Guerrilla Militancy: A Viable Option?

We have seen how the Weather Underground organization has taken the role of guerrilla militants in an effort to advocate for mass scale social change. This question still remains however: Was this even a viable option for movement tactics to begin with? Throughout history, we’ve seen many militant guerrilla forces succeed over a larger government oppressor, the most contemporary of which being in Russia, China, and Cuba, However not a single one of these movements have been successful within a modern democracy. Does a modern democracy, such as the United States have a power structure and dynamic social system in which a militant revolution that is deemed radical to be useful? Or has a movement just not maintained the longevity and conviction in order to succeed in the action. This Article will be examining the idea of modern democratic militancy, and will discuss issues of this tactical option to expose it’s possible effects in promoting social change.

Disclaimer: A few controversial topics such as the hypothetical idea of national terrorism in an effort to promote positive social change will be discussed within this article. In no way, shape, or form am I advocating for guerrilla militancy, or a radical takeover of the government. Any form of subjective language that may seem to arise for or against these ideals are completely coincidental. This article is simply to pose a question and facilitate academic discussion from a non bias, objective basis.

Lets start by viewing the 3 most prominent guerrilla revolutions within the last century. The first of these 3 was the Russian revolution of 1917, in which the people of Russia coming off the decline from a turbulent World War One period overthrew the czarist regime that was the autocratic leadership of the nation for the majority of its past. In march of 1917 turbulent revolution centered around what would now be known as St. Petersburg, lead by the Soviets (or workers councils), overthrew the czarist autocracy, and instated a provisional government lead by the former imperial parliament. Soon after, in November of 1917, the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin, combined with the lower class worker power of the Soviets, began to form militias in a mass guerrilla tactic, that would later join together to form the Red Guard, later known as the Red Army. Using this force of working class soldiers the Bolsheviks and Soviets overthrew the provisional government, and later after an upheaval of civil unrest formed the U.S.S.R or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The Second of these 3 major (initially) guerrilla uprisings occurred during the Chinese Revolution, also known as the Chinese Civil War between 1948 and 1952. The revolution itself occurred in 1949. What once started as a communist Guerrilla revolution in China, being the Chinese Soviet Republic lead, by Mao Zedong, flourished by the time of 1948 to include much of Northern China. Against the in power Chinese Nationalist party, who also had superior numbers, weapons, and privy to excess amounts of U.S. support, the Chinese Soviet Republic, who at this point had become the Chinese Communist Party, still managed to succeed. Due to superior morale, information and the use of Guerrilla tactics. It was in October 1949 that Mao Zedong was able to proclaim China officially as The People’s Republic of China.

The final of the 3 most contemporary militant take-overs, and also the one which holds the most historically traditional ideology of the guerrilla war, was the Cuban Revolution. During the years of 1953 to 1959, Fidel Castro and later Che Guevara, led the 26 July Movement against the Batista dictatorship regime, and its foreign support, most prominent of which was a wealthy United States. Starting with small rural guerrilla tactics and slowly gaining support by the population. Until January 1st 1969 The Batista regime was removed from power and a new revolutionary government lead by Castro took control.

So what do these three guerrilla movements have in common, besides the fact that they all lead to communism. Well each one was not against a democratic government, however it is interesting to note that except for Russia, The United States supported the government in power. This is an especially odd coincidence considering the country itself was founded by what could easily be considered a guerrilla militant revolution. Also all of these still occurred over 60 years ago and technology has changed dramatically sense that point. On a different note however all three movements fought against what was considered a form of oppressive imperialism, an ideology very similar to The Weather Underground. All three of these movements also started as small militant groups banding together into a driving force against a single government, also similar to the Weather Underground. So using these 3 revolutions as a lens we could possibly answer the question, is a militant guerrilla social movement a feasible way to facilitate change within a modern democracy? Or was the Weather Underground doomed from the start?

Lets begin with the idea of a modernized government impeding the ability of a Guerrilla movement to succeed. Although modern technology has brought with it new forms of firearms, surveillance, and counter-terrorism techniques, a modern nation still doesn’t pose much of a new counter guerrilla threat than one 50 years ago. The question still remains though as to why? When it comes to a more above ground mass revolutionary tactic, such as large scale protest and rioting, the specific technology really has not changed to much in the last 50 years, at least on a mass scale, of how to quell such actions.This relating primarily to harmful and oppressive types of technology, certain other developments such as the cell phone have entered the field, however considering information is far more of a necessity to the guerrilla, if anything they have helped revolutionary movements. Although taser’s and certain sonic weapons which have not entered the general police force are now being used, the use of riot police, tear gas, and rubber bullets still to this day, make up the general counter riot armament. This means that the tactics used 50 years ago by protestors and rioters alike, both in the United states and in foreign movements, both revolutionary, can still not hold weight. There’s many examples of riots growing and over-coming police forces throughout history, so to that degree technology has not truly impeded the “above ground” or mass actions of a militant guerrilla social movement.

What about quelling the “underground” or militant armed portion of a guerrilla social movement. Surely with new technological advances in firearms and lethal weaponry, a government force could easily overpower a guerrilla uprising. While being true to a degree, this still does not pose a large damper in the success of possible guerrilla militancy. With both the Cuban and Chinese revolution the forces of the government had far better weapons and far more soldiers. A guerrilla force firstly survives through it’s tactics. By avoiding large scale decisive conflicts and surviving by using strictly offensive surprise attacks that render the enemy confused and disoriented, a guerrilla force “evens the odds”, if you will. Secondly a guerrilla force gets past this with a normally higher morale based on ideology. Within Mao’s little red book he describes how even an untrained revolutionary willing to die for a cause he believes in will far surpass a paid enforcer of government law. The book “Social aspects of Guerilla and Anti-Guerilla Warfare” By: Eliezer Ben-Rafael & Moshe Lissak, also agrees with this ideology. Although not strictly academic there’s a great example of this ideal within guerrilla warfare presented in The Godfather part: 2. In which when discussing the Cuban revolution there’s an exchange of words between Michael Corleone and a guest of Hyman Roth saying, Michael: [about the unrest in Cuba] We saw a strange thing on our way here. Some rebels were being arrested and instead of being arrested, one of them pulled the pin on a grenade he had hidden in his jacket. He took himself and the captain of the command with him. Guest: Ah, the rebels are insane! Michael: Maybe. But the soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t. Hyman Roth: What does that tell you? Michael: They can win.

Also within the aspect of modern weaponry both Che Guevara and Carlos Marighella discuss in their writings how as the enemies weapons improve so does the movements. This is due to the fact that most of the weapons a Guerrilla movement acquires will be from enemy hands, both on the battle field and in raid scenarios. Meaning that as the technology level of the government grows so does the technology of the weapons used by opposing forces. The question still remains about weapons that damage large areas such as missiles, bombs, and heavy air to ground weaponry. although true that a single use of one of these devices could entirely devastate a single guerrilla cell, the guerrilla counteracts these in two very different ways. Firstly guerrilla cell locations, besides being extremely secretive in most cases, are also constantly moving, making planning an attack difficult. This in combination with multiple cells throughout the nation, means this would not be a very fruitful counter guerrilla tactic.

Another and arguably more powerful counter to the use of these weapons is the collateral damage potential they posses. Within any government especially, a democratic one, a single death from collateral damage could be far more disastrous for the institution, advantaging the Guerrilla movement. In his writings “The Handbook of the Urban Guerrilla”, Carlos Marighella states in reference to the use of bombs, and mass destructive weapons that, “With a single innocent death, the words of the movement will spread farther, than the blast ever could.”

Now although we’ve scene how a modern society, strictly from a technology sense, creates very little resistance towards possible guerrilla activism, the ideology of a democratic society puts far more of a damper and deterrent for such types of social movements. Due to such institutionalized rights such as right to protest and freedom of speech, as well as the fact that a democratic government is ran by and for the people, the ability of a group to advocate for a particular cause in a peaceful non-violent way, is far greater than in other nations where guerrilla militancy has succeeded. Even looking at the time of The Weather Underground where a mass collective of individuals where fighting against various forms of government control, very few even tried militant activism, and where arguably far more successful. A major difference being that the most basic premise of guerrilla activism being government overthrow rather than legal or social change.

To this degree the only feasible way a guerrilla movement could succeed within a democratic society, comes down to a few major key things. Firstly the government itself has to go against the ideology of the masses, similar to what was seen with the entrance into The Vietnam War. The Government then has to continue opposing mass ideology and furthering it’s own personal goals. Individuals within the masses must then consciously see this chain of events, and gain support, through non-violent means, while at the same time protesting and raising their concerns to the government as a whole. Over the course of time the government must continue to ignore, and or completely repute these concerns, and began to respond to mass demonstration with hostility, and these actions continue frequently overtime. A large portion of the masses then has to hold true to the ideology that complete government change is the best solution and begin to gain support and react accordingly. Only if this chain events continues over time, could a militant guerrilla social movement feasibly succeed within a democratic nation.

From Guevara to Marighella: The Guerrilla Tactics of The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground are primarily remembered for the violent militant tactics they used as a form of social activism. From bombings to prison breaks, to later arguably robbery in the case of Brinks, the question remains where did these tactics derive from? Where they the product on inspiration derived from a conflicting socio-economic climate brewing in America, and arguably the world at the time? Well to a degree yes, and to a degree no. During the 1970’s The Weather Underground took tactics from two of South and Central Americas most renown guerrilla revolutionaries, Those being Che Guevara, out of the Cuban Revolution, and Carlos Marighella, who was both involved with Guevara during the Cuban Revolution, and attempted to form his own communist revolution is his own country of Brazil. Taking tactics from these individuals and, putting their own ideology and form behind the ideals these two men presented the Weather Underground formed their own form of unique guerrilla tactics designed to succeed within a modern democracy.

To start what did the Weather Underground adapt from Guevara and the Cuban Revolution? Well to start it was in Cuba from prior revolutionaries that the Weather underground was first trained in the art of making explosive and propaganda, shortly after their conception at the Summer 1969 S.D.S convention. Furthermore the weather undergrounds entire organizational model was derived from the model primarily created by Guevara known as “Foco”. Foco itself was to a degree derived from Marxist tactics, including the Stalin tactic of a popular front, for the most part it also took in ideology from the Maoist strategy of “a peoples war”, in which large decisive battles would be strategically avoided, and the uprising would start within small groups, and then would begin to continuously grow larger. Foco changes, from traditional Maoist and Marxist tactics by focusing on an uprising entirely driven by workers and peasants without any outside or government help. Guevara believed it was a peoples war and an overthrow would occur because of the people.

Foco was employed by The Weather Underground as a basis for their organizational structure. Using small guerrilla cells throughout the nation, The Weather Underground was able to use tactics from hiding, and then disappear. Like the way Guevara planned these cells in Cuba, so did the Underground, having each cell use its own form of leadership, while communicating through a network of cells, and to the main cell located in New York. The Weather also actively advocated for the Foco idea of having the “revolution” be a people revolution, without the aid of outside government. Finally the ideology of avoiding decisive battles was taken into account. With the very limited personnel the Weather had at it’s disposal large scale decisive attacks would have to avoided. The way weather differs from Guevara and fallows more the ideology of Guerrilla tactics proposed by Carlos Marighella, was in location,ideology, and guerrilla action oriented tactics.

Within his writing, “Manuel of the Urban Guerrilla”, Carlos Marighella uses a very similar model to that of Guevara, except for a few key components. Components that would later be used by the Weather Underground. To start Marighella doesn’t believe that a successful revolution should begin in hidden suburban areas, such as woods and mountains. Marighella calls for action to be fought starting within large urban areas then spreading out towards the country-side. This is done in an effort to damage those in power where they hold the most power, and to show the greatest amount of the population how much damage a single individual can cause. This is also in an effort to in crease the speed of recruitment of new individuals to believe in the Guerrilla cause. Secondly Marighella, calls for direct hard hitting action attacks. Rather then attacking only to liberate new land, then retreating to rebuild such as the idea of Foco, Marighella calls for a continuously offensive Guerrilla movement, sometimes for no reason, but to keep the government guessing. This is in an effort to continuously pressure the enemy in order to draw them out, and have them make errors within their tactics. Finally Marighella, has a very unique ideology that differs from Guevara and greatly influences the Weather Underground. Where Guevara believes that a government is the oppressor, Marighella states that all oppressive governments have a large source of power backing them, of a more foreign government oppressor. In most of Marighella’s writings, and within the Weather Underground this oppressor is United States Imperialism.

The use of Marighella’s tactics are easy to see within The Weather Underground during the 1970’s. Almost all weather cells where located in large urban cities, The majority of the undergrounds tactics where offensive in nature, and maybe most importantly, both viewed the United States government as the primary imperialistic oppressor.

The Weather Underground did differ from these two models, however in two major ways. Firstly rather than a workers, (peoples) war, much of the weather underground believed  far more in a war of the new age a youth war, fighting against archaic ideals of American Imperialism. Secondly, especially after the Greenwich Village explosion, The Weather Underground didn’t believe in or facilitate the death of “those compliant with the oppressor”, in this case officers of the law, government officials, and military personnel. In fact the Weather Underground went to very extensive lengths to avoid such deaths. This final non-fatality based ideology is the one major separator between the Weather Underground and other South and Central American revolutionary organizations.

Mark Rudd: A Critical Look at History

Mark Rudd‘s book “Underground” goes into depth talking about his struggle to come to terms and justify with his past actions. His account questions the fine line between terrorism and militant actions as well as highlights regrets such as the splintering of SDS, one of the fastest growing groups that would have, according to him, “In forming the Weather Underground, we destroyed the largest radical student organization in the country, doing the FBIs work for them.” Rudd describes his book as “dedicated to non-violence” and in many of his writings admits that himself and other leaders of WUO made some bad decisions, even going as far as questioning the ability of SDS to have ended the war sooner.

Rudd confronts “The Weather Underground” documentary, while not completely dissatisfied with it, as painting WUO as completely reactionary based on emotions. However Rudd states in his essay Che and me “Our dominant emotion, however, was not frustration.  On the contrary, it took an enormous quantity of optimism, combined with a strategic theory, to believe that this country was moving toward revolution and that our actions could play a role in that development.”

Rudd is also very critical of the Townhouse bombing which killed three “intelligent, vibrant, beautiful friends” and the fact that WU forced an ideological debate about violence that unmotivated anti-war movements nationally.