Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Guerrilla tactics are not enough
I am writing in response to Ray Challinor's interesting letter (December SR), where he detects a 'fatal flaw' in Chris Harman's analysis of the shift by guerrilla groups from armed struggle to negotiations.
The first point Ray makes is correct, that the decisive question is not military, but political. We have to consider not the question of 'armed struggle' in the abstract, but who is fighting whom, and why. This means we do not share the hypocrisy of those on the right and, unfortunately, on the left who cheer the bombs which kill thousands of Serbs or Iraqis, but then cry crocodile tears about the terrorism of the IRA, ETA and so on.
But it also means that we do not become groupies of the bomb or the Kalashnikov. In Spain, while all the parliamentary left lines up with the right in their attacks on the Basque independence movement, the bulk of the far left makes the opposite mistake, and sees everything precisely in military terms; revolution comes to mean small groups of people with guns, not the self emancipation of the working class.
Ray accuses Chris of only citing examples that favour his case, and quotes Vietnam, Cuba, and so on. But in Cuba, when Castro told his tiny group after most of their comrades had died soon after landing on the island, 'we are winning', it was just bluster. The handful of guerrillas in Castro's movement didn't defeat the armed capitalist state. Rather, that state had so rotted away from inside that it fell apart. Castro then marched into Havana to fill the vacuum.
The tragedy of the Latin American left from the 1960s onwards was to try to repeat the Cuban experience, leading thousands of young revolutionaries to defeat after defeat. They were defeated either directly militarily, or more often through their leaders selling themselves in a peace process for a position in the system, because guerrilla politics don't work.
With all the provisos and the recognition of the heroism of those involved, we have to say that clearly.
This is even clearer from the examples of Ireland and the Basque Country. It is not to fall into the hypocrisy of the right to say that the pub bombs of the 1970s, and the more recent attack on the Isle of Dogs, were anything but 'superb'.
In Spain, there was the example in 1987 of a bomb in Hipercor, a supermarket in a working class area of Barcelona, which killed 21 people. The effect was to allow the right to mobilise hundreds of thousands of working class people against the Basque movement, when literally days before the bombing that movement had won an unprecedented record vote in Barcelona itself in the European elections.
In July 1997 ETA kidnapped a young PP (conservative) councillor and announced they would kill him in 48 hours if the PP government did not make certain concessions. The PP had no intention of making concessions and got all the other parliamentary parties to line up with it in mobilising demonstrations of literally millions of people against ETA and against Herri Batasuna, the party of radical Basque nationalism. Faced with the massive pressure of right wing hysteria, the far left uncritical followers of ETA and the armed struggle had nothing to say.
When ETA declared a ceasefire last year, there was massive relief and a real upsurge of support for many demands of the Basque movement. The problem was that the alternative to armed struggle was seen as alliances with the bourgeois Basque nationalists and negotiations with the Conservative government, both strategies that were doomed to failure.
Now the failure of the attempt at a 'peace process' has led to the announcement by ETA of the resumption of the armed struggle.
The right is already preparing to pull people back out onto the streets to 'condemn violence'. If there is another anti-Basque witch hunt like that of July 1997 the armchair armed strugglers will no doubt be silent again. It will be down to a very small number of socialists to oppose the conservatives from a position independent of the tactics of armed struggle which made the witch hunt possible.
We have to defend the right of the oppressed to fight back by any means necessary. But we do no favour to ourselves, or to any oppressed nation or group, if we do not explain clearly and patiently, that guerrilla politics lead to disaster for the mass of workers and peasants, even if some of the guerrilla leaders do quite well out of it.
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