The Oxford Companion to Military History distinguishes guerrilla war from regular war, pointing out that ‘regular armies concentrate force to achieve a decision with maximum speed’ while the ‘guerrilla conduct small-scale operations over an indefinite period.’ But, of course, guerrillas can finally win only if they gain enough strength to become a regular force and defeat the enemy as such.
The method of combat is important, but only small part of the guerrilla struggle. Its main content is its political aspect, the winning over of the masses.
This was noted by Clausewitz himself. Recognising that the French Revolution had transformed the conduct of war, he treated war as a total phenomenon whose relationship to the social and the political world had to be understood. He illustrated his thesis by the example of the Spanish resistance to the French occupation.
The hey-day of the guerrilla was after the Second World War when the liberation struggle of the colonies was allied to the high tide of the socialist movement, glowing in the light of the Soviet Union’s victory over fascism. Many countries in Eastern Europe turned socialist as a result of their armed resistance to the Nazi occupation.
Guerrilla war is often confused with terrorism, especially when the movement is weak and takes to anarchist methods. However, there is a qualitative difference between the two. Whereas anarchism hopes to unleash a change through shock, the guerrilla seeks to lead the masses in the struggle to transform their weakness into strength. It must, however, be granted that the urban guerrilla fighter sometimes becomes a terrorist.
‘Che’ Guevara’s book Guerrilla Warfare adds little to the literature on the subject, compared to, for example, the writings of Mao and Giap. However, it pays attention to the details of the organisation and operations of warfare (‘a guerrilla needs good boots’) which makes it a valuable handbook for the rebel.
His main contribution to the theory of revolutionary war is his article of 1963, titled ‘Guerrilla Warfare: A Method’. He says guerrilla warfare without population’s support leads to disaster and adds that the Cuban Revolution had made three fundamental contributions to the theory of revolution in the Americas. First, people’s forces could win a war against the army. Second, it was not necessary to wait for all conditions favourable for revolution to be present; the insurrection itself could create them. And third, in the underdeveloped parts of Latin America the battleground for armed struggle should, in the main, be the countryside.
He quotes the Second Declaration of Havana to say that, since 70 per cent of the continent’s population lives in the countryside and most of it consists of extremely low-paid farm workers. The rural proletariat constitutes a tremendous revolutionary force and Latin American armies, trained for conventional warfare, are powerless against them.
Another characteristic of Latin America is that its ruling classes are fused into an oligarchy which is ‘the reactionary alliance between the bourgeoisie and the land-owning class of each country in which feudalism remains.’
Here the national bourgeoisie is not ready to fight feudalism or imperialism because it is paralysed by fear of a social revolution. Its majority has united with the US instead. As a result there is polarisation on the continent with a clear-cut division between the exploiters and the exploited.
As to the use of violence by the revolutionaries, the oligarchy itself routinely tears off its democratic mask to resort to it against the masses. That necessitates the destruction of the oppressor army and the creation of a people’s army, making the guerrilla action the axis of the struggle.
‘Violence is not the monopoly of the exploiters’— the exploited use it when the moment arises. As an African revolutionary put it: ‘La violence c’est notre devoir sacre’ (Violence is our sacred duty).
The US tends to intervene on the side of the oligarchy and crush every revolution. Therefore victory cannot be achieved on a national scale. It has to be continental. ‘The unity of the repressive forces must be confronted with the unity of the popular forces.’
Guevara’s main contribution to the theory of the revolution was the concept of the ‘foco’. The peasants oppose the oligarchy and imperialism but, being scattered, need to be led by the working class from the towns.
The revolutionaries can therefore start with establishing rural bases which will themselves contribute to creating such pre-conditions of a revolutionary situation as may still be lacking.
Guevara attempted to apply this theory to Bolivia and failed. Of course there were many reasons for the failure, an important one being that the peasants there had already received land in the land reforms and so lost interest in a further re-distribution. Another was the rapidity of the US military intervention.
Latin America threw up a large number of rebel leaders and revolutionaries after the Second World War. Among them, only Che became an authentic hero on the global scale. Sartre called him ‘a complete man of our time’. It seems that he stepped on the stage of history when the whole world demanded a hero.
It was his courage, the clarity of his thought, his burning desire for a just order but, above all, his commitment to what he considered to be just that made him a hero.
Now, wherever there is protest against injustice or rebellion against oppression and exploitation, it is his portrait that is held up by those who say no to tyranny.
History forgets his tactical shortcomings and immortalises his legacy of advancing directly to take the oppression by the throat.