Communism and Armed Struggle / FRFI 111 Feb / Mar 1993

FRFI 111 February / March 1993  

The current [1993] IRA mainland bombing campaign, and the response to it of sections of the British left, has raised the question of the role, and the legitimacy, of armed struggle within liberation and socialist movements. CAT WIENER examines some of the issues.

"Why does the guerrilla fighter fight? We must come to the conclusion that the guerrilla fighter is a social reformer, that he takes up arms responding to the angry protest of the people against their oppressors, and that he fights in order to change the social system that keeps all his unarmed brothers in ignominy and misery."

(Che Guevara, in his eminently practical handbook, Guerrilla Warfare)

"The war against imperialism is a just war, and it will go on, for true peace can only come about when a nation is free from oppression and injustice...the British people who choose to ignore this or to swallow the lies of the British gutter press are responsible for the actions of their government unless they stand out against them."

(Joe O'Connell, speech from the dock at the Balcombe Street trial)

 Armed struggle and negotiations

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the imposition of a 'new world order' under the hegemony of the USA has resulted in severe military and political setbacks for the anti-imperialist movement worldwide. In El Salvador, and South Africa, in Ireland, Palestine and elsewhere, 'peace settlements' and 'negotiations' are being urged as the only way forward. In reality, these talks have little to do with peace, and everything to do with imperialism's efforts to destroy popular movements, and resolve these conflicts in its own interests.

Bourgeois ideologues today characterise armed struggle -- whether it be the grenade attacks of the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA) in South Africa, or the IRA's bombs, as 'outmoded extremism', a dangerous relic of the past that threatens the moderate, 'civilised' path represented by negotiations. Yet what is the reality? The Peace Settlement in El Salvador has already been reneged on by the right-wing regime, and today the FMLN is divided between those who argue that talks must at all costs be preserved, and those who call for a return to armed struggle against the continuing poverty, hunger and repression. The Codesa talks in South Africa take place against a backdrop of unprecedented bloodshed, backed by the racist regime, and, if carried through, can only at this stage enshrine white minority rule. Those who today are exchanging the armed struggle for negotiations find themselves having to make concessions to imperialism for little return. As Benny Alexander, Press Secretary of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) commented in relation to Codesa, 'You win the war to negotiate; you do not negotiate to win the war.

The response of the British left

'It is not enough to take sides on the question of political slogans; it is also necessary to take sides on the question of an armed uprising. Those who are opposed to it, those who do not prepare for it, must be ruthlessly dismissed from the ranks of the supporters of the revolution, sent packing to its enemies, to the traitors or cowards; for the day is approaching when the force of events and the conditions of the struggle will compel us to distinguish between enemies and friends according to this principle'

(V.I. Lenin, 'Lessons of the Moscow Uprising', Collected Works, Vol. 11)

As bombs exploded all over London through November and December, causing million of pounds' worth of damage and chaos and leaving the British police chasing their own tails, the response of the Socialist Workers Party was to attack the IRA campaign as 'indefensible' and 'no service to the fight against Britain's presence in Ireland', (Socialist Worker November1992) and 'a disaster waiting to happen' (Socialist Review, January 1993). The timing, they argued, was particularly unfortunate, since the British working class was moving into struggle and 'a generalised hatred of the Tories may grow to include a hatred of their treatment of Northern Ireland.' (Socialist Review, January 1993)

In 1982, Socialist Worker complained that the IRA's campaign then distracted British workers from fighting against Thatcher's callous policies. Plus ca change...11 years later, British troops still terrorise the streets of Belfast, and still the SWP have the gall to ask the Irish people to postpone their struggle in favour of a British movement which has stood by or even applauded while the British state has pursued its brutal war against the Irish people through shoot-to-killpolicies, torture, raids and terror, and made permanent the vicious anti-Irish PTA. Is the Republican movement to suffer another 11 years of repression while waiting for some sea-change in British politics? Perhaps the SWP should remind themselves of Lenin's dictum that 'a proletariat that tolerates the slightest coercion of other nations by its "own" nation cannot be a socialist proletariat'. (Collected Works, Vol. 21)

The RCP, on the other hand, for many years claimed that support for armed struggle was the only means of offering solidarity to the Irish movement; their slogan was 'Bring the war to Britain', and they eschewed campaigns around prisoners, civil rights, plastic bullets and strip-searching as fit only for political wimps and liberals. Today, however, they have veered swiftly away from this position which sits uncomfortably with their trendy middle class clientele, and now declare the IRA campaign to be 'trivial', 'random' and 'unhelpful to the cause of freedom and a distraction from the real issues at stake' (Living Marxism, December 1992)

Whilst the reaction of the Trotskyist left finds its sharpest expression in relation to Irish question, it is not restricted to these shores. During the uprisings of the 1980s in South Africa, the SWP condemned the armed struggle being waged by Umkhonto we Sizwe, the army of the ANC, as a campaign of guerrillaism isolated from the South African working class. It is only the sectarianism of the RCP or the SWP which has prevented them from commenting on the recent armed actions of APLA, armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, which claimed four white 'civilian' lives in December.

Communists recognise that the right to self-determination necessarily includes the right of an oppressed people to choose the means by which they conduct their liberation struggle. The British left's squeamishness on the question of Ireland is not only indicative of its squeamishness on revolutionary, anti-imperialist violence in general; it also reveals their deep-seated hostility and chauvinism towards a revolutionary struggle that directly threatens British imperialism. This position has nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism.

Imperialism is violence

'The Marxist-Leninist doctrine on class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat affirms the role of violence in revolution, makes a distinction between unjust, counter-revolutionary violence and just, revolutionary violence, between the violence of the exploiting classes, and that of the masses.'

(General Vo Nguyen Giap, 'The Political and Military Line of Our Party', Selected Writings)

As Marxists, therefore, we are not dealing with the question of violence in general, but of the legitimate violence of the working class against its oppressor, whether that take the form of the organised armed struggle waged by the National Liberation Army of Vietnam against French, Japanese and US imperialism, the rocks and stones of the intifada, or a campaign of bombs on the streets of London.

The taking up of arms has proved to be a necessary and indeed inevitable response by the working class to the constant, organised brutality and oppression that is imperialism. Imperialism knows no other mode. Since the Second World War, there has been only one year in which British armed forces have not been involved in wars and counter-revolution somewhere in the world. Today, imperialist warmongers have again declared war in the Gulf and invaded Somalia; imperialist arms and money prop up the death-squad regimes of Latin America, the barbaric occupation of East Timor by Indonesia's Suharto regime, Turkey's war against the Kurds. By what other means do the idealists of the British left think the oppressed peoples of the world should oppose the armed brutality of a ruling class that will stop at nothing to protect its own interests?

Movements of the oppressed have travelled a long way down the road of peaceful resistance before resorting to violence remember the civil rights movements of Ireland and of the black people of the USA, the anti-pass campaigns of South Africa, the petitions of the Chartists. It is the brutal response of a threatened ruling class which drives the movement to the point where it must say: This far and no further. The liberation armies of Azanian/South Africa were formed in response to the massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville. The context of the IRA bombs on the bombs on the streets ot London is the presence of British troops on the streets of BelfastDerry. and

For the facade of 'democracy' that masks impenalism's naked interests is rapidly stripped away when those interests are challenged: after the revolution of 1979, the Nicaraguans freely elected the Sandinistas to power, only to be terrorised and browbeaten into choosing, less than a decade later, a candidate more acceptable to Washington. What happened to the much-heralded 'democratic elections' in Angola when the 'wrong' candidate won?

The arguments peddled by the British left to undermine armed struggle deny this reality, and are a naive and dangerous distraction. Lenin made the point clearly: while recognising that parliamentary democracy might in certain periods be a useful tool for the working class, he warned,

'tomorrow your ballot paper is taken from you and you are given a rifle or a splendid quick-firing gun -- take this weapon of death and destruction, pay no heed to the mawkish snivellers who are afraid of war; too much still remains in the world that must be destroyed with fire and sword for the emancipation of the working class.'

(V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 21)

The real issue

'Violence is the universal objective law of all thorough national liberation revolutions.'

(General Vo Nguyen Giap, ibid)

As communists, we want to see the working class take power. We recognise that the revolutionary process may go through all sorts of transformations, that it may be bought off, that it may stop before 'thorough' liberation is achieved. Only if, within that movement, the working class is armed and organised can it ensure that the liberation struggle is brought to a socialist conclusion. James Connolly warned the Irish Citizens' Army shortly before the Easter Rising:

'In the event of victory, hold on to your guns, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.'

All too often, the middle classes have ridden to victory on the backs of the struggle of the working class; it is the working class who do, in George Jackson's words, most of the fighting and most of the dying. What inspires the fighters of the working class is not a love of violence, in which they have always borne the severest losses, but the knowledge that only force of arms can guarantee victory -- for 'there is no successful liberation without violence' (George Jackson, Soledad Brother). In Vietnam, in Cuba, in the Soviet Union, throughout the world, the struggle of the working class for power has been fought through bitter and bloody battles. It is a little late for socialists to be squeamish about revolution. Indeed, even after victory, the warning to 'hold on to your guns' remains imperative. 14 countries invaded the Soviet Union immediately after the revolution. Do Socialist Worker really think that the US would not walk into Havana tomorrow if the Cubans did not possess weapons?

As communists, then, we defend absolutely the right of the oppressed people of the world to take up arms against imperialism -- and not put them down until victory. Those who abandon this position, should indeed be 'ruthlessly dismissed from the ranks of the supporters of the revolution'. For as Lenin said of the renegade Kautsky,

'(he) has to resort to all these subterfuges, sophistries and falsiflcations only to excuse himself from violent revolution, and to conceal his renunciation of it, his desertion to the side of the liberal labour policy, the side of the bourgeoisie. That is the crux of the matter'.