This article examines, as its subject, the issue of past revolutionaries, their strategy and how they relate to the present. It is a common recurrence for radical movements to take from the past, providing historical reference points for the contradictions of their own time. But this contains risks which must be discussed before moving on. If movements taking inspiration from the past is a common denominator, then it may be said that the mistake is projecting the events of the past onto the present without regard for the change in context, whether that be geopolitically or historically. I quote here at length Karl Marx in his famous The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.
Marx believed that to draw heavily on the aesthetics and language of past revolutions and societies is a mistake, and that the ‘social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future’. However, the past is a close-to-hand reference point and signifier which a people are bound to use, so how does one move past the deadlock that arises from this? These are questions taken up by Frankfurt School thinker and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin who believed that such a use of history was ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’. However, this also required the capacity to, through study of history (and in particular the histories of the oppressed which have been repressed), understand the relation between past and present that crystallizes in tense political moments. Through this we become aware that the expression of solidarity with past revolutions also expresses this relationship. For Benjamin, the victory of present revolutions vindicates and redeems past ones. This stands in clear contrast to the Eighteenth Brumaire, who simply attempted to imprint the past onto the present, to hide the difference between the two times.
With this in mind, we can now approach the subject matter, the use of revolutionary guerrilla strategies and principles to provide a different perspective on our own situation. This article does not argue for the claiming of guerrilla language and aesthetics, but rather the principles and attitudes espoused by Che Guevara. This is to the purpose of challenging old forms and ways of organising, particularly the activist culture of the UK Labour Party, and reinventing organisers' relationship to the oppressed peoples and the political environment. From here,we start with analysis of the present context.
In the aftermath of the 2019 General Election, the Labour party and the Left has been faced with the challenge of reckoning with itself, asking the right questions and providing solutions to its problems. There are many, but I would argue that the most pressing problem of the left’s political situation today is that of developing a new political strategy. Political strategy in England for the socialists is afflicted by many problems, but above all by this: the belief that all roads (must) lead to Westminster. At the time of writing, this finds its particular manifestation in Keir Starmer’s strategy towards the government, which seems to be a response to the common criticism of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn before, during and after the General Election, which is that it didn’t deserve to win or be in government. This in itself has been linked to not only the antisemitism controversies within the party but also to its inability to keep the vote of the “traditional working class”. The rhetoric was that the party was not deserving of power. In part this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, a critique of centrists and the soft left that became especially once the leaked labour report became widely available.
Regardless of the reasons, it is important then that as socialists we start to develop new ways of organizing after a defeat of this scale. There are a range of revolutionaries and theorists we can look to take inspiration from, one of whom with which we will deal shortly, but first let us look at the current alternative to “Corbynism” that exists.
Sir Starmer has gone about distancing the Labour Party from the confrontational and controversial strategy practised by Corbyn’s Labour, making it clear it’s ‘under new management’. He’s done this by attempting ‘consensus building’, a strategy wherein Labour does not criticise or oppose the Government’s actions or policies, or at best will criticise the way in which they’ve handled and initiated these policies. Instead the Opposition will attempt to unify with the Government for the good of the country. But like Jack Seward points out, ‘what Starmer fails to realise is that Boris Johnson's eighty seat majority government is not in the business of consensus building’. By treating Corbyn’s style of Opposition as a childish contrarianism Starmer seeks to promote an Opposition that seeks unity or constructive criticism. However, as Rachel Shabi writes, by ‘Trying to tiptoe around this fate by focusing on appearing constructive brings an additional peril: it binds Labour into parameters dictated by the government, leaving little room for manoeuvre.’
This willingness to try and work with the government, and in a wider sense keep in line with traditional politics and political values, is symptomatic of defeatism on the left. With the membership likely burnt out after the elections defeat, the Party accepts there is nothing to be done, except avoid being seen as opposing too much, or as Keir himself put it, ‘opposition for opposition's sake’. Which is to say it doesn’t want to upset the electorate it wants to gain back by defending the electorate it already has. This became apparent in Starmer’s treatment of the BLM movement, calling its demands to defund the police ‘nonsense’ and that it was a ‘moment’ rather than a movement. Along with the leaked Labour report, this led black members to criticise the party for taking the black vote for granted. As Maya Elise notes:
The Labour Party has wrongly assumed that the Black community will be devout supporters due to their historic track record on race, especially in comparison to the Conservatives. It was the Labour Party who introduced the Race Relations Act, and elected parliament’s first Black MPs.
Out of power, the Labour Party is attempting a strategy which educator and theorist Paulo Freire described in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Going into detail about the various antidialogical methods (ways of talking down and to oppressed people) of controlling the people, Freire outlines the Left’s response to oppressive governments in a time where capitalist, reactionary politics take a more manipulative, subtle tone in comparison to more repressive regimes that subjugate their people. He writes:
In a situation of manipulation, the Left is almost always tempted by a “quick return to power,” forgets the necessity of joining with the oppressed to forge an organization, and strays into an impossible “dialogue” with the dominant elites. It ends by being manipulated by these elites, and not infrequently itself falls into an elitist game, which it calls “realism.”
Starmer’s strategy for Labour, which presents itself as the ‘grown ups being back in charge’, belies a defeatist and cynical waiting game, where the party cooperates with the government, in the hopes that when the next election comes around all the Tory mistakes and fumbles will allow them to regain seats without much effort (One pundit even suggested he could win the next election). Meanwhile, the people who will supposedly vote for Labour, and according to Starmerite claims need a Labour government, will continue to suffer. They will be degraded and dehumanized by the state and economic system it supports, and will die undignified deaths. The working class’ demands will be ignored at a time where they need their rights defended most. Minorities will be subjected to violence whilst the Labour party refuses to give full support to their movements.
Whilst I have listed the ways in which Starmer's strategy embodies a certain attitude, it would be naïve to say it is a problem which starts and ends with him. In fact, this defeatism could be argued to be a result of the project of democratic socialism. It is a recurring misstep by the British left, as Angry Workers highlighted and criticised in their book Class Power on Zero Hours, that ‘the only real ‘strategy’ on the left is tied to the re-emergence of the idea that socialism can be obtained through winning governmental power’. This leads to the idea that ‘by using the two legs of the organised labour movement - the trade unions and socialist party in government - we can walk step-by-step towards socialism’.
Over the course of their twelfth chapter, Angry Workers lay out an extensive critique of the democratic socialist project. Out of the 12 they lay out, the last point, ‘Strategy starts from actual struggle and actual potentials and difficulties imposed by the social production process’ is particularly important to what we aim to do. Democratic socialism advocates a gradual work towards taking government power, and from there “real”, radical change can begin. This was the aim of Labour under Corbyn. The difference between Corbyn and Starmer is simply that Starmer’s strategy lacks the oppositional core, but their aims, and the promise this strategy makes it bed on, are the same. As I said at the start, All roads lead to Westminster. This perception must be turned on its head. The aim of the working class and the oppressed of Britain should not be to give their time and energy to political parties, in an unsure attempt to get them into, but to build their own means of self defence and forms of organisation outside of supposed political centres. If socialist activists truly want the emancipation of the working class & oppressed peoples, then they should meet them in their own conditions and environments.
But how to envisage this? Here it is useful to make a distinction. Democratic socialism imagines politics is the gradual progression towards an end goal, which will culminate in success when conditions are right. It sees itself acting on equal terms with the government and state. If it fails, it is because it is not deserving of power or the people’s support. We must view political struggle as an asymmetric, antagonistic contradiction between two antithetical groups, the oppressed and the oppressors. A capitalist, Tory government does not act in the interests of the people, and if parts of the population believe this, it is not a manifestation of some inner worthiness on the part of Boris or his cabinet through democratic elections, but rather is a political situation which is maintained through propaganda and the appeal to reactionary values fostered by a history and culture of empire. There is an open space for a possible alternative which starts from this position, the material position of most class, race and gender struggles in Britain.
This is not to say that the working class is without its weapons or forms of organising. Union membership has been rising slowly over the past few years and union membership has become a topical issue during the pandemic as workers rights have been threatened and the government has forced teachers to go back to work. Now more than ever the dispossessed and exploited must be supported in their self-defense against the ruling class. But traditional union structures and strategy deserve scrutiny as well. In his essay A New Type of Political Experiment: Lenin in England, philosopher, political scientist and politician Mario Tronti outlines the critique that ‘the present political situation of the working class both guides and imposes a certain type of development of capital.’ By this he means the recuperation that happens when working class organisation organises to put pressure on capitalism in order to gain concessions, which is a double edged sword because while ‘it is true that the working class objectively imposes precise choices on capital, it is also true that capital then completes these choices in such a way that they work against the working class.’
Tronti describes this as a situation where ‘the political moment of tactics and the theoretical moment of strategy contradict one another, in a complex and highly mediated relationship between revolutionary organisation and working class science.’ The means to gain concessions are at odds with the ultimate aim of overthrowing capitalism. Most organisations that represent the working class are reformist, even if they do not mean to be. If the reformist tactics were kept separate from the interests of capital, it would be less of a problem. But this is easier said than done when capitalists are the ones with the power to make reforms. The largest unions in the UK can be said to be overly bureaucratic and unwilling to engage in large scale struggle. It is often up to smaller, militant unions such as the IWW, UVW, IWGB and networks like Angry Workers to engage in workers self defense. Our response, Tronti says, must now be to ‘discover the political organisation not of advanced vanguards but of the whole, compact social mass which the working class has become’.
It is here now that we can intervene into this space with strategic principles devised from Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare. Written after the success of the Cuban revolution, Guevara's manual on how to conduct an asymmetrical war against a national army would go on to become a guide and reference for many insurrectionists in Latin America. Now this is not to say it should be taken entirely literally. Che speaks strictly of military affairs, and it is a guide for the most part on matters such as what terrain and weapons to use. But it has principles that can be useful for rethinking activism, civil disobedience, and political struggle in a contemporary era.
First and foremost, it argues against the attitude of defeatism that arises from an electoral system of politics, where a left wing party must wait for another chance at the ballot, and only through victory there can it enact change. Che writes ‘It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolutions exist; the insurrection can create them’. Revolution can be worked towards now. It is not something to be waited for, not when the poverty rate of people in working families is at a record high, when vulnerables groups such as the LGBT+ community and refugees face mental health crises. This speaks to a need for revolutionaries and socialists to find ways of organizing that seek to work with the working class and oppressed ‘to organise their survival, be it in the forms of workers’ cooperatives, hack-labs, squats or self-run community projects’.
Che goes on to say that ‘It is necessary to create these essential conditions, basically by explaining the purposes of the revolution and by demonstrating the forces of the people and their possibilities’. By this he means it is important that people are educated, not only on politics and theory, but in how they can organise collectively. The people need to be aware of the power they have at their disposal. However, compared to the more prominent forms of activist culture in the UK and elsewhere in the world, which can often rely on marches and other public forms of political expression situated within the context of social media and raising awareness, Che’s guerrilla fighters are more grounded. Working with the people should not be a campaign of ‘professional activists’ running talks or protests over a short space of time, it requires a long term approach. As Astra Taylor reminds us ‘organizing is what the left must cultivate to make its activism more durable and effective, to sustain and advance our causes when the galvanizing intensity of occupations or street protests subside.’
To accomplish this, Guevara argues that communication and engagement with the people’s lives and environment must take place. From there, he says, ‘We must come to the inevitable conclusion that the guerrilla fighter is a social reformer, that he takes up arms responding to the angry protest of the people against their oppressors, and that he fights in order to change the social system’. If we are to be revolutionary socialists, we must not simply bring awareness to problems, we must mobilize ourselves in order to resolve and reform the very issues facing marginalised communities. Indeed, Che adds that the first priority for a Guerrilla must be to ‘gain the absolute confidence’ of the people of a local area, and that this confidence is gained through ‘a positive attitude toward their problems, by help and a constant program of orientation, by defense of their interests’. This mirrors similar remarks by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth which highlight the limits of electoral parties, arguing that ’The party should be the direct expressions of the masses [...] it is the energetic spokesman and the incorruptible defender of the masses’. What all of this means is that we must be willing to invest in marginalised communities and engage in processes of mutual aid and collective self-defense.
An implication of all this is that for strategy to take on the progression of stages or phases of its own development, we must start at the most immediate and basic demands. Walter Benjamin writes ‘The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.’ Likewise it has to be emphasised that revolutionary and critical theory are an understanding of the world that develop from these seemingly ‘crude’ contradictions. The ability to organise on a political level will develop out of the ability to work collectively to solve a group or community’s problems.
It follows naturally from these ideas that the people must be a prominent part of revolutionary action and organising. Paulo Freire uses Che as a prime example of how necessary cooperation is to liberation: ‘Cooperation, as a characteristic of dialogical action - which occurs only among Subjects [...] can only be achieved through communication’. It is imperative that radicals talk to marginalised communities and gain an understanding of that community’s situation and how they can be useful. This requires a radical faith in the people themselves, as ‘leaders must believe in the potentialities of the people, whom they cannot treat as mere objects of their own action’. Drawing from an example in Che’s experiences during the Cuban Revolution, Freire notes of his almost constant communication with Cuban peasants:
[...] Guevara’s emphasis that communion with the people was decisive for the transformation of a “spontaneous and somewhat lyrical decision into a more serene force, one of an entirely different value.” It was, then, in dialogue with the peasants that Guevara’s revolutionary praxis became definitive.
Here we see that the relationship between radicals and the people, at the start of organising, is a two way street. Only through radical direct action can the people have their own power demonstrated to them, and only through dialogue and learning from the people can radicals truly become effective at mobilizing themselves and others. As Régis Debray said, ‘the ‘rebellion’ will truly be - by the manner of its recruitment and the origins of its fighters - a ‘war of the people’’.
What is needed then is a move towards forms of struggle that exposes the limitations of the Labour party, which seeks only to draw people’s time and energy into electoral canvassing and campaigning, which often have long intervals in between. The struggle that people need, is one that is focused on their immediate problems, and is an everyday battle. It must be said this is why we look to Che’s writings for theoretical principles and strategy rather than concrete examples of tactics to apply. Because of this we must draw attention to the repeated emphasis made by Che and Debray on the need for flexibility. This works in two different senses. First, we must be flexible in a spatial sense, moving wherever aid and solidarity are needed, organisational mobility whilst avoiding trotskyist-style attempts at subsuming smaller movements and collectives. Connecting different local groups in cross-country solidarity can only strengthen our movement.
Secondly, it is also a flexibility in the application of tactics in terms of political action. As has been said, this is not a direct application of Guevarist writings to the UK. The rash appropriation of the past by the Eighteenth Brumaire is actually a common mistake made by revolutionaries, as Debray states, one facilitated by our perception of history:
We are never completely contemporaneous with our present. History advances in disguise; it appears on stage wearing the mask of the preceding scene, and we tend to lose the meaning of the play. [...] We see the past superimposed on the present, even when the present is a revolution.
Radicals often try and take wholesale the tactics and principles used in different contexts and apply them to their own. Debray goes on to argue that this is in part due to the Left’s tendency to overfocus on its intellectual tradition, and that ‘the intellectual will try to grasp the present through preconceived ideological constructs and live it through books’. What is needed then is a capacity to invent our own tactics and principles in accordance with the material conditions and context we are living in. Che writes:
Another fundamental characteristic of the guerrilla soldier is the flexibility, his ability to adapt himself to all circumstances and to convert to his service all the accidents of action. Against the rigidity of classical methods of fighting, the guerrilla fighters invents his own tactics at every minute of the fight and constantly surprises the enemy.
What we are working to create then, is a space of political experimentation, where we as revolutionaries learn an alternative way of living and working as a collective. With this must come the understanding that failure will be inevitable, and that we must be ready to learn from the mistakes we will make. It is understanding that ‘through trial and error, we will readdress the problem of how to make a new organisation correspond to these new struggles in an ongoing way’. As Debray concurs, ‘For a revolutionary, failure is a springboard. As a source of theory it is richer than victory: it accumulates experience and knowledge’. It is a learning process as much as it is a development of the revolution.
We can see throughout history, examples of guerrilla principles applied in a variety of different contexts. Walter Rodney, taking influence from the Rastafarian practice of ‘Groundings’, developed the concept of the ‘guerrilla intellectual’ alongside it. Rodney’s groundings sought to abolish the distinction between revolutionary intellectual and the oppressed, between teacher and student, resulting in a ‘critical pedagogy sought to treat both parties as active participants in the re-creation of knowledge. This also meant breaking down the intellectual division of labour that has all-too-often alienated intellectuals from the masses in periods of revolutionary struggle.’ This also required the spatial mobility mentioned earlier, because as Kevin Okoth recounted ‘To truly ‘ground’, Rodney believed that the revolutionary intellectual must go anywhere to reason with their people’ and that ‘only when these same intellectuals break out of academic isolation and engage in the mutual exchange of knowledge with those struggling on the ground, do they begin to challenge oppressive and exploitative systems of power’.
This enables us to imagine exactly what political education and organising must look like, keeping in mind that ‘The political education of the masses proposes not to treat the masses as children but to make adults of them’. An important addition to this, as Che and others highlight, is the use of technology to educate people and spread agitprop, for ‘The revolutionary idea should be diffused by means of appropriate media to the greatest depth possible.’ An effective use of technology must be part of our strategy, and by this I mean we must move away from typical social media campaigns that rely entirely on gaining as much attention and awareness in a short space of time, and rather a campaign that is complementing grounded actions and campaigns. Technology must also be used towards the purpose of explaining and bringing awareness to the victories our struggles have won: ‘Every act of the guerrilla army ought always to be accompanied by the propaganda necessary to explain the reasons for it’.
Elsewhere, we see groups like Angry Workers and Croydon Solidarity Network attempt to build new forms of working class organisation in London. Working outside of traditional union structures, these two groups have been amongst the first to take up the challenge of helping the working class self-organise. Both have blogs, and as mentioned, Angry Workers have written a book detailing their struggles, the environment and context in which they worked, and what can be learnt from that. These collectives are not guerrilla in their aesthetic or in terms of their influences, but they are speaking to a need for alternative forms of communist organisation within the contemporary working class, and both were a specific inspiration and influence for this article. I advise readers to check them out!
In conclusion, this is what is meant by ‘Che in England’; to develop a revolutionary strategy that starts, as Angry Workers said, at the struggles present in the everyday life of working and marginalised people in the UK. To understand class struggle as a long term strategy that requires connection and communication with the oppressed to build up support and collective power in those communities. That we do not wait for the revolution, we can make it happen, we can instigate a rupture in capitalist society. It is about developing sites for this rupture to emerge out of, where new political subjects may emerge afterwards. It is our responsibility to create the new that emerges out of the old, and this may entail rethinking ourselves as fighting a guerrilla struggle within society and old spaces of struggle.