There has been an abysmal failure on the part of mainstream Marxism in the United
States to engage with Peruvian Maoism on its own terms. Journals like the Monthly Review
and NACLA have written about the human rights aspect of the struggle, while paying scant
attention to the underlying theoretical issues. We sometimes forget that the Shining Path
is in a war with the Peruvian state and not the American left and its allies in Peru. We
should not sweep these issues under the rug, but neither should we neglect the Maoist
analysis of the Peruvian class struggle. Since these ideas have won the allegiance of
massive numbers of the most exploited and oppressed peoples on the continent, they are
certainly worth a closer look. It is my goal in this post to do exactly that.
The social base of the guerrillas is primarily Quechuan Indian, but the Maoist leadership
of the Peruvian Communist Party has tended to discount this aspect of the struggle. It
does, however, identify the agrarian crisis as key to the Peruvian revolution. This
problem implicitly addresses Indian needs, since land hunger has been the primary social
contradiction of Peruvian society for the past 400 years.
The Communist Party of Peru--dubbed the "Shining Path" (Sendero Luminoso) by the
bourgeois press and its leftist opponents--got its start in the 1960s. Anibal Guzman, a
philosophy professor at the University of Ayacucho, decided to construct a new
revolutionary movement in Peru, one that combined the ideas of Mao Tse-tung and José
Carlos Mariátegui. From Maoism it would draw upon the strategy of "People's
War," that envisioned encircling the cities from the countryside. From Mariátegui it
adopted the analysis of Peru as a country that was in the grips of semi-feudal relations.
While it was nominally a modern bourgeois democracy, it still had failed to achieve
genuine national independence and land reform, the hallmarks of the class
The leftist opponents of the PCP accused it of being trapped in a time-warp. While it was
true that Peru had suffered from latifundism in the 1920s, there had been significant
changes over the half-century. Most importantly, the leftist military dictatorship of
General Velasco had pushed through an ambitious land reform program in the 1960s that
seemed to have broken the back of the old landed estates.
We find such support of the Velasco reforms in the preface to "The Break-up of the
Old Order." This is a section in the "Peru Reader." Orin Starn, Carlos
Iván Degregori and Robin Kirk, three leading "Senderologists," put together
this very worthwhile collection of articles. A Senderologist is an academic expert on the
Shining Path insurgency, who is also a political opponent. Such experts have largely
shaped our understanding of the Peruvian insurgency in the pages of NACLA. This would be
analogous to understanding the Sandinista movement from the hostile articles written by
people like Paul Berman in the 1980s. If you read Berman's articles in the Village Voice,
you would get the impression that the FSLN had no other agenda except to censor La Prensa
and harass Cardinal Obando Y Bravo.
That the title of the section is "The Break-up of the Old Order" should give you
some sense of the critical support the "Senderologists" had toward Velasco. In
1963 a coalition of Popular Action and Christian Democrats won the election in Peru. The
social base of this coalition was urban professionals who had a strong affinity with the
USA and the Alliance for Progress, which would supposedly modernize Peru. The losers in
the election were the old-line Creole elites who were the main target of Mariátegui's
attacks. This section of the ruling class had roots in the guano and nitrates fortunes
made in the 18th and 19th centuries, and also in the latifundios. Certainly we could
describe this section of the ruling class as semi-feudal. Was its loss of power a
"break-up of the old order?"
Social tensions unleashed by the new government's first attempts at reform prompted a
military coup led by General Juan Velasco. To everybody's surprise the Velasco government
threw its weight behind the new reforms. It nationalized the oil wells of the
International Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey. Most
importantly, it enacted a sweeping agrarian reform, which abolished the old Andean estates
as well as newer coastal plantations.
While Velasco was overthrown by another military coup that implemented some
counter-reforms, the general direction of Peruvian politics took a sharp left turn in this
period. Eventually Alan Garcia became president. He was the candidate of the APRA party, a
left-wing nationalist formation that rejected socialism. Mariátegui had engaged in sharp
polemics with Hay de la Torre, the founder of APRA, in the 1920s. Against the radical
nationalism of APRA, Mariátegui countered with Marxism.
There is little doubt that the "Senderologists" believe that the best possible
outcome for Peruvian society is in this general direction. They believed that the Velasco
reforms and Garcia's administration were moving the country forward. It would take some
prodding from the revolutionary groups in Peru to keep the reformist governments honest,
but they had no alternative. Their attitude is reminiscent of the liberal and social
democratic supporters of Bill Clinton, whose only hope is that there can be sufficient
grass-roots pressure from the left to extract some concessions from the Clintonites. When
Clinton fails to deliver, it is because we are not loud enough or strong enough to get his
The Maoists rejected this accomodationist approach from top to bottom. In the midst of the
euphoria over Velasco's land reform, they stubbornly held to the position that nothing
substantial had changed. Peru was still semi-feudal. Guzman wrote in his 1975 speech
"Let Us Retake Mariategui And Reconstitute His Party" that:
"We see it [semi-feudalism] today, despite the years elapsed, because it persists and
new forms of semi-feudal roots are developed, forms of unpaid labor, family obligations
and deferred salaries, personal privileges, maintenance and fusion of old latifundio and
the preponderance of gamonalismo, under cover of new conditions and high sounding words.
Semi-feudalism, harshly attacked in years past has developed into a self-evident truth,
since the class struggle itself, with the rural explosion we have seen so many times, the
agrarian reforms and the counter-revolutionary action we have seen since the 1960's, show
the semi-feudal base of Peruvian society."
This seemed outrageous to many Senderologists. For example, Cynthia McClintock writes in
"Theories of Revolution and the Case of Peru" (in "The Shining Path of
Peru," edited by David Scott Palmer) that post-1968 Peru cannot be described as
"feudal" since Velasco's reforms "swept large landlords from the
countryside, and sharecropping or rental arrangements also disappeared."
The definitive counter-analysis of agrarian relations in the 1960s comes from a Maoist
leader named Antonio Díaz Martínez, who wrote "Hunger and Hope in Ayacucho"
during this period. He was an official of the agrarian reform department of Prado's
conservative administration in 1960 who knew about the plight of the Quechuan peasantry
first-hand. Trained as an agricultural engineer, he eventually became a professor in the
agronomy department of the University of Ayucucho, where many of the PCP's cadres emerged.
Díaz Martínez came to the conclusion after doing field studies in the Ayacucho
countryside that the main problem was still the domination of the latifundio. The peasants
still depended on the estates for grazing land, and functioned as service tenants--a form
of precapitalist production. The agrarian reform hardly affected Ayacucho at all. While
the peasants had the right to become owners of the land they resided on, they had to pay
for it. As a consequence, the plantation owner was able to keep back the best land for
The "gamonales" had all sorts of schemes to avoid genuine redistribution. Some
became absentee landlords, while others evicted or moved the peasants to avoid the terms
of the 1964 land reform. When the land did become private property, a new class of rich
peasants soon emerged. This group tended to be more open to technological innovation in
the countryside, but still acted against the interests of the small peasant who had less
access to financing and government assistance.
He reserved his sharpest criticism for two government-sponsored cooperatives at Allpachaka
and Huayllapampa. They were implemented by mestizo specialists who did not take the
practical knowledge accumulated by the Indians over the centuries. All the old traditions
of self-help and cooperation were suppressed.
Land hunger was not satisfied by the Velasco reforms. They simply propagated old forms of
exploitation in new trappings. Hence Peru was being torn apart by massive class struggles
in the countryside to which Díaz Martínez and the Maoists would orient:
"La concentración terratiente y la profundizatión del capitalismo buricrático
acentúan en forma violenta la expulsión, expropriación y explotación del campesinos
pobres. Esta situación trae como consquencia una gran movilización campesina, que se
acentúa entre 1963-64, movilización que rompe los diques de contención establecidos en
entre 500 y 600 mil campesinos - iniciaron masivas invasiones de tierras que les fueron
arrebatadas en los últimos siglos. Estas luchas se van a producir en el sur (Cusco y
Ayacuchu) en el Centro (Junín y Pasco) y en el Norte (Cajamarca y Ancash). Veamos algunas
So when 500 to 600 thousand campesinos rose up to take part in land seizures, the Maoists
decided to launch an armed struggle on their behalf. They did not think that the
ballot-box could change Peruvian society. As a propaganda act to show their disgust with
voting, four masked students from the University of Huamango destroyed ballots at the
Cuschi town hall on May 17, 1980. They were armed with two non-functioning pistols. This
was the first public action by the PCP after years of debate and organizational
preparation at the University for years. The political understanding they brought with
them is rooted in the analysis of Guzman's blend of Maoism and Mariátegui, and Díaz
Martínez's study of the Ayacucho countryside.
The PCP's struggle is ideologically grounded in Marxism, despite all efforts to paint them
as gangsters or terrorists. Even David Scott Palmer, one of the most outspoken
"Senderologists" is forced to admit this. He says, "The insurgency has
rarely engaged in indiscriminate violence and should not be compared with Pol Pot and the
Khmer Rouge in this regard."
And what of the charge that they are anti-democratic? Surely the act of destroying ballots
is a sign that you are not willing to give your ideas a chance in the "free
marketplace of ideas." Cynthia McClintock is particularly obsessed with this problem.
"The electoral process has engaged the citizenry. Indeed, rates of electoral
participation in Peru are among the highest in Latin America. By 1985 more than 80 percent
of Peru's eligible population was registered to vote, and turnout was over 90 percent; in
1990, in a context of widespread pressures by the Shining Path against voting, about 80
percent voted in each of the two rounds of the election. Since the early 1980s in Lima,
when citizens have been asked their preferred political regime, between 70 to 80 percent
opt for a democratic system, while only between 5 to 20 choose a socialist revolution and
a mere 2 to 10 a military regime. In addition, majorities generally assess the incumbent
governments as at least somewhat democratic."
All this is of course nonsense. These are the same sorts of arguments that were used
against the FMLN in El Salvador or the NLF in Vietnam. Why didn't they put down their arms
and join in the democratic elections? These "demonstration elections" as Noam
Chomsky refers to them are stacked against the popular movement. The whole purpose of the
ballot box is to let off some steam, so that bourgeois rule can continue without
interference. What is surprising is McLintock's admission that 20 PERCENT of the citizenry
of Peru opt for a socialist revolution. I cannot imagine any society existing for very
long when 1 out of 5 people want to overthrow the government. Can you picture what
American society would look like if we had the same sort of statistical results? Even the
Trotskyists would appear mainstream.
The decision to launch an armed struggle while an elected government is in power is not
such a strange one. After all, the Zapatistas did exactly the same thing on New Years Day
4 years ago and for identical reasons. The Indians of Chiapas, just like the students of
Huamango, were poorly armed but resolute. Both movements are led by university professors
The main difference between the Peruvian Maoists and the Zapatistas is that the latter
have won the support of public opinion internationally. This is partly due to the weakness
of their movement. If they had the same sort of military clout as the PCP, then I doubt if
the American mass media would smile so benignly on the peasants of Chiapas.
There is little doubt that the Chiapas movement could benefit from some of the militancy
of the PCP, while the PCP could in turn benefit from the flexibility and openness to
alliances nationally and internationally that the Zapatistas have mastered. In either
case, the two movements are powerful and progressive. A successful peasant revolution in
Peru based on the model of Mao's China would be of tremendous political consequence. It is
a sign of the declining self-confidence of the Marxist movement that this obvious truth
has been lost among endless discussion of human rights.
In my next series of posts, I will turn my attention to the Mayan Indians of Guatemala and