Guerrilla struggle and the workers’ movement
Originally published in Inqaba No. 5 (January 1982).
This is the first in a series of articles on armed struggle. In order to fully understand this question, it is necessary to examine guerrilla war as it developed in the revolutionary upheavals in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Further articles will analyse guerrilla struggle and the use of armed force in the South African revolution.
The period following the Second World War has been one of unprecedented turbulence in the colonial and underdeveloped countries with continual revolutionary uprisings against national oppression and imperialist domination. In many of the countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa, the strategy of guerrilla war in the countryside and even urban guerillaism, has been adopted by leaders of the struggling masses. Guerrilla struggle has been hailed as the only way towards victory over the oppressor, and a means by which socialism could be achieved.
Today the working class, moving into struggle in all parts of the former colonial world, encounters many organisations and leaders which put forward these ideas. In South Africa guerrilla struggle is the official policy of the ANC and other organisations. For this reason it is important for the workers, the youth and all revolutionaries to understand clearly what this method of struggle has to offer the working class, and when and where it can further the struggle against the capitalist enemy.
Even during the long post-war boom in the advanced countries, the continued grip of capitalism over the ‘Third World’ has meant one uninterrupted nightmare for the masses.
Indeed the explosive struggles of the peoples of the underdeveloped countries forced imperialism to retreat from direct political-military domination. The old colonial empires, despite desperate and often barbarous measures by world capitalism, disintegrated.
The achievement of political independence in the countries subjected to colonial rule has been an irreversible step forward.
But during the boom period of 1950-1974, despite political independence, the economic stranglehold of capitalism over most of the ‘Third World’ – over the means of production as well as trade – tightened.
Monopoly capital now completely dominated the capitalist world. This meant in turn that the capitalist class (national bourgeoisie) of the underdeveloped countries was feeble and emaciated, having entered the scene far too late to play any positive role in the development of society.
Dependent and fragmented, these economies cannot hope on a capitalist basis to challenge the dazzling industrial development of the Western powers. Most have continued to serve in their colonial role of exporting agricultural and mineral raw materials to the advanced industrial countries, and providing markets for the products of Western capitalism.
Over the period since the Second World War, the prices of their products have generally fallen in relation to the prices they must pay for manufactured imports. The upswing in the advanced capitalist countries was based in part on the super-exploitation of the masses in the former colonies through these unequal terms of trade.
This process has drained these countries of wealth and submerged them hopelessly in debt. Seeking to expand cash-crop exports, they have become net importers even of basic foodstuffs from the advanced capitalist world.
Production has become more and more dominated by the narrow profiteering interests of the multinational monopolies, taking advantage of cheap labour.
In some ‘Third World’ countries there has been a certain growth of industry, based on the ‘leavings’ of the world economic upswing. But this has fuelled the demand for imports of machinery, resulting in ever-increasing borrowing from the Western banks, and loading the economies with crippling interest repayments.
The land question in general has remained unsolved. Most agricultural land has remained in the hands of reactionary landlord classes. The peasant masses, at the mercy of the capitalist market, unable to compete with large-scale modern agriculture and increasingly dependent on capitalist industry and bankers for their implements etc., have been trampled deeper into poverty and debt.
Capitalist rule has generally consolidated the age-old oppression of the peasantry by the landowners. The capitalist class, weak and lacking a social basis, could maintain itself only by entering into political alliances with the landowners.
In this atmosphere, no basis existed for stable political democracy. Democracy opens the way for the masses to press for social reforms, for which there is no lasting room on a capitalist basis.
Even where the regimes are nominally ‘democratic’, that democracy cloaks a hell of exploitation and poverty, enforced at various times by ‘states of emergency’ and martial law.
Most of the capitalist countries of Latin America and Asia are ruled by dictatorships, completely suppressing the trade unions and workers’ parties. They are marked by terror, torture and massacre. Most of the independent states in Africa have also become one-party regimes or military governments, not allowing any organised opposition whatsoever.
These regimes are weak and unstable. Coups are followed by counter-coups. Military governments give way to civilian rule and then military government again.
Unable on a capitalist basis to solve any of the problems, they cannot indefinitely hold back the relentless pressure of the masses. Hence they balance between the pressures of imperialism on the one hand, and that of the workers and peasants on the other.
The state, serving the interests of capitalism, becomes partly elevated above the masses locked in struggle, repressing the masses for the benefit of the capitalists and landlords, but enforcing reforms at the capitalists’ expense when the struggle of the masses becomes threatening.
Only in exceptional and temporary circumstances has there been any advance in the living standards of the colonial workers and peasants. Conditions of life for the overwhelming majority of the people of the capitalist ‘Third World’ have not only dropped further and further behind those of the advanced capitalist countries, but have become absolutely worse.
Incomes, the prospect of secure jobs and health have all deteriorated. Poverty, squalor and disease have increased to the proportions of mass starvation and epidemics.
More and more, these conditions have forced the masses to move. There is no way forward on the basis of capitalism.
The experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917 confirmed the fact – brilliantly anticipated by Trotsky in the theory of the permanent revolution – that the capitalist class of an underdeveloped country is incapable of carrying through the tasks of a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It can solve none of the inherited problems of poverty, semi-feudal structures, landlessness, imperialist domination, arbitrary tribal and national divisions, and the absence of mass markets, because it is tied to the imperialists and the landlords.
Under these circumstances the task of taking power and carrying through the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution falls on the shoulders of the working class. But the working class, leading the peasantry and the majority of the nation, cannot stop at the accomplishment of these tasks. It will struggle to pass on to the socialist tasks – the expropriation of capitalism, etc.
This process was set in motion in the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the working class took power and established its own democratic state. But the socialist tasks cannot be completed within any single country, especially an underdeveloped country. The revolution needed to spread to the more advanced capitalist countries.
If this had happened, world history would have been different. If the working class in Western Europe had taken power at this time, it would have ignited the hot flame of social revolution throughout the colonial world.
But in fact, opportunities for carrying through the social revolution in Europe in 1917-1923 were missed, and the Russian Revolution remained isolated. Under these conditions, a privileged bureaucratic caste was able to usurp power in the Soviet Union, crushing workers’ democracy and raising itself into the sole commanding stratum.
All that remained of the October Revolution was the abolition of capitalism and landlordism, together with a plan of production, in a bureaucratically distorted form.
Again after the Second World War huge revolutionary possibilities opened up for the working class in both Western and Eastern Europe. But the socialist revolution in the major capitalist countries, the decisive areas of the world, was derailed.
Thus the national awakenings and revolutions in the underdeveloped countries took place under unfavourable international conditions.
The defeat of the social revolution in the West, and its distortion in Eastern Europe, was a direct result of the policies of the Soviet bureaucracy.
In Western Europe the workers looked to the Communist parties for a revolutionary lead, because of the role played by Russia against Nazi Germany and the activity of Communists in the underground resistance against fascism.
But the Soviet bureaucracy, needing to maintain control over the Soviet working class, had everything to lose from the unleashing of the workers’ revolution internationally. Stalin, at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, agreed secretly with the Western leaders that Western Europe should remain in the hands of imperialism.
The treacherous policies of Stalinism ensured that the socialist revolution in the West was delayed for a whole historical period. This provided the political basis on which capitalism, severely weakened by the war, was saved. A new era of capitalist growth was ushered in for all the advanced countries.
The capitalists, with expanding new resources, could offer concessions in response to working-class pressure. The Stalinist and reformist leaders came to echo the claims of the capitalists that crisis and class conflict were things of the past. They lulled themselves with the belief in an unending future of gradual reform.
The delay in the European revolution meant that no genuinely socialist lead and no industrial basis was provided for the workers and peasants in the underdeveloped countries.
But the masses in the ‘Third World’ could not wait until the revolutionary struggle of the working class in the advanced countries was resumed. Their problems were too crushing.
Thus the colonial masses have hurled themselves forward in a whole series of epoch-making struggles that have snapped the chain of world capitalism at one link after another: China, Cuba, Burma, Syria, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola etc.
In some cases the immediate cause of the break with capitalism was a military coup, resting on the support of the peasantry. In many other cases the driving force has been a peasant army mobilised in protracted rural guerrilla warfare.
The Chinese Revolution of 1944-1949, which brought Mao’s Red Army to power, was the first of these revolutions. Removing nearly one quarter of the world’s people from the grip of landlordism and capitalism, its historical importance is surpassed only by the Russian Revolution itself.
The Chinese Revolution shifted the world balance of forces against imperialism and has secured the transformation of China, in 30 years, from a broken and weak semi-colony into a mighty power. It is only necessary to compare China with India today to see the enormous advantages for the masses resulting from the nationalisation and planning of production.
But, in contrast to the Russian Revolution, where the working class took power and later lost it to the Stalinist bureaucracy, workers’ control over society and the state never existed in China.
In China, the workers’ state was based from the outset on the rule of a bureaucratic caste, raised above the workers and peasants, its aims restricted to the national development of China alone.
This was the inevitable consequence of a revolution based on the peasantry and led by the middle class.
Not for nothing does Marxism explain that the socialist revolution and the building of socialism is the task of the working class. This is not accidental, but because the specific role in production of the working class gives it a specific capacity and consciousness possessed by no other class.
It is the working class alone, organised by the organisation of industry, which has the social position and can develop the collective consciousness to create a planned economy and a democratic workers’ state, without bureaucracy or privileged strata. Only on the basis of workers’ democracy can the way to genuine socialism be opened.
The Chinese Revolution was not based on the mobilisation of the working class under a Marxist leadership, struggling for workers’ democracy and socialism. It was rooted in the heroic struggles of the peasantry against landlordism, and led by middle-class elements appalled by the oppression and suffering of the masses.
In general this has also been true of the social revolutions in other underdeveloped countries.
Often even more than the working class, the peasantry suffers the most horrendous oppression under capitalism, and struggles fiercely against the landlords and the state. Why then cannot the peasantry carry through a revolution which leads to socialism in the same way as the working class?
The peasantry approaches social questions from the standpoint of a class of individuals who are not bound together in production.
As a class scattered in the countryside, isolated from the centres of industry, the peasantry cannot act collectively as a democratic organising force in production. The peasantry tend to follow the class or stratum which commands power in the towns.
Where the working class strives to socialise the property taken away from the exploiters, the tendency of peasants is rather to divide it among themselves. The advantages of collectivisation do not occur naturally to them, but must usually be demonstrated by others.
Where the working class must strive to solve problems on a national and international scale, the peasantry experiences problems on a local scale and is sceptical of national planning which appears to curtail its independence. Because of the Chinese Revolution and the similar revolutions which followed, some intellectuals have concluded that the peasantry now has the historical role of creating socialism, through the means of a people’s guerrilla war.
In fact it was no part of Mao’s conscious programme to abolish capitalism. Prior to the revolution, the Chinese Communist Party proclaimed that a “new democracy” and “fifty years of national capitalism” lay ahead.
It was the objective conditions which enabled the middle-class leaders of the Chinese Revolution to take power, and left them no alternative but to take industry into state ownership, turning China onto the road of modern development.
The Chinese capitalists, linked to the landlords, were too bankrupt and decrepit to develop the forces of production. Chiang Kai-Shek, the bourgeois leader, saw his army of peasants in uniform disintegrate as the soldiers, offered land by Mao, flocked over to the side of the revolution. The lesson was clear: to gain land, the peasantry needed to rise up against the capitalist-landlord regime.
Imperialism, exhausted by the Second World War, was unable to come to the assistance of the Chinese ruling class. The Soviet bureaucracy, emerging strengthened from the war, provided Mao with material aid as well as the model of a bureaucratic workers’ state.
Though Mao’s victory led to the abolition of capitalism, at the same time it crushed the independent movement of the Chinese working class against the capitalists. So far was Mao from the example of the Russian Revolution that on entering Shanghai and other cities, he shot down workers who had seized their factories and welcomed him with red flags.
Fundamentally similar processes took place in Cuba in the late 1950s. The guerrilla army gathered together by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara consisted of peasants, ex-workers, and the unemployed. It based itself on a bourgeois-democratic programme for the removal of the Batista dictatorship with no suggestion of abolishing capitalism.
The only real participation of the workers in the struggle was in the last stages when a general strike was called in support of Castro’s march on Havana.
The fall of Havana meant the collapse of Batista’s hated police state. Power fell into the hands of Castro at the head of the guerrillas. But the abolition of capitalism and landlordism did not take place as the result of a conscious plan.
Taxes were imposed on the capitalists by Castro to raise money for basic reforms. American imperialism, controlling nine-tenths of the economy, violently objected and imposed a blockade on Cuba in retaliation.
As a reprisal for the blockade, the Cubans seized the American assets. Thus nine-tenths of the economy fell into the hands of the state. They then proceeded to nationalise the remaining tenth.
Thus the economic foundations of a workers’ state came into existence but with power in the hands of the former guerrilla leadership.
These military leaderships rapidly consolidated themselves into bureaucratic regimes, modelled on the ‘socialist’ bureaucracy in Moscow.
Starting out from conditions of indescribable economic destitution, the new regimes were able to organise considerable economic progress because of the superiority of a planned economy compared with decaying capitalism. Starvation could be abolished, schools built for all and life expectancy increased. This provided them with massive support among the working population.
At the same time, the severe constraints on production within a single, underdeveloped country, governed by the world market, ruled out the all-round development of industry and agriculture to create the conditions of material abundance that could form the foundations of socialism.
As was shown in Russia after 1923, even a healthy workers’ state, particularly in a backward country, will degenerate unless the social revolution spreads to other advanced countries. In conditions of generalised poverty and shortages, privileged elites will always arise and graft themselves onto the backs of the masses.
As Trotsky pointed out, when bread queues form, there will have to be officials to distribute the bread and policemen to keep the queue in order! And it is easy to see who will help themselves first – and most.
Like their counterparts in the underdeveloped capitalist countries, the bureaucratic regimes in the countries where capitalism was overthrown could only maintain themselves by balancing between the classes. Unable in the long term to satisfy all the demands of the workers, peasants and middle classes, they are forced to maintain rigid political control. Reforms are launched in response to pressure from the masses; at the same time the regimes remain vulnerable to the pressures of capitalism and imperialism internationally and are forced to adapt to these.
Thus, for the working class in the underdeveloped countries, the task to broaden their struggle internationally is a central part of the struggle to solve their daily problems. Only when the commanding heights of the world economy have been brought under workers rule can the crushing burdens of imperialist super-exploitation and underdevelopment in Asia, Africa and Latin America be altogether removed.
The Russian and later the Chinese bureaucracies have supported national liberation struggles but, in the interests of ‘detente’ with imperialism, have opposed all efforts to organise the working masses consciously for the overthrow of capitalism. Their programs are identical: first ‘national democracy’ on a capitalist basis, while the struggle for socialism is relegated to the distant future.
Where peasant struggles have led to the collapse of rotten capitalist-landlord regimes, the Russian and Chinese bureaucracies have been faced with an accomplished fact. In these countries they have supported the establishment of bureaucratic regime that would confine themselves to building ‘socialism’ within their own borders, appealing neither to the workers of the West, nor of Russia and China themselves, to struggle for workers’ democracy.
Similar objective conditions have led to the defeat of capitalism through drawn-out guerrilla struggles in other countries of the underdeveloped world, and the rise of deformed workers’ states.
In Vietnam, all the barbarity of French and US imperialism could not prop up the decrepit capitalist class. First in North Vietnam (after 1954) and then in the South (after 1975), the leadership of the victorious guerrilla movement had no option but to take over the economy from the fleeing capitalists. (By this stage the guerrilla war had escalated into virtually a full-scale conventional war.)
In Mozambique and Angola the guerrilla struggle contributed to the weakening of Portuguese capitalism. This resulted in the Portuguese revolution in 1974 which, in turn, placed power in the colonies in the hands of the guerrilla leaderships. Faced with the flight of the capitalist class, they also were obliged to take production into the hands of the state and initiate economic planning.
In other countries, similar deformed workers’ states have come into existence not as a result of guerrilla warfare, but of a crisis within the existing state machine. In Ethiopia, sections of the officer caste staged a coup to replace the degenerate feudal absolutism of Haile Selassie by a constitutional monarchy. What compelled them to act was a famine imposing devastating suffering on the masses.
But, with the collapse of the monarchy, the feebleness and rottenness of the capitalist class – its inability to take the country forward – was obvious. It could not command the state or impose its stamp upon society.
Feeling the intense pressures of the peasants and workers beneath them, and only a vacuum above, the officers had no alternative but to base themselves on the support of the masses.
Initiating a programme of land reform, they won the support of the peasants, expropriated the landlords, and took the remainder of the economy under state control.
Leaders of guerrilla armies often claim that ‘victory is certain’. The bankruptcy of capitalism in the underdeveloped world, particularly in its most backward areas, continues to create conditions in which guerrilla struggles based on the peasantry can result in a distorted social revolution.
But these victories are not automatic. With a more developed base of capitalist production, the capitalist class may not disintegrate completely under the pressure of the guerrilla war. They may crush the guerrilla struggle (as was the fate of Che Guevara’s attempt to wage guerrilla war in Bolivia) or, where deadlock is reached, may force the guerrilla leaders to compromise.
In Algeria and Zimbabwe, for instance, guerrilla struggle has resulted, not in the overthrow of the capitalist class, but in the former guerrilla leadership forming a government with the state machine and property of the capitalist class largely intact.
The examples of the distorted social revolutions in China, Cuba etc. have been attractive to the middle class because they pose no threat to its privilege. The middle class in those countries became transformed into a privileged bureaucracy standing over and above the mass of the people.
All that these states have in common with workers’ democracy is state ownership of the means of production and economic planning. On this basis they can develop the productive forces at a pace impossible on their former capitalist basis, and can begin to feed, clothe, house and raise the educational and cultural level of the people.
These gains by the masses provide the historical justification of the colonial revolution, however distorted in its form.
Yet, starting from backwardness, developing production in the limited framework of a single country, the advances are tiny in comparison with what would be achieved on the basis of the socialist transformation of the world.
Today conditions for the world socialist revolution are once again re-emerging. World capitalism has entered a new period of prolonged death agony, which is arousing the working class of Western Europe, the US and Japan into mighty struggles which will develop over the next 10-15 years towards revolutionary situations.
In Russia and the other developed Stalinist countries, the bureaucratic regimes have turned into an absolute fetter on the development of production. As in Poland, the workers of these countries will again and again be impelled to rise up in an effort to overthrow the bureaucracy and establish workers’ democracy.
A single revolutionary victory in a developed, industrialised country would spread like a bush fire, far faster and with more profound effects than even the Russian Revolution of 1917. It will raise the level of the working class internationally to heights never seen before.
In every major country of the underdeveloped world, the working class, with the crisis of world capitalism loaded on its back, is engaging in huge struggles against the bankrupt bosses and rotten regimes.
For the working class in struggle, the methods of guerillaism offer no solution. Guerrilla struggle cannot mobilise the workers into a conscious force for the capture of power, the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of workers’ democracy. The methods of guerillaism can lead at best to deformed workers’ states in which the working class is ruled by the armed forces and the bureaucracy.
The way forward for the working class in the underdeveloped world is through the development of its own programme within its own mass organisations, winning the support of the oppressed peasantry in its struggle for the socialist transformation of society. Above all it will need to link up with the struggle of the working class internationally. Its model should be, not the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, but the Russian Revolution of 1917.
At the same time, especially where the working class is a small force, a guerrilla struggle of the peasantry can have an important auxiliary role in the struggle for workers’ power. In these conditions the proletarian revolution, based in the cities, must be assisted by the peasant war in the countryside under the overall leadership of the workers.
The main task is to build the conscious movement of the working class for workers’ power and socialism. The recent general strikes in countries such as Argentina, Sri Lanka, India etc. have shown that also in the underdeveloped world the working class is the key force to change society.
The crisis of capitalism will compel these workers to take their place in the front ranks of the world movement of the working class for the socialist transformation of society.