Theses on Guerrilla Warfare

Spartacist No. 11, March-April 1968

The strategy of guerrilla warfare has been raised to the level of a "principle" by the Castroites. With last January’s publication of Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution? the Cuban bureaucracy formulated the Guevarist strategy for militarily confronting imperialism into a doctrinaire recipe to be applied to all Latin American countries (except, oh yes, except to Uruguay and Mexico, countries not quite so hostile to Cuba). The recent Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS) Conference in Havana put Debray’s formulations into resolutions, approving the general line of "armed struggle"; amidst colossal billboards depicting Bolivar, Guevara and Castro, the Conference also heard glowing, if highly inaccurate, reports of guerrillaism’s successes and future.

The Castroite road, and the brazenly elitist ideas expressed by this Cuban variant of the Maoist road, are such crude and explicit repudiations of Marxism that even official Maoist organs, such as the U.S. Progressive Labor (Nov.-Dec. 1967) and World Revolution (Winter 1967), have been forced to put on a facade of "orthodoxy," bitterly attacking Castroism in general and the Castroite ideologues such as Debray. However, the Castro bureaucracy is simply following the old Maoist recipe for rural warfare, although, as Debray’s book makes clear, with Castroite "innovations." For the Maoists, to fight in the countryside and develop a "people’s war" was a principle in itself, the "mass line" in action. For the Castroites, elitist "rural war" is supposedly not a principle, but simply a result of the repressive political situation in Latin America. But it quickly becomes a principle also.1 Anybody who is not for the Castroite version of "armed struggle" is labeled a "bourgeois," a "provocateur," an agent of the CIA, etc. That goes for the Venezuelan CP, the Latin American Maoist leadership, a thoroughly urban breed, the "Trotskyites," and all those who work in the cities, regardless of the political programs of those organizations. They must all obey the "principle" of rural safety; that is, they must all search for the jungle’s protective womb. Here the Castroites draw their "blood line."

Unfortunately, the argument elaborated by Debray and others about the "safety" of the countryside is nothing but a marvelous commonplace. The liquidation of Guevara’s Bolivian guerrilla group and the resulting murder of Guevara himself by the Bolivian military and U.S. CIA apparatus reveal once again that guerrillaism is not the way for the Latin American socialist revolution. The jungle is no less dangerous for revolutionaries than is the city. This, however, is not the point. Marxists begin their struggles basing themselves not on impressions, opinions and suspicions about the repressive apparatus of the ruling class, but on the objective developments in its organic contradictions which periodically rock the entire bourgeois society. And those contradictions, violently visible in the class struggle, manifest themselves predominantly in the cities, where the proletariat works in the factories, the heart of bourgeois society.2 This is why Marxists should strive to remain in the cities, with the proletariat. Their struggle can recognize tactical retreats, exiles, etc. But Marxists should never—as the Maoists and Castroites do—capitulate to the unfavorable situations in the cities by cooking up "innovations" about the "socialist" countryside.

(Though we fundamentally disagree with this escapism to the countryside, we recognize that deaths such as Guevara’s show that many guerrillaists, who are dedicated and courageous fighters trapped by a reactionary conception of revolution, are nevertheless prepared to struggle and die if necessary for their convictions. One can sharply contrast this devotion to the smug caution of the Pabloites, notably in North America and in Europe, and the wild, but empty, bombast of coffee shop guerrillaists such as Professor John Gerassi. Rather than preparing for the coming proletarian revolution here, these gentlemen prefer to safely "cheer" for the Guevaras from the sidelines.)

The following thesis was first published in Espartaco, Bulletin 2, April 1967, as Tesis sobre las Guerrillas. Excerpts from it appeared in Der Klassenkampf, No. 2, July 1967. The present version has been expanded into a more historical and general study. The original Tesis put forward numbered observations about various types of guerrilla warfare and peasant movements. In the present work we trace the historical development of a guerrilla struggle confronted with the most favorable conjunction of circumstances. (Because the Castroite bureaucracy has set up the Cuban experience as the model to be followed by all Latin American revolutionists, we have abstracted the Cuban experience in order to appraise its development. The Cuban experience contains most of what is essential to the other guerrilla take-overs.) Then we analyze the class content of guerrillaism, i.e., its social basis, leadership and program. From these two corresponding appraisals we show that the guerrilla warfare strategy—regardless of its intentions—is impotent to terminate, from any historical standpoint, the root of world-wide oppression—the imperialist capitalist system.

The Stalinist Past

Guerrillaism today is a petty-bourgeois reaction to the absence and delay of proletarian revolution. In those countries underdeveloped by imperialist exploitation, the proletariat, lacking Leninist parties, has suffered innumerable defeats at the hands of nationalist swindlers and their Stalinist partners. Before, during and after the Second Imperialist War, Stalinism internationally betrayed the socialist movements by harnessing them to the native bourgeoisies and to the "democratic" imperialisms.3 This "popular front" strategy dismantled many revolutionary opportunities not only in the advanced capitalist countries, but in the colonial and semi-colonial countries as well. The betrayals of the popular front were not, of course, the first Stalinist crimes. They had been anticipated by the mass catastrophes of the "third period" (1928-1934) when the Comintern called for ultra-left adventures for "power." Just as in Germany where third period adventurism facilitated Hitler’s coming to power, so in Latin America it served to erode and confuse entire Communist parties.4 These zig-zags of Comintern policy, designed for the narrow purpose of protecting the interests of the Kremlin clique, served to physically annihilate or totally disorient thousands upon thousands of proletarian cadres. Thus, the Comintern policies not only forestalled successful proletarian revolution at the time, they also conditioned to a great extent the circumstances for future defeats.

Today’s Adventurism

The colonial and semi-colonial petty-bourgeoisie, much of it also oppressed by imperialist exploitation, has been thrown into a frenzy caused by the growing limitations on its cultural and economic possibilities. As a result, the most disgusted sections of the urban petty-bourgeoisie and its intelligentsia struggle to lead the peasantry—itself a huge petty-bourgeois mass—against the imperialist domination of their country. But, lacking historically a decisive relationship to the means of production, the petty-bourgeoisie is impotent to close forever what Marx and Engels called the "pre-history" of humanity. A residue of the past, of waning feudalism and diverse pre-capitalist social strata, the petty-bourgeoisie cannot decisively carry out Marx’s call to "expropriate the expropriators." A petty-bourgeois leadership may oppose the imperialist expropriators and may even "expropriate" them domestically. But, having expropriated them, the petty-bourgeois leadership cannot consistently safeguard the new property relations deformed within the limitations of a national economy.

If initially a guerrilla movement, led inevitably by the petty-bourgeoisie, partially destroys the imperialist grip on its country, the succeeding political convulsions at best may force the new government to consolidate a bureaucratically deformed workers state5 like Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, politically and economically related to the USSR; the more likely outcome is that the country will remain under imperialist control (as happened in Algeria with regard to French imperialism).

The Cuban Example

The example of the Cuban Revolution, a revolution which resulted in the unique development of a deformed workers state in Latin America, shows that victorious guerrilla movements can do no more than hasten the creation of a temporary vacuum in the bourgeois state. When such a vacuum appears, the movement usually first attempts to prop up a coalition with the "patriotic" bourgeoisie. After the government oligarchy and the political and military lackeys of imperialism leave the country, whole sectors of the old bourgeois apparatus favored by the guerrilla leadership (now in the cities), are absorbed wholesale into the "new" state bureaucracy. However, imperialism may be temporarily confused and the native bourgeoisie too weak as a whole to accept a coalition with the guerrilla movement. Thus the guerrilla movement under the impetus of its victory in a civil war may be forced to establish itself in Bonapartist fashion as the sole ruler of the country.

Clearly, great masses of peasants and considerable segments of the proletariat will support a guerrilla leadership that has been forced to dissolve the old army and police apparatus and to clash openly with imperialism in the country, with latifundistas, absentee landlords, etc., and with other economically backward elements of the native bourgeoisie. In order to keep this support, the newly established bureaucracy must oppose further imperialist aggression with more confiscations, nationalizations, formation of militias, etc., attempting at the beginning to answer blow with blow.

If the actions of the guerrilla movement completely force imperialism to release its economic hold on the country, the old basic property relations collapse. The economy of the country must then be reordered. If it is to be competitive in the world market, centralized planning based on state ownership of the means of production becomes an absolute necessity; however, it can only be inefficiently superimposed on an economy based principally on the export of one or two raw materials or agricultural products. The dependence on the world market for the import of manufactured goods does not end, regardless of all the bureaucratic planning. In order to avoid the restoration of imperialist domination, the newly consolidated state bureaucracy must tie itself to the bigger and more powerful bureaucracies of Russia, the East European bloc and/or China.

None of these actions flow from a Marxist understanding of class forces but from the bureaucratic and opportunist reactions of a petty-bourgeois leadership, struggling for survival, maneuvering to keep the support of the masses. Under these tremendously contradictory conditions the groundwork for a deformed workers state is established.

Consolidation of Power

In order to solidify its own power, the bureaucracy cannot allow the proletariat any independent voice or independent organs of power. At the same time, in order to maintain "popularity" it is forced to resort to demagogic semblances of mass support. Thus we see the masses being called to gigantic meetings during which they magically "participate" in the "collective decision-making process." Usually such democratic "decision-making" parades have long since been preceded by a silent and thorough disarming of the masses. The trade unions have also been "disarmed": "unreliable" trade union leaders and militants are purged and replaced by the stooges of the bureaucracy and then the whole trade union apparatus is thoroughly absorbed into the state apparatus. At the same time, the former guerrilla leadership, a Bonapartist formation from its military inception, hardens its own rule by solidifying its independent army and entrenching more and more "privileged" strata into the state apparatus.

Results and Prospects

The Bonapartist clique controlling the state apparatus becomes the worst internal enemy of the bureaucratically-planned and state-owned economy—no longer capitalist—of such a deformed workers state. The non-capitalist mode of production—placing on the order of the day workers’ control of production—is basically incompatible with the political rule of the bureaucracy. The new social system, though deformed and unstable because of its origins and national limitations, objectively poses the necessity to advance toward a new revolutionary society with proletarian internationalist content. Though revolutionaries should unconditionally support all progressive measures taken against imperialism by a victorious guerrilla movement, they should never forget that the guerrilla leadership, bureaucratically and uneasily ruling over the state, threatens to return the conquests of the revolution to imperialism. Therefore, revolutionaries should incessantly strive to make the proletariat, whether of a state remaining within the bounds of imperialism or of a deformed workers state, aware of its independent political tasks. The struggle for the accomplishment of these tasks, which requires the indispensable formation and steeling of a Leninist party, finds one of its greatest obstacles in the reactionary stratum balancing over society.

The bureaucracy defends in its own way the state’s non-capitalist economy from the dangers of capitalist restoration. But the measures and mechanisms it bureaucratically employs to defend the economy in the present become in the long run accumulated liabilities against the very social gains of the revolution. From this deadly grip of social impotence created partly by itself, the bureaucracy cannot and will not escape. Its reactions against imperialism will always be limited, half revolutionary, fluctuating from the most brazen cowardice and opportunism to the most cynical and callous ultra-leftism. It will measure its actions only from the standpoint of the "fatherland’s" defense (which is, at bottom, the defense of its own privileged positions). For these isolated and deformed workers states, the proletarian overthrow of the bureaucracy combined with successful proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries is the only permanent guarantee of defense and extension of the gains of the revolution. If these social and political revolutions are not effected, the bureaucracy will objectively aid—as it does every minute of its existence—the influence of imperialism and will help the imperialists drag its society to capitalist restoration if not directly to barbarism. In the present long drawn out period of imperialist decay, the two outcomes will become increasingly less distinguishable.

Limits on Guerrillaism

Even the most favorable circumstances which a guerrilla movement might confront (i.e., those which allow it to consolidate a deformed workers state) can, short of an internal proletarian revolution, lead to nothing more than the ultimate restoration of capitalism and imperialist domination. And as those "favorable circumstances" become less likely, the more probable outcome at this juncture of a successful guerrilla struggle will be like that of Algeria, Laos or many of the African states in which the struggle for "national liberation" has not impeded the continuance of imperialist domination or the existence of a native comprador bourgeoisie.

It should be clear that the Russian, Eastern European and Chinese bureaucracies will tend to enter into deeper political crises; internal contradictions within these bureaucratically dominated states will be partly hastened by the growing political and economic decay of the world imperialist system. As long as imperialism survives in the world, the restoration of capitalism in those countries remains a possibility, threatening in various degrees. Because it is precisely upon these bureaucracies that the newly created deformed workers states would have to depend, both militarily and economically, in order to survive, these crises will have their effects on developments in the "Third World." The following contradiction will become intensified in the colonial and semi-colonial countries where guerrillaism looms: although opportunities for guerrilla takeovers will be greatly facilitated by the protracted imperialist decay, this flies in the face of the sharply lessened likelihood that new deformed workers states can be consolidated from any origins such as a guerrilla victory.

Guerrillaism’s Social Base

How this can happen, how the heroic and voluntarist guerrilla struggles can lead only back to capitalism is a mystery only to those who have never bothered to critically analyze from the Marxist standpoint the historical development and class basis of guerrillaism. Guerillaism, like all manifestations of political life, represents class interests. Anybody who does not understand this is condemned to cross class lines regardless of all his phrase mongering about guerrilla "socialism."

The "national liberation" armed-struggle programs of the guerrilla movements are not at all socialist.6 Certainly, they start out as "anti-imperialist" and even "anti-capitalist." However, as a guerrilla movement grows, the petty-bourgeois need to attract "influential" allies and to compromise with the "progressive" bourgeoisie against the military apparatus defending imperialist property will tone down the guerrillas’ "anti-capitalism."

The nationalist reformism of the guerrilla movement will be more blatantly portrayed in its actions and program when it has gathered enough strength to pose as the sole protector of the "fatherland." Such a program at best promises—barring the destruction of the guerrilla movement—a reordering of the national economy through the state infrastructure, and by no means the socialist reconstruction of society. (Whether this "reordering" will be effected under the auspices of a deformed workers state or a statized bourgeois regime depends on future local and international events.)

One of the reasons that a guerrilla movement is forced to represent the interests of segments of the "patriotic" bourgeoisie is its own concomitant property-hungry peasant base. It is true that at the beginning the Castroite foco, or guerrilla band, stresses absolute "freedom" from the rural population. But if the foco is going to grow and if more focos are going to be formed, it is inevitable that the ever-growing guerrilla movement must rely on the peasantry. Thus, the "rural war" becomes a peasant war, i.e., it becomes what it potentially was from the very beginning.

When a strategic "rural war" is seen for what it is, a peasant war, certain opportunists immediately jump onto a different bandwagon: the discovery of a somewhat "socialist" peasantry. This magnificent discovery has been passionately defended by various "Third World" ideologues such as Frantz Fanon. In their impotence to explain social facts, these ideologues prefer to invent them, or, rather, to hide them. Certainly there are many different social variations of what is generally called "peasantry." But Marxists should vigorously reject the pseudo-anthropological "discovery" of a "socialist" peasantry in all these different peasant strata. It is the material relations of the peasantry, its inter-relationships with small property, penetration of capitalism or its presence in the countryside, and the peasantry’s aspirations to be a propertied class which determine how the peasantry will act—and not basically its wretched condition.

It is absolute nonsense then to speak of "rural war" as if it were something other than a petty-bourgeois form of struggle. "Rural war"—if not quashed in the bud as it usually has been in Latin America—must increasingly tend to become a territorial peasant war, a war which can be influenced by the bourgeoisie included in the rural popular front. A guerrilla leadership will be forced to fluctuate between the pressures of influential segments of the "patriotic" bourgeoisie and those of the small propertied interests of the peasantry. There will be moments for instance when the guerrilla leadership is forced to expropriate hostile landlords and carry through a land reform for the peasantry either distributing plots among them or legitimizing their spontaneous expropriations. This will however, strengthen the more influential segments of the middle and rich peasantry, who will in turn exert political and social pressure on the guerrilla leadership. Moreover, once a land reform has been carried through, the peasant masses will be quite satisfied with the small plots given by the guerrilla leadership; the peasantry will not care for more "socialism." On different occasions, the guerrilla leadership will have to rely on the financial backing of "patriotic" bourgeois and landlord sectors. These and similar pressures reinforce—before and after the seizure of power—the need for the guerrilla leadership to be a highly militarized, Bonapartist clique answerable to nobody in particular, completely ruthless and determined by all means to stay in power in spite of the possible hostility coming from the classes it balances over.

From the 1500s to the 1900s

When the peasant wars in Middle Europe during the Reformation hastened decisively the downfall of the waning feudal order, they became "critical episodes" benefiting the bourgeoisie’s long struggle for power. The bourgeoisie, each time more economically and even politically powerful, rammed the peasantry (and in the 19th Century, also the proletariat) against the remnants of the old order. Peasant upsurges marked the birth pangs of the then revolutionary bourgeois class.

Four hundred years later, in its death-agony period, the senile bourgeoisie will increasingly benefit from peasant uprisings that, remaining rudderless or propped-up by guerrilla movements, dislocate or postpone the proletarian socialist revolution, thus objectively helping the continuing stabilization of imperialism and the survival of the bourgeoisie in the world arena. In this manner, continuing peasant movements, if unchecked by an alliance with the revolutionary proletariat, rather than being "critical episodes" will qualitatively transform themselves into social manifestations of sharpening cultural decay. The proletariat, unable to develop economic power of its own in the propertied and political manner that the bourgeoisie could before and after the English and French Revolutions, cannot benefit from the results of peasant wars as long as its own crisis of leadership—the fundamental crisis of human culture—remains unresolved.

Tasks for Marxists

Marxist revolutionaries, in the imperialist countries and in the underdeveloped colonies and semi-colonies, must root their struggles in the proletariat. Without the proletariat, Marxists can only be, and become, petty-bourgeois revolutionists; their "Marxism" will then too become an ideology in the shape of false consciousness, not the revolutionary theory of the proletariat. And ideologies become in the last analysis shibboleths (like the Castroite "the fatherland is America"). With no way to be concretely implemented by the proletariat, shibboleths are easily glued to shields defending different class interests than those of the revolutionary class.

Isaac Deutscher, in a rare attempt to transcend his scholarly eclecticism, "insulted" many Stalinist sycophants and "café guerrillaists" in his 1966 address to the second annual Socialist Scholars Conference in New York. This is how the worshippers of the accomplished fact were "insulted": "You cannot run away from politics," Deutscher told them. "Men live not by politics alone, true enough. But unless you have solved for yourselves in your own minds the great political problems posed by Marxism, by the contradictions of capitalist society, by the mutual relationship of the intellectual and the worker in this society, unless you have found a way to the young age groups of the American working class and shaken this sleeping giant of yours, this sleeping giant of the American working class out of his sleep, out of the drugs—out of this sleep into which he has been drugged, unless you have done this you will be lost. Your only salvation is in carrying back the idea of socialism to the working class and coming back with the working class to storm—to storm, yes, to storm—the bastions of capitalism."

These words, which for months caused shrieks and barks from the worshippers of "new" realities, will retain their full validity until those bastions are stormed. Revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist countries and revolutionaries in the colonial and semi-colonial countries can fuse the struggles of the international working class only by preparing Leninist parties and by basing their strategies and tactics on the generalized expression of the totality of the historic experiences of the working class. This successful combination, this fusion of Marxist theory and organizational capacity on the international level, will force all the "new" realities of our impressionists into a frenzied stampede back into the archives of pre-Marxian radicalism from whence they issued.


1. Castroites even go so far as to advise the proletariat to strip its own centers: "¼ the best cadre of the proletariat, those more politically developed, will fulfill their revolutionary duty by integrating themselves into the guerrillas¼ " (Informe de la Delegación de Cuba a la Primera Conferencia do Is OLAS, La Habana, 1967 p. 72)

2. The growth of the urban proletariat in Latin America has spurted ahead in recent years. The unionized working class totals between 15 and 22 million, depending on the source. Nearly 45% of the total labor force is industrial proletariat and agricultural labor. Nearly half of this figure is industrial proletariat. (América Latina, Problemas y Perspectivas do la Revolución, Prague, 1966) In 1950 the urban population was 41% of the total; in 1960, 48%; today, 57%; in 1970, a projected 60+%. (United Nations statistics.) This is how "half-feudal" bourgeois Latin America is.

3. For example, the Cuban CP’s Juan Marinello and Carlos Rodríguez served in a Batista cabinet in 1940; the Ecuadorian Stalinists helped create and formed part of a Bonapartist junta in 1944. In 1936, the Chilean Stalinists entered the Popular Front. When the Popular Front’s candidate, Aguirre Cerda, became president in 1938, the Stalinists reaffirmed their "inviolable and exemplary fidelity to the People’s Front."

4. In 1932, the El Salvador CP attempted to "grab" power without any preparation for a head-on confrontation with the Salvadorian bourgeoisie. Such an adventure ended in mass slaughters—around 25,000 killed—of peasants, Communists and workers. The terror was extended to Guatemala and Honduras. In 1935, the Brazilian CP, headed by the Stalinist rogue Prestes, attempted another, though belated, third period action combining it with popular front tactics. Needless to say, this schizophrenic "deed" ended in total debacle.

5. The Spartacist League has previously stated (Spartacist No. 6) that "the petty-bourgeois peasantry under the most favorable historic circumstances conceivable could achieve no third road, neither capitalist, nor working class. Instead all that has come out of China and Cuba was a state of the same order as that issuing out of the political counter-revolution of Stalin in the Soviet Union, the degeneration of the October. That is why we are led to define states such as these as deformed workers states."

6. In an interview the Venezuelan guerrilla leader Douglas Bravo was asked about the program of the FALN. He answered: "In brief, the FALN has the following objectives: to achieve national liberation, liberty and democratic life for the nation; to rescue the patrimony, the integrity and the national riches, to establish a revolutionary government; to safeguard the carrying out of its laws and to support the authorities constituted by the Revolution; to protect the interests of the people, their property and institutions." (Desafío, May 1967)

In its 1964 Manifiesto y Programa Agrario Guerrillero, the Colombian FARC proclaimed: "…we call on all the peasants, on all the workers, on all employees, on all students, on all the artisans, on the small industrialists, on the national bourgeoisie willing to fight imperialism, on the democratic and revolutionary intellectuals, on all the political parties of left and center that desire a change toward progress to [join] the great revolutionary and patriotic struggle for a Colombia for Colombians, for the victory of the revolution, for a democratic government of national liberation." (Colombia en Pie de Lucha, Prague 1966, p. 18)

The complete program of the Guatemalan FAR seems to be hard to come by; second hand reports, however, are abundant. MR, V. 18, N. 9, contains three reports on the FAR by MR contributors. From the first one: "They envisage four major stages in their revolution. First, nationwide organization of the peasants, workers, students, and professional people into disciplined and ideologically informed units. Second, armed revolt, culminating in the taking of power by the people and the repulsion of imperialist intervention. Third, establishment of a national democratic government with the participation of various sectors of the population. Fourth, the transition to the construction of socialism in Guatemala." This mechanical "stages" nonsense is combined with the most spineless opportunism. "…FAR," the third report tells us, "was largely instrumental in the electoral success of Méndez [the present butcher-lackey ruling Guatemala], for it considered that a period of relative tranquility would benefit it, ¼ " The fact is that during the Méndez election swindle the slaughter of FAR-PGT-MR-13 was increased. Today a Méndez-led bloodbath reigns in Guatemala. From now on, the "first stage" of FAR’s Menshevist vision of revolution should probably add: "a nationwide organization including bourgeois presidents and other lackeys of imperialism."

The Vietnamese NLF latest 14-point program does not even mention the word socialism once. It rather promises to: "Build up an independent and sovereign economy, rapidly heal the wounds of war and develop the economy to make our country prosperous." The state will: "Guarantee to workers and employers the right to participate in the management of enterprises." The state will also: "Establish freedom of enterprise profitable to the nation" and look after "the interests of small merchants and small proprietors." For the peasants, the state will: "Place the lands of absentee landlords at the disposal of the peasants so that they may cultivate it and enjoy the fruits of the harvest." But the state will also court landlords: "The question of an appropriate definite solution will be studied later, taking into account the political attitude of each landlord." Further on we are told that the state will also: "Settle differences between employers and workers by negotiations and by the mediating role of the national and democratic administration." (For complete program see National Guardian 21 October 1967.)

Posted: 22 September 2004