Maitan Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Livio Maitan

Major Problems of the Latin-American Revolution

A Reply to Regis Debray

(May 1967)

From International Socialist Review, Vol. 28 No. 5, September–October 1967, pp. 1–22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The English translation of Regis Debray’s essay, Revolution in the Revolution? published in the July-August issue of Monthly Review, appeared after the reply by Livio Maitan had been written. However, all quotations from the Debray text were checked to conform with this English version.

As the author of the reply published in this issue observes, news of Debray’s arrest and imprisonment by the Bolivian authorities, had just become known at the time the article was submitted. Since then a worldwide movement of protest has arisen against the attempt on the part of the military dictatorship to railroad Debray to prison, or worse, on trumped-up charges that Debray had “participated in armed action” to overthrow the Barrientos regime.

The Fourth International, its sections, co-thinkers and supporters throughout the world, including the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance in this country, are actively and energetically supporting the movement to free Debray from the clutches of the Bolivian “gorillas.”

The Debray “thesis” has already engendered widespread discussion in the world press. In addition to the specific views expressed on the character and perspective of the revolutionary development in Latin America the Debray essay contains a free-wheeling attack on a number of political tendencies in the world socialist movement. Its controversial character is bound to give rise to sharp polemical exchanges as the stakes involved are no less than the future of mankind both in Latin America and the world at large.

It is unfortunate that Debray is precluded from participating directly in the discussion his essay is bound to evoke. Nor should it be made the excuse to refrain from the polemic. For, as Debray himself points out in his essay, “sacrifice is not apolitical argument and martyrdom does not constitute proof.”

* * *

As I was writing this article, the world press reported Régis Debray’s arrest in Bolivia.

Our movement has associated itself with the campaign of solidarity with Debray who is presently in the hands of the reactionary Bolivian military officers. But our elementary duty of solidarity does not obligate us to leave unanswered the attacks he has leveled against Trotskyism, all the more so in view of the particularly grave nature of the attacks and their aim of discrediting us among the Latin-American vanguard.

* * *

Régis Debray’s book, which was published in Cuba a few months ago, has already engendered polemics in the revolutionary workers movement. This was inevitable, both because of the author’s generalizations, which he maintains are based on the experience of the Cuban revolution, and because of his attacks, most often in highly questionable forms, against the most diverse tendencies. More specifically in regard to the Fourth International, Debray employs methods that are purely Stalinist, ranging from baseless slander to grotesque distortion and outright falsification. [1] These attacks are on such a low level that one is even tempted to make no reply at all.

However, aside from the intrinsic worth of Debray’s essay, it will be read and discussed by broad strata of the Latin-American revolutionary vanguard. Thus it provides a timely occasion to state once again the past and present concepts and positions of the Fourth International with regard to the major problems of the Latin-American revolutionary movement.

The Fourth International, it should be noted here, had already clearly developed its stand on these problems in its first congresses following the war. [2] At a time when the traditional workers parties demonstrated the most complete lack of understanding of phenomena of the greatest import to the development of the mass movement in certain countries and adopted extremely opportunistic schemas, which sometimes put them on the same side as American imperialism and the oligarchies, the Fourth International was able to grasp the social and political content of Peronism and a series of national-revolutionary movements, to stress a living application of Leninism, the necessity to take the revolutionary road in Latin America too, and to affirm that in the historic stage which was opening up, the working-class and peasant masses could be mobilized in a victorious struggle against imperialism. After the victory of the Cuban revolution, some of these ideas became commonly accepted and are no longer debated within the broad Latin-American vanguard. But this was not so fifteen or twenty years ago, and even now there are parties with an unquestionable mass influence which do not accept certain concepts, even if at times, out of opportunism, they sign declarations reaffirming these principles. [3]

Also on the crucial problem of the nature of the Latin-American revolution the Fourth International has always taken the clearest stand. On just this issue, it has been criticized, even recently, by revolutionary leaders like Douglas Bravo. [4] Bravo’s fundamental concern seems to be to avoid overly simplistic and mechanistic conceptions which could result in restricting the forces which can be mobilized in an anti-imperialist struggle.

Let us disregard the criticisms of those who judge the Fourth International’s conceptions on the basis of a few Posadist documents, which in fact often border on a caricature. The only way to begin is by objectively analyzing the problem, regardless of where it leads. Proceeding in this way, we characterized the Latin-American revolution as a revolution which was destined, not by the will of some impatient agitators but by its own logic, its own intrinsic necessity, to become transformed uninterruptedly into a revolution of a socialist nature as it achieved aims corresponding to the interests and aspirations of the masses. Twenty years ago, such a conception could have been considered as either describing a very broad, long-range tendency or as an attempt to impose on the Latin-American reality criteria drawn from the historical experience of other revolutions. But after the Cuban revolution, such an interpretation is no longer possible – in four years time this revolution ran through the complete cycle from revolutionary democratic opposition to the Batista dictatorship to open struggle against American imperialism, expropriation of the indigenous possessing classes, and the establishment of a workers state. [5]

In order to provide a clearer indication of our views, I will summarize at this point what we wrote in connection with the 1965-66 polemics in the Guatemalan movement. [6] We stressed then that these were not abstract quarrels; on the contrary, behind the formulas and even the nuances lay specifically concrete political variants. This was all the more true because the Guatemalan movement had already undergone very important experiences and because inevitably the stand of certain organizations is judged primarily on the basis of their past activity.

Thus, one could not forget the practical significance – during the Arevalo-Arbenz period up to the 1954 aggression – of the line of democratic revolution which involved collaborating with the so-called national bourgeoisie. The PGT [Partido Guatemalteco de Trabajo – the Guatemalan Labor Party, the name taken by the Guatemalan Communist Party], in fact, renounced any independent role, transforming itself into a point of support for the bourgeois reformist government, which at the crucial moment capitulated before the imperialist and indigenous reactionary forces. To this must be added the fact that after 1954 the PGT raised the slogan of restoring “democracy” and that even after a turn toward armed struggle its line remained eclectic, being based also on legal activities. [7]

But the problem of the nature of the revolution becomes most concrete when it comes to determining which social classes are participating in the struggle, which classes are ready to go all the way, and which must actually play the leading role. The Trotskyist movement has never denied a priori that sections of the national bourgeoisie could align themselves with an anti-imperialist struggle; but it has stressed that if the leadership is left up to such elements, the struggle will, in fact, be held back and diverted and will at best end in the establishment of a neocolonialist regime where imperialism would maintain its grip and the masses would be robbed of the fruits of their struggle. That is why it is absolutely necessary to understand what the dynamics of this process must be and to make others understand it, to establish a platform which leaves no room for ambiguity, and to ensure – this is the decisive factor in the last analysis – that the leadership is in the hands of the working class in alliance with the poor peasantry. This in no way means mixing up the beginning of a revolution with its final phase, nor does it mean raising at the outset slogans that can be materialized in reality only as the end result of an entire period of revolutionary struggle, or substituting subjective interpretations or an absurd idealization of the masses for analyses of concrete situations. What is important, let me repeat, is to grasp the permanent character of the revolution, whose profound logic is not only anti-imperialist and anti-feudal but at the same time anti-capitalist; to understand that possible alliances with petty-bourgeois and national-bourgeois forces at certain stages cannot be carried out at the price of surrendering or restricting the leading role of the proletariat and the poor peasantry, that is, those forces which emerge in the social context of economically backward societies as the revolutionary motor power; to realize that the test for every revolutionary leadership is its capacity to raise slogans and organize actions which, at each stage, can impel the anti-capitalist dynamic of the struggle forward, while starting from a mobilization for the goals of democracy and national liberation. [8]

The problem of the nature of the revolution demands our attention all the more since false conceptions in this area have served as the primary ideological vehicle for the opportunism of the Latin-American Communist parties. Indeed, it is precisely the concept of a national democratic revolution involving an alliance with bourgeois capitalist social layers and classes which underlies the rejection of the revolutionary road and guerrilla warfare and is at the core of every eclectic and wavering notion. [9]

To conclude this point, the permanent nature – in the Marxist and Trotskyist sense of the word – of the revolution on the order of the day in Latin America must be proclaimed in the current stage more than ever before, particularly due to the following reasons:

  1. the lesson of Cuba has been assimilated by all those in the vanguard and by a broad sector of the masses;
  2. in no country can the so-called national bourgeoisie take a favorable or even neutral attitude toward movements which by the nature of things cannot help but align themselves with the Cubans against the bloc of US imperialism and the indigenous possessing classes on a continental scale from the very outset;
  3. the struggle at least in a series of countries and for an entire period, will be much more difficult than it was in Cuba; it will exhibit a tendency to cross over the borders of the various states; it cannot be definitively won unless it spreads throughout the continent, a perspective which no national bourgeoisie will accept, even temporarily.

The Guerrilla Struggle

For almost ten years now the Fourth International has stressed the importance of guerrilla warfare as a specific form of armed struggle, pointing out at the same time that the poor peasant movement would play a major role for an entire stage of the revolution in the colonial and semi-colonial countries.

Without reviewing our positions in detail, the following will indicate where we stand: In our opinion the discussion in progress within the Latin-American revolutionary movement will be useful and productive insofar as it focuses on analyzing specific situations in certain countries rather than on drawing generalizations which are at once as vague as they are enticing. It is precisely the originality of the Cuban experience – in many respects it took all tendencies in the international workers movement by surprise – which should counsel avoidance of rigid schemas, especially in connection with the concrete forms and stages of the revolutionary process. [10]

However, before turning to the crucial experiences of the most recent years, I would like to indicate briefly some considerations which have been raised on several occasions both by the International and by our Latin-American movement.

No one is unaware of the fact, first of all, that there are countries in Latin America whose social structure has very different features from those of the countries where guerrilla warfare is now developing or has developed in the past. If we look at Argentina or Chile, for example, where a very large percentage of the population is concentrated in the cities and employed in industry and its associated sectors, it seems very unlikely, if not excluded, that a possible rural guerrilla war could play a decisive role. The decisive element will most likely be the revolutionary struggle in the cities, in which not only the working-class masses but also the disinherited plebian masses congregated on the periphery of the great urban concentrations will participate. [11]

In addition, in our opinion, it is clear that no guerrilla movement can achieve lasting success unless it has issued from the broad mass movement or succeeds rather quickly in establishing firm ties with it. We do not mean this as a restatement of the traditional concept of the mass movement gradually maturing until it culminates in armed struggle. We are well aware that any hypothesis of guerrilla warfare is based on the assumption that, in a general sense, a revolutionary, or pre-revolutionary situation exists, or can ripen very quickly in most of the Latin-American countries. We are, broadly, in agreement with such an analysis. But it does not follow that any group of bold militants can effectively begin guerrilla warfare at any time, after having met a minimum of technical requirements. It is in just this respect that the Cuban experience has been arbitrarily and improperly generalized upon. Too often the audacious character of the action of the small group that made the Granma landing – which clearly marked a healthy break with traditionalist and tail-ending concepts – has led people to forget the following essential factors:

  1. the Cuban situation in 1956, not only from the economic and social standpoint but also from the more strictly political standpoint, was such as almost necessarily to impel the adoption of certain methods of struggle and to promote broad support for those who fought arms in hand against a ferocious dictatorship hated by virtually the entire population;
  2. the very small vanguard which began the struggle included in its ranks a man like Fidel who, even aside from his having what proved to be exceptional abilities, was already known as the leader of a national revolutionary current with significant mass influence [12];
  3. despite their very close ties with the Batista regime, the American imperialists did not display such aggressive hostility toward Castro’s movement in 1956-59 as to deprive it of all margin for political maneuver, even in capitalist circles in the United States.

Underestimation of these factors and failure to analyze the real situations in the early years after Fidel Castro’s victory led to outright putschist moves resulting either in the useless loss of the lives of courageous militants or in the unleashing of repressions which cost the working-class and revolutionary movement dearly as a whole. That is why those who want to learn from the past in working out a revolutionary line must draw a balance sheet not only by centering fire against opportunist resistance and right-wing capitulation (which on a broad scale unquestionably represents the main danger) but also by taking into account a series of negative experiences ranging from those in Venezuela in 1962 and in Peru in the same period, to others less well known but not less significant (in Argentina for example). [13]

Finally, our evaluation of the role of the peasantry involves no concession to the idea maintained by some that the urban working class in some colonial countries is itself, in the last analysis, a privileged social layer. Such a concept – aside from its inherently erroneous nature from the standpoint of Marxist analysis – could only result in underestimating the need to mobilize the urban masses in the struggle, which is nevertheless of primary importance for even the survival of guerrilla warfare in the rural areas. [14]

But let us turn to the more specific accusations made against us. According to Debray, the Trotskyists are opposed to guerrilla warfare and are partisans of a strategy of self-defense, which, it is claimed, has also been adopted by a section of the movement in Colombia.

Our attitude toward guerrilla warfare has already been specified in outline and we will return to it further on. As for self-defense, we consider it neither a method to be universally employed nor rejected a priori. There are countries – in Latin America and elsewhere – where self-defense has corresponded, or now corresponds, to a need recognized by sections of the vanguard and where giving it a concrete form has been, or would be, a step forward of major importance. In other cases, however, restricting the struggle to self-defense would inevitably involve defeat and a serious setback for the revolutionary movement.

Leaving aside certain rash parallels or certain aphorisms which are as empty as they are pretentious. [15] Let us take a look at the cases cited to point up the errors and failings of our movement. Aside from a very vague allusion to Brazil and the peasant leagues led by Juliao, he primarily takes up the cases of Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia. I will not return to the first country. It is sufficient to reaffirm here, to eliminate any possible misunderstanding, that guerrilla struggle must now be the fundamental method in Guatemala and that it must be centrated primarily in the rural areas, where, moreover, the leadership of the revolutionary movement as a whole must normally function. [16]

Hugo Blanco and Peru

The Peruvian experience has undoubtedly been one of the most momentous of the past five years, an experience rich and varied, outstanding in the multiplicity of movements, the application of palpably different lines, the temporary successes followed by devastating repressions, and by tragic setbacks. No serious attempt to make generalizations valid for all of Latin America can be undertaken without a detailed and profound analysis of what has occurred in Peru. It goes without saying that such an analysis cannot be attempted here due to limited information at present on some important events and because such an analysis can be worked out only through the joint efforts of our entire Latin-American movement and the Peruvian movement in the first instance.

Regis Debray treats this paramount experience in the most offhand way: two lines on Blanco in the context of a gross falsification, allusions to Luis de la Puente Uceda brought in as part of a polemic against Huberman and Sweezy’s Monthly Review. [17] That’s how you dispose of the most burning questions!

However, to gain even the slightest understanding of Hugo Blanco’s work, one must start from the context in which it was executed and grasp its objective implications in the given conditions. When he began his work among the peasants, Blanco was reacting on the one hand against adventurist and putschist tendencies which had developed within his own organization; and on the other hand, he was breaking with the tradition of a certain kind of urban left, which was, indeed, partly bound to obsolete schemas, partly always ready to discuss new roads but incapable of taking practical steps to establish ties with the peasant masses. Blanco’s experience did not in any way develop in accordance with abstract models but in ever closer association with the real mass movement. Now, after the fact, only a blind man could fail to realize the truly historic importance such work has had in educating the peasant sectors, even aside from the fact that it is still too early to assess the impact on the future of the revolutionary movement made by the Tacna trial and the events which followed it in which Hugo Blanco emerged as a hero of the Peruvian and Latin-American people.

The self-defense concept was in fact maintained in the revolutionary movement in Peru and I had the good fortune to participate personally in intense discussions on this subject. This idea was not conceived in an imitative or artificial way. It was formulated on the basis of the experience of the land occupations and heedful interpretation of the attitudes and aspirations of the peasants who participated in them.

It goes without saying that no one from the outside drove the peasants to occupy the land. This was, in the last analysis, one of the consequences of the new situation which the Cuban revolution created in Latin America. The problem of defense was inevitably posed as soon as the government chose the repressive road and the peasants fell under the bullets of the army and the police. It was the peasants themselves who took this attitude, mulling over ways to defend their gains and to protect their lives. This was how the idea of the need for armed struggle took shape among them.

It was always clear to us that self-defense was only a stage and that once armed struggle became generally accepted it would take other forms and would have to pass through guerrilla warfare probably for a prolonged period. But it was not possible to skip a stage – even a limited one – in the subjective development of the masses. An appeal to the peasants for guerrilla warfare from the outset would very probably have fallen on deaf ears, even in those areas where there was a living movement – at most such an appeal would have been heeded by a few vanguard elements who, in any case, would have risked acting without the understanding of even the social groupings from which they came. The other alternative might have been an armed struggle taking the form of guerrilla warfare from the time when experience demonstrated in practice the impossibility of whining in a direct confrontation with the adversaries and the necessity of creating specialized mobile guerrilla detachments, which while of course representing a very small minority would nonetheless have enjoyed the active support of the overwhelming majority of the rural population in their fight. It is significant, moreover – Blanco himself stressed this fact in one of his letters from prison – that once the Cuzco leader was forced to adopt forms of struggle which could no longer be properly characterized as a tactic of self-defense, he held out much longer, despite all the well-known difficulties, than others, including, we might add, the MIR [Movimiento dela Izquierda Revolucionaria – Movement of the Revolutionary Left] nuclei who nonetheless felt that they were following a much more effective course. The essential reason for this, of course, lay in the fact that Blanco enjoyed very wide support among the peasant population.

We do not know whether in prison Hugo Blanco has drawn an overall balance sheet of his experience or what his present views are on the future perspectives for the Peruvian revolution. Some allusions contained in a letter addressed to the November 1966 student congress seem to indicate that in his eyes the key link is still to organize the peasant movement.

In any case, Blanco has explained in some letters written in prison how he interprets certain aspects of the struggle he led.

In the first place, for those who have imputed reformist tendencies to Blanco (perhaps because he used the organizing of unions as a means and concerned himself also with the most modest needs of the peasants in his region, not overlooking the fact that partial gains could prove valuable in reinforcing the self-confidence of the peasants), the following passage should be noted:

“We have discovered a broad and sure road and we are advancing. Why should we lose our heads now? Those comrades who are in prison must understand that the party cannot mobilize itself in harmony with their weariness at confinement but only in accordance with the needs of the Peruvian people and the possibilities open to them. If there are some who are free and in a hurry and who feel that they are able to be guerrillas, that is magnificent! Let them prove it by devoting themselves to a peasant union, the one in Chumbivilcas for example, coming and going on foot. After that they can talk to us about guerrilla warfare, if they have enough strength left. Doesn’t organizing peasant unions train militants in the nomad life? Doesn’t it give them knowledge of the terrain and the population? And it brings the most important result – the conscious incorporation of the broad masses in the struggle. We must gain as much ground as we can before the armed clash comes in order to be sure of victory.” (Mariscal Gamarra Prison, June 1963)

Here is another very important passage:

“As to the tactics of guerrilla warfare, I am completely in accord that they should be taught to defense committees. These should not be empiric, and in this respect, the vanguard party has a role to play. All knowledge of guerrilla tactics which can be adapted to our militia strategy must be taken advantage of.

“Manco II, for example, who surrounded Cuzco ready to crush it, was abandoned by his troops because the time for planting or harvesting – I don’t remember which – had come for potatoes.

“None of that interferes with guerrilla organization. Some units can be organized to aid the militias. But the fundamental organism for the open struggle in Peru will be the militia of the unions led by the party. Let us take all the advantages of the peculiarities of our situation.

“We will not part with anything, having advanced so much.

“You say, ‘it is astride the campesino movement that the FIR [Frente de la Izquierda Revolucionaria – Revolutionary Left Front, the Peruvian section of the Fourth International] should face the open struggle for power.’ I agree, it was so in Cuba. The difference lies in that they first grabbed the arms and then mounted the horse. We are on the horse but lack the arms. Why get off the horse?” (Hugo Blanco’s Answer to Rosendo, April 7, 1964. See International Socialist Review, Spring 1965, p. 46.)

It is thus clear that Hugo Blanco poses these problems very concretely, in relation to what is happening in the mass movement at a given stage. It was logical, moreover, let me repeat, for him to insist above all on the necessity of linking up with the real movement when putschist tendencies were rife even in the FIR, for him to insist on the necessity of adopting means of struggle which took shape in the course of the experience of these movements, especially the experience of occupying the land. It must not be forgotten either that the fact that Hugo Blanco’s methods ran counter to those of the traditional workers movement was confirmed by the openly hostile attitude of the Communist Party.

I will return later in connection with Bolivia to the question of dual power which holds a central place in Hugo Blanco’s outlook. [18] Here only the elementary point need be noted that dual power is neither a “theory” nor an abstract goal but a real situation which can occur at a given time, as it did in Peru, at least in certain regions, both before and after Hugo Blanco’s arrest. The problem which confronted the Cuzco leader was, therefore, how to take advantage of a given situation. He made some contributions and undertook some real actions. It is on this basis that he must be judged. Or should he be reproached for not disregarding the existing conditions, including the temper and aspirations of the peasants among whom he worked?

This said, we may properly seek the causes of the negative outcome of Blanco’s fight as well as that of de la Puente and Lobatón.

No one can exclude the possibility a priori that errors were committed. In my opinion, on the basis of present information, aside from any possible errors or failings, the basic reason for the setback was that the movement’s success remained limited to a few regions, especially the Cuzco region, while among the working-class elements in the cities the movement never broke out of a rather sterile routinist line of activity. This was reflected, among other things, by the relative isolation of the action led by Blanco, who could count on the aid of only a small organization already hit by severe repressive measures. As for the situation in the cities, a major obstacle was the still quite important influence of the CP, which had in no way rectified its opportunist line, contributing by this, among other things, to the defeat of attempts to rejuvenate the trade-union movement.

I will not analyze here the guerrilla experience of de la Puente Uceda’s MIR. I will state, however, that on the basis of its programmatic statements, the accusations of putschism against the MIR do not seem well founded. Whether or not some lines of action were actually put into practice, as some documents referring to the very first phase of the guerrilla struggle claim, for example, is another matter. It must be stressed in addition that the ELN [Ejercito de Liberación Nacional – National Liberation Army] action, which according to some sources made both more of an effort to apply valid standards for guerrilla warfare and to achieve real ties with the masses, was also unsuccessful. [19]

From the start of de la Puente’s movement, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, since it did not have the direct information needed to make a precise political evaluation, limited itself to expressing its revolutionary solidarity with the courageous militants who had undertaken the armed struggle. As for the FIR, aside from this or that expression which may perhaps have facilitated hostile interpretations, its basic judgment was that conditions in the mass movement and the MIR’s relationship to it would not permit the action to succeed, that a tragic outcome was inevitable despite the courage and revolutionary intransigence of de la Puente and his companions. I am well aware that the validity of a prediction cannot be ascertained merely by establishing a correlation between it and the actual outcome. However, the FIR’s enemies and critics – who often vie with each other in sectarianism – should recognize that our comrades took a clear stand from the outset and that neither the mass mobilization nor the major social and political crisis which the MIR combatants counted on touching off or fostering by their decision to begin a guerrilla struggle occurred.

For my part, again acknowledging that the question will have to be studied in much greater detail, I am inclined to the view that the defeat of the 1965 movement was not due essentially to false theoretical conceptions, or overall line, but was rooted in an incorrect analysis that led to the belief that the conditions vital to its success existed. These conditions – namely:

  1. a growing movement in the countryside;
  2. real ties between the group undertaking guerrilla warfare and this movement;
  3. active solidarity on the part of the exploited urban layers;
  4. a political crisis so acute as to impel very wide segments of the population into struggle, eliminating those important areas of passivity and apathy which have unfortunately featured the Peruvian situation at crucial stages in the past – did not exist in 1965, nor did any such development occur after the struggle began. An understanding of the situation and the real tendencies at work would have led the MIR either to postpone its move or, at least, to follow other criteria in carrying out the initial action. [20]

New attempts are now being made to prepare the way for new waves. “New figures,” Guevara wrote in his message, “are reorganizing the guerrilla struggle with tenacity and firmness.” We are not able at present to judge the scope of such attempts. But, in any case, the fact cannot be disregarded that defeats have been suffered and that much work – even elementary, prosaic work – is required to prepare the way for a new upsurge of the mass movement, or at least, some of its important sectors. This is all the more true because the Peruvian vanguard has suffered extremely grave losses from murders and arrests, depriving the most advanced organizations and groups in particular of virtually all their most capable leaders, and because the problem of freeing the movement from the pernicious influence of the traditional opportunist organizations is far from resolved, especially in the urban sectors.

It would be absurd to think that all these obstacles could be surmounted through some small groups adopting very general schemas and applying a series of norms (whatever the intrinsic worth of such schemas or norms). I am convinced that the Peruvian reality, which is so complex, so rich, holds surprises in store for us. While there is not the least doubt that the future will definitively sweep away all theory and practice of “a peaceful road,” an alliance with the so-called national bourgeoisie, of revolution “by stages,” etc., at the same time we will see types of revolutionary armed struggle which no one can now predetermine. The essential thing is for the vanguard to note in time changes in the situation and new opportunities. This is not possible through fidelity to fixed schemas but only through continually updated analyses.

The Struggle in Bolivia and Venezuela

Debray devotes a little more time to Bolivia than Peru. But, his analyses, characterizations, and observations are not less arbitrary and impressionistic, even though his conclusion that guerrilla warfare is likewise required in Bolivia is fundamentally correct.

The momentous experience of 1952 and the following years is summed up by Debray as follows:

“In 1952 the miners destroyed the oligarchy’s army, established a liberal government, received arms and a semblance of power. The revolution turned bourgeois; the miners gradually severed connections.” (p.33.)

The characterization of the 1952 MNR [Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario – National Revolutionary Movement] government as “liberal” is astonishing in itself. It doesn’t hold up either with respect to form or content, in either the European or Latin-American usage of the word. But more important, the 1952 revolution was in reality, as we have pointed out many times, and as all who have followed the political events in Bolivia in the slightest degree know, a revolution led by a revolutionary nationalist movement which at the time enjoyed the support of the overwhelming majority of the workers and peasants. In its first years in power, the MNR was driven by the pressure of the masses which supported it to carry out some important measures of a revolutionary bourgeois-democratic nature, going to the point of nationalizing the mines and inaugurating an agrarian reform, which despite its limitations unquestionably benefited broad segments of the peasantry and dealt a hard blow to the traditionally ultra-reactionary landowning class. This is what explains the attitude of the various sectors of the masses toward the MNR regime and why a relatively long period of bitter experiences and struggles was necessary before the masses came to understand the nature of the MNR, which in the last analysis was conservative and unable to lead the revolution to its logical conclusion, becoming more and more hostile to the workers and entangled in the machinations of imperialism. With regard to the November 1964 military coup, Debray’s explanation is of a superficial, propagandist character. He is ignorant of the fact, or he seems ignorant of it, that there was actually a new upsurge in the mass movement – this time against Paz Estenssoro, who was irretrievably compromised in the eyes of the masses – that the miners won victories in armed clashes, including with the army, and that the officers in fact organized a preventive coup to derail a movement that had already become too dangerous. [21]

It was in this context that a dual power situation again emerged in some areas of Bolivia in the period immediately following the November 1964 events, independently of what the Trotskyists or the other tendencies in the workers movement might have wished or decided. In fact, the problem posed was to determine what the short – and even intermediate – term perspectives were and how to exploit a temporary position of strength. But it would have been absurd to disregard the specific, concrete factors, the mood and will of the miners in the first instance. Besides, what could they have done in the spring of 1965 when Barrientos sought a test of strength? Should they have tried to respond to the steps taken against Lechin with improvised guerrilla actions and attempted to convince the miners that they must not mobilize in a massive strike? In fact, the only possibility of blocking Barrientos was to show him that he would run into a very broad counter-attack. Even if the unions had not proclaimed a strike, the miners would have launched it on their own.

Of course, from the time that Barrientos and his advisors decided to go all the way and unleashed a ferocious repression, the strike was insufficient as a counterblow and it was necessary to formulate a new strategy. We will see directly that our Bolivian comrades by no means lost sight of this necessity and Debray could have ascertained this if he had read their press and their resolutions instead of contenting himself with old anti-Trotskyist clichés. But it would be completely wrong to overlook the fact that the Bolivian situation was in fact marked for a long period by very specific features and that at certain times it was objectively possible to mobilize the masses of miners as well as broad sectors of the peasants in an armed struggle for power without going through a phase of guerrilla warfare as other countries in Latin America have experienced or will experience it. If these opportunities were not taken advantage of, it was because there was no genuine revolutionary leadership capable of uniting the movement on a national scale. [22] It must not be forgotten either, to come up to the most recent years, that a certain cleavage had occurred between the workers and broad sections of the peasantry, which in fact explains why the latter did not take part in the 1964 events, subsequently maintaining a wait-and-see attitude. This is a factor which could not be disregarded without very grave consequences in any possible formulation of a guerrilla strategy and still more in its practical application.

The possibility of adopting an orientation toward guerrilla warfare had already been seriously discussed in Bolivian revolutionary circles in the final period of the Paz Estenssoro regime. Immediately after the military coup, a POR [Partido Obrero Revolucionario – Revolutionary Workers Party, the Trotskyist organization] document set as the party’s number one task the centralization of arms in order to form a proletarian army and provide training and instruction in military tactics. [23] More precise decisions on this matter were taken some months later (March 1965) at a POR plenum. The headline in Lucha Obrera which announced this meeting is significant in itself: “Se reunió en Huanuni Comité Central del POR: aprobó documentos sobre acción armada y guerrillas.” [Central Committee of the POR meets in Huanuni – adopts documents on armed action and guerrillas.] (May 1, 1965, issue)

Further, in July 1965, when the PRIN [Partido Revolucionario de Izquierda Nacionalista – Revolutionary Party of the National Left] and CP trade-union leaders decided at an assembly of the miners to terminate the struggle in the Siglo Veinte region, the Trotskyists favored adopting forms of armed struggle. Indeed, following this assembly, nuclei, including the Trotskyist Cesar Lora, left the urban centers where they had been active previously and tried to organize themselves as guerrilla detachments north of Potosi. Unfortunately, they were detected rather quickly and César Lora himself was murdered by the military on July 29.

Let us also note, finally, that beginning in September of that year other attempts were made to organize guerrilla warfare. Among other things, publications which called for armed struggle specifically in the form of guerrilla warfare were distributed. These explained that it was necessary to link up this struggle with the combat conducted in the mass movement. The content of these publications was given a favorable reception in the Trotskyist press. [24]

It goes without saying that we are ready to discuss in greater detail all the positions taken by the International and the comrades of the POR on the perspectives and roads of the revolution in Bolivia, provided our critics take the trouble to inform themselves of our views and remember that our movement deserves the respect due all those who have fought on unceasingly while suffering the cruelist repression at the hands of the class enemy. [25]

As for Venezuela, the Fourth International gave its support to the guerrilla movement there from the outset. [26] And we did not confine ourselves to this broad, general position, but took clear stands several times on problems which arose.

Thus, we did not neglect to criticize adventurist and putschist tendencies. [27] But as soon as right-wing opportunist tendencies began to take shape, we made our position equally clear.

“We are convinced,” the United Secretariat wrote to the Venezuelan Trotskyists in January 1965, “that profound pessimism flowing from a rather static analysis and from a more or less conscious and avowed acceptance of the idea that any revolutionary development is doomed to failure because it would run up against major resistance from American imperialism is at the root of the present positions of the right wing of the MIR [Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria – Movement of the Revolutionary Left] and the PCV [Partido Comunista Venezelano – Venezuelan Communist Party].”

And the letter added further on, in pointing to certain weaknesses in the analyses of the left wing:

“The left wing, in practice, grasps the crucial point when it maintains that there must be no liquidation of the guerrilla movement (which in any case, among other things, has surmounted the major difficulties of the first phase of establishing itself.)” [28]

As for the more recent vicissitudes, the Fourth International has taken an absolutely unequivocal stand in favor of Douglas Bravo, and supports in particular the theses expressed by Fidel Castro against the Venezuelan CP in his March 13 speech. This, then, constitutes our position on what is presently one of the major problems of the Latin-American revolutionary struggle. [29]

In conclusion, I can affirm that we are in fundamental agreement with some of the points Debray raises, especially as to the necessity of avoiding ambiguity in the movement’s orientation, of forthrightly deciding the question of where to locate the revolutionary movement’s center, etc. Once it is concluded that guerrilla warfare in the rural areas is the essential road for a given country, it follows logically that the leadership center must be located in the rural areas and that its members must spend most of their time with the detachments of guerrilla fighters. It also seems to us that any new guerrilla movement must study all the facts of the Cuban experience in depth, both in their technical as well as political aspects. It is not a question of establishing absolute norms but of taking into account the existence of a considerable number of common features and of drawing the maximum benefit from a precious acquisition.

Once Again on the Revolutionary Party

Debray examines another crucial question confronting the Latin-American fighters, the question of building a party and its role in the revolutionary process. In this connection, one can only agree with him when he finds fault with the experience of the Communist parties (including those groups which adhere to the Chinese line), when he rejects making a fetish of the party so that it assumes a primacy not justified by any real function, when he explains that a revolutionary struggle can begin and develop in countries like those in Latin America even without the prior existence of a party. [30] Nevertheless, I should like to make a few brief observations.

Since 1960 the Fourth International has stressed the fact that a revolutionary leadership was able to emerge in Cuba and play a decisive role in forms which it would have been hard to forecast on the basis of previous historical experience. The rise of the Algerian revolution up until 1963 also favored the conclusion that, under certain given conditions, a leadership could conduct a victorious armed struggle and move toward establishing even a workers state without the existence of a revolutionary party from the beginning or with a party still in a completely embryonic stage. [31]

But can one conclude from this, as Debray seems to do, that this variant holds for all, or almost all, the Latin-American countries? Up until now, no one has demonstrated this on the basis not of broad general analogies but of exact analyses of the real situation and the underlying tendencies which might prevail in the future.

Furthermore, we must not lose sight of a fundamental side. The problem is posed concretely because of the bankruptcy of all the traditional parties, which have proved incapable, and in all likelihood will continue to prove incapable, of leading revolutionary struggles to a victorious conclusion. It is these parties – the Communist parties above all – which have represented, and still represent, a major barrier to the development of an armed struggle and which must therefore either be defeated or outflanked. But if a real revolutionary party existed, or could be created quickly enough in one or another country, it would obviously be a favorable factor of very great importance and would greatly facilitate not only the solution of the paramount problem of linking up those waging the arduous struggle with the broad masses but also expedite the conduct of the armed struggle itself. But while it would be absurd to let the absence of a revolutionary party stand in the way of beginning the armed struggle in a generally ripe situation (if Fidel Castro had accepted such logic, the Cuban revolution would not have taken place), it would be erroneous to consider such a development inevitable everywhere and to forego trying to organize revolutionary parties right now in countries where the armed struggle is not immediately in the offing. It goes without saying that even when the second alternative is taken, this does not mean getting entrapped in more or less classical schemas; the thing is to grasp the key link on each occasion. For example, Hugo Blanco held that the peasant unions might play the role of the revolutionary party in Peru. This conclusion is subject to debate, especially now, some years after Blanco’s experience, but in any case it is not a traditional, “orthodox” concept. [32]

Finally, although the absence of a well-organized party did not halt the victorious course of the revolution in Cuba – for a series of reasons, including the abilities of the leadership group – in other colonial or semicolonial countries this lack has proved at certain times to be a major obstacle. For example, different opinions are possible on the stages of the Algerian revolution, on the role of this or that person, on the characterization of the stage inaugurated by the June 19 coup; but it is indisputable that it was precisely the absence of a genuine revolutionary party which had very negative consequences in the evolution of an otherwise very promising situation.

* * *

Underestimation of the importance of generalizations, above all when they have practical connotations for the revolutionary struggles on the order of the day is not a characteristic of our movement. In this article itself, I have again brought up certain ideas on the nature of the Latin-American revolution, on the necessity of armed struggle, on the role of guerrilla warfare under given conditions, and I have reaffirmed the vital need to extend the struggle on a continental scale, which has rightly become the central theme of all the most advanced currents and of the most prestigious leaders from Che Guevara to Douglas Bravo.

However, careless generalizations based on insufficiently concrete analysis should be guarded against, since by their nature they cannot refute the theses of partisans of opportunist views but may give them openings for their arguments. The danger exists of nourishing endless polemics over generalities, thus permitting those who have an interest in doing so to avoid making clear choices in the here and now. That is why we think that the real positions ought to be verified through analyses, the formulation of perspectives, and practical decisions relating to one or another country in a given context. And on the most urgent problems posed at this stage (in Guatemala, Venezuela, and Bolivia, etc.), I believe our line is absolutely clear.

May 10, 1967



1. Debray’s principal falsification lies in confusing the Fourth International with the small sectarian Posadist groups. Aside from this, what should we say of an author who claims to be well informed yet can still write the following, among other things, about our movement: “The same analyses and perspectives serve equally well for Peru and Belgium”? (Revolution in the Revolution? Monthly Review, July–August 1967, p. 39.) He is obviously unfamiliar with what we have written on either Peru or Belgium! It is significant, moreover, that he does not turn to our programmatic documents or reports on activities in order to evaluate our views, but cites an article by Sartre, written fifteen years ago, in which the French philosopher expressed his views on Stalinism and the relationship between Stalinism and Leninism. We do not know to what extent Sartre would be inclined to maintain these ideas today.

2. Attention is called in particular to the document adopted by the Third World Congress. See Fourth International, November–December 1951.

3. I have in mind above all the Chilean Communist Party which shortly after the Tricontinental Congress justly became one of the main targets of Cuban polemics. The stand taken by the Brazilian CP even after the 1964 military coup could also be cited. (See especially the interview with Luis Carlos Prestes published in l’Humanité, January 16, 1967.)

4. Debray’s completely vulgar criticisms in reality deal with Posadist documents. (See Revolution in the Revolution?, p. 37. For Bravo’s criticisms, see Sucesos, No. 1752, pp. 32–33.)

5. In rebuttal to Debray’s slanderous accusation that our movement, which he equates with the reformists (this technique of making an amalgam is not new), made the Cuban revolution a target of attack (p. 41), we call attention to the fact that the International Secretariat of the Fourth International characterized Cuba as a workers state as early as October 1960. We also call attention to the fact that our press, despite its material limitations, has published almost all the basic documents and speeches of the Cuban leaders as well as hundreds of analytical articles favorable to revolutionary Cuba. Anyone can ascertain this for himself.

6. On Luis Turcios’ criticisms of the Posadists, we have already stated that they seemed pertinent and corresponded generally to the criticisms made by the leadership of the Fourth International in its polemics of 1960–62 against Posadas’ positions. (See my article published in World Outlook, March 4, 1966.)

7. See on this subject the articles by J.M. Fortuni, Jose Milla and A. Tuzl published in World Marxist Review, December 1964, and April 1965.

8. Here is an indicative passage from the resolution on the dialectics of the world revolution adopted at our Reunification Congress, June, 1963 (Dynamics of World Revolution Today, International Socialist Review, Fall 1963):

“As in the case of equating the beginning of the colonial revolution (under bourgeois or petty-bourgeois nationalist leadership) with its victorious conclusion under proletarian leadership, any idea that this process will occur automatically or inevitably within a certain time limit necessarily leads to a distorted estimate of the actual relationship of forces and replaces scientific analysis by illusions and wishful thinking. It presupposes that the objective process will solve by itself a task which can only be solved in struggle through the subjective effort of the vanguard; i.e., revolutionary-socialist conquest of the leadership of the mass movement. That this is possible in the very process of the revolution, and in a relatively short time, has been adequately demonstrated in the case of Cuba. That it is not inevitable, and that without it the revolution is certain to suffer serious defeats or be limited at best to inconclusive victories is demonstrated by much in the recent history of other Latin-American countries; for instance, Bolivia, Argentina and Guatemala.”

9. Although Debray raises many correct criticisms of the Latin-American Communist parties, he gives the impression that he believes they in fact observe the norms of democratic centralism and that they, at least in some circumstances, have been too democratic. This means one of two things: Either Debray does not know what real democratic centralism is, or he has lost sight of how the Latin-American CP’s actually function. For our part, we incline to the opinion that if democratic methods had actually been observed, the concepts and views of at least some of the parties concerned would have changed after the Cuban revolution.

10. The Fourth International did not hesitate to draw all the conclusions from the Cuban experience which it considered legitimate.

“From the Cuban experience,” reads the resolution on the nature of the Cuban revolution adopted at the world congress at the end of 1960, “the revolutionary Marxist movement must draw a whole series of political and theoretical lessons of primary importance ... The lessons to be drawn concern in particular the role played by advanced sections of the peasantry in certain specific situations; the importance of guerrilla warfare on a primarily peasant base as a form of anti-capitalist revolution; the role of cadres from the radical petty bourgeoisie; the rapid generalization of a collective experience in the countryside; the organization of militia and the role that a revolutionary army can play in certain exceptional periods, even in economic organization. Most of all, however, the problem posed is that of setting up, training, and tempering a new revolutionary leadership in conditions which are specific but probably not unique.” (See Quatrième Internationale, January-March 1961, p. 74.)

11. See on this the Dynamics of World Revolution Today.

12. Che Guevara himself stressed the importance of this condition in the appendix to his book on guerrilla warfare. (Guerrilla Warfare, Monthly Review Press, 1961, pp. 109ff.)

13. It is in connection with such experiences that our movement has criticized putschist tendencies that have at times appeared among revolutionaries identifying with the Castroite current:

“Their weakness in particular lies in the arbitrary extension of certain specific features of the Cuban process, in the over-estimation of the military-technical aspects to the detriment of the more properly political factors, in the tendency to cut off the activity of very small foci from the vanguard and the development of the mass movement.” (My report to the IEC of the Fourth International, Quatrième Internationale, March 1965.)

See also the criticism of adventuristic tendencies in the political resolution of the world congress at the end of 1965. (International Socialist Review, Spring 1966.) Analogous criticisms were formulated previously by sections of the revolutionary Marxist movement, particularly in Peru and Argentina.

14. There are passages on the corrupting influence of cities on the revolutionaries themselves in Debray’s essay, which over and above a few so-called sociological notes reveal a very questionable kind of revolutionary romanticism. Among other things, the author seems to forget that life in the underground in the cities during periods of terror is by no means more comfortable than participating in the activity of armed detachments in the plains or in the mountains.

15. Note, for example, the following statement made by Debray: “The Indian uprising led by Tupac Amaru II in Peru at the end of the eighteenth century could well have been called self-defense.” (p. 29) Or this equation: “Guerrilla warfare is to peasant uprisings what Marx is to Sorel.” (p. 29)

16. Debray talks about a Latin-American Bureau in Buenos Aires, a section (sic!) of the Fourth International. Thus he refers to the Posadists without explaining in any way that the small Posadist minority has not been in the Fourth International since the end of 1961. Another proof of the unsoundness of his “information” is that, far from grasping the importance of the peasant leagues in Brazil, Posadas entertained a sectarian view toward them, which he carried to the point of attacking the American Trotskyists for publishing an interview with Juliao by Joseph Hansen in The Militant.

17. By his explicit reference to the Latin-American Bureau, Debray intimates that Hugo Blanco was sent to Peru from Argentina on the order of the Posadists to impose an artificial line from the outside. But Blanco had no connections with the Posadists and did not import any line from Argentina applicable to the peasants of Cuzco – every serious Peruvian militant is well aware of this.

18. Blanco wrote in another letter: “The fundamental thing is – do you believe that dual power now exists in the countryside? If you don’t, you will tend toward guerrilla warfare; if you do, toward militia.”

19. Criticisms of the MIR were formulated among others, by S. Conduruna, the editor of Vanguardia Revolucionaria, in a very controversial document (in the Chilean magazine Estrategia, No. 3, April 1966) and by A. Pumaruna in an article which appeared in Partisans, No. 31, July–September 1966. (This article gives completely imaginary information on the Fourth International’s intervention in Peru and on certain decisions of the Peruvian Trotskyists.) The MIR vigorously rejected most of these criticisms.

20. The MIR is said to have been accused in Castroite circles of having tried to create stable zones before the minimum conditons had been fulfilled, giving up the mobility necessary for consolidation and success in the first phases of guerrilla warfare. It is obvious that such an error is all the more catastrophic if the general conditions which have been mentioned are not ripe.

21. The fact that the army showed some symptoms of disintegration was an important element in the October-November events. On the fall of Paz Estenssoro, see the detailed analysis made by the Bolivian Trotskyists, Position of the Bolivian Trotskyists on the Barrientos Regime, World Outlook, Jan. 29, 1965, p. 15.

22. The Trotskyist organization in Bolivia has always had a very important mass influence, but it has never had the support of a nationwide majority of the miners and poor peasants.

23. This is the document already cited, published in World Outlook.

24. These publications appeared under the title Pueblo en Armas [People in Arms]. See indicative passages which were printed in World Outlook October 1, 1965. On the views of the Bolivian Trotskyists, see also the article signed H.G.M. in Lucha Obrera, new series, November–December 1966, p. 15.

25. The Fourth International everywhere greeted the commencement of guerrilla action announced in the month of March 1967. A few weeks before, most of the POR leaders were arrested – together with other activists and leaders of revolutionary organizations – on the charge, made public by Minister Arguedas, of having organized the armed movement. The same charge was made against Hugo Gonzalez Moscoso, the secretary of the POR, who was arrested a few weeks later.

26. This position was ratified in the political resolution of the Reunification Congress (June 1963).

27. See the document cited from the 1963 congress; see also the article Amérique Latine 1962, Quatrieme Internationale, December 1962. Douglas Bravo also examined the Carupano and Puerto Cabello events from a critical point of view. (Sucesos, No. 1751, p. 17.)

28. See also my report published in Quatrième Internationale, March 1965.

29. An article by Miguel Fuente (Perspectiva Mundial, March 27, 1967) explicitly expressed support for Bravo, while countering some of Bravo’s criticisms of Trotskyism. Among other publications holding the Trotskyist point of view, the stand of the Argentinian weekly La Verdad should be noted. It began reprinting the Sucesos report on February 27, and wrote in the introduction, among other things, that “the Venezuelan guerrillas are the vanguard of our revolution.”

30. Let us note, however, that Debray does not point out any of the reasons for the failure of the Latin-American CP’s. He states, “For reasons beyond their control, many Latin American Communist Parties made a false start, 30 or 40 years ago ...” (p. 104.) What is the precise meaning of “reasons beyond their control”?

31. These questions were also discussed in the report on the principal document of the 1963 Reunification Congress (Dynamics of World Revolution Today).

32. One may easily grasp the fact, moreover, that if there had been a revolutionary party able to mobilize broad segments of the populace in support of those engaged in the fight at the time of Hugo Blanco’s experience or that of the MIR, the outcome might have been quite different.

Maitan Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 21 July 2018