A Brief Engagement With J.M. Sison’s “On the Question of Protracted People’s War in Imperialist Countries”
I’ll open with a statement of my admiration for Jose Maria Sison as possibly one of the most important Maoist theoreticians and revolutionaries of the 21st Century. Real recognize real, and a man who survives decades of torture, assassination attempts, and exile has the utmost respect and admiration from myself. JM Sison led the CPP out of the mire of old style revisionism and opportunism and under his guidance it launched the longest lasting people’s war which continues despite setbacks and a split in the 1980s. This should be kept in mind when engaging with any work of his, and the presumptuousness and arrogance of certain Western so-called “revolutionaries” in labeling him a “rightist”, a “revisionist” and a “snitch-jacketer” is a sad reminder of how far we have to come towards actually being ready for revolution in the imperialist metropoles. It is the duty of proletarian revolutionaries in the imperialist world to learn from, respect, and study deeply those who have already gotten where we’re trying to go, while also taking into consideration the differences between various contexts and engaging in line struggle with revolutionaries who have already guided armed struggles.
The piece “On the Question of Protracted People’s War in Imperialist Countries” was responded to with much vitriol and arrogance by certain individual internet Maoists and small sects which are distinguished by their undying allegiance to imposing what we can term “Gonzaloism” on the international Communist Movement. While all Maoists uphold the protracted people’s war that unfolded in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s, we also need to remember that the bend in the road that many called the capture of Gonzalo has transformed into a crook and then a change in direction of the road. There is no people’s war currently being waged in Peru. Whether Peruvian Maoists will develop it anew remains to be seen, but it’s important to not engage in self-delusion and lie to ourselves, nevermind the myriads of people who are gravitating towards Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in the wake of the continued exposure of the baselessness and uselessness of DSA style parliamentary cretinism in service to Yankee imperialism. There is much to learn from the Peruvian experience, but there is much to shy away from, particularly the ultraleft commandist deviation in their line which led to incidents like Lucanamarca, religious style veneration of Gonzalo the man, and the Spanish Inquisition style excommunication procedures with which cadre who attempted to engage in line struggle were handled. I personally have been a victim of the latter and am routinely referred to by our modern day adherents to the universality of Gonzalo Thought thesis as a “hack”, a “fraud”, “the Trotsky of US Maoism”, “rightist”, and a variety of other terms that are rapidly being applied to Sison himself for daring to offer a course correction to certain harmful ultra-left tendencies that have set themselves up in parts of Europe and the United States.
In industrial capitalist countries, the proletarian revolutionaries cannot begin the revolutionary war with a small and weak people’s army in the countryside and hope to use the wide space and indefinite time in the countryside to sustain the war. As soon as that army dares to launch the first tactical offensive, it will be overwhelmed by the huge armed army and the highly unified economic, communications and transport system of the monopoly bourgeoisie.
However, the term “people’s war” may be flexibly used to mean the necessary armed revolution by the people to overthrow the bourgeois state in an industrial capitalist country. But definitely, what ought to be protracted is the preparation for the armed revolution with the overwhelming participation of the people. As Lenin pointed out, the revolution cannot win unless the capitalist system has been so gravely stricken by crisis that the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way, the people are desirous of revolutionary change and the revolutionary party of the proletariat is strong enough to lead the revolution. It is futile to ignite armed revolution in the city or in the countryside without due regard to the objective conditions and subjective factors of the revolution. An urban armed insurrection against the capitalist state can succeed only as a result of grave debilitation by its internal crisis, the crisis of the world capitalist system, involvement in an inter-capitalist or inter-imperialist war and the rise of the revolutionary mass movement with sufficient armed strength.
This bears similarity to many arguments I’ve engaged in with certain Marxist-Leninist comrades, who seem to think that we in imperialist countries are chained 100% to the dictum established by the Chinese experience and applied in semi-feudal contexts — surround the cities from the countryside, etc. This is not the case for imperialist countries, there will undoubtedly be a rural aspect of the struggle but the heat of the struggle will be in urban/suburban terrain. The examples of Northern Ireland, Gaza, and Turkey offer good lessons for those who are working to develop military line for a MLM party in the urbanized imperialist metropole. We should also turn to our own experience in the US — we have a rich tradition of maroon/slave uprisings, urban uprisings that have lasted for several days (Ferguson, Watts, LA ’92, Baltimore, etc.). It is true that at this stage of weakness in the revolutionary movement, attempting to launch armed struggle would be the pinnacle of stupidity and reactionary suicide. There have been various formations that have attempted the task, the Black Liberation Army (BLA) standing tall among them. They ended up being hamstrung by the lack of centralization (which, dialectically, was also a bit of a benefit, because they were able to display creativity and initiative in carrying out a wide array of expropriations and attacks on the reactionary state apparatus) and the failure to apply the dictum of swimming among the people like fish. An underground army needs a broad and above ground base of support and a Party to guide it, otherwise it is doomed to ultra-militarist errors and will eventually be hemmed in and destroyed by the forces of the state. The BLA’s ideological error was its rejection of the lessons of the Chinese experience and the adoption of the focoismo theory developed by Che Guevara and Regis Debray, which has led to failure everywhere it has been applied. The people are our greatest strength, our bastion of titanium. I also unite with Comrade Sison’s statement that crisis paves the way for revolutions. However, we should not idly wait for crisis to come about. We should take advantage of every opportunity to expose the reactionary Yankee imperialist state, local atrocities committed by the capitalists and their governments, and abuses by the police. Every word we speak is propaganda and helps build potential Party militants and activists. Every act we do is propaganda and shows our commitment to the revolutionary movement.
Comrade Sison continues:
The Paris Commune of 1871 showed that the proletarian revolutionaries could wage a successful urban insurrection when France was preoccupied with the Franco-Prussian war and the armed city guards themselves carried out the insurrection, with the overwhelming support of the proletarian masses. In imperialist Russia, the Bolsheviks had the foresight to sow cadres as revolutionary seeds within the Tsarist army. When the masses of troops became discontented like the people in the course of World War I, they rose up to overthrow the Tsar and then the Kerensky bourgeois government. Subsequently, they waged a successful war against the reactionaries and the foreign interventionists in the countryside of the vast Russian empire.
Even before they were favored by the monopoly bourgeoisie to govern Germany and directly use state terrorism to suppress the proletariat and its revolutionary party, the German fascists formed their armed groups or paramilitary organization and collaborated with the army and police of the capitalist state to break workers’ strikes and people’s protests. During the severe crisis of the Weimar Republic, the German communists and social democrats had also their own armed groups but were surpassed by the fascists at the crucial point. But the lesson remains valid that proletarian revolutionaries and the people must always strive to excel and be successful at both preparations and actual conduct of the armed revolution. During World War II, the partisans could arise in several European countries, such as in France, Italy and elsewhere, to wage partisan warfare against the fascists. Where fascism first rose to power in 1922, the communists and the people engaged in guerrilla warfare in both urban and rural areas until they could hang the fascist dictator and come to the verge of taking state power.
Based on the foregoing historical facts, it is always wise for the organized revolutionary proletariat and masses to assume and anticipate that the capitalist system is prone to crisis and that the monopoly bourgeoisie resorts to fascism in order to head off the proletarian revolution. Even if the material foundation for socialism exists in capitalism, the proletariat must first defeat fascism, thus winning the battle for democracy, before socialism can triumph. It is logical and necessary for proletarian revolutionaries to arm themselves, be consciously disciplined and conduct politico-military training in preparation for future armed conflict. I presume that the armed capability of the proletarian revolutionaries is in the first place bound by ideological, political and organizational principles and rules.
As the Bolsheviks did, the proletarian revolutionaries can also deploy cadres for revolutionary work in the reactionary army, especially because most of the soldiers come from the working class. A capitalist state can in the future become so debilitated by crisis and war that its reactionary armed services tend to disintegrate, like the Tsarist army in World War I. As regards to obtaining and keeping arms covertly for decades and launching small-formation offensives under the most limited and difficult conditions, the revolutionary armed organizations in Ireland and Palestine provide good examples of conscious discipline, skillfulness, resourcefulness and durability due to mass support of entire communities opposing an occupying force. However, they are in situations and processes of development which are not typical in capitalist countries today.
It’s important to keep in mind the difference in the character of the Tsarist era military which was comprised of conscripts and the modern day US military and police, which is entirely volunteer and ideologically trains its soldiers to be willing and able tools of Yankee imperialism. Former soldiers comprise major strata of the armed, organized fascist movements/lone wolf right wing terrorists and are also heavily represented in the police force. An examination of their internet forums shows a sickening and deeply rooted chauvinism against Middle Eastern and Latin American people, along with New Afrikans as well. There is a basis for unity with individual ex-military personnel who have been radicalized by their first hand witness to the crimes committed by their fellow soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we should seek the inclusion of progressive organizations such as Veterans for Peace in our United Front work, which includes anti-military propaganda and international solidarity efforts with progressive movements such as the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and the continued effort to demonstrate solidarity with Cuba. The case of Chelsea Manning shows that there are possibilities for potentially developing cadres to work in the reactionary armed forces and serve the Revolution, but these would have to be handled with utmost adherence to principles of security culture due to the fact that we live in a heavily monitored surveillance state with the best state of the art equipment that money can buy. The ultra-left tendency to label such things “social fascist” when it is Cuba that is currently sending medical assistance to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian and Venezuela which offered fuel to the New Afrikan residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina (and also armed and bled alongside the Angolan people) is a major error and a mishandling of the time honored principle of proletarian internationalism. I unite with Comrade Sison’s assertion that proletarian revolutionaries must arm and develop our military capabilities. The concrete situation today is that many “left” groups spend more time polemicizing and drawing unnecessary lines of demarcation when we should be building unity on a tactical basis on an anti-fascist and anti-capitalist basis. It’s possible to work with a variety of different groups, from revolutionary nationalist formations to anarchist formations to even multitendency formations in the interests of serving the people and building the United Front. Of course, ideological differences will exist, but we should reserve them and handle them in a spirit of desire for unity and broadening of the real people’s movement. It will be necessary if we are to develop armed struggle in the United States to draw strength from a variety of groups and strata and organize them into people’s militias and other formations which will come into existence based on the concrete necessity as determined by the Party. We must conduct politico-military training not just of Party cadre but also educate and train the masses in basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of this work as well according to our concrete situation and needs and to expand the revolutionary movement.
It is therefore possible to organize proletarians with firearms as sporting gun clubs, as community self-defense organizations and as voluntary security for public events and structures. But of course it is unwise to make displays of armed groups of people and at the same time provocatively declare themselves in opposition to the capitalist state, its army and police. Such imprudence would immediately prompt state measures of violent suppression, as in the historical case of the Black Panthers. In capitalist societies, it is the fascists and other reactionary armed groups that are privileged to publicly boast of their arms and their military training and exercises.
It is also unwise to bring arms to mass protests that are supposed to be legal and peaceful and where most of the people are unarmed and are far from ready to launch an armed insurrection. It is wise for the revolutionary party of the proletariat not to declare publicly the intent of building a people’s army before the conditions are ripe for armed revolution. Whatever are gun licensing laws and no matter how strict they are, there are also among the people those who have the skills, materials and equipment to make firearms discreetly in their private garages and work sheds. In the long-term effort to prepare for people’s war against the fascists and the capitalist state, the people can acquire and make firearms. While there are yet no conditions for fighting and using the arms in a particular capitalist country, proletarian revolutionaries ought to continue arousing, organizing and mobilizing the masses in legal and persuasive ways with the confidence that they have the means of self-defense to fight back with certain success against the fascists and capitalist state when the necessity arises.
Far more important than acquiring or making the firearms is fulfilling the ideological, political and organizational tasks to make the proletariat and its party truly revolutionary. But, of course, it is more important to have firearms before the fascists come to power than not to have any when the fascists are already in the process of taking power.
I unite with the principle of putting and keeping as many guns in the hands of the proletariat and semi-proletariat as possible. It is also necessary to learn from the example of the Black Panther Party’s Chicago branch under the guidance of Chairman Fred Hampton and seek to politicize lumpen/semi-proletarian formations commonly called “gangs” and bring them into the revolutionary movement, and proletarianize them. Mao’s work with bandits in China (who in many cases were recruited into the Red Army en masse, and turned into heroic and daring fighters) is a shining example of the potential, as is the development of the Slauson gang under Bunchy Carter into the Los Angeles Branch of the Black Panther Party. However, as Kevin Rashid Johnson tells us in “Our Line”, it’s important to keep politics in command and avoid strengthening lumpen tendencies which are harmful to the Party and the movement. These include ultra-militarism, settlement of non-antagonistic contradictions with antagonistic means, and the fetishization of the gun for its own sake and not for the sake of the revolution. These tendencies were the internal ones that made it possible for the reactionary bourgeois State to move against and eventually destroy the Party.
In regards to the principle of not bringing arms to legal demonstrations, many states allow concealed carry permits. My state, Missouri, allows the open carry of long arms and pistols without a license. With the rise in armed attacks by fascists on progressive/revolutionary spaces, such as the Charlottesville car-ramming attack which murdered activist Heather Heyer, it would be to the benefit of revolutionaries to organize armed groups of varying size as security at events. It is important to build revolutionary fighting groups comprised of cadre and militants to serve the interests of the party, protect Party spaces, and provide security for the masses against fascist and police attacks. I agree that it is important to use legal methods to develop and sharpen the conscience of the masses and involve them more and more in the revolutionary movement. Hyperfocus on illegal methods in an imperialist state smacks of anarchism and adventurist childishness. On this I unite firmly with Comrade Sison.
He later wrote a follow-up note the gist of which I agree with. He correctly takes to task the silliness, unprincipledness and general amateurishness of those who quibble endlessly of matters of little importance at this point in the development of our revolutions in the imperialist metropoles. Many who bandy about the terms “PPW” and seek to impose their idealism on revolutions that were taking place before their parents were born do not understand the process of preparing for and building a Party, a United Front, or a People’s Army. Hobbyism and twitter threads are not a suitable replacement for the concrete mass work, development and education necessary for the development of a real party. Groups that have been in existence for nearly 20 years yet have not developed a Party nor a substantial mass base have no real right to criticize those who have and expect to be taken seriously. Comrade Sison closes with:
It is only a “Left” opportunist, a fake Maoist or even an agent provocateur who has disdain for the lasting admonition of the Communist Manifesto to win the battle for democracy against the bourgeois class dictatorship and who clamors for proclaiming and starting a people’s war in an industrial capitalist country without the necessary preparations of the subjective forces and the favorable objective conditions that I have mentioned. Winning the battle for democracy does not mean merely competing with the bourgeoisie within the confines of its class dictatorship but fighting in every possible and necessary way the attempt of the monopoly bourgeoisie to misrepresent itself as the center of moderation and to use reformism or social democracy and fascism as its two arms to stave off the proletarian revolution by debilitating or destroying it. In any kind of country, the serious Maoist party makes concrete plans and preparations for armed revolution. The Filipino proletarian revolutionaries had to study the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, put forward the general line of people’s democratic revolution and the strategic line of protracted people’s war, conduct social investigation and mass work in the effort to develop the party, the people’s army and the united front as the weapons of the people’s revolutionary struggle against US imperialism and the local exploiting classes.
To prepare for the reestablishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines on December 26, 1968 and the New People’s Army on March 29, 1969, the Filipino proletarian revolutionaries used a full decade of ideological, political and organizational work and some five years of politico-military training and linking up with remnants of the old people’s army whose main force had been decimated from 1950 to 1952. Communists proclaim their ideological position and political program and never conceal their ultimate goal of overthrowing the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and replacing it with that of the proletariat. But they are smart enough to use both the open and legal as well as the clandestine and nonlegal forms of struggle and methods of developing the revolutionary mass movement towards the proletarian-socialist revolution. And they are prudent enough not to go into the pitfalls of “Left” and Right opportunist, the fake Maoist or the Agent.
Many would call the first part “copjacketing”. This is ironic in light of the fact that many to whom Sison is referring habitually label those with whom they disagree as “wreckers”, “snitches” and “doxxers” without concrete evidence. I myself have been treated to this childishness. If a person engages in habitual calls for armed struggle while trying to wreck or downplay the necessity of building a solid base among the people, they have issues of some sort. A glance at the history of the Black Panther Party, the IWW and various other revolutionary formations show that those who call the loudest for armed struggle when it would objectively result in the destruction of many cadre and mass activists are either plants or bound to swing to the hard right like Eldridge Cleaver. Ultra-leftism transforms into ultra-rightism. Many in the imperialist metropole display petit-bourgeois tendencies of impetuosity and adventurism, this leads to the withering of their movements and isolation from the masses. Huey Newton wrote of the defection from the masses of the Black Panther Party — it had ceased to be a true vanguard because in his opinion it had transformed into a left military cult. Maoists swim among the people, we don’t wall ourselves off from them behind a veneer of phony hyper militancy and sectarianism. We go where the masses are, and claim vanguard status not by words and bombastic proclamations, but by our deeds and presence with them, guiding them in their deepest despair and also being guided by them away from things that are harmful to them.
Can protracted people’s war as strategy make revolution in the United States, Canada, or Europe? Of course. Nothing Comrade Sison said would lead one to believe otherwise. What is required, however, is a firm, disciplined, revolutionary Party that is patient, humble, and capable of uniting with and working with the broadest segments of the masses and learning from the historical experience of the Communist movement. A Party that walls itself off from the people or who attacks those who are already waging people’s war and have been for many years displays a lack of humility and will never initiate successful armed struggle. It will end in prison, just like many who tried before.