Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Less than they bargained for

(October 1999)

From Socialist Review, No.234, October 1999.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

From guerrilla warfare to the negotiating table, what has been gained by the peace process? Chris Harman investigates

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s much of the left had a romantic notion of small bands of heroic guerrillas freeing the mass of humanity. In the 1990s a new form of romanticism has conquered the minds of some of the same people – the belief that merely declaring a ‘peace process’ will solve problems. The litany used to go: South Africa, Palestine, Ireland, Central America. The Basque Country in Spain joined the list earlier this year, when the nationalist guerrillas of ETA declared a ceasefire. Then, on trial for his life after being kidnapped and dragged to Turkey, so did the leader of the Kurdish PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.

The reasoning that had led former leaders of guerrilla armies to shift their strategy is sound enough. Years of bitter struggle had brought them to the realisation that they did not command – and were unlikely ever to command – the military force needed to beat the state opposed to them. Even the ANC of South Africa, which had the allegiance of the great majority of people living within that state, realised that its armed wing was not going to smash apartheid’s military forces. Its real strength came from its mass base and, in particular, its influence over the increasingly organised and militant black working class. This provided it with a bargaining tool to compel the white capitalists of South Africa to pressurise and bribe the leaders of the apartheid government to come to terms with it.

The principal leaders of the IRA in Northern Ireland, Fatah among the Palestinians, the central American guerrilla organisations, ETA – and finally the PKK – came to see that they too could not win in military terms. The IRA, ETA and the PKK did not have the support of the majority of the population within the boundaries of the states they fought: the IRA’s active mass support was confined to about one third of one quarter of the population of the island of Ireland, ETA’s to at most 20 percent of the population in just four provinces of the Spanish state, the PKK to the Kurdish quarter of Turkey’s population. At best such minority movements could hold down the state’s armed forces. They could never win. But there are two different conclusions you can draw if you are involved in a struggle you cannot win. You can choose to fight in a different way. Or you can abandon your struggle, or at least abandon much of what you used to fight for. All the exaltation of ‘peace processes’ blurs the difference between the options.

The ANC in South Africa – or at least its mainly middle class leadership – was able to achieve most of its historic goals by pursuing the path of negotiation. That was because it had something to negotiate with. It may have abandoned lots of its old rhetoric about socialism, but it has achieved one person one vote, the apartheid segregation laws are gone, there is a mainly black government, growing numbers of black capitalists, black police officers, and even a few black judges.

The situation is very different elsewhere. The Palestinian movement used to demand a secular non-racial state throughout the whole of historical Palestine, to which all the refugees from 1948 and 1967 could return. It has gained control of only a fragmented territory constituting about one eighth of the West Bank – in turn only about two fifths of Palestine as a whole. There are Palestinian police within this rump, but they operate in practice within the parameters laid down by the Israeli military and settlers. Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership have, in reality, abandoned the things they used to fight for and now direct much of their energy and force against those who want to continue that fight.

The term ‘peace process’ conceals the difference between the two radically different outcomes. It confuses victory with defeat. In doing so, it makes life easier for those who would opt for defeat rather than look for alternative ways of struggling. It allows a minority of former guerrillas to gain relatively privileged positions as ‘community workers’, parliamentary representatives or even ministers. Meanwhile, it does nothing to solve the grievances of many of those who bore the brunt of the struggle.

That is not all. There is no guarantee that the concession made to secure the ‘peace process’ will persuade the other side to grant even these things. In Ireland, for instance, the Unionist machine, created in the past to enable Britain to keep control of the province, is still putting up every resistance to compromise, and the British government is still reluctant to confront it head on. I fear that the PKK will get even less from the Turkish state than the Republican movement in Ireland has got from the British government The reaction of the Turkish government to the PKK’s ceasefire announcement has been to order its troops to attack PKK forces and to maintain the death sentence of Ocalan.

That does not mean that the way ahead for Irish Republicans, ETA, the PKK or the PLO should lie in a resumption of the old methods of armed struggle. What failed in the past will not work in future.

It certainly does mean their supporters should look at alternatives that do not involve surrender to the status quo. In Ireland it means recognising that the conditions in Catholic working class areas will not be improved short of a change in the social, and not just the political, order – and that the struggle for such a change can have an appeal to other Irish workers, both Catholic and Protestant. In the Spanish state it means recognising that there are Castilian, Andalucian, Galician and Catalan workers whose interests lie in a challenge to the class that runs that state, but who will not be won to fight it by planting bombs. In Turkey it means PKK supporters breaking with the narrow nationalism often characteristic of their own party in the past, which sees the suffering of Kurds within the present state but does not agitate around the suffering of Turkish workers and peasants – so vividly revealed by August’s earthquake.

Past experience suggests that the leaders of the former guerrilla organisations will not be prepared to make the shift in this way. Instead they will tend to substitute, for a failed strategy of armed struggle based on an oppressed minority, a new strategy of using that minority as a pressure group alongside other pressure groups within political horsetrading of the existing capitalist state. This is what is implied when Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein talks of his party as representing one ‘community’ and the Loyalist parties the other ‘community’. It could also be what is meant when the PKK talks about wanting to collaborate not just with Turkish workers, but also with the Turkish state.

Last updated on 21 December 2009