Is the Era of Armed Struggle Over?

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 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?