Problems of Revolutionary Strategy

(thanks, Peter!)


This is an excerpt from Problems of Revolutionary Strategy by Abraham Guillen

To the credit of the Uruguayan Guerillas, they were the first to operate in the cement jungles of a capitalist metropolis, to endure during the first phase of a revolutionary war thanks to an efficient organization and tactics, and to confound the police and armed forces for a considerable period… With its failures as well as successes, the Movement of National Liberation (Tupamaros) has contributed a model of urban guerrilla warfare that has already made a mark on contemporary history – the scene of a struggle between capitalism and socialism with its epicenter in the great cities. The lessons that can be learned from the Tupamaros can be summarized in the following ten points.

(1) Fixed or Mobile Front? When urban guerrillas lack widespread support because of revolutionary impatience or because their actions do not directly represent popular demands, they have to provide their own clandestine infrastructure by renting houses and apartments. By tying themselves to a fixed terrain in this way, the Tupamaros have lost both mobility and security: two prerequisites of guerrilla strategy. In order to avoid encirclement and annihilation through house-to-house searches, the guerrillas can best survive not by establishing fixed urban bases, but by living apart (from each other) and fighting together.

(2) Mobility and Security. If urban guerrillas rent houses for their commandos, they are in danger of leaving a trail that may be followed by the police who review monthly all registered rentals. Should most of their houses be loaned instead of leased, then the guerrillas should refrain as a general rule from building underground vaults or hideouts which would increase their dependence on the terrain. To retain their mobility and a high margin of security they must spread out among a favourable population. Guerrillas who fight together and then disperse throughout a great city are not easily detected by the police. When dragnets are applied to one neighborhood or zone, guerrillas without a fixed base can shift to another neighborhood. Such mobility is precluded by a reliance on rented houses or hideouts in the homes of sympathizers, heretofore a major strategical error of the Tupamaros.

(3) Heavy or Light Rearguard? Urban guerrillas who develop a heavy infrastructure in many rented houses commit not only a military error, but also an economic and logistical one. For a heavy rearguard requires a comparatively large monthly budget in which economic and financial motives tend to overshadow political considerations. Lacking enough houses, the guerrillas tend to upgrade to positions of command those willing to lend their own. Among the Tupamaros detained in 1972 was the owner of the hacienda “Spartacus,” which housed an armory in an underground vault. At about the same time the president of the frigorific plant of Cerro Largo was detained and sentenced for aiding the Tupamaros. He may well have embraced the cause of the Tupamaros with loyalty and sincerity; but as a businessman he responded as any other bourgeois would to his workers’ demands for higher wages. Thus when promotion through the ranks is facilitated by owning a big house, a large farm or enterprise, the guerrillas become open to bourgeois tendencies. When guerrillas rely on cover not on a people in arms but on people of property, then urban guerrilla warfare becomes the business of an armed minority, which will never succeed in mobilising in this manner the majority of the population.

(4) Logistical Infrastructure. Although a mobile front is preferable to a fixed one, there are circumstances in which a fixed front is unavoidable, e.g., in the assembly, adjustment and adaptation of arms. These fixed fronts, few a far between, must be concealed from the guerrillas themselves; they should be known only to the few who work there, preferably one person in each, in order to avoid discovery by the repressive forces. In the interest of security it is advisable not to manufacture arms, but to have the parts made separately by various legal establishments, after which they can be assembled in the secret workshops of the guerrillas.

It is dangerous to rely on a fixed front for housing, food, medical supplies and armaments. If the guerrillas are regularly employed, they should live as everybody else does; they should come together only at a designated times and places. Houses that serve as barracks or hideouts tend to immobilise the guerrillas and to expose them to the possibility of encirclement and anihilation. Because the Tupamaros immobilised many of their commandos in fixed quarters, they were exposed in 1972 to mass detentions; they lost a large part of their armaments and related equipment and were compelled to transfer military supplies to the countryside for hiding.

In abusing control over their sympathisers and keeping them under strict military discipline, the Tupamaros had to house them together. But they were seldom used in military operations at a single place or in several simultaneously, indicating the absence of a strategical preparation. If urban guerrillas cannot continually disappear and reappear among the population of a great city, then they lack the political prerequisites for making a revolution, for creating the conditions of a social crisis through the breakdown of “law and order.” Despite their proficiency during the first hit-and-run phase of revolutionary war, the Tupamaros have failed to escalate their operations by using larger units at more frequent intervals for the purpose of paralysing the existing regime.

(5) Heroes, Martyrs and Avengers. In revolutionary war any guerrilla action that needs explaining to the people is politically useless: it should be meaningful and convincing by itself. To kill an ordinary soldier in reprisal for the assassination of a guerrilla is to descend to the same political level as a reactionary army. Far better to create a martyr and thereby attract mass sympathy than to lose or neutralise popular support by senseless killings without an evident political goal. To be victorious in a people’s war one has to act in conformity with the interests, sentiments and will of the people. A military victory is worthless if it fails to be politically convincing.

In a country where the bourgeoisie has abolished the death penalty, it is self-defeating to condemn to death even the most hated enemies of the people. Oppressors, traitors and informers have condemned themselves before the guerrillas; it is impolitic to make a public show of their crimes for the purpose of creating a climate of terror, insecurity and disregard for basic human rights. A popular army that resorts to unnecessary violence, that is not a symbol of justice, equity, liberty and security, cannot win popular support in the struggle against a dehumanised tyranny.

The Tupamaraos’ “prisons of the people” do more harm than benefit to the cause of national liberation. Taking hostages for the purpose of exchanging them for political prisoners has an immediate popular appeal; but informing the world of the existence of “people’s prisons” is to focus unnecessarily on a parallel system of oppression. No useful purpose can be served by such politically alienating language. Morover, it is intolerable to keep anyone hostage for a long time. To achieve a political or propaganda victory through this kind of tactic, the ransom terms must be moderate and capable of being met; in no event should the guerrillas be pressed into executing a prisoner because their demands are excessive and accordingly rejected. A hostage may b usefully executed only when a government refused to negotiate on any terms after popular pressure has been applied; for then it is evident to everyone that the government is ultimately responsible for the outcome.

So-called people’s prisons are harmful for other reasons: they require several men to stand guard and care for the prisoners; they distract guerrillas frmo carrying out alternative actions more directly useful to the population; and they presuppose a fixed front and corresponding loss of mobility. At most it is convenient to have a secure place to detain for shore periods a single hostage.

To establish people’s prisons, to condemn to death various enemies of the people to house guerrillas in secret barracks of underground hideouts is to create an infrastructure supporting a miniature state rather than a revolutionary army. To win the support of the population, arms must be used directly on its behalf. Whoever uses violence against subordinates in the course of building a miniature counter-state should be removed from his command. Surely there is little point in defating one despotism only to erect another in its place!

(6) Delegated Commands. In a professional army the leadership is recruited from the military academies within a hierachical order of command. In a guerrilla organisation the leaders emerge in actual revolutionary struggles, elected because of their capacity, responsibility, combativity, initiative, political understanding and deeds rather than words. However, at pain of forfeiting the democratic character of a revolutionary army and the function of authority as a delegated power, not even the best guerrilla commander can be allowed to remain long at the helm. A rotating leadership is necessary to avoid the “cult of personality”; powers should be alternately exercised by those commanders with the most victories, by those most popular with their soldiers and most respected by the people. Inasmuch as guerrilla warfare takes the form of self-dense, tis success depends on the exercise of direct democracy, on guerrilla self-management and self-discipline – a far cry from the barracks discipline typical of a bureaucratic or professional army…

The people have more need of many revolutionary heroes than of a single outstanding leader like Julius Casesar or Napoleon Bonaparte. Epominondas, the Theban general who defeated the Spartan, held a command that lasted only two years. Although the greatest strategist of his time, he became and ordinary soldier when his command expired. Only because of his extraordinary skill was he made a military adviser to the new commander-in-chief. Guerrillas can benefit by his example.

A delegated command is unlimited except for the time determining its delegation. The responsibility of subordinates is to discuss in advance each operation, to make recommendations, etc. But the discussion ends when the supreme command assumes responsibility for the outcome of a particular battle or engagement. If the commander is mistaken in his judgment, if the result is defeat rather than victory, his duty is to resign. Should he succeed in a vote of confidence he may retain his command; but to successive defeats should make his resignation irrevocable.

One of the most common errors of Latin American guerrillas is to make legends of their leaders as they did of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The resulting messianism conceals the incapacity of many guerrilla commanders who take their troops into the countryside – like the Tupamaros in 1972 – without revising mistaken strategies. Perhaps the leaders of the Uruguayan guerrillas have come to believe in their providential powers, thereby reducing the ordinary guerrilla to a political and military zero, to the status of a soldier in a conventional army.

(7) Revolution: Which Revolution? Youthful Leftists without a proletarian praxis, without having suffered directly the effects of capitalist exploitation, aspire to liberate the workers without the workers’ own revolutionary intervention. When revolutionary action is limited to a series of military engagements between guerrillas and a repressive army, armaments ar of little use in mobilising the people for national liberation. The corresponding foquismo [exaggerated reliance on guerrilla focos, armed encounters and military tactics to spark a mass insurrection] is petty bourgeois in origin as well as outlook – evident in the token number of workers and peasants in the guerilllas’ ranks. Actually it is an insurrectional movement of piling up cadavers, for giving easy victories to the repressive generals trained by the Pentagon.

In the case of the Tupamaros the commanding cadres and the greater part of the rank and file have come from the universities, the liberal professions and the rebellious petty–bourgeois youth who have learned how to disobey. They long for a revolution. But what kind of revolution? Since there are few workers or peasants in the columns of the Tupamaros, it is understandable that the struggle is limited mainly to engagements between the guerrillas on one side and the army and police on the other. In these encounters the people are caught in the middle, leaving a political vacuum which only a different kind of guerrilla movement can fill: one providing support for all popular acts of protest, strikes, demonstrations, student rebellions, etc. Only through the intermediary of the people, in other words, can urban guerrillas pass from the first phase of revolutionary war to a generalised state of subversion leading to a social revolution.

In their endeavor to create a state within the state through highly disciplined guerrilla columns, secret barracks, “prisons of the people,” underground arsenals and a heavy logistical infrastructure, the Tupamaros have become overly professionalised, militarised and isolated from the urban masses. Their organisation is closer to resembling a parallel power contesting the legally established one, a microstate, rather than movement of the masses.

(8) Strategy, Tactics and Politics. If the tactics adopted are successful but the corresponding strategy and politics mistaken, the guerrillas cannot win. Should a succession of tactical victories encourage a strategical objective that is impossible to attain, then a great tactical victory can culminate in an even greater strategical defeat.

The kidnappings of the Brazilian consul Dias Gomide and the CIA agent Dan Mitrione are instances of tactical successes by the Tupamaros. But in demanding in exchange a hundred detained guerrillas, the Tupamaros found the Uruguayan government obstinate, in order not to lose face altogether. Here a successful tactic contributed to an impossible strategical objective. In having to execute Mitrione because the government failed to comply to their demands, the Tuparamaros not only failed to accomplish a political objective, but also suffered a political reversal in their newly acquired role of assassins – the image they acquired through hostile mass media.

The Tupamaros would have done better by taping Mitrione’s declarations and giving the story to the press. The population would have followed the incidents of his confession with more interest than the interminable serials. Mitrione’s confessed links with the CIA should have been fully documented and sent to Washington in care of Senator Fulbright. With this incident brought to the attention of Congress, the operation against the CIA would have won world support of the Tupamaros. Once the Uruguayan government had lost prestige through this publicity, the Uruguayan press might be asked to publish a manifesto of the Tupamaros explaining their objectives in the Mitrione case. Afterwards his death sentence should have been commuted out of respect for his eight sons, but on condition that he leave the country. Such a solution to the government’s refusal to negotiate with the guerrillas would have captured the sympathies of many in favour of the Tupamaros. Even more than conventional war, revolutionary war is a form of politics carried out by violent means.

With respect to Dias Gomide the Tupamaros lost an opportunity to embarrass politically the Brazilian government. They should never have allowed matters to read the point at which his wife could appear as an international heroine of love and marital fidelity by collecting sums for his release. Every cruzerio she collected was a vote against the Tupamaros and indirectly against the Brazilian guerrillas. In exchange for Dias Gomide, a man of considerable importance to the military regime, the Tupamaros should have demanded the publication of a manifesto in the Brazilian press. Its contents might have covered the following items: a denunciation of the “death squad” as an informal instrument of the |Brazilian dictatorship; a demand for free, secret and direct elections; the legalisation of all political parties dissolved by the military regime; the restitution of political rights to Brazil’s former leaders and exiles including Quadros, Kubitschek, Brizola, Goular and even reactionaries like Lacerda; the denunciation of government censorship of the press; and a demand that popular priests be est free. With such a political response the revolutionary war might have been exported to Brazil. Guerrilla actions should not be narrowly circumscribed when they can have regional and international repercussions…

The Tupamaros are perilously close to resembling a political Mafia. In demanding large sums of money in ransom for political hostages they have sometimes appeared to be self-serving. It matters little to the average citizen whether bank deposits pass into the hands of “expropriators” who do little directly to lighten the public burden – not because they do not want to but because they cannot do so in isolation from the people and without popular support. There is an historical irony about these would-be liberators who indirectly live off the surplus of the people the liberate.

(9) OPR-33 and the Tupamaros. Enormous losses were suffered by the Tupamaros in 1972 through more than 3000 detentions, including those of persons guilty by association. Popular hatred against the government has intensified because of its house-to-house searches and disregard for fundamental rights. If the Tupamaros had as much political and strategical sense as they have tactical skill, they might have achieved in 1972 a new polarization of forces culminating in a truce, a virtual recognition by the government of a situation of dual powers.

But the political and startegical mistakes of the Tupamaros, their rigorous centralism and hierarchy of authority led instead to internal divisions and split-offs that further weakeneed the organisation. The deliberately mislabeled “Microfaction” broke with the movement. This group politically responseive to the Urguayan Revolutionary WOrkers’ Party (PRT) – a political affiliate of the Argentine People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) – would hardly have been permitted to split peacefully were it not for the ERP. The “22nd of December” guerrillas likewise split with the leadership: a group concentrating on operations designed to mobilise the trade unions and other mass organisations without the military centralism of the Tupamaros’ general staff..

Politically the Tupamaros follow an ambiguous line promising something of interest to everybody. On the other hand, the Tupamaro Courier, a bulletin of the organisation, has carried in its pages extracts from the speeches of conservative nationalists like Aparicio Saravia. On the other hand the Tupamaros’ leadership forobids its cadres from criticising the pro-Moscow Communists. This political irresolution, indefiniteness and ambivalence have hurt the Tupamaros in their efforts to gain a foothold in the Communist-controlled trade unions. Although they penetrated and won over the leadership of the Union of Sugar Workers (UTA) and the workers of the Frigorifico Fray Bentos, they have been unsuccessful in pressing for immediate reforms because they anticipate that seizing political power will resolve everything.

Unlike the Tupamaros, the anarcho-syndicalist Revolutionary Popular Organisation (OPR-33) uses armed struggle to support the workers’ immediate demands without directly challenging the government and armed forces. Neither OPR-33 nor the “22nd of December” contributed to the 1971 electoral struggles of the Broad Front against the established political parties. While the Tupamaros supported the Broad Front, OPR-33 used its armed units to win the strike at the Portland Cement Company, where workers with anarcho-syndicalist tendencies demanded higher wages. Rodney Arismendi, secretary-general of the Communist Party, denounced the anarcho-syndicalists as adventurers for allegedly playing into the hands of reactionaries and ignoring the principal task of electing a new president, senators and deputies. But the Broad Front lost the elections, while the workers at Portland Cement won the strike. Moreover, the railroad workers also triumphed against the bosses, thanks to the armed backing of OPR-33 with the support of the Workers-Student Resistance (ROE) and the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (FAU).

OPR-33 and ROE also spurred a series of successful strikes in the metallurgical, rubber and clothing industries. The strike at SERAL, a footwear manufacturer, lasted more than a year. Where the Communist-controlled unions failed, OPR-33 and ROE succeeded. The anarcho-syndicalists initiated the strike at SERAL: they endured in hunger, asked for collections in the streets of Montevideo and mobilised popular support. But the owner, an ex-worker, could not be moved. Finally his son disappeared. OPR-33 was apparently behind the operation but, unlike the Tupamaros, admitted to nothing. No ransom was asked; words were unnecessary. In view of the circumstances it was tacitly understood that the owner, Malguero, could recover his son by negotiating with the workers. In this way the most difficult strike in Uruguay was won: the workers were compensated for lost pay; their union was recognised as the only legal bargaining agent. Thus during the first six months of 1972, when the Tupamaros were being detained by the hundreds, Malaguero’s son was lost but reappeared with the resolution of the strike at SERAL. Despite the success of the repressive forces in uncovering the people’s prisons and hideouts of the Tupamaros, the boy could not be found. Here was an altogether different style of guerrilla warfare from that of the Tupamaros’ – and also more effective.

The strike against the Frigorifico Modelo was won through a similar operation. In the midst of the strike the firm’s president Fernandez Llado, disappeared. Thus a second company was coipelled to negotiate. In no instance has OPR-33 been pressured to execute hostages. For it has not made demands of its own, but has applied force only to obtain what hundreds of exploited workers have already been asking for. In this way, little by little, it may continue to win support from the workers until even the reformist trade unions fall into revolutionary hands. Once revolutionaries are in command of their own house, then they are ready for revolutionary action in depth: the occupation of factories that operate at less than full capacity; the transformation of these into producer’s cooperatives or self-managed enterprises;p and a preparation for the seizure of political power. For what purpose? To establish a new kind of socialist society in which the people rather than bureaucrats or guerrilla leaders are the beneficiaries.

(10) MIR, ERP and the Tupamaros. The Tupamaros were the first group of urban guerrillas to teach the world how to initiate an insurrection in the cities with few supporters and modest means. But their superb tactics have been nullified by a mediocre strategy and a questionable politics.

Like OPR-33, the Chilean Movement of the Revolutioanry Left (MIR) and the Argenitine People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) offer new models of urban guerrilla warfare in which strategy and politics combine to reinforce the Tupamaros’ tactics. The Chilean and Argentine organisations show great initiative in combat, a clar-cut program of national a social liberation, the capacity to mobilise large masses and a virtual absence of petty-bourgeois tendencies. They are openly critical of Right-wing nationalism and the opportunism of Social Democrats and Communists. Without such criticism, without liberating themselves from a naroow professional outlook, urban guerrillas can succeed in tactical engagements; but they cannot develop a revolutionary movement capable of winning power, if not for themselvs as bureaucrats, then for the people they represent.

In 1972 MIR had the most effective revolutionary organisation in Latin America. Its leading cadres are directly responsible to the rank and file through a system of direct democracy; its politics are clear and unambiguous; it proposes at any moment only what it can actually accomplish. Nothing escapes the political analysis and synthesis of the MIR cadres. They are Chile’s major revolutionary reserve. In the event Allende’s government is overthrown, only they are presently equipped to fight for liberation under conditions of repression. They are acid critics of demagogy and adventurism. Their proposals are well reasoned and concrete with respect both to immediate issues and the future.

The ERP is another model worth imitating. In Rosario it seized the British consul and the manager of Swift for the purpose of settling a major strike. IT has prepared the ground for surmounting the traditional trade-union tactics of the Peronist labor bureaucracy, the pro-Moscow Communists and genteel socialists. Even the tragic finale of Sallustro, president of Argentine Fiat, is an example of blood spilled not so much by the ERP as by the Argentine military. For the dictatorship countermanded the negotiations between the Fiat managment and workers as the price of his release.

The Tupamaros faced their gravest crisis during the first havelf of 1972, when the repressive forces detained several hundred of them. That so many fell was due not to lack of secrecy, but to absence of autonomy. Their supreme command is centralised: it knows all, says all, does lal. Nothing can be more fatal to a guerrilla organisation than lack of self-direction under conditions in which the guerrillas cannot be continually united and in which each group or command has to adapt to the tactical situation at hand without waiting, as a conventional army does, for orders from above. Excessive centralisation of authority makes an organisation rigid and vulnerable: once the repressive forces discover a single thread they can begin looking for the spool.

The Tupamaros acted precipitately in attacking the newly elected government of President Bordaberry. They provoked the as yet untested government to declare a state of war. Repression was escalated in the crudest forms: punitive expeditions, legalised terrorism, physical tortures. A formal democracy gave way to dissimulated dictatorship. Far better had the Tupamaros waited for the economic and social crisis to discredit the new regime. The prime necessities are in scarce supply; there is not enough meat, milk, sugar, kerosene to satisfy demand. Nonetheless, the government is strong because the revolutionaries’ rhetoric is weak, and they have not mastered the art of mobilising popular discontent on these basic issues.

A revolutionary organisation must demonstrate that it knows more that its bourgeois rivals in power. To displace the bourgeoisie and bureaucracy, it must convince the public of their incompetence, a task which cannot be done overnight. It must show how greater levels of productivity can be achieved compatible with human freedom, how the scientific-technological revolution can be advanced, how agriculture can be fully mechanised and electrified, how industrial integration can be achieved, how culture can be made to serve economic and technological growth, how atomic energy can be utilised, how the socialism of self-management can be introduced. If a revolutionary leadership fails to demonstrate humane qualities, scientific knowledge and social, political and economic skills, it may commit blunders by initiating an insurrection before fully mobilising popular support. Then is the time for military intervention. Thus in Peru the guerrillas were exterminated by the developmentalist generals who now pass for revolutionaries; and in Brazil the military waged a preventative coup, mortgaged their country to foreign capital, reduced corporate taxes, outlawed industrial unrest and depressed real wages in order to stimulate economic growth.

From the Tupamaros we can learn from both their exploits and mistakes – magnifying their strengths and concealing their weaknesses can be of service to dogmatists and sectarians, not revolutionaries. The Tupamaros have served as the best revolutionary academy in the world on the subject of urban guerrilla warfare; they have taught more through actions than all the revolutionary theories abstracted from concrete situations. But their brilliance in matters of tactics has not been matched by their strategy and politics. Thus the revolutionary ideal must combine the tactical proficiency of the Tupamaros with the mass strategy of OPR-33 and the politics of Chilean MIR – a synthesis most nearly approximated by the Argentine ERP.

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