A Critique of Armed Struggle
(Talk at Bogotrax festival in Berlin, Sept.10, 2009)
In this short critical talk I will briefly outline a view of particular strains of the communist movement of the 20th century and in particular the guerilla movements purporting to be communist and their historical role.
Central to my argument is the transformation of Marxism as a critical method and communism as a movement into an ideology of so called Marxism-Leninism.
Therefore this is not a critique of revolutionary violence as such, but of its particular manifestation in the form of traditional Marxist-Leninist guerilla movements, both of the rural and urban types.
The topics of other talks are mostly concerned with the situation in Colombia, and one will find specifics about the Colombian situation and in this context the FARC strangely absent from my text. What I try to do is to set a historical and ideological context. I’m sure there are people here who know more about the FARC than i do and i’m more than happy to engage in a discussion after my talk.
In the introductory essay to the German edition of Mao Zedong’s “Selected Military Writings” – published as “Theorie des Guerillakrieges – oder Strategie der Dritten Welt” in 1966 by the publicist Sebastian Haffner, we can read:
“The military writings of Mao Zedong (…) belong to the key books of this century. They are the work of an extraordinary mind, and every reader feels after just a few pages the particular electrifying effect that the direct contact with the genius invariably produces.”
Even though Mao has certainly not invented guerilla warfare, he was widely seen as its most important theoretician in the Left. Not only that, as the first sentence in the forward to the second edition of the famous little red book says:
“Comrade Mao Zedong is the greatest Marxist-Leninist of our times”.
This book of which hundreds of thousands of copies were printed contains hundreds of often banal and stupid quotes such as: “If there is no people’s army, there is nothing for the people”.
The traditional Maoist line, based on 25 years of the Chinese civil war, is that the guerrilla operates from the country side until it is strong enough to finally encircle the cities to eventually take power in a final showdown with the enemy, and these concepts were adapted and modified in different areas of the world.
The most iconic and well known exponent of the Latin american guerrilla is Ernesto Guevara. Central to the victorious Cuban revolution, later Minister for Economy of the new state, he is most famous for trying to export this revolution to the rest of Latin America and his abysmal failure to do so in Bolivia in 1967 which ended with his capture and extrajudicial execution.
This was based on a concept called Focus Theory. Expounded by Ernesto Guevara and his close ally Regis Debray to justify the strategy of building small military groups in the country-side which would eventually multiply and grow to sizeable armies and be able to control whole areas.
The Brazilian Carlos Marighela developed a theory countering this wisdom to concentrate on the cities themselves. His “Hand book of the Urban Guerilla” would prove influential for a number of Marxist-Leninist movements in the following years. 10 days after Guevara’s death, based in Havana at the time, Marighela wrote his first text where he shifted the attention from the remote country side to the urban centres. He wanted to pick up Guevara’s torch, but with a new strategy to replace the Focus
Theory which had proven disastrous in the case of the Bolivian adventure.
Secretly Marighela traveled back to Brasil and started organising the guerilla. In September 1968 there was a sharp increase of armed actions such as bank robberies, attacks on military buildings, barracks and so called “agents of American imperialism”. In the course of the next year 100 banks were successfully robbed. The insurrection was spreading, also attracting dissident elements from the military. There were assassinations and kidnappings. A climate for revolutionary war was supposed to be created making traditional political fields of action obsolete. Those refusing to join this adventure were branded “opportunists”.
After two dominican monks (!) who were part of the guerrilla were arrested, the network around the leader broke down and Marighela was lured into a trap by the police and killed.
His “Handbook of the Urban Guerilla” dealt with issues ranging from the organisation of the clandestine groups to the character of the urban guerrilla, from bank robberies to executions, technical instructions to weapons, and issues of mobility and logistics.
All this has a lot to do with military theory and nothing with communism.
Reading contemporary literature about these issues show a remarkable confusion. About the Cuban revolution, Leo Huberman/Paul Sweezy wrote in 1960 “that it could historically prove to be one of the most important facts about the Cuban revolution: That for the first time a genuinely socialist revolution was done by non-communists.”
This is an obviously ridiculous assertion, but not more ridiculous than the claim that countries like the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, the Eastern Bloc were communist, whether it was a revolution or an occupation as in the case of eastern Europe that had turned them supposedly so.
In none of these countries social relations were approaching anything remotely similar to the free association that Marx and Engels talked about.
Modes of production remained intact, there was wage labour, money, commodities etc.
Another quote from Huberman and Sweezy which seems typical to me for apologists of Leninism in the New Left:
“The international revolutionary movement in the time between the two world wars was dominated by the Russian Revolution and the Soviet State. The success in the largest country of the world gave Lenin and the Bolshevik Party a reputation and authority without competition or example. Whereever there lived revolutionary socialists, they formed identically structured parties and sought to follow the footsteps of their Russian comrades. For this purpose they congregated for the foundation of the Communist, or Third International, which was planned as a kind of general command of the world revolution and had the means of power to give its members orders and to implement them.
From the beginning and for the whole duration of its existence (1919-1943) it was de facto controlled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which thus became the highest political and doctrinal authority of the world-wide communist movement. No party could be considered as communist without the approval of the International, no human could be considered as a communist unless he belonged to such a party. This institutional and ideological frame was so powerful, that it was impossible for a revolutionary to work outside of it.”
There are a number of mystifications in this text, but perhaps unconsciously it also shows much of the tragedy of the revolutionary movement of the 20th century.
Of course the Bolsheviks indeed had a massive reputation at the beginning that radiated even beyond the communist circles.
However there were discussions very early on about what kind of influence the russian party should have in the International and if the parties in other countries should be structured just like the Russian one.
More importantly there were soon discussions about the nature of the Soviet Union.
Already before Stalin took power in the SU there were voices that regarded the country as state capitalist because it failed to abolish the capitalist social relations of wage labour and commodity production.
After the mid-20’s and the takeover of Stalin a new ruling stratum solidified in the SU, and no one not blinded by the propaganda could claim that there was proletarian rule through the workers councils.
When the Trotskyists were trying to save the Leninist heritage against Stalin they came up with the theory of the “degenerated workers state”. In my opinion this slightly bizarre idea has its roots more in politics than in actual theory. The story goes that the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky made a proletarian revolution and created the first socialist state, which was perverted by Stalin’s “theory” of “Socialism in one country” and therefore degenerated. But since it had gone some steps in the direction of socialism, Trotskyists were supposed to defend the SU against “imperialism”. This is particularly bizarre considering the Russians were at the time engaged in a campaign ranging from disinformation to assassinations against Trotskyists.
One can only assume that having invested so much and buying so deep into Leninism that the 4th International was prepared to sanction this suicidal “analysis”.
There are still some Trotskyist groups that demand solidarity with states such as Vietnam or North Korea, despite the fact that if there are any, their comrades are more than likely to be languishing in labour camps as „imperialist agents“.
Of course the more intelligent people in the movement like Max Shachtman or the french group Socialisme ou Barbarie soon rejected these views and developed into other directions.
Let’s go back to the claims of Huberman and Sweezy.
From the mid-20’s onwards the communist parties outside of Russia were being Stalinized. This went along with exclusions and purges. In the example of the KPD I can briefly sketch this out.
Funded by Rosa Luxemburg and others at the end of 1918 the KPD brought together several small groups from the far left and played a prominent role in the revolutionary phase of 1918-23.
Luxemburg who was a sharp critic of the authoritarian aspects of the Russian revolution was unfortunately murdered in early 1919.
In 1920 the KPD split in two parties, the more radical called itself the KAPD. At the same time there were other communist mass organisations which were rejecting the Bolshevik party form, the Unionen.
These ultra-left organisations lost most of their mass support in the following years after the defeat of the revolution and the relative consolidation of the Weimar republic, but they still existed and remained a thorn in the side of the KPD (e.g. when the KAPD press exposed the collaboration in secret military manoeuvres between Reichswehr and Red Army).
In the meantime there were power struggles within the party between various factions, the far left of Fischer and Maslow, the so-called right of Brandler and Thalheimer… To make the long story short, all these people were excluded and kicked out by about 1928. This included most of the previous leaderships of the party and its leading intellectuals. I think one can say that the KPD was purged of its intelligence by 1930 when they issued the treacherous programmatic text “For the National and Social Liberation of the German People” trying to compete with the Nazi party on the terrain of nationalist rhethoric.
But what did all these people do?
Of course they didn’t stop being active as communists, some founded other parties and groups, such as Karl Korsch’s Entschiedene Linke, Leninbund, KPO (Brandler and Thalheimer), SAPD (Fritz Sternberg et. al.), some of which had thousands of members, others who felt they needed to work within a mass party joined the SPD and tried to work within its structures (e.g. Paul Levi, Karl Schröder), others worked as publicists, with journals or in the context of institutions like the Institute for Social Research. The point I’m trying to make: Contrary to the claim of Huberman/Sweezy, it was very possible to work outside the communist party as revolutionaries.
But there was a difference: The KPD was a mass party that was well funded and offered an institutional structure with many side-organisations with jobs and careers.
This isn’t enough to explain what followed in the next decade, where Stalinism managed to create a hegemony over what went under the name communism and damaging its reputation almost beyond repair.
Despite the fact that the terror that unfolded in the 30’s was directed against the communists in the SU and the counter-revolutionary role the Stalinists played in the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism – aided by the situation unfolding with WW2 – managed to consolidate itself as the prime force on the Left.
After purging the organisations of its most able intellectuals, they found ways to involve “independent” writers, artists etc, like Gide, Brecht or later Sartre and many others to do their bidding.
By this time the price for those who worked outside of these structures was indeed a kind of marginalisation that made it difficult to have much impact besides the work of theoretical clarification.
This situation was a consequence of the fact that the movement had been decimated both by the Nazis and the Stalinists – and that an anticipated revolutionary situation failed to materialize at the end of WW2.
As Guevara said in a famous dictum: “The duty of the revolutionary is to make the revolution” – But what kind of revolution?
In Left Communist circles – as early as the 1920’s – even the nature of the Bolshevik revolution was debated: was it really a proletarian revolution, or in fact a bourgeois revolution performed by a proletarian party?
This question is important if we historizise the communist movement, and I think the answer that we can give with the benefit of hindsight is that, where successful, so called communist regimes – under the ideology of Marxism-Leninism – are actually pre-capitalist regimes, the ruling stratum of the bureaucracy taking the role of an absent or weak bourgeoisie to modernize the country and by violently developing the productive forces making it ready for capitalism. They were in the case of the SU, and are in the case of China, transitional societies, not on the way to communism, but to capitalism.
In different times and places this has different dynamics.
A good contemporary example is the situation in Nepal, where Maoists waged years of a “People’s War” against the monarchy.
In the end their leader Prachanda became prime minister. One of the first things he did was speak to foreign investors, reassuring them that their investments were safe with the Maoists in power.
Another clear example of Marxist-Leninists making a bourgeois revolution at best.
Waging such a “people’s war” costs a lot of money. This is all the more true for the traditional rural kind of guerrilla with armies consisting of tens of thousands of fighters and in control of defined territories. People have to be fed and even if this is possible from the land, still arms and ammunition, vehicles and technology have to be acquired.
In the absence of powerful sponsors the guerilla has to turn to expropriation – or bank robberies, kidnapping and extortion – involvement in illegal business such as the drug trade and other means to finance itself.
These “means to an end” can easily become a full time occupation.
Combined with the mass forced recruitment of child soldiers, a dubious internal justice system, and a strong hierarchy, we should definitely be weary of the kind of regime such an organisation would impose on the whole country or society after its victory.
But even if no territory is to be economically maintained, the guerrilla often becomes so self concerned that it continues the war mainly for its self-preservation.
Such was the case in the confrontation between the German Red Army Faction and the state after the “first generation” was arrested in 1972. After this, for several years the main objective of the “second generation” was to liberate the prisoners.
Initially the RAF had a concept of networks of activists who should be working both in legal initiatives and illegally in the armed underground. In its first declaration they declare who they do not see as their constituency: “The idle talkers, those who shit their pants, the know-it-alls”, in short exactly the intellectual left out of which most of the members of the early RAF were coming. Instead they imagined the workers at Siemens, AEG and Osram, the proletarian youth, apprentices, schoolkids, and young people from borstals and institutions to be their audience.
In an apparent attempt to reach out to them and not sound too intellectual they end several paragraphs of their short text with the words “damn it!”.
But the RAF also saw themselves always as allies of the national liberation movements of the third world. Far from being optimistic about the revolutionary potential of the German proletariat in their first text “Concept Urban Guerilla” they soon redefined themselves almost exclusively as a part of the “anti-imperialist” movement. What this means in the final consequence is elucidated by the assessment of the massacre of the Israeli team at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 by a Palestinian commando which is celebrated as “anti-imperialist, internationalist and anti-fascist”.
To call a massacre of Jews on German soil an anti-fascist deed is quite something, and one can say the ideological decline of the RAF had reached its lowest point.
Years of virtual theoretical silence followed in a time with a large number of actions were performed, increasingly obsessed with only one goal: to free the prisoners.
Like often in the history of guerrilla movements the state and the guerrilla started escalating each others agenda, eroding the space for oppositional activities of others in the friction. The guerrilla’s increasing violence gives the state every pretext to clamp down on revolutionaries who have nothing to do with the guerrilla, while the guerrilla is blackmailing the revolutionary movement with it’s “you’re either with us or against us” – “entweder Schwein oder Mensch” in the language of the RAF – either pig or human being….
The conflict takes on its own dynamic that leads directly to the state of emergency, as it happened in the autumn in 1977 in Germany where democracy was effectively suspended for a few weeks.
But was it already fascism that the RAF and other far left groups – especially of the Maoist kind – had seen on the rise in the 70’s? A coming fascism that the RAF indeed used to justify their armed campaign.
This is of course used to appeal to a certain consensus: that the use of arms would be supported against a fascist regime.
But what kind of regime is fascist?
Unfortunately here we also find the bad legacy of Stalinism. Here the fascism theory of Georgi Dimitroff comes in. Dimitroff was at the head of the stalinised Komintern and defined Fascism as the most extreme form of bourgeois class rule, a “open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, chauvinistic, most imperialist elements of finance capital” . This idea had a strong influence on the view of fascism even in the post-war years and led to many false conceptions.
There are a number of blatant flaws in that one sentence alone: Fascism saw itself as a nationalist revolutionary movement, and cannot be called reactionary in the sense that Monarchists or traditional conservatives were in the 20’s, fascism saw itself also as anti-imperialist, challenging the world powers Britain and the US, and it was even less true that fascism was a dictatorship of finance capital, in fact the Nazis expounded a false kind of anti-capiitalism that is at the core of their ideology, opposing (supposedly good/German) “productive” capital versus “bad” (Jewish) “speculative” capital. The key element of anti-Semitism doesn’t even enter the Stalinist definition of fascism or national socialism.
Fascism cannot be understood properly if it is seen purely as a manipulation by the ruling class, and not also as a anti-capitalist mass movement that wants to abolish the classes in a nationalist and racialist framework of the Volksgemeinschaft.
The state of emergency or the rule by decree – as it was practised from 1930 in Germany was not fascist rule yet, as the KPD failed to understand and as a consequence failed to prepare for the actual national socialist takeover.
Equally the state of emergency in 1977 was not fascism yet – although the mobs that demonstrated for the re-introduction of the death penalty for the “terrorists” showed that some potential for such a mobilisation was there, a potential that is indeed latent in bourgeois democracy.
Dictatorships and mixed forms of dictatorship and democracy are not necessarily fascist and I think it’s important to be precise in analysis in order to find the right ways of fighting them.
To return to the guerrilla:
I don’t know if RAF co-founder Horst Mahler ever thought he would take power in any way – and maybe end up in a world government alongside Pol Pot and Yasser Arafat, but I guess it’s unlikely.
With most traditional guerrilla movements this is different: From Mao and Tito, to Castro, the IRA or Prachanda the objective was to take power through military means.
The high level of discipline, specialisation and hierarchy in the army makes it unlikely if not impossible to have an outcome that leads to universal emancipation and free association.
The goal of communism is to abolish reification into separate realms such as work and play, the aesthetic and the political. Or as Marx put it, the human in free association should be able to be a hunter in the morning, a fisher in the afternoon and a critical critic in the evening. The man who already said he was not a Marxist would I’m pretty sure have recognized “Marxism-Leninism” as a major anti-communist force of the 20th century.
(Text of the talk at Bogotrax festival in Berlin, held on Sept. 12 at the Samacafe as part of an evening of documentaries and talks concerned with the situation in Colombia. Reproduced here without alterations. Note that most quotes are (re-)translated from German by the author.)