The years 1928–35 are famous in Comintern history as the ‘Third Period’, the period of class against class, of ‘social-fascism’, and of the all-out struggle of Communist Parties in Europe and the usa to overthrow democratic and fascist bourgeois states in complete isolation from any other political forces—a struggle which proved disastrously unsuccessful everywhere. When the line shifted to that of the Popular Front at the Seventh World Congress, all the Parties of Europe seem to have murmured ‘Never again’. Since 1935, the slogans and strategies within which the Communist movement has conducted the struggle against capitalism have been defensive: the Popular Front, the Anti-Fascist Alliance, Advanced Democracy, the Struggle for Peace and Socialism, Peaceful Co-existence, etc. Whether the ‘Peaceful Road to Socialism’ was explicitly advocated or not, the logic of the policy always postponed any violent seizure of the bourgeois State to an indefinite future, the immediate struggle being an economic one between the socialist world and the capitalist world; the role of the masses in the capitalist countries was essentially that of preventing those countries from cutting short this competition by war on the socialist states. Violence was externalized on to the underdeveloped and colonial countries; in the advanced countries it became an attribute of the bourgeoisie and its fascist allies. Any proletarian resort to violence could only be defensive. However disastrous the Third Period, and however necessary defensive positions were in the late 30’s these policies have ultimately given rise, at best to an indefinite postponement of the proletarian seizure of power, at worst to a complete etiolation of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the erosion of all distinctions between Communism and Social-Democracy. Two generations of Communist militants have no knowledge or experience of an aggressive revolutionary class struggle, and the hegemony of the Communist movement over the rest of the revolutionary left has meant that non-Communists have not escaped the mark of this mentality. footnote1

In the last ten years, however, this experience has been re-appraised, particularly by the young, in the light of the successes of violent revolutions in Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam, and of the failure (or only limited success) of the electoral strategies of the Communist Parties in most countries, and of other non-violent forms of struggle like cnd in England and the civil rights movement in the usa. The classical lessons of Marxism–Leninism on the necessity for a violent struggle between the proletariat and its allies on the one hand and the imperialist bourgeoisie on the other have been re-learnt by reading the works of Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara, Régis Debray. For the Marxists in the student movement, in the Black liberation movements, the anti-War movement in the usa, etc., the necessity for a violent overthrow of the bourgeois State is now more or less axiomatic. footnote2 Protracted people’s war, the guerrilla and the foco are the concepts which have catalysed this revitalization of the tradition of revolutionary Marxism after a thirty-year dormancy. In China, Vietnam and Cuba revolutionary forces carved out for themselves enclaves of popular power, defending them by military means. In China and Cuba these bases had a certain territorial integrity, in Vietnam popular and imperialist rule alternate with the presence and absence of the imperialist forces. These areas are then extended by protracted warfare until the oppressive State crumbles away, and the whole territory falls to the revolution.

The problem, of course, is the relation of these revolutionary struggles and their strategic concepts to the revolution in the metropolitan imperialist countries themselves. Some militants have been content to wait for the armed socialist world to surround the weakening imperialist bastions as the revolutionary countryside surrounded the cities in China; they have therefore restricted their activity to solidarity struggles. Most, however, have attempted to apply the new concepts to the contradictions within the advanced capitalist countries themselves. The metropolitan rural sector is insignificant to the imperialist economy, and the territorial control exerted by the modern State’s police is extremely efficient, so the rural enclave strategy is clearly inapplicable. A few student sects in Japan have attempted a literal application, with predictable results. Even in semi-developed countries like Brazil or Argentina, with their vast rural spaces, the State machine has proved too efficient, the police network too dense, for the successful establishment of red bases or guerrilla focos. Hence the tendency to adopt the strategy of urban guerrilla: in Brazil and Uruguay, and in national-minority enclaves in the metropolitan imperialist countries themselves: Quebec, Northern Ireland and the Basque country.

But this geographical shift from rural people’s war to urban guerrilla is not just a tactical shift to cope with the different conditions in capitalist states; it also implies a fundamental change in the strategic concepts themselves, one sometimes, but not always, acknowledged by the advocates of urban guerrilla activities. This is the shift from people’s war to armed propaganda. Even in the special case of Vietnam, where the popular forces have no stable bases in the country, the nlf does organize the whole people at night into a different social system: popular power is exercised by the masses, proletarian dictatorship is a fact. This is even more true in the cases of Cuba and China. But the urban guerrilla, even at its highest points—probably the Casbah in 1958 and Caracas in 1963—suffers from the problem of all terrorist organization: the imperatives of internal security dictate a structure incapable of organizing the masses, whose activity, even where they closely identify with the guerrilla, which is not always the case, is reduced to passive resistance. footnote3 Even a theorist as acutely aware of the distinction between armed propaganda and people’s war as Pierre Vallières of the flq does not provide an analysis of the transition between the two. footnote4 Armed propaganda arouses and expresses the masses’ hatred of their oppressors and can provide them with a sense of solidarity. But it does not furnish the organization essential if this ideological gain is to be translated into a political conquest of State power. And the social and psychological difficulties of clandestine terroristic organization footnote5 mean that such organizations are rarely able to establish themselves for any length of time against determined police activity, and their defeats can leave the masses in a worse condition than they found them in. Urban guerrilla warfare should not be sneered at, and its contribution to the revolution in the metropolitan and dependent imperialist countries may be very important, but by itself it cannot constitute the revolutionary vanguard that will lead the proletariat and its allies to power. Hence it is not a translation of the concepts of people’s war to the advanced countries.

Of course, the Marxist—Leninist tradition in the West before 1935 did not envisage the revolution taking the form of a protracted guerrilla struggle. Marx, and especially Engels, were perfectly aware of the revolutionary potential of people’s war, footnote6 but they did not intend or expect the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries to take that form. Rather they expected a political crisis provoked by internal contradictions of the régime or by the growing electoral strength of proletarian parties to provide the opportunity for a rapid and relatively bloodless insurrection. In this they were the inheritors of an insurrectionary tradition going back to Babeuf; they differed from the interpreters of that tradition among their contemporaries like Blanqui in insisting on the active participation of the organized proletariat rather than confiding the initiative to a conspiratorial secret society. This tradition also governed Bolshevik thinking on the problem of revolution, footnote7 and Comintern practice until the Popular Front period. It is this tradition which has disappeared since 1935. The re-assertion of the classical Marxist—Leninist theses of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the necessity for armed revolution demands that the insurrectionary tradition be re-examined. Hence the importance of the English publication of A. Neuberg’s Armed Insurrection. footnote8