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Raymond Challinor

The Underdog Comes Out on Top

(December 1999)

From Socialist Review, No. 236, December 1999.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There is a fatal flaw in Chris Harman’s article (October SR) on guerrilla wars. He only cites examples which bolster his case. He makes the underlying assumption that the final victory is simply determined by military might. But this has never been the socialist line. War is a continuation of politics by other means. The reason wars are fought, the manner in which they are conducted and the ultimate outcome is political – Clausewitz asserted that military grammar must always be subordinated to political logic.

From Algeria to Cuba, Cyprus, Kenya and Vietnam, it is possible to give examples where poorly equipped and numerically weaker bands of guerrilla fighters vanquished the might of the imperial powers.

I still vividly remember how that brilliant journalist, the late James Cameron, described the fall of Hanoi in 1955. The French colonial troops, clad in speckless uniforms and with their well polished weapons, marched through the capital in perfect order. They were defeated! Then enter the conquering heroes – the Vietminh, an odd assortment of individuals with an even odder assortment of ancient rifles, wearing tattered clothing, sauntering along to the acclaim of the populace.

To take another example – Cuba – Castro began his invasion with only 81 supporters. Their vessel landed at the wrong place and a catalogue of catastrophes followed. Two years later, on the top of the Sierra Maestra, Castro addressed the remnant off his band. They were only 12 and they faced the dictator Batista’s 50,000 troops, equipped with the most up to date American weapons. Castro’s message was quite simple: we have them on the run. And Castro was correct!

Why does Chris Harman think that this sort of strange thing could happen in countries like Vietnam and Cuba? Why could the anti-colonialist David beat the imperialist Goliath? I would suggest the decisive factor, in the last analysis, is not military but political. It is a struggle for hearts and minds. Is your will to win greater than that of your enemy? Guerrillas fighting against foreign domination are usually prepared to give whatever it takes, whereas soldiers fighting to maintain imperialist domination find their enthusiasm vanishes once they start to suffer setbacks.

The same applied in Ireland during the Troubles of 1916-22. Though Britain had infinitely greater military power, eventually it had to concede independence to 26 of the 32 Irish counties. What now remains is the problem of the remaining six. Look at the situation from the ruling class standpoint. After 30 years of warfare, the Provisionals are as strong as – in fact stronger than – they were 30 years ago. The British authorities find themselves with an unending and unwinnable task. At the same time continued British rule leaves a dangerous minefield where explosions could happen at any time. A still greater nightmare for the British ruling class is the impact on the mainland. Why should British workers simultaneously suffer welfare and other cuts from Blair’s government while their taxes help to preserve an everlasting subsidy to Ulster? A continuation of the status quo is liable to lead to still greater problems. The anger of thwarted Irish nationalists is liable to merge with that of British workers. It could occur on a much bigger scale than in the 1960s and 1970s, when Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann and others came over to this country to address mass protest meetings. Correctly, they told these large gatherings that the cause of British and Irish workers was the same. This is quite different to the message of Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams and co. look to Washington for their salvation, not to the working class.

International socialists need to both commend and criticise the Provisional IRA. In a superb way it has conducted the armed struggle against the imperialist invader for 30 years. Yet in that time it has never endeavoured to unite workers across the sectarian divide. Sinn Fein may secure its objective of a united Ireland – a united capitalist Ireland. But this will do nothing to abolish the gulf between rich and poor, the struggle between capitalists and workers. But I think we should take an entirely different position – that of James Connolly. He fought for a workers’ republic not only in Britain but also in Ireland.

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