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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Another look at Protracted Peoples’ War- what are the possibilities—part 1

By SJ Otto
We have been debating Protracted Peoples’ War (PPW), here at this blog, Otto’s War Room  (毛派). It is a major subject for us here and it is very important.  Harsh Thakor and I have already written some articles on the subject. We both agree that it is hard to imagine launching PPW here in a developed country as the USA. We have been looking at what others are saying about PPW. Kenny Lake of The Kites Journal explains PPW this way:

“For nearly three decades, people calling themselves Maoists in Europe and North America have been arguing that Mao’s military doctrine of protracted people’s war (PPW), which guided the Chinese revolution to victory and has been adopted and adapted in Vietnam, the Philippines, Peru, India, and Nepal, has universal applicability.
Briefly, the strategy of PPW relies on the fact that in semi-feudal countries, state power is concentrated in the cities and is weak in the countryside, and the main force of the revolution, the peasantry, resides in the countryside and is bitterly oppressed by landlords and local authorities. Thus revolutionaries can initiate guerrilla warfare and peasant struggles in the countryside without confronting the full force of the central state’s military, and build local red political power leading to the establishment of bases areas. After substantial territory has been acquired so that red base areas encircle the cities and a powerful revolutionary army capable of positional warfare has been built, the revolutionary force descends on the cities and thus seizes nationwide power.”

But he is writing about semi-feudal countries, where state power is concentrated in the cities and is weak in the countryside. He is not suggesting that such a strategy will work in the more developed countries as the USA or UK. For those of us in the Imperialist camp, such as the USA or the UK, we need our own ideas about PPW. And let’s be honest here. If the US intelligence agencies believe we are seriously trying to start a PPW to overthrow the government, we will be the target of intense FBI initiated infiltration.[1] They will try to stop us. They will try to use anti-terrorism laws to put us in jail the rest of out lives. So we have to consider this as we lay out our ideas on destroying the capitalist system. Thakor points out;

“I greatly recommend cadres to read the article by Kenny Lake in Kites blog which is one of the finest exponents of Non -sectarian and dialectical approach.”

And Lake writes:

“In the US, the growth of youth involvement in protest and radical politics since Occupy Wall Street and the recent wave of resistance to the police murder of Black people has led to some newly radicalized millenials taking an interest in revolution, communism, and Maoism. Out of this milieu has emerged an odd revival of the church of PPW universalism. While this revival is small in number and may well include some people who are well-intentioned but naive, it is loud online. The latest crop of Gonzalo-worshiping PPW universalists in the US seems to focus its activity on wearing ninja costumes to protests and political events, taking pictures of themselves in said ninja costumes, and posting these pictures online. The only mystery behind their masks is what they think this fronting on Facebook and stunting for the ’gram has to do with the practice of the people’s war in Peru.
Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines and no stranger to protracted people’s war—he launched and led one until his 1977 capture and was forced into political exile in the late 1980s after his 1986 release from prison—recently published a critique of the PPW universalist position. Joma—as he is affectionately called—outlined the stark differences between imperialist countries, where the repressive state apparatus has a strong reach and revolutionaries do not have a geographic location or the social conditions necessary to carry out the PPW military strategy, and the semi-feudal countries in which PPW is possible. Joma’s two articles on this issue—“On the Question of People’s War in Industrial Capitalist Countries” and “Follow-up Note”1—are crystal clear about the need for revolution in the imperialist countries, but provide nuanced analyses of when armed struggle is appropriate and when it is not. Subsequently, Joma’s articles were attacked by the PPW universalists with lots of internet invective and little substance. Andy Belisario provides a detailed response to these tantrums in his article “On the So-Called Universality of Protracted People’s War”.2
To call this a debate would be to overstate the claims of the PPW universalists. Debates require that both sides develop their positions and justify them with evidence, and one of the consequences of the internet is that any asshole with a keyboard and a connection can pretend to have great knowledge of revolutionary theory. But given that many millenials newly awakened to the horrors of capitalism-imperialism and looking into revolution, communism, and Maoism have encountered this “debate” online, it is worth taking this opportunity to address some real questions of revolutionary strategy that have come up along the way.”

For the fist part of this article let’s look at what WILL NOT WORK. It has been traditional Maoist logic that the peasants in the country side can develop a guerrilla army and then take farmland after farmland, to surround the cities with country side guerillas. That has worked in China, Cambodia and has been tried in a few other places. After all, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) has been using traditional Maoist tactics for many years and decades now. That has worked. They have large amounts of rural areas under their control. But they are a semi-feudal country. They are not fully developed as in the US or Europe.
But here in the USA that will not work. Our rural areas are controlled by farmers who would better be described as petite bourgeois rather than peasants. They see themselves as owning their farms and the see themselves more as small business owners rather than downtrodden peasants. Most of these people are rather conservative. So trying to promote PPW in the country side in the US is not an option.
Luckily there are some ideas that Chairman Gonzalo and his Communist Party of Peru (PCP) did work well and we can use them.  
One good example of Lake‘s article is “People’s War in the Slums of Lima:”

“Gonzalo’s second great strategic innovation was in bringing a number of the slums and shantytowns of Lima under revolutionary authority and making Lima, and thus the urban domain, a major theater of military operations. Peru, like most oppressed nations, went through a period of rapid urbanization following World War II, which was further spurned on by the SAPs of the 1980s. Lima’s population went from nearly 600 thousand in 1941 to 1.8 million in 1961 and from 3.3 million in 1972 to 6.5 million in 1993, giving the Lima metropolitan area nearly one-third of Peru’s total population. Alongside this dramatic urban population growth was the proletarianization of the peasants moving to the cities and the growth of slums, including improvised housing in new communities surrounding the cities, often called shantytowns. In Peru, this process dovetailed with the contradiction of Indian highland peasants from peripheral regions such as Ayacucho migrating to Lima and confronting their exclusion from official Peruvian society and culture. The children of these migrants, often called cholos, were thus culturally caught between the rural Andean world of their parents and the urban world of Lima. Their social and cultural dilemmas, expressed beautifully in songs by chicha singer Chacalón, also provided fertile ground for recruitment into the revolution.
In the 1980s, Sendero Luminoso entrenched itself among these urban migrants, who often had direct ties to peasants in Ayacucho embroiled in the first stages of the people’s war. Sendero even sent cadre into land invasions in which migrants built improvised housing on land they had no legal right to, and made some of these shantytowns, such as the infamous Racuana, into revolutionary neighborhoods. Its military operations and organization among the masses in the slums of Lima began to outstrip its work in rural Ayacucho by the mid-1980s. The 1988 PCP-SL Congress decided, after much internal debate that even pitted Gonzalo against his then wife, to make a strategic shift to Lima as a center of the people’s war, seeing the large newly proletarian population there and the strategic layout of slums surrounding the city center as ripe conditions for the rapid advance of people’s war. In the following years, armed strikes that temporarily shut down Lima, assassinations, attacks on police stations, bombings of government buildings and banks, and increasing revolutionary authority in Lima’s slums, especially those on the periphery, pushed Peru into a deepening political crisis, with the US and Peruvian bourgeoisie deeply concerned about the prospect of Sendero Luminoso coming to power. (All this is documented with citations in Part 3 of the Specter series, which will appear in kites #3 but is already online at
Here I have to disagree with Belisario’s characterization of Sendero’s military operations in Lima as left opportunism based on an illusion of quick victory through urban insurrection. Belisario is correct that Sendero’s declaration of the people’s war reaching strategic equilibrium in the late 1980s was likely overblown rhetoric (consistent with Sendero’s tendency to make dogmatic declarations). But again, we shouldn’t let Sendero’s rhetoric and dogmatic style get in the way of the serious strategic questions raised by its practice. The fact is, as documented in Mike Davis’s excellent book Planet of Slums, as of ten years ago there were over one billion people living in slums worldwide (and that number has likely risen), and the global urban population now outstrips the rural. The oppressed nations don’t look so much like China in the 1930s and ’40s. Revolutionary strategy in such countries will have to deal with these new realities, or risk turning Mao’s tremendous contributions on military strategy into relics of the past.
During the 1980s, when SAPs wreaked havoc on the oppressed nations and spurred huge migrations of peasants who became proletarians in the urban slums, communists were largely absent from this process and thus failed to take advantage of a situation that could have resulted in major revolutionary advances. This had a lot to do with the general disarray of the ICM at the time, but it also had something to do with stale and dogmatic thinking that could not adapt protracted people’s war to new circumstances. Sendero was an exception, and while its rhetoric was stale and dogmatic, its strategy and practice on slums, rural to urban migration, and the urban military domain were innovative and effective. We need further study of this experience rooted in historical research rather than repetition of rhetoric.
And while we’re at it, there needs to be serious debate among communists over the character of the oppressed nations today. To what extent are they still semi-feudal? What is the class composition and geographic demographics of these societies today? How do we understand countries that are still in some ways exploited by foreign capital and still have considerable peasant populations but are playing an expansionist or even imperialist role internationally? What are the implications of all this for revolutionary strategy? What can we learn from urban military conflicts from Algiers to Mogadishu to Sadr City? The point of this debate should not be to fit social formations into categories, but to really analyze the concrete conditions. Maybe here—and only here—we can unite with Tinder users on the principle of “I don’t like labels.”
A further point of consideration posed by the experience of people’s war in Peru and social formations in the oppressed nations today is how stable revolutionary base areas can be. The Peruvian military, with US backing, had substantial training, sophistication, and hardware. Its reach could easily extend into the Ayacucho highlands and coca-growing Upper Huallaga Valley, especially with a fleet of helicopters and DEA aerial surveillance at its disposal. Owing to these conditions, Sendero’s rural base areas were likely never as stable as Yenan, so rigidly sticking to the strategy of carving out red political power in a territorial domain, developing a large revolutionary army there capable of positional warfare, and then seizing the cities from the countryside would have likely been ineffective. This made urban operations all the more important, as “seizing the cities” would have to come from the inside—a radical transformation of the strategy of protracted people’s war.
Before the now-no-longer “fierce one” (Prachanda, that is) took off his turtleneck sweater, settled into a slick suit, and sold out, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN(M)] made the critical observation that base areas have too often been conceived as more stable then they ever were in reality (see “Experiences of the People’s War and Some Important Questions” in the now defunct CPN(M)’s The Worker no. 5). Indeed, Mao himself recognized the need to abandon base areas in the face of setbacks (that’s what the Long March was). Mao just knew how to navigate through this and lay the seeds for future advances within those setbacks (that’s what the Long March was). The CPN(M)’s more materialist (in the sense that no state of existence is permanent) understanding of base areas and the nonlinear development of PPW probably had something to do with the fact that the people’s war they led advanced more rapidly than any other ever has. And that rapid advance included armed shut-downs of Kathmandu, like in early-1990s Lima. Let’s not let the fact that Prachanda sold out stop us from learning from this experience and even from Prachanda’s strategic leadership (when he was still rocking that turtleneck sweater).”

It is interesting that Lake is so highly critical of the Gonzaloistas and their point of view. For example he writes:

“The greatest weakness of Sendero Luminoso and Chairman Gonzalo is that many of its/his written statements are dogmatic as fuck. There, I said it. There is a strong religiosity emanating from many of these statements that projects a grand and godly faith in the impending victory of the revolution, even suggesting the strategic offensive of the world revolution (in the 1980s?!?), rather than a compelling, nuanced analysis of the state of the world and the prospects for and difficulties of revolution. We can understand why in the 1980s, with the revolutionary upsurge of the 1960s over and following the tremendous loss of proletarian state power in China in 1976, with a religious and spiritual population as their mass base, and with the real need for revolutionary sacrifice, Sendero may have felt this approach was necessary. Maybe we can even accept it in the Buddhist sense of the term, learning to embrace and move through the negatives that are part of our historical and present-day experiences as communists, rather than ignoring or fearing them. But we don’t need to repeat it; we can take the good and leave out the bad. The PPW universalists have instead decided to take the worst attribute of Sendero Luminoso, magnify it, and shout it from the rooftops (or more accurately, click it from their keyboards).”

It is hard to tell if he has ANY fondness for this school of thought. He is clearly critical of them. And there is a certain amount of truth to the idea that they are dogmatic. But that doesn’t mean they are entirely wrong. For example, their actions in the slums of Lima and various poor neighborhoods were pure genius. This might be something we can use here at home in the US.
And while we are on the subject of opposition, let us not forget that some people have resorted to name calling, when it comes to opposing a position. Consider what Ard Kinera writes here in Democracy and Class Struggle about Jose Maria “Joma” Sison and his criticism of the Universality of PPW:

“Why is the Communist Party of Peru, and other parties and organizations that take up the same view, chief and foremost among these the Maoist Parties and Organizations of Latin-America, referred to by Sison as “some people”? The names of the Parties and Organizations today, and the line they put forward, can be read in statement after statement. They should be well known by Sison. They are serious and dedicated Parties that have shed blood for the revolution. But Sison talks about the “notion” of “some people”. There cannot be any other explanation than Sison choosing the most cowardly way of struggle, not even recognizing his opponent as worthy of a name, and thus not having to answer what they actually have written. There is no references to documents, just to “notions”.
The whole of Sison’s text is written in a way as if the theory of the university of PPW was never even formulated. His text is written as if his objections against it have never even been answered, even though every single one was answered a long time ago, in the very act of synthesising Maoism. This method of Sison is quite shameful.”

This kind of name calling is unnecessary. I have my differences with Sison, Gonzalo and others. But we are trying to develop a working strategy that all Maoists can use. Calling people cowardly because we disagree with them just hinders our work. It does not help. I have a lot of respect fort Sison (and Gonzalo) and the work they have done. Let’s give theses theoreticians the respect they deserve.
As for organizing in the slums, here in the USA, such work has already begun. Members of the Red Guards, of Austin and Red Guards of Los Angeles have begun campaigns to oppose capitalist’ gentrification schemes.
And The Red Guards of Lost Angeles have started to explore the possibility of launching people’s war here in US slums. According to their web site:

“We’re making our four year summation – “Four Years Building RGLA: a summation on accumulating forces for the coming Protracted People’s War” – available for download. It has been updated with grammatical and other edits and corrections. Our work is ongoing and already there are certain things in the summation that are quickly transforming. We will have regular summations available in the future.”

I don’t know how serious to take these folks. But the possibilities are positive in a world where working class people keep losing ground. Sooner or later things must change. We must constantly look for ways to make that change happen. This is just the fist part in a serious I hope to keep going. In the next installment I hope to look at the idea of a popular front/ The United Front or ETC. There is much to discuss on the subject of PPW.

[1] See Steve Otto, War on Drugs? War on People, (Ide House, Las Colinas, 1996), pp. 38 – 39.

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