National Sections of the L5I:

The failure of guerrillaism

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On 16 January representatives of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the President of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani, officially brought the twelve year long civil war to an end.

The war had started with a massive upsurge of popular movements including trade unions, peasant and community organisations, following the overthrow of Somoza in next door Nicaragua.

The military-civilian junta responded with fierce repression. Death squads linked to the army and security services operated at will, torturing and assassinating thousands of trade union and opposition leaders.

In the countryside peasant demands for land reform met similar repression. By 1982 an estimated 36,000 civilians had been killed. The leadership of the left, heavily influenced by “guerrillaist” theories of struggle, retreated from the cities into the countryside. Their political/military strategy was greatly strengthened by the success of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In El Salvador five separate organisations were united under a single command, the FMLN, which launched a series of offensives against the army aimed at repeating the Sandinistas’ route to power.

The USA, determined to prevent a re-run of Nicaragua, gave an estimated $4 billion in economic aid, arms and training to the El Salvador army. The army grew massively, as did its influence and corruption. But the army only just held its own against the FMLN, which came to control whole areas of the countryside. A military stalemate existed. But this did not stop the army meting out murderous repression. By the time the peace accords were signed last month 70,000 had died and 20% of the population had been displaced.

The peace accords signify a serious retreat by the FMLN. The stated aims of the movement since its foundation were to smash the military dominated government which represented the interests of the landowners and big capitalists. The FMLN has not only failed to achieve these aims. It has also backed off a long way from its original negotiating position in the talks.

The FMLN entered the negotiations demanding:
• The country should be “demilitarised” with the army being replaced by a “police force”
• The FMLN should be integrated at all levels into this force
• The land reforms and expropriations in FMLN areas should be recognised through the legal process.

The UN-sponsored peace talks looked set to break down on precisely these issues, which Cristiani’s extreme right wing ARENA government refused to countenance.

Perez de Cuellar’s last minute success at the end of the year was based on a series of “confidential promises” by the FMLN which brought Cristiani back to the negotiating table. The FMLN, it appears, dropped its demands for a clear quota within the new police force and its call for explicit guarantees on land tenure. It was also willing to abandon its “demilitarisation” demand and even its call for a binding timetable of military reductions.

The peace accords call for an immediate ceasefire from 1 February which will be monitored by 1,000 United Nations (UN) police. By 31 October the FMLN is meant to be “demobilised”. A national police force under the control of a civilian minister will be established including an unspecified number of FMLN forces. The army will be reduced by 50%. A series of economic, electoral and land reforms have been promised.

But promises come cheap and all of these are pledged by an extreme right wing government inextricably bound up with the military high command and the Salvadorean landed ruling class.

The FMLN is relying on the UN and above all the USA to deliver these reforms by putting pressure on Cristiani’s government. This alone shows how far the FMLN has moved from its anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric of the 1980s.

Like the rest of the Latin American guerrillaist left, the FMLN is revealing the fundamental weakness of its political programme and strategy. The FMLN, in common with the Sandinistas, was never committed to the overthrow of capitalism. It never aimed to place political and economic power in the hands of the workers and peasants.

The FMLN leaders were democratic and anti-imperialist revolutionaries. Their armed struggle was aimed at breaking the power of a government they saw as acting in the interests of imperialism and the forces in their own countries most closely connected to them—the agrarian capitalists, mine owners and the import-export industrialists.

Their immediate aim, reflecting the influence of Stalinism, was of establishing a democratic state which would encourage and support the existence of “indigenous” and “patriotic” capitalism. This state would be committed to developing the country for the benefit of the people, independent of imperialism. But as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua rapidly discovered, that kind of capitalism cannot exist.

The only loyalty the capitalists have is to profits, and in the semi-colonial world these profits come through exploiting the masses of workers and peasants in collaboration with the imperialists. Making “mixed economy” capitalism work means allowing capitalists to make their profits at the expense of the workers.

In Nicaragua reliance on the military and economic support of Cuba and the USSR could only offset the crisis, not resolve it. And indeed these two Stalinist states were the most fervent supporters of the strategy of an alliance with the “progressive bourgeoisie”.

The defeat of the Sandinista regime, precipitated by the dramatic decline in living standards of the masses, combined with the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and then the USSR, has led to a dramatic rethink of strategy within the Latin American guerrilla movements.

However, like the Stalinists, far from changing their programme and perspectives in a revolutionary direction, they have turned rightwards, advocating co-operation with capitalism and imperialism and moving away from any subjective allegiance to Marxism.

Shortly after the March 1990 election defeat in Nicaragua one wing of the Sandinistas was already drawing these conclusions. Comandante Victor Tirado Lopez declared:

“I think the cycle of anti-imperialist revolutions in the sense of a total response, military and economic, to imperialism, is in the process of closing. It is necessary to seek other options.”

Sections of the FMLN leadership in El Salvador were quick to follow. Joaquin Villalobos, head of the Revolutionary Army of the People (ERP) went on record in the New York Times in 1991 arguing that Marxism as a political theory had had its day. “In El Salvador,” he said, “it was necessary to isolate or cut off extremes”. El Salvador had to base itself on the model of Japan, Germany and Costa Rica. Other leaders of the FMLN have made similar comments, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need to “fit into the capitalist system”.

Even the so-called left of the FMLN, the El Salvador Communist Party (PCS), has refused to distance itself from these rightist moves. Its leader, Shafic Handal, was a co-signatory of the peace accords. The PCS, despite its continued occasional references to “socialism”, remains an integral part of the FMLN.

Meanwhile the FMLN has announced its intention to turn itself into a legal political party as soon as possible. It will fight in the 1994 elections as part of a “progressive alliance”, its hoped-for partner being the thoroughly capitalist Christian Democracy.

Workers and peasants who supported the FMLN need to draw very different lessons from the Nicaraguan events and the collapse of Stalinism.

Stalinism is bankrupt. Its strategy of alliances with “progressive” capitalists in the semi-colonial world is a disaster. Attempting to battle against imperialism on a national basis—a consequence of the Stalinist theory of building “socialism in one country”—leads to defeat.

The Nicaraguan revolution’s very survival could only have been guaranteed by spreading the revolution to the rest of Central America. The success of the struggle in El Salvador in the early 1980s also rested on such a strategy. The struggle against imperialism and capitalism had to be an international one, based on mobilising the international working class against imperialist intervention. But the Stalinist and petit bourgeois nationalist guerrilla leaders refused to carry out such a strategy.

As a result they have led the masses to a serious defeat, despite their heroic struggles and sacrifices. The revolutionary movement needs to be rebuilt in Central America by drawing the correct lessons. This means not turning away from Marxism but turning to the programme and strategy that represents its revolutionary continuity in the twentieth century, Trotsky’s permanent revolution.

Permanent revolution brings the class question to the fore of the struggle against imperialism, fighting for the expropriation of all capitalists, not just the imperialists.

It places the working class and poor peasant struggle high on the agenda, focusing on the struggle at the point of production, on the building of workers’ councils, militias, on factory and estate committees. It subordinates the military struggle to the rhythms of the political mass struggle of the organised workers and peasants.

The revolutionary seizure of power would lead not to a left junta of unaccountable “commanders”, but to the empowerment of millions through real workers’ democracy. It means no joint government with the bourgeoisie, and only strictly limited tactical agreements in action with bourgeois forces who are episodically prepared to fight the imperialists.

Above all, permanent revolution means the internationalisation of the struggle, not the trading off of support for a neighbouring revolution in exchange for peace with imperialism.

That is the Trotskyist strategy for defeating imperialism in Latin America. The FMLN peace deal is just the latest proof that anything else leads to total failure.