Revolutionary movements, theory and practice: The Peruvian experience of the 1980s - Bill Langan

Why has the Maoist guerilla movement, Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), thrived when the rest of Stalinism is in such crisis? By Bill Langan

Submitted by Fozzie on July 18, 2019

"Father of mine, your face like the great sky, hear me: the heart of the seuores is now more terrifying, more filthy, inspires more hate. They have corrupted our very own brothers, twisted their hearts and together killing us armed with weapons that the king of devils himself couldn't invent or produce. And yet there is a great light in our lives! We are shining! We have descended upon the city of the seuores. It is from there that I speak to you. We have descended like the endless columns of ants in the great jungle. Here we are, with you beloved leader, unforgettable, eternal Amaru."

(Jose Marie Arguedas, leading Peruvian indigenist author, from his extended poem 'To Our Creator-Father Tupac Amaru' in his work Katakay)

In 1968 the military took power in Peru and, presenting themselves as a 'national revolutionary government', managed to re-channel much of the revolutionary ferment affecting all social sectors under their 'democratic' predecessors, with extensive land reform, nationalization and development programmes. In the harsher international climate of the mid-70s its reformism ran out of steam, giving way firstly to monetarism and then a return to democracy under popular pressure at the end of the decade.

During the 1980 elections which marked this transition, the Communist Party of Peru (Sendero Luminoso) declared the start of its 'popular war' after nearly a decade of 'reconstitution'. The conservative Belaunde government (1980-85) was succeeded by the left-nationalist APRA government (1985-90) , which in turn was defeated by the current president, Alberto Fujimori. He has played for popularity by portraying himself as a technocrat separate from and above the 'corrupt' political class. Indeed, he closed down the Congress in May 1992, reopening it with elections in November of the same year, which were boycotted by the traditional opposition parties. He is a new breed of populist, who has made greater use than any previous leader of direct appeal to the populace via television and radio, particularly in the 'war on subversion'. Sendero has overcome some harsh setbacks over the years , but all depends now on their ability to overcome the capture of leader Abimael Guzman in September 1992.

Contrary to popular belief, Peru is not a country of peasants, but one where two-thirds of the population are now 'urban'. However, a large part of this 'urban' population is concentrated in and around provincial towns and they maintain close family and trade links with the rural population. Although the growth of the informal sector in urban areas has been widely commented on, what is more striking statistically is the pauperization of this sector over the decade in terms of income levels compared to that of the more traditional working class.

Peru is a country rich in characters who have striven to compose radical theory which can then be put into practice. At the turn of the century, for example, the Peruvian anarchist movement was inspired by the ideas and contributions of one Gonzalez Prada, the first writer to address the so-called indian problem from a revolutionary position. He was followed in the twenties by the marxist analysis of Jose Carlos Mariategui, Peru's foremost historical figure on the left, who also founded the original PCP (Communist Party of Peru), and whose writings and influence deserve an article of their own. Later we have the Trotskyist Hugo Blanco, a key figure in the 1960s peasant uprisings and guerrilla insurgency, and we also find that the 'Liberation Theology' of radical Catholicism originated as a concept with the Peruvian Gustavo Guttierez.

The leader of the PCP-SL Abimael Guzman styles himself as the successor to Mao, and I think that within that authoritarian marxist tradition of Lenin- Stalin - Mao, he probably has every right to, given his record of applying theory to practice. His so-called Gonzalo Thinking is basically an adaption of Maoism to the Peruvian situation, dominated by the idea of Power and how to conquer it, the Struggle of Two Lines, the militarized political party, and his historical analysis (all described ad nauseum in a widely available interview from 1987).


What I would like to do is to hold up the experience of Sendero (as a revolutionary movement acting in modern conditions) to some of the theories about social movements that began to become popular just as in fact they began their 'popular war'. I have only looked at the Peruvian upholders of these theories, but I think you'll agree that they form part of an international trend. So I'll start by commenting on the main points of these new theories and then the aspects of Sendero which are relevant to this comparison.

The new studies of social and political movements which emerged at the beginning of the eighties sought to overcome what was seen as the dogmas of the old theories which had concentrated on the complimentary roles of class, state and power: the key phrases were instead now grassroots social movements, citizenship and democracy. There was a strong urban bias, in keeping with the urbanization trend and which corresponded to the idea of trying to use social reality as a base for theory, rather than the old habit of making the reality fit the theory. We see this in the new trend towards social history rather than the history of impersonal structures as a means of recording the past.

This theoretical trend coincided with an important political development: the relatively peaceful end of military rule in Peru at the end of the 1970s. As in Spain at approximately the same time, and other countries that experienced such a transition, a democratic euphoria accompanied the end of dictatorship. This euphoria was shared by virtually all the left apart from Sendero. The traditional peasant and workers movements lost their importance as academic interest refocussed itself on movements whose demands corresponded not just to the productive sphere. As for how to effect political change Gramsci appeared to offer the answer for these 'new times' with his idea that these new social movements could form part of national popular blocs: social alliances replacing the old class-based formations.

The new theorists identified a series of new characteristics of social struggle in the 'new democratic environment'. These were:

1) Change in Social Structure: that new sectors such as the 'informal sector' would assume greater importance than traditional categories of urban and rural workers.

2) New Organizations: that in keeping with the above structural change, new small scale 'micro-level' organizations would assume more importance than the old mass organizations (unions and peasant federations).

3) New Struggles: the idea that the 1980s movements would be concerned with demands other than the old 'class-based' demands.

4) New Methods of Struggle: that the age of direct action had ended. While this meant a lot of positive eye-opening, these new ideas often led to the throwing out of class as a means of looking at society, and revolution as a feasible solution. Because of that I'll argue that on the one hand, the experience of the eighties, with the joint rise and fall of the new social movements and the democratic left in Peru, suggests that something was wrong with the conclusions drawn from the ideas that went accompanying both. And, on the other hand, that the new theorists were incapable of understanding the rise of a revolutionary movement such as Sendero.


One of the first questions raised about Sendero is what is their social base, and what is their appeal? What I want to emphasize is the impossibility of pigeonholing (as so many have tried to) the answers to both questions.

Firstly, the social origin of the party members who were joining from the late sixties onwards and were thus 'in' on the start of the war in 1980 can be generalized as students and teachers who would often have a peasant background but had moved to provincial towns for educational reasons (as the beneficiaries of a national trend towards popular education in the state sector). Now, given that virtually every urban dweller in Peru has close relations in the country, you're talking about quite a wide and typical section of people making up the original militancy, not a purely'peasant army' but neither exactly a 'urban middle class elite', a label favoured by Sendero's detractors on the left who contrast it to the 'true' armies of the oppressed such as the Sandinistas and Castro's followers. To criticise Sendero it is not necessary to falsify their nature and mythologize the latter guerrilla - cum - regimes.

The party has continued ever since to recruit heavily amongst young people with close links to both urban and rural life. A son of a landowner once simply said to me, 'peasant plus university = terrorist'.

Secondly, the peasantry is seen as 'principal force' in the overall war strategy and the rural areas have always been a main focus of Sendero activity as they have recruited among young peasants for both static support and to make up mobile columns. Peasantry is maybe now something of a misnomer as the rural population (who now make up little over a third of the total) are largely incorporated in the market economy, and so Sendero correctly identify them as 'rural proletariat'.

Thirdly and finally, in the urban sector Sendero is active in traditional industrial sectors, but does not favour them above other areas of struggle. Rather it has kept abreast of the fact that many of the working class are employed in small-scale labour operations in the so-called informal sector. Everyone from the very poor (working class) and the relatively prosperous (lower middle class) sectors are the object of Sendero's work2 (an example of Sendero's involvement in this sector is that in the town where I lived a teacher was shot dead on the local university campus, because in his position as a town council member he was involved in a major dispute with the town's street traders).

To understand the nature of this work I think we have to locate its activities in the perspective of an overall strategy that deals with all areas of urban life such as neighbourhood organizations, housing, education, producers/traders associations, morality, justice, movement on the streets, cultural life....There are many examples of their work in each one of these areas, which is carried out by a complex web of front organizations, as well as lower level intervention in already existing organizations.

In both town and country the Party tries to eventually convert itself into the guardian of every aspect of social activity. The idea (and the practice) is to create a shadow state which begins by operating clandestinely, and when the time is right, emerges more openly. And as with all states, the bottom line of social control is the threat of violence.


We can't take the movement's slogans at face value. The rhetoric varies according to the audience addressed. For a movement to effect social change it has been suggested that it must work at three levels: the daily or micro-level, the sectoral level and the national level, and synthesize the three. Sendero has to some extent done this: At the daily or neighbourhood level the slogans are reformist: Electricity and Water for the Barrios!, Down with the Rent Rise! Particular groups are organized around their specific demands (e.g. squatters or small businessmen in the towns or coca-growers in the country). This can be done through infiltrating already existing local associations or unions.

On the sectoral level, the front organizations operating in different local struggles draw likely recruits into the wider scheme of things. The front organization is seen as an operation which represents the party in different localities on a sectoral level, such as the Young Peoples Popular Movement in schools/colleges, Classist Neighbourhood Movement in residents associations, etc. In this way the recruit enters into contact with the party, and starts to learn the revolutionary rhetoric via intensive, parrot-fashion ideological training.

But when Abimael Guzman's own philosophy teacher and great personal influence was asked in an interview, what do you think of all these simple Maoist slogans that your ex-pupil's followers churn out, he just laughed and dismissed it as verbal fodder. So on a national level there is serious ideological work being done which represents the combining of theory and practice on a very high level. This is why I talk about the war in Peru as being one in which ideology is given a uniquely privileged role, which of course relates to the strong tradition of revolutionary theory in the country, mentioned earlier.

Although I have emphasized the complex nature of the Party's structures, it's obviously wrong to go overboard and see it as some kind of completely well-oiled machine, above and beyond the actual human beings who run it! This is the image the party itself often convincingly portrays, but obviously there are overlaps between different sub-groups in the Party and breakdowns of structure.

The key point then is that Sendero works across all type of social sector and class. Furthermore, despite the apparent rigidity of its doctrine it is very responsive to social trends that affect these divisions, such as migrations or the informal sector. This grasp of modern and changing conditions has been the key to its success. Instead of asking why has Sendero achieved what it has, maybe we should ask, why has it not got further?


So what are the consequences of the 'Sendero experience' for the various social movements theories? Well it clearly challenges the conclusion that a class-based revolutionary movement cannot get to grips with the new conditions. To go back to the formulation of the SM theorists:

In terms of the new composition of the working class, the party has shown itself broad-based enough in its strategy to accomodate all different sectors of the working class and some sectors of the middle class. This new composition has, it should be added, been highly exaggerated, because there has always been a large and at various times politicized informal sector.

In terms of new 'micro-level' organizations it has either tried to dominate these or else destroy and replace them, with the use of front organizations.

In terms of new struggles SL has simply tried to head any type of popular demand going, including those of 'citizens rights' as opposed to 'workers rights'.

Finally, as far as new forms of struggle go, the party has been the first to try (not always with success) to develop these in order to replace the old forms of struggle which the state learnt to handle. A main example is the Armed Strike which at its most effective has managed to paralyze Lima.

The new theories were largely correct in their observations, most of all in their attempt to look at all areas of social life in place of a vulgar economic focus. This is important because it is the all-encompassing nature of SL's strategy, applying itself to all aspects of social life, which I believe is the key to their success. Groups such as the Stalinist PCP-Unidad which concentrated all their efforts on building trade union power bases, have found themselves at the end of the 1980s in the position of Emperors with No Clothes On. The irony, then, is that Sendero took the key observations of the 'new times' analysts in their stride, and incorporated those observations within their own strategy.

The new social movement theorists and their many fellow travellers,both academic and political, got many of their observations right. But their conclusion: that the advent of democracy made class-based revolutionary movements redundant, and their anticipation: that small scale cross-class popular bloc movements would provide the basis for popular politics in the 'new times', have both been shown (in the Peruvian case) to be wrong.

How then has Sendero adapted itself to the new conditions which the theorists identified? What I think we learn is that a revolutionary movement in these modern conditions must have a continually extending social base and geographical base to overcome repression (this is something Sendero learnt through practice: when the military launched a major flushing out campaign in their original base province of Ayacucho in 83/84, the party was partly forced to relocate its activities to new areas.) By looking at society such as the Peruvian one in its totality, we can see that there are many different 'points of power' that a revolutionary strategy needs to deal with, by capturing or neutralizing each one. In this way we can look at Sendero's strategy and the state's counter-strategy with regard to the peasant self-defence groups, the MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement - Peru's other main guerrilla force), the unions, universities etc., etc..

The failure of the new social movements to provide the embryo for national change can, apart from anything else, be linked to the shortcomings of 'democracy' in Latin America generally. The popularity of the theory went hand in hand with the democratic euphoria which accompanied it in Peru and elsewhere upon the end of military rule in the late 1970s, therefore the fate of the theory is linked to the fate of these 'democracies'. Neither have really fulfilled their promises in practice. The shortcomings of the social democratic model make necessary a revolutionary critique of Peru's political realities which is relevant to both theory and practice. Such a critique needs to take seriously the evidence of Sendero's experience, whatever our many misgivings about their politics, rather than seeing it as a freak aberration or guerrilla leftover from the sixties.


I would like now to go over why so far such a critique is barely available. Having looked at the theoretically based defenders of Peru's social democracy, we now need to 'analyze the analysts' of Sendero itself: the self-styled experts on Peru's high level of social conflict. This means identifying the political associations and ideological assumptions which underline their work (and hence a large part of our information).

Virtually all analysts whose books or articles you might find come somewhere along the scale between those on the reforming left and those who are basically military advisors in an academic guise, the so-called 'counter-insurgency experts'. I describe them as being on a scale rather than as two distinct groups, because there is a grey area, and the difference between the two is becoming even more blurred in line with the global post-Cold War trend towards a naked convergence of interests between the 'left' and the 'right' under capitalism. Both 'ends on the scale' express their main aim to be protecting Peruvian 'democracy'. Which translates as: how do we defeat Sendero and protect the State?

This grey area regularly manifests itself. At a recent meeting in London for instance John Crabtree, a sympathetic author-critic on the Peruvian left shared a table with Rosemary Thorp, an Oxford economist who tutored Fujimori's until-recently Economy Minister and called for greater liberalization in the 1980s. The blurred lines are also there when the leftist analysts complain that the right wing Fujimori government does not listen to their proposals, or indeed when the government does listen, without admitting it of course, and embark on symbolic social help programs such as the army going into shantytowns to distribute free food and haircuts.

It is not necessarily the counter-insurgency people who are less accurate, as they are not weighed down like the leftists are by an alternative programme for administrating capitalism which they have to put in every piece of writing. They are much better about simply seeking out and presenting information on Sendero so that the government, military or business know just what the score is: one of the most realistic assessments of the continuing conflict in Peru after Guzman's arrest came from Gordon McCormick, an advisor to the American Rand Corporation, in an interview with the liberal Peruvian news weekly Caretas (Nov 92).

The leftist analysts are compromised by association just as much as their right-wing counterparts are. They share a common ground with the solidarity campaigns, the charities and non-governmental organizations (ONGs), and the left-wing politicos. I'm not trying to make them out to be some organized mafiosi, simply pointing out the connections. For instance, I found Peruvians well aware that many ONGs were jobs-for-the-boys outfits for the left wing parties. Anyway, the analysts and those outfits share the basic beliefs in the rule of parliament, constitution and all the other trappings of the modern democratic state, and as organizations (not necessarily individuals) oppose revolution, violent overthrow etc.

These analysts are informed by certain key themes which, while all containing certain essential truths, are harnessed in favour of an anti-revolutionary perspective, which puts the onus on an elected government to make the necessary changes.

One such theme is of course Human Rights. It is not my intention here to go into the flaws of human rights as a concept, suffice to say that both the military and the PCP (SL) have been guilty of gross abuses of ordinary people. But this is in their nature as authoritarian institutions belonging to a state and a shadow state respectively. On practical grounds this theme is directly relevant to leftist analysts, as the reformist left are often victim of both state and Sendero attacks.

Another is the idea of the people caught between two fires - that the war is being fought between two merciless outside factions, with the 'ordinary people' caught haplessly in the middle. It is certainly true that anyone trying to work outside the Fujimori state and Sendero's shadow state is a potential victim of both. However this refrain is also used to make the populace appear a passive community, and particularly lends itself to such a stereotyping of the peasantry, who would presumably be happier half-starving and growing crops for Western export than hoisting the flag of revolt. The reasons for revolt remain valid and real, and the government is worried about the prospect of the (originally rural but now going urban) citizens self-defence militias which it originally armed turning their sights on their masters.

Finally there is the idea that greater social spending and democratization are necessary to defeat Sendero: which brings us back to the basic dilemma of the reformist left: that such a programme would still have to go hand in hand with a military operation. In other words: continued war.

So we see that the analysts of Sendero are not in a hot air balloon overlooking events, but play a direct role as advisors through association, on the one hand, with the reformist left and associated institutions, on the other hand, with both the Peruvian and foreign state, military and business institutions, and ever more obviously with both.

In developing a revolutionary critique of the situation, I think we also need to decide on what forces to associate with, both in terms of their theory and their political practice. For anyone who finds themselves there, this a very real question.

Firstly there is of course Sendero itself. In terms of numbers, capability and territory it is obviously still the key revolutionary force. But of course unless you're in the inner circle, there's no room for non-party line thinking except say in an internal crisis which reaches up to the highest level (which must be what happened after the arrest of Guzman). Probably every Peruvian who flirts with radical politics has to decide personally how to relate to the Party. In normal times ideological debate is seen as super-dangerous to the party's discipline and cohesiveness, the party is only there to instruct. As one person (involved in a supportive role to the Party) said to me with some awe, 'the comrades have an answer to everything'. In the Cusco region a new guerrilla column started up around 1987 which wanted to support the armed struggle while remaining outside the Party. By all accounts they were virtually eliminated by Sendero, after wielding some influence in the region.

The other main guerrilla group is the MRTA who have a classic Latin American guerrilla ideology, trying to be what they would call the armed wing of the popular movement along FMLN/Sandinista lines. What others would call the armed wing of the bourgeois left. The MRTA would appear to be a more broad-based movement but has in fact been fraught by internal power struggles resulting in public splits, desertions, and murders of rival leaders. It is difficult to know how much of a future they have, as their only opportunity for growth appears to be if the official left or factions of it, is pushed further out of the political spectrum - which is actually a possibility now that it has virtually no parliamentary representation. Certainly the Robin Hood nature of many of the MRTA's actions are designed to make people morally sympathetic, and a lot of hopes for a humane but revolutionary 'third alternative' have been pinned on them over the years.

As for the official left itself, it is really now on a life support machine more than ever since its re-entrance into national politics in the late seventies. As in so many other countries in the world now, it's popularly identified as part of the whole corrupt party political circus. Its Congress representation was almost decimated in the December 1992 elections, it now retains power only on a limited local level. Its credibility was also indirectly damaged by the complete failure of the supposedly left of centre APRA government of the mid eighties, which really showed the limits of trying to apply populist left policies in a capitalist environment.

In the 1980s there was certainly a revolutionary flavour at the grassroots of the Peruvian left, tied in with the hopes that the new social movements would provide a new 'revolutionary subject'. But now it remains a set of leaders without followers, whose incorporation into the system was never made clearer than in January of this year, when the 'Democratic Left' grouping in Congress (a new proto-party arisen from the ashes of the once strong United Left) proposed a special Congress medal for military officers who excelled in the 'battle against subversion'!

Finally we come to the fringe groups who might or might not become relevant in the future. If they do become relevant it will probably be in terms of the legacy of their ideas rather than their small existing organizations. In Peru the trotskyists and anarchists are the only groups I know of with a revolutionary vision that challenges the Sendero/MRTA orthodoxies, (although the former are limited by their own authoritarian tendencies), and both groups have long and interesting histories of their own in the country. There is I believe potential for a popular renewal of the anarchist or libertarian socialist/communist vision.

The reason I believe there is such an audience owes itself to the tradition of grassroots rebellion in Peru itself. Although this tradition has been harnessed by Sendero and MRTA in the 1980s, it has in fact manifested itself under a variety of different flags over the decades and centuries, and indeed often under no flag at all. There is a history of communal acts against authority, from land seizures to supermarket looting.

On the other side of the coin there exists a strong tradition of communalismo and mutual self-help on the part of both rural and urban dwellers, which, although at various times taken up by political groups, has a life of its own beyond the timespan of such groups. Taking away the political conclusions of the analysts, many of what they identified as new social movements in the 1980s represented the urban continuation of this rural tradition of combatting poverty and bettering communal life through mutual aid.

A proper examination of this twin tradition of anti-authoritarian struggle and mutual cooperation is outside the realms of this article, but provides an always strong potential alternative to both the social democracy of 'left' and 'right' and the stalinist authoritarianism of the PCP (SL).

(A campaign is being built up around the imprisonment of two anarchists in Peru, falsely accused of working for Sendero Luminoso. Donations are badly needed for legal fees and food {which is not supplied for prisoners}. Contact: The Peruvian Solidarity Project of the Love & Rage Network, PO Box 3, Prince Street Station, New York, New York 10012, USA.)


1 The following four points are taken from Movimientos sociales: Elementos para una relectura (Social Movements: starting points for a reassessment) (Desco, Lima 1990)

2 Although individuals higher up the social scale than this may be attracted, and the press will always make great play of this, I have not yet seen evidence of an attempt to attract the more comfortable middle classes and upwards as a sector or class, although the support of sections of the 'national bourgeoisie' is envisaged in the anti-imperialist/popular front stage of Sendero's plans.

3 Three levels identified in the excellent book by Diego Palma, Lo popular, la informalidad y cambio social (The popular classes, the informal sector and social change) (Desco Lima 1990).

4 Author this year of Peru under APRA: The Lost Opportunity(Oxford University Press), whose title says it all about his slant on the left nationalist government of Alan Garcia which ruled 1985-90.