Below is an excerpt from Naming the System. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC is the Spanish acronym) is the oldest revolutionary army in Latin America. Since 2002, it has been under some of its severest attacks by the Colombian government under the right-wing president Álvaro Uribe, aided by considerable U.S. military aid and personnel, who are in Colombia allegedly to eradicate the drug trade, but really to contain and defeat the FARC. The FARC has suffered many blows in the past few years, including the death of its founder and leader Manuel Marulanda in 2008 and the murder of several of its top leaders. Yet, it continues to fight, and it still controls large areas of the country and maintains its capacity to disrupt the Colombian economy. An update on FARC, with an overall negative view of its future, can be found at http://www.coha.org/farc-a-perilous-future-a-grim-recent-past/. All things considered, I do not think the FARC can overthrow the government, and I think it is likely that the FARC has lost a good deal of its initial revolutionary trajectory.
The prospects for the Maoists in Nepal are much more favorable. They have achieved remarkable victories since what I wrote about them, including the overthrow of the monarchy, victories in elections that resulted in their leader, Prachanda, becoming Prime Minister and then resigning, and now the real prospects of achieving victory and revolutionizing all of Nepalese society. A good summary review has been written by Gary Leupp at http://www.counterpunch.org/leupp02122010.html.
It is important for a writer to periodically evaluate what he or she has written, in light of new developments. Too often, writers assume no responsibility for what they have written or said, no doubt believing that in a throwaway and amnesiac society, what they said won’t be remembered and they will never be called on it.
I welcome comments.
The FARC in Colombia and the Maoists in Nepal
If capitalism is to be replaced with a democratic and egalitarian mode of production, a fundamental question is how the transition from capitalism to the new system of production and distribution is to take place. Is it possible to build up alternative economic mechanisms within capitalist economies and, through the increasing weight of these mechanisms undermine and ultimately replace capitalism? Or, could radical, worker-based, political parties win elections and then use the state to engineer a peaceful transition? Or, will capitalism only yield to violent force, that is, revolutionary armed struggle?
The first successful socialist transformations took place as a consequence of revolutions, first in the Soviet Union, then in China, Cuba, Vietnam, and a few other places. The means of production were socialized through the forcible expropriation of private property, after, in some cases, many years of military struggle. In every case, the economy transformed was formerly in a poor nation; no socialist revolution has ever occurred in a rich country.
The Cuban revolution was the last successful revolution built on armed struggle. After the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia, where he was trying to foment a Cuban-style revolution, and the failure of Cuban-inspired revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the idea that capitalism could and should be defeated by military means lost favor. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite allies further distanced radicals from an embrace of revolutionary war.
Indeed, the demise of the formerly socialist economies and the shift of China toward capitalism has called into question the possibility of creating any alternative to capitalism. Furthermore, the possibility of transcending capitalism through peaceful political means was dealt a lethal blow by the violent overthrow of the democratically-elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Allende used completely legal methods to begin the socialization of the Chilean economy, but he and his party were defeated, and Allende himself was murdered, by the Chilean military, itself fully (and illegally) aided and abetted by the United States. The fascist violence unleashed by General Pinochet even reached the streets of Washington, DC, where one of Allende’s ministers, Orlando Letelier, was murdered in a car bombing. Looking at Chile in historical perspective, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that the rich nations, led by the United States, will never tolerate an attempted peaceful transition.1 The entire history of imperialism shows that even reformist politics can expect a negative reaction, backed ultimately by military force and undercover operations, from the United States and its allies.
In reaction to the failures of all attempts at peaceful transition and in defiance of the hopelessness felt by large segments of the left after the fall of the Soviet Union, two remarkable efforts to defeat capitalism militarily are taking place in the South American country of Colombia and in the Asian nation of Nepal. Both revolutions have been so thoroughly vilified by the mainstream media that it is worth trying to gain a more objective picture of both of them.2
Colombia achieved political independence from Spain in 1810, but like most of the nations in Latin America, political independence brought neither peace nor economic independence. Conflicts soon erupted over control of the land. By the middle of the nineteenth century, most of the land and all of the domestic political power was concentrated in a few rich families. Wealth was generated mainly by the production of coffee for export. Also by mid-century, the two dominant contemporary political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives formed. Although both are bourgeois parties, the Liberal Party has often been associated with various kinds of rebellious movements, especially in the countryside where peasants were often in revolt against landowners.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, a working class had begun to form and organize, both in the cities and in the rural plantations. Radical political parties, including a Communist Party, were formed. Strikes and peasant rebellions were met with brutal and deadly violence, as in 1928 when striking United Fruit Company workers were slaughtered by government forces.
Between 1930 and 1946, the Liberal Party ruled and introduced land reforms which angered the Conservatives. The Conservatives regained power in 1946 and began to undo the Liberal reforms, with the liberal use of violence. In 1948, Liberal leader Jorge Gaitán was assassinated by Conservative agents, and this unleashed a ten-year civil war known as “La Violencia,” in which 300,000 Colombians died. During this period, armed guerilla groups formed among the peasantry, and these were the precursors to the FARC. One of the rebel leaders of that period, Manuel Marulanda Velez, is today chief commander of the FARC.
The internal class struggle in Colombia cannot be understood without also understanding that the United States has been deeply involved in Colombian affairs for nearly a century. In 1903, the United States orchestrated the separation of Panama from Colombia so that the Panama Canal could be built under U.S. control. In the 1950s, the United States began to provide the government with counterinsurgency training, and in 1955, the United States aided Colombian military dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (who came to power in a 1953 coup) wage war against guerillas with a $170 million loan. While Rojas Pinilla was eventually replaced and “La Violencia” brought to an end by a Liberal-Conservative agreement to rotate power, the guerillas began to consolidate their strength, establishing “independent republics,” based on economic self-rule. In 1964, these rebel areas were attacked by massive military force, compelling the guerillas to flee to the southwestern mountains. In this same year, the FARC was formed, and soon afterward, it declared an armed revolt.
Both Liberal and Conservative governments pursued policies aimed at destroying the FARC and the several other armed groups which formed in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, it initiated programs aimed at making the countryside completely capitalist. This meant that peasants had to be disenfranchised, which, as we have seen, is an inevitable consequence of capitalism. Peasants fought back but eventually were forced to move to the cities to become wage workers or migrate to more remote regions of the country. In these areas, they came into contact with the FARC and provided thousands of new recruits to the rebel army.
In their new homes, many peasants turned naturally to the cultivation of coca, the only crop which provided them with a means to survive. The growing of coca provided the United States with good cover for its escalating aid to the Colombian government. The United States could say that it was merely trying to stop the flow of a dangerous drug into the United States. Its position was strengthened when the FARC began to tax coca production. Given that there was no way for the FARC to stop coca production unless it controlled the entire economy and could implement its program and give peasants an alternative way to live, it was natural that it would levy a tax on the major cash crop in FARC-held territories. However, the United States could then argue that FARC was profiting from the drug trade and was no different than the big Colombian drug cartels. Of course, what the United States really fears is the establishment of a socialist society in Colombia. The hypocrisy of the United States becomes apparent when it is understood that the right-wing paramilitary groups which have been formed to fight the FARC are closely allied with, and indeed probably intertwined with, the Colombian military, with which the United States has very cordial relations.
Since the 1980s, the government has been forced to recognize the growing power of the FARC, which has won actual or de facto control of large parts of the country. The FARC has proved a formidable foe, with a large army and sophisticated weaponry, which it has captured from the Colombian military and bought on the black market. It has used a wide range of tactics, including destruction of infrastructure and oil pipelines, kidnaping of politicians and business leaders, and assassination of suspected government collaborators. It has also participated in numerous negotiations with the government and has tried to present a peaceful image abroad.
The remarkable growth of the FARC can be explained by two factors. First, despite such superficial signs of development as a relatively high life expectancy (slightly over seventy years) and literacy rate (91.3 percent), the fact is that most Colombians live in abject misery. Open unemployment is in excess of 20 percent, and well over half of the population lives below the poverty level. Government repression of opposition groups is vicious. Today, more union leaders are murdered in Colombia than anywhere else in the world. Environmental degradation is everywhere. In response to charges that the FARC recruits children (it accepts those at least fifteen years of age), FARC commander, Simon Trinidad, said,
Two weeks ago I met this girl. . . . She said she was working in a bar from six p.m. until sunrise. I asked what she was doing and she said, “I attend to the customers.” When I asked [how], she lowered her head and started to cry. She is a whore. She is 14 years old. A child prostitute. She was better in the guerillas. In the guerillas we have dignity, respect, and we provide them with clothes, food and education. There are millions of other girls like this in Colombia whoa re exploited in the cola mines, the gold fields, the emerald mines, in the coca and poppy fields. They prefer that children work in the coca and poppy fields because they pay them less and they work more.
It sounds beautiful when you say that children shouldn’t be guerillas, but children are in the streets of the cities doing drugs, inhaling gasoline and glue. According to the United Nations: 41% of Colombians are children, 6.5 million children live in conditions of poverty, another 1.2 million living in absolute poverty, 30,000 live in the streets, 47% are abused by their parents, and 2.5 million work in high risk jobs. These children meet the guerillas and they don’t have parents because the military or the paramilitaries killed them, and they ask the guerillas to let them join. We are carrying out our rule that no children younger than 15 years of age join.3
Second, as Trinidad suggests, the FARC gives poor people hope that their lives might improve. In FARC-controlled territories, for example, farmers are not exploited. The coca buyers and the larger coca farmers are taxed, and the proceeds are used not only to finance the FARC’s revolutionary war but to pay for the development of the regions infrastructure and government. The military successes of the FARC also give courage to the poor, as they see that their oppressors are not invulnerable. As the FARC encourages self-discipline and people’s democracy, poor workers and peasants begin to gain the knowledge and experience to take charge of their own lives. Schooling, housing, more equal justice, an enhanced role for women, all of these are powerful and positive features of the FARC.
Given the FARC’s roots in the Colombian Communist Party and given that party’s adherence to the Soviet line for many years, and given especially the harsh reality of constant warfare and the authoritarian structures war necessitates, it is not possible to know what the FARC would do if it won power in Colombia (either alone or in alliance with other revolutionary groups). However, the magnitude of the U.S. government’s support for the Colombian government and military, known officially as “Plan Colombia” and embracing an expensive low intensity and very dirty and ugly war against the guerillas, tells us that the FARC is a genuine threat to capitalism in an important country in South America. If the FARC were just a front for the production and distribution of drugs, the U.S. response would not be of the same magnitude. The war against drugs in Colombia is really just a cover for something far more significant. Latin America is in turmoil and anti-capitalist sentiments are rapidly gaining adherents—in Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, and most other nations. A victory for revolutionary forces is Colombia is viewed as a disaster for corporate capitalism. Such a victory might well occur if the FARC were facing only the Colombian government. But the involvement of the world’s hegemonic power makes this less likely or at least very much more difficult.
The situation in Nepal is quite different than that in Colombia. While Nepal became a sovereign nation in 1816, it was dependent for well over a century on Great Britain and, since Indian independence, on its large bordering neighbor. In 1846, the Kot massacre, in which many feudal nobles were murdered, established a single family, the Ranas, as the nation’s de facto rulers. The official head of state was the king. Because the British were unable to subdue the Nepalese militarily, they settled for behind the scenes influence through the Ranas. The Ranas supplied the British with its famous Gurkha fighters, and the British allowed the country to exist in relative isolation from big power politics. After the Indians won independence, the Nepalese king reasserted royal authority. The Nepalese kings were then able to maintain the nation’s independence by plaing China and India off against one another. India, however, has never been satisfied with this independence and has used its greater wealth and military power to continuously exert influence in Nepal. India’s aim is to annex Nepal as it did Sikkim, or at least make it accept Indian troops as is the case in neighboring Bhutan.
Nepal is one of the world’s poorest nations, with massive poverty (about half the population living in poverty), low GDP per capita (a little over $1,000), very low life expectancies (58 years of age), extensive illiteracy (overall literacy is 58 percent, while that for women is 14 percent), widespread underemployment, and an extremely unequal distribution of wealth and income. People live mainly in isolated rural areas; more than 80 percent of the population works in agriculture and only 3 percent in industry. There are few good roads, and the vast majority of the people are without modern amenities, including televisions, radios, and telephones. The physical terrain, itself, is daunting and includes the majestic Himalayan mountains. The relations of production in the countryside can best be described as feudal, with little wage labor, direct appropriation of the surplus produced by the workers, long-term debt peonage, and child labor. On top of extreme economic exploitation, there is also the caste oppression inherent in the state religion of Hinduism, oppression of nic minorities, and maltreatment of women. What industry there is controlled by the local elites and foreigners, mainly Indians.
Given the right catalysts, objective conditions such as exist in Nepal can lead to political turmoil and even revolution. When so many people live without hope, events which make them understand that their circumstances are not inevitable and can be changed through their own actions can create revolutionary conditions. The winds of change began to blow after the Second World War. Radical movements arose in India after independence, and, more importantly, the peasant masses of China, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, overthrew the feudal lords and capitalist business leaders, both domestic and foreign, and established an egalitarian socialist society. The Chinese revolution had a profound effect on radical intellectuals in Nepal, and in the same year as the Chinese revolution (1949), the Nepalese communist Party was formed.
Radical forces in Nepal, especially among the young, were also deeply influenced by China’s Cultural Revolution. Communist influence gradually began to permeate rural areas, and the Communists increased their agitation for fundamental social reforms. In 1990 the Communists allied themselves with anti-monarchy forces among reformers in a popular uprising, the result of which was an end to the monarch’s absolute rule and the establishment of the semblance of a representative government. The king, however, still retained control over the Royal Army.
The government soon fell into the hands of pro-Indian property owners, who were the strongest opponents of the king and in league with Indian capital and supported by Indian secret police. This led the Communists to give some support to the king, who responded by keeping the army neutral when a faction of the Communist Party, reorganized as Nepal Communist Party (Maoist), declared an armed revolt in 1996.
The Nepal Communist Party (Maoist) had made a detailed analysis of Nepalese society and had concluded that a peasant-based armed struggle, patterned after that led by Mao-Tse tung in China (refer back to the section on China in this chapter) could succeed in defeating the forces of Nepalese feudalism and their foreign allies and liberate the country and its poor peasant majority. The often rugged and remote landscape would be a great advantage, providing cover for the radical army and making difficult government counterattacks.
Remarkably, the careful planning and organizing of the Maoists has paid off. The revolt has taken hold and captured the imagination of the rural masses. Within a relatively short period of time, large swaths of the countryside came under revolutionary control. Arms were captured from fleeing police and soldiers, and these were used to widen the war. Today, even the cities have proved vulnerable to attacks by the revolutionary army, which is now capable of liberating political prisoners in towns and cities and destroying urban infrastructure. In areas which the rebels have been unable to completely capture, they have been able to take stored grain from large land owners and distribute it to the poor who actually produced it.
In areas under revolutionary control, life has changed radically. Peasant have obtained true possession of their plots of land and no longer owe obligations to landlords. They have been encouraged to engage in various forms of collective farming on lands expropriated from large land holders and on lands formerly owned by the state itself. Local people’s justice has replaced the justice of police and feudal nobility. Peasants have been afforded the opportunity to go to school, and have also built new schools and houses. Women have been encouraged to take on new roles and men to respect these new roles. Many new revolutionaries, including soldiers are women. Health education, including birth control education, has begun. Caste and ethnic oppression are no longer tolerated.
Needless to say, the Maoists have faced growing animosity and organization from their class enemies. Royal neutrality was ended in June 2001 when pro-Indian members of the royal family assassinated the king and his entire immediate family. The king’s younger brother took power and appointed a new successor to the throne, his own and much-reviled son, as well as a new prime minister. After a brief period in which the new government made peace overtures to the Maoists and promised to implement land and other reforms. These overtures were accepted by the Maoists who put forward a plan for the creation of a Nepalese republic. Unfortunately, events have shown that the government was insincere, and the Maoists re-instituted their liberation war in late November of 2001. However, as has happened in Colombia, the government is now more openly supported by greater powers: India as has been historically the case and now by the United States as well. Even China, which has moved decisively back toward capitalism and does not want to antagonize the United States, has openly condemned the Maoists. As with the FARC in Colombia, the revolutionary war has entered a new and dangerous phase, with possible successes likely to be violently contested by the United States.