Throughout the 20th Century, guerrilla warfare played an important role in the liberation of Asian, African, Latin American and Caribbean people from First World imperialism.
Guerrilla warfare is a scientific method of combat used by an oppressed group to fight its better-trained and better-equipped oppressors. Small, mobile groups of non-state actors engage in armed struggle with large, stationary groups of state actors, encircling and neutralizing the latter in areas dominated by the oppressed masses.
The guerrilla movements of the last century, which were almost entirely based in the Third World, primarily fought in rural areas.
The People’s Liberation Army in China did so in the 1930s against the Japanese and the regular Chinese army backed by the United States and Europe. The July 26th Movement in Cuba did so in the 1950s against Fulgencio Batista’s U.S.-backed dictatorship. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola did so in the 1960s and 70s against the Portuguese. Similar movements — some successful, others not — sprang up across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Around the turn of the century, however, a major shift occurred: the number of active guerrilla movements in the Third World drastically declined. Although some remain today, most have since laid down their arms.
This doesn’t mean that guerrilla warfare as a scientific method of combat exhausted itself — in fact, quite the opposite. It means that new material conditions arose, forcing it to evolve from its previous rural form into its forthcoming urban form.
Urban guerrilla warfare, the evolving stage of guerrilla warfare, will play an important role in the second wave of Third World revolution. Its rumblings are becoming impossible to ignore, especially given rising protests in slums across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean over issues produced by the global capitalist-imperialist system.
In order to properly understand the growing rumblings of the second wave, however, we must first study the dissolution of the first wave. Let’s take a look at some of the material conditions that are responsible for moving guerrilla warfare away from its rural form toward its urban form.
The Dissolution of the Soviet Union
Since its formal establishment in 1922, the Soviet Union was committed to supporting global revolution.
Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and the Soviet people understood that workers and oppressed people around the world have a revolutionary obligation to one another. They must unite and defend each other at all costs from the violent capitalist-imperialist system that keeps them poor and terrorized. The practice of proletarian internationalism in Soviet foreign relations varied with the times, but it was always present.
Soviet and East Bloc military advisors in Angola provide instruction to communist guerrillas. | Source: Wikimedia Commons
Soviet support for Third World guerrilla movements reached its highest point during the 1960s and 70s, the decades when most of them were formed. But with rising Western destabilization of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and its eventual dissolution in 1991, guerrillas were left without a steady source of weapons, food and other essential resources for revolution.
Most guerrilla movements in the rural Third World either downsized or entirely shut down. The ones that remained were left isolated and vulnerable to attacks. While that’s not to say that their only source of power and legitimacy came from Moscow, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was nonetheless a tremendous loss for Global South guerrillas.
Relentless propaganda about the “failure of communism” and the “success of capitalism” compelled most to drop their arms, move to major cities and participate in electoral politics. Although guerrilla uprisings in rural areas of the Third World do continue, their overall rate of growth has drastically declined compared to the last century.
The Acceleration of Climate Change
The dissolution of the Soviet Union created new economic and political conditions that contributed to the temporary decline of guerrilla warfare. Another factor, an environmental one, has been just as detrimental: the acceleration of climate change.
Largely considered one of the biggest threats to humanity’s existence, climate change is an ongoing process whereby our planet’s climate and weather patterns are becoming more extreme. More specifically, the Earth’s average temperature is drastically climbing, facilitating the rise of natural disasters.
While climate change became an observable phenomenon during the 1880s, the peak of capitalist industrialization, it began accelerating toward the end of the 20th Century. Since 1979, for example, average land temperatures around the world have increased roughly twice as fast as global average ocean temperatures, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Temperature anomalies over land and over ocean. | Source: NASA
It’s no surprise that climate change was further ignited in the late 1970s and the early 1980s during the height of neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is an economic model that pushes capitalism to its limits, including the privatization of public industries, the imposition of austerity, and more importantly, the removal of regulations on environmental protections for multinational corporations. It also engendered the phenomenon known as outsourcing, in which corporations based in the First World began moving jobs to Third World countries with minimal tax and environmental regulations in an effort to cut costs and boost profits.
Neoliberalism, in a sense, can be described as capitalism on steroids.
All of these neoliberal economic policies — especially the lack of adherence to environmental protection — have been disastrous for the Third World, specifically in rural areas.
In Asia, monsoons and heavy rains have left entire villages submerged. In Africa, droughts have left millions of people without water. In Latin America and the Caribbean, hurricanes and mudslides have pummeled and destroyed infrastructure. In all of these regions, poor rural farmers have been forced to migrate to urban areas in pursuit of survival.
The Mechanization of Agricultural Labor
Across the Third World, poor peasant families — the longtime base of rural guerrilla movements — are packing their bags and moving to the slums of growing cities in response to the mechanization of agricultural labor.
Agricultural labor has long been the primary source of food and income for people living in rural Third World areas. For thousands of years, farmers across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have been directly involved in the planting, nurturing, sale and/or consumption of crops.
Farmers in the Cañete River basin, Peru. | Source: International Center for Tropical Agriculture
While they certainly did not reap all of the fruits of their labor, they were at least able to depend on their skills for basic sustenance. With the rise of mechanized agriculture, however, machines began replacing farmers, leaving them without jobs and thus without any form of living. Automatic tractors, combine harvesters and even computers began replacing the machete and sickle-wielding hands of skilled agricultural workers.
The mechanization of agricultural labor also picked up toward the end of the 20th Century, when wealthy capitalists exploited technological advances in order to hire less workers.
The results have been catastrophic.
In India, for example, suicide rates among farmers distressed by unemployment have significantly risen. In 2004 alone, 18,241 farmers committed suicide, The Times of India reported. In Guyana, 44.2 per 100,000 people commit suicide annually, according to the World Health Organization. Most of them are unemployed farmers or children of unemployed farmers, 40 percent of whom use agricultural pesticides to kill themselves, Al Jazeera reported.
The Rise of Urban Guerrilla Warfare
The last two changes in material conditions mentioned above (the acceleration of climate change and the mechanization of agricultural labor) have been directly linked to urbanization by bourgeois and revolutionary scholars alike.
Urbanization is the global population shift from rural to urban areas, the latter of which is constantly expanding.
Take a look at these figures to better understand urbanization, courtesy of a 2014 United Nations report:
- The world has become more urbanized than at any point in human history.
- Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas.
- By 2050, roughly 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas.
- The rate of urbanization is expected to be the highest in Asia and Africa over the coming decades.
- Latin America and the Caribbean is the region with the second-highest level of urbanization, tailing behind North America (excluding Mexico).
- The world’s slum population is projected to reach 889 million by 2020.
While urbanization is reshaping the appearance of each country’s population landscape, it has certainly not eradicated the exploitative essence of the worldwide capitalist-imperialist system. It has simply given it a new form.
A young boy sits over an open sewer in the Kibera slum located in Nairobi, Kenya. With up to one million residents, Kibera is Africa’s largest slum and was the focal point of post-election protests in 2007. | Source: Wikimedia Commons
The same rural peasants who were oppressed in farmlands are now being oppressed in the poorest dwellings of urban areas. Slums, ghettos, barrios, favelas — whatever you may call them — are replacing poor rural areas as storm centers for revolutionary activity in the Third World.
There, they are confronted with the same problems they experienced back home.
Workers are still being exploited. Women are still being violated. LGBTQ people are still being attacked. Labor activists and journalists are still being killed. Black and Indigenous people are still being forcibly removed from their lands. Public programs are still being cut.
Given the continuation and exacerbation of these problems, it’s just a matter of time before the Third World proletariat will once again be forced to resort to revolutionary and violent methods of struggle against their oppressors. Guerrilla warfare, the scientific method of combat used by an oppressed group to fight its better-trained and better-equipped oppressors, will be applied within the urban arena.
We’ve seen several examples of potential for this in recent years, especially in the largest megacities of the Third World. There, revolutionary groups have been able to organize millions of people in the poorest slums against the ruling, Western-backed elites, often facing violence during protests.
Thousands participate in a protest in Odisha, India. | Source: Communist Party of India (Marxist)
In Delhi, India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has mobilized the masses against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Homeless Workers Movement, known as the MTST, has organized large direct actions against President Michel Temer’s government. In Lagos, Nigeria, unions have led successful uprisings against President Muhammadu Buhari’s government.
These groups, and others, have gained influence over entire working class neighborhoods, establishing dual power against the capitalist-controlled state.
We’ve seen similar examples of urban revolutionary organizing and territorial control in smaller countries across the Third World.
Advancing Revolutionary Science
In 1937, Mao Zedong published “On Guerrilla Warfare,” which was based on his experiences fighting the Japanese imperialists in China. In 1961, Ernesto “Che” Guevara published “Guerrilla Warfare,” which was based on his experiences fighting Batista’s right-wing dictatorship in Cuba.
Both revolutionaries set forth three general conclusions from their experiences: 1) The masses can win a war against the more powerful enemy as long as they are organized and united, 2) It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them, 3) In the underdeveloped world, rural areas are the base for armed fighting.
While their first two conclusions undoubtedly remain valid as they stand, their third conclusion needs to be updated. It’s not that it’s incorrect — it’s just that at the time Mao and Che hypothesized it, the material conditions that were explained earlier did not yet exist. Urbanization was not yet a significant factor, but now it is.
A new era of Third World revolutionaries are now in the process of experimenting with urban guerrilla warfare, advancing revolutionary science as a whole. Their testimonies and practical experiences will no doubt serve as a guide for the liberation of oppressed people across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
The second wave of Third World revolution will thus become stronger and more effective than the first wave, drowning the capitalists and imperialists in a sea of socialism.