Shining Path

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 bourgeois-democratic revolution.

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 attention.

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 himself.

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 dé ellas."

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. She writes:

"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 as well.

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 Chiapas itself.

Louis Proyect