Monday, June 16, 2008

Is the Era of Armed Struggle Over?

by Joe Sims
Is the era of armed struggle over? Hugo Chavez raised this issue pointedly in reference to Latin America when he called on guerrilla groups Columbia to lay down their arms. Chavez according to an article by James Sugget of Venezuelanalysis.com declared,

“It must be said to the FARC” ... guerrilla groups are “out of place” in the Latin America of today. “Guerrilla warfare is history,” he proclaimed.”

Guerrilla warfare is history? Now that is quite a statement! Certainly staunch defenders of a certain brand of politics (both left and right) will take fierce issue with the Venezuelan president, a man known not only for enormous political achievements, but also in the opinion of many, enormously reckless statements. This utterance however, clearly moves in another direction and is of a different type. Careful consideration has to be given before tossing it away.

Is guerrilla warfare now passe with the era of armed struggle eclipsed by a new period where non-violent forms have become the order of the day?

Certainly the very raising of the question poses a whole host of difficulties to say nothing of implications. Consider for example, Michael Gorbachev's full throated, but ultimately ill fated and tragically misguided statement in the late 1990's that “the days of the storming of the Bastille are over.” Gorbachev's “new thinking” turned out to be a rehashing of the old sellout recipes and the prelude and catalyst (catalyst not cause) to the greatest disaster in modern political history.

Chavez, cut from a different cloth of mass democratic struggle combining elections, demonstrations, strikes, boycotts and other methods of decisively engaging in class and anti-imperialist struggle is no Gorbachev. Having survived coups, recalls and having been decisively re-elected two times, he clearly is no novice nor weak-kneed liberal (nothing against liberals here, we need more of them today).
His statement should be respectfully considered with this in mind.

What then of the declaration's merits?

First, it was made in specific reference to Latin America. In this regard, Chaves's comment is a Latin American issue, and the property of left, communist and working-class movements of those countries. More specifically it is a Colombian issue, one that the people of that great country must settle themselves. However, we can say that Colombia, a beautiful and melancholy land of mountains, sea and sky, where indigenous America, Africa and Europe combine in stunning mosaic, cries out for release from its bloody almost 100 years civil war. For 40 years a section of the left has engaged on the battlefield. And for 40 years prior to this liberals and conservatives warred against each other in a bloody battle called “La Violencia. In both, many thousands of trade unionists, students, farmers and mothers are dead and gone. Garcia Marquez knew full well of what he spoke, when evoking 100 Years of Solitude.

Colombia's Communist Party leader Carlos Lozano has termed Chavez's call for the release of hostages and laying down arms “realistic” and “transcendental.” Let us leave it at that and allow those directly involved the independence and autonomy to work out their problems.

What then of the potential broader implications of Chavez's claim? Does it have universal appeal and application?

Here appeal and application while interpenetrating are not the same and should not be confused. Regarding applicability, a basic foundation stone of Marxist thinking is that each country determines its own path based on its particular circumstances, traditions and history. The concept that there are no models of socialism, then must also apply to the forms of transition. How then within this particularity is it possible to speak of universal application? Would that not be a contradiction in terms or is it possible to speak of general features within the particular framework?

Here it must be acknowledged that one of the features of the uniqueness of today's moment is a shift away from dictatorial regimes and the opening up of much space for working-class and democratic forces to struggle. History has not stood still and in Latin America, Europe, Africa and some parts of Asia, capitalist democracies have gained a firmer hold. Part of this may be due to globalization and the export of capital requiring a change in the form of state rule. Another part surely is the result of a maturing and strengthening of domestic civil society and the working class in the first place.

Still in this 21st century world certain things are striking. Among them:

The class struggle continues;

War remains a central method of US imperialism global policy;

War remains a destabilizing and destructive force in many regional and local conflicts to the benefit of reactionary forces;

Human and natural survival is perilously close to the point of no return;

Weapons of Mass Destruction (nuclear, biological, chemical) have made waging war increasingly a non-option.


It should be considered that not soon after Gorbachev's infamous ruling out of revolutionary storms, the South African people, after a protracted and intense mass democratic movement (which had armed aspects) stormed the bastions of governmental power in the democratic breakthrough of 1994. It was one of the greatest peaceful transitions in modern history. Force and compulsion, by means of the organized might of the people and working class was brought to bear in bringing a mighty military regime to its knees.

Preceded by the armed conflicts in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Guinea-Bissau (all of which have left their revolutionary heritage far behind) the ANC-led transition may have been the first hearkening on a world scale of possibility of transitions of a different and yes even a new type.

Today, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, speak boldly of the possibility of a leap in revolutionary practice in keeping with broad implications of the South Africa experience. Here it must be pointed out that the richest experience in working-class and national democratic practice, comes not from the west, but the from the south and east, where imperialism and globalization have brought forth industrial economies and with them movements for socialism.

Many if not most of these movements given today's balance of forces seem bent on using the power of mass class and democratic struggles for transformative purposes. Today there are very few if any viable left insurgencies. In fact, it appears that armed conflict appears now as a tactic of the right.

The communist movement in developed countries have for many decades now preferred the most peaceful path possible to seeking a new socialist society. This is nothing new. At the same time, they continue to attempt to regroup and find new initiative after the profound shock of the early 1990s. Given this relative weakness, it would do well to focus on our own problems of building viable movements for change. And clearly such movements are possible as the recent events in the presidential election suggest (which has largely occurred without the left).

Having said that a larger question obtains: has the left truly understood one of the biggest lessons of the past? That there are no shortcuts, and few alternatives to long-term commitment to involving millions in the process of social change. That rather than being the “highest form of struggle” use of arms may be the lowest and most base; and that the means used may ultimately compromise the end.

A few years ago, I had the chance to visit Gandhi's home near Durban South Africa. It had been recently burned to the ground as a result of inter-ethnic conflict. Sadly ironic, no? On his wall were a series of his favorite sayings. One was borrowed from the Koi/San peoples. It went: “I am, because you are.”

I was reminded by it of Marx's idea about the smallest possible division of humanity: it wasn't One. Rather, the number is Two. Both spoke to the commonality of the human experience. Yet we live today in a world of divided property brought about by half a millennium of war and conflict. Gandhi, the Koi/San, and Marx seem to point to the commonality of the human experience that allows the possibility and necessity of peaceful means of compelling profound change.

So is the era of armed struggle over? To me it is long overdue to bring war as a means of settling conflict to an end.

What do readers think?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

These are interesting observations. I think I'm pretty much in agreement. I can think of only one successful armed struggle in recent times (if by successful we mean leading towards democracy): Nepal. The situation there is not comparable in many regards to the situation in South America. Nepal was a highly-undemocratic monarchy, which probably made armed struggle a more necessary tactic than in other places. The South American countries at least have relatively-democratic structures in place which make non-violent, mass movements possible.

The incredible military might of modern states makes armed conflict highly impractical. Consider that the EZLN have not engaged much in armed struggle, recognizing the superior might of the Mexican military (and the likihood of a US intervention).

Harold said...

In Latin America today, most right and center-right governments are fairly weak and exist without the broad support of the masses. This suggests that socialist and communist movements can be successful in organizing the masses and eventually coming to power without the use of armed struggle.

At this point in history, dialectical materialism tells us, in most cases, that armed revolution in the developed nations is not in the best interests of the working class (or anyone else for that matter). That said, it applies to this point in history only. It makes no prescriptions or recommendations for the future.

Accepting that as true, I still have hard time believing that the ruling class in the U.S will ever go down without a fight.

But Marxism is not about believing, it is about science.

warrengreer said...

Remember that Venezuela (and Chavez) have control of a huge amount of petroleum, a commodity for which the imperialists are willing to pay a political as well as a monetary price. To the exent
that we suceed in using less oil, the Venezuelan movement will have less advfantage. Texas -- Houston
-- faced with the prospect of delining local oil supplies, began a new chemical industry and a port to import oil for it. Venezuela would do well to diversify in this manner for future economic and social freedom.
Warren

Mariposa said...

I have long thought the era of armed struggle was coming to a close. The author, in his excellent and provocative essay, though did not address more specifically the use of armed struggle by the right. Does he mean terrorism that comes from various sources including the U.S. state, religious fanatics, etc.?
On Nepal, the Maoists were considered "terrorists" by many, including some of the left and progressive forces in Nepal. It wasn't until they were convinced to give up their "People's War" and come into the electoral arena that they actually won and (with the other parties) abolished the monarchy.
War and violence are inhuman and therefore anti-working class. They are most often perpetuated by the ruling class forces.
But what about the argument of the right to defend oneself/community including by the use of arms? For example, the Palestinian people against Israel's occupation? Or the Iraqi militias against the U.S. troops? Are these examples of the right wing use of armed struggle? One has to look at if it is really advancing the causes of those struggles or just strengthening the right and imperialism. Same with Colombia and I'm sure the left and others there are assessing the situation.
Armed struggle is a tactic and as such can be criticized or deemed useless for furthering the cause of the working class. The ANC while having a military component, emphasized the mass struggle. Armed struggle is not a "mass" tactic. It's not a strategy and if it becomes one then the working class and democratic movements for freedom are doomed.
Believe it or not Che Guevara once said that as long as there is political space -- even an inch of such space among the people -- then armed struggle is not an option.
In this period where the left and democratic forces have won in the political sphere I would agree that armed struggle as a tactic for working class, left and revolutionary social progress is not necessary.

Anonymous said...

have long thought the era of armed struggle was coming to a close. The author though did not address more specifically the use of armed struggle by the right. Does he mean terrorism that comes from various sources including the U.S. state, religious fanatics, etc.?
On Nepal, the Maoists were considered "terrorists" by many, including some of the left and progressive forces in Nepal. It wasn't until they were convinced to give up their "People's War" and come into the electoral arena that they actually won and (with the other parties) abolished the monarchy.
War and violence are inhuman and therefore anti-working class. They are most often perpetuated by the ruling class forces.
But what about the argument of the right to defend oneself/community including by the use of arms? For example, the Palestinian people against Israel's occupation? Or the Iraqi militias against the U.S. troops? Are these examples of the right wing use of armed struggle? One has to look at if it is really advancing the causes of those struggles or just strengthening the right and imperialism. Same with Colombia and I'm sure the left and others there are assessing the situation.
Armed struggle is a tactic and as such can be criticized or deemed useless for furthering the cause of the working class. The ANC while having a military component, emphasized the mass struggle. Armed struggle is not a "mass" tactic. It's not a strategy and if it becomes one then the working class and democratic movements for freedom are doomed.
Believe it or not Che Guevara once said that as long as there is political space -- even an inch of such space among the people -- then armed struggle is not an option.
In this period where the left and democratic forces have won in the political sphere I would agree that armed struggle

mariposa

Greg King said...

I agree with Joe and with the others who have commented. Developing a mass movement of millions for socialism is where the emphasis should be placed, in my view, if we are to have a genuinely democratic, and I mean mass-empowering, transitional stage and eventual realization of communism. Anything else, as Marx forewarned us in a somewhat different context, would result in "the old crap in new form."

Joel said...

I agree with President Chavez mostly. But I argue that there was never an "era" for armed struggle as the main tactic of revolutionary movements, and that it is always an error.

Harold said...

I have two issues with things people have said in this forum.

First, with Mariposa's comment: While I agreed with most of what Mariposa said, I think it erroneous to state that violence and war are inhuman. They may be inhumane, but to suggest that they are inhuman is contrary to what science tells us.

Also, Joel stated that armed struggle "is always an error." This goes against the Marxist teaching of dialectical materialism. The material conditions of the age, or in this case, of the era, determine what tactics must be used to advance the struggle of the working class. We can talk about the past and the present, and in most cases (but hardly all), armed struggle has served only to shoot the struggle in the feet. But to suggest that it can never be a useful tool of social change is, I think, a grievous error. Certainly, non-violent resistance, as was the main instrument of struggle during the first Palestinian intifada, is preferable, but we have to be able to see beyond it to know whether or not non-violence will be the only available implement.

Al Sargis said...

I agree with Harold's points.
One should neither absolutize armed struggle (or any other single form of struggle)nor rule it out. It all depends on time, place and circumstance, and these variables are subject to constant change. In other words, one must be prepared to employ ANY form of struggle depending on it's appropriateness to achieving a specific goal. To think otherwise is to literally disarm oneself in the face of changing circumstances.

Guerrilla warfare is, of course, only one form of armed struggle. It is usually used when channels for democratic particpation are closed and armed repression used to keep a population subjugated.
Hence, in those conditions it is likely appropriate.

Armed struggle is also appropriately employed when defending a socialist state from either internal or external armed aggression.

Armed struggle may also be necessary if a usually democratic capitalist state negates its own laws and uses armed force against the working class and other democratic forces in an "emergency" situation (e.g., when it perceives its power being fundamentally threatened by a mass movement using ordinarily legal means of struggle).

It is in the latter case that the situation is most likely to arise within the U.S. In fact, such has happened during some labor strikes, social movements, etc. which were making only reformist demands.

This is why the left should be organizing within the military, both to prevent the state from using armed repression and to have a significant balance of the military on the side of the working class should the state employ armed force. At the same time it behooves the non-military left to acquire basic self-defense skills, including a fundamental knowledge of military strategy, tactics and weapons usage--and the history of the working class movement's use of these tools.

It may only be a "moment" in the general struggle when such forms of armed struggle are foisted upon the working class and its allies, but it may be a decisive moment that could turn the struggle towards victory or defeat.

The military writings of Marx and Engels, as well as other classical Marxists, on these matters are not as well known in the U.S. as in other parts of the world. But they are clear in their basic themes and should get a wider reading here.

Thanks, Joe, for raising this topic for serious discussion.

Anonymous said...

The idea that armed struggle is always an error seems to make a universal claim and not be based on an analysis of specific situations. The American, French,
Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions would all be mistakes then. The armed struggle against Nazi occupation would be as well. Whether there will be armed struggle or not depends on many complex social forces at work-- it is not a moral judgement.
As long as the capitalists feel free to use violence against the people the people have to keep all options on the table.

Greg King said...

Al's and Harold's are among the better comments. Of course one shouldn't completely rule out any tactic, and armed struggle may well be necessary at some point for sheer survival. The Left should familiarize itself with military tactics and weapons usage just in case. That said, however, I do think that the tactics used do have an impact on the end result. Military tactics require a command-and-control structure which all-too-readily lends itself to dictatorship after the seizure of power. And of course I'm not talking about dictatorship simply in terms of rule by the working class, but rather way-too-much power concentrating in way-too-few hands. That's what led to many of the problems of socialism once in power and contributed to its downfall, in my view. A partial exception is the Chinese Revolution and also, to a certain extent, the Vietnamese liberation struggles. Both empowered millions of people by involving them, making them instrumental, in the conquest of power. That's what made both those revolutions somewhat different. However, even with them, too much power became concentrated in one man (Mao) or a small group of men (the Vietnamese politburo). In the former case it led to the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; in the latter case it led to over-zealous collectivization; harsh treatment of former enemies; and corruption. How that can be avoided and still have a successful revolution and successful maintainance of power, I don't know. Perhaps it can't be avoided, and armed struggle will almost always be necessary in the face of an extremely repressive state or a brutal occupying power. And after the revolution, it's extemely difficult to avoid a Thermidor, or consolidation and ossification of structure, because working people do not want to be in a constant state of agitation and upheavsl. They want, after a while, to settle down, work and raise their children. That's why democratic forms of power are essential, and they may require democratic means of accession to power. In any case, under the conditions of bourgeois democracy, radical-democratic organizing and power-building, through community, should be the way to go, though I agree that we should be prepared to defend ourselves and to ensure that much of the military is on our side.

Harold said...

As is usually the case, this has been a fascinating and instructive conversation, and I'm glad to see that so many participated. Thanks for raising this issue.

So when do we meet for special arms training?!