where at least the yokes of landlordism and capitalism had been lifted, provided a huge pole of attraction for millions of the poor in the colonial and semi-colonial world. In the West a silence appeared to have descended over the class struggle. Nowhere did there exist any genuine mass parties of Marxism to explain events and play the role of the Bolsheviks in Russia.
Meanwhile, the horrors of capitalism and landlordism were even more keenly felt. At the moment, for example, 800 million people in the less developed countries face starvation or semi-starvation. Faced with such conditions, the colonial masses could not await some future revolution in the West. As in China and Cuba, the road of mass struggle again and again was blocked by the failures of the mass organisations, especially the mass Stalinist parties.
With the examples of China and Cuba, and with no other examples it was inevitable that in some countries the colonial revolution would take a distorted path. In Nicaragua, for example, the Communist Party split in 1961 and the Sandinistas developed as a revolutionary force. But the only example they could find on the whole Latin American continent was that of Cuba, 1959. Hence, they retreated to guerilla methods. Time and again this situation has been repeated.
The weakening of imperialism after the war was a decisive factor in permitting the victory of guerilla armies in some areas. The war resulted in the defeat of Japanese imperialism and the removal of Japanese forces from China. No imperialist force could fill the vacuum. It was this which opened the way to Mao’s victory.
In Vietnam too the weakening of US imperialism was decisive in bringing the war to an end at the beginning of the 1970s. The anti-war mood in America and the demoralisation of the US troops forced the US to withdraw. US imperialism, its fingers burnt in Iran, could only look on while its friend Somoza was toppled in Nicaragua.
But the factors which applied in Mozambique and Nicaragua, especially the state of paralysis of world imperialism, cannot be recreated in every circumstance. Guerrilla struggle carries no certain prescription of success.
Irish history bears out a clear lesson on this. The guerilla campaign of the IRA of 1919–21, contrary to popular mythology, was not successful. The IRA leaders were forced to the conference table and the ranks were forced to accept a settlement which included the partition of the country and was more favourable to British Imperialism.
In Zimbabwe, a very similar set of circumstances occurred. There, the guerilla war of ZANU was fought to a stand still. The white Smith government could not win. Nor was there an immediate prospect of victory for the guerrillas. With 30,000 dead, with one third of the population herded into protected villages, with one third of the total herd killed; there was a mood of war weariness among the peasantry. In addition, the front line states of Mozambique and Zambia were threatening to close the guerilla camps.
The result was that the guerilla leaders, Mugabe and Nkomo, were forced to attend the Lancaster House talks at the invitation of in, and to accept a settlement far short of what their supporters were fighting for. Now, although white rule has gone, capitalism still rules in Zimbabwe, albeit through the black face of Robert Mugabe.
All these questions are well illustrated by the struggles in El Salvador. There, the working class is a powerful force which could have taken power several times in the past few years alone. One third of the Gross National Product comes from industry. In 1977 there was a general strike. In 1980 there were two general strikes. In each case the leaders of these mass movements held back from seizing power because they had the disastrous perspective that such struggles could only be a backup to the campaign of the guerrillas in the countryside.
By standing reality on its head they have opened up a terrible situation. 300,000 people at least have died in a struggle which, despite the unlimited heroism of the guerrillas, offers no immediate prospect of victory. And now, unlike in Nicaragua, it appears that US imperialism would be prepared to intervene should the guerrillas near victory. The situation is at a bloody impasse.
In any case, any much hailed ‘guerilla victories’ have not been guerilla victories but have only been won when the struggle developed beyond guerilla means. In each case it has only been when hit and run methods have been put to the side and a full-scale military offensive begun that the old regimes have been overthrown. In 1949 Mao crossed the Yangtze on a 300 mile front, hardly a hit and run skirmish!
In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas campaign had faltered by the late 1960s. It was the risings of the workers of Managua in 1979 which crumbled the pillars of the Somoza regime and hoisted the Sandinistas to power.
In each case the Gordian knot of the old order was only finally broken by mass uprisings, or all out conventional war, or both. The ten, and sometimes twenty years of courageous but costly guerillacampaigns need not have happened. Had the revolutionary forces been concentrated in the cities and a leadership of the working class built, there could have been a much less painful overthrown and one which would have led to much better results.
In the colonial world bonapartism in the normal method of rule. Bonapartism means that the state apparatus, balancing between opposing class interests, rises above society, uses the sword to arbitrate in the conflict, but in the last analysis rules in the interests of one class or another. The colonial bonapartist regimes balance between the rival pressures of world imperialism and Stalinism on one side, and the discontented masses at home on the other.
The victory of peasant guerilla armies means the toppling of the old state machine and its replacement by a ready-made military state apparatus. In some cases, as in Zimbabwe, or Algeria, these newly formed bonapartist regimes succumb to the pressures of imperialism and lean into that camp.
Elsewhere, as in China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, the old state, and with it landlordism and capitalism, has been abolished and regimes of proletarian bonapartism have been established. These are the very best that can result from the strategy of guerilla war.
As Engels explained, the socialist revolution must be a conscious act of the working class. The tasks of the working class to manage and control society cannot be performed by another class. Hence, the caricatures of socialism, of China and Cuba, while an enormous step forward, leave the final task of the socialist revolution, the establishment of soviets and the creation of workers democracy, unanswered. As in Russia, the question of political revolution, of the overthrown of the bureaucratic elite who sit on their backs, now confronts the masses in these countries.
Marxism does not advocate guerilla methods as an alternative to class struggle. In advanced countries such methods are impossible. In the colonial world there is an alternative. In Iran the bloody dictatorship of the Shah was overthrown by mass action, especially a three-month strike of the oil workers. Today in Chile and Argentina the dictatorships are being dismantled by similar means. To date, none of these revolutions has gone all the way to the establishment of socialism but the power of the working class has been shown.
Today a single victory as in Russia in 1917 anywhere on the globe would provide an inspiration and example to workers everywhere. It would end the distorted course taken by the colonial revolution. Guerrilla struggles could no longer be substituted in the minds of workers as an alternative to united mass action. Peasant guerilla uprisings, where they occur, would take their true place as at best auxiliaries to the movements of the working class. It is for such a victory that the genuine forces of Marxism internationally must struggle.
Last updated: 2.3.2012