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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > Tamils in New Zealand - International Conference   > National Liberation Movements in Global Perspective - Dr. Jeff Sluka >  Fourth World - Nations without a State

Proceedings of the Conference on 'Tamils in New Zealand',
July 1996 - Wellington, New Zealand.

National Liberation Movements in Global Context

Dr. Jeff Sluka

Associate Professor, Social Anthropology Programme, Massey University, Pamerston North, New Zealand.  Dr Sluka received his undergraduate degree from San Jose State University and PhD degree from the University of California, at Berkeley in Cultural Anthropology. His main fieldwork experience is in the Catholic ghettos of Northern Ireland and his topical interest is social, particularly ethnic, conflicts.

Note by tamilnation.org on 15 May 2007 - Ten years after Dr.Jeff Sluka's paper, that which he said remains essential (and careful) reading for all those concerned to further their understanding of National Liberation Movements, the categorisation of National Liberation Movements as 'Terrorist Organisations' and the responses of the so called 'International Community' to freedom struggles. We need to understand before we can make ourselves understood.

As Dr.Sluka rightly concludes "oppressed people are not socially stupid even when they are poor, hungry, or uneducated. They understand only too well the social, political, and economic conditions of their lives, and, when the possibility to do so presents itself, they are prepared to act to improve those conditions. National liberation movements are one of the most significant ways people do this..."

"National liberation movements are not the activities of small groups of isolated individuals, though state authorities opposed to them frequently describe them as such for propaganda purposes. They are the struggle of rebellious nations against foreign invaders .. To defend their nations from being annihilated, many peoples have taken up arms and engaged in wars of national liberation. To understand armed national liberation movements, it is necessary to strip away the camouflage terms and explanations that states use to hide their true nature...

Instead of identifying them as patriots or freedom fighters battling oppression and injustice and seeking the liberation of their people, they usually refer to them as "terrorists." Every nation people that has resisted state domination or invasion has been accused of being terrorists. But armed national self-preservation or self-defense is not "terrorism" or "banditry". " [see also Application of International Humanitarian Law to Wars of National Liberation - Noelle Higgins, April 2004]


Caveat: "National Liberation" or "Armed Separatist" Movements?
States and Nations
How We Got Here - States, Predatory Expansion, and Empires (Colonialism, Imperialism, Neocolonialism, Third World Colonialism, Internal Colonialism)
National Liberation Movements
Wars of National Liberation
Just War
The War of the Flea: Dynamics of Guerrilla Warfare
Normative Structure of National Liberation Movements
Inequality, Stratification and National Liberation Movements

up Abstract

Future historians are likely to view the rise of national liberation movements and the start of the strategic arms race as the most momentous developments of the twentieth century. Viewed together, the two represent contrasting realities. One is a weapon of the weak; the other an affliction of technologically advanced, globally ambitious powers.

If the arms race betrays the contemporary nation-states propensity to destruction, the movements for liberation suggest the power of hope, of peoples readiness to resist injustice and seek self-determination against seemingly impossible odds, invariably at extraordinary cost. Underlying the unprecedented rise of liberation struggles following the Second World war and formal decolonisation is the increasingly perceptible gap between the sorrows of the majority in Third World countries and the contentment of the few, between the coercive military apparatus of governments and the determined resistance of the governed.

This paper presents a general or global overview of the nature, causes and significance of national liberation movements in the second half of the Twentieth Century, in order to inform and put in global context the current political and armed struggles of Tamil people of Sri Lanka.

up Introduction

This paper presents a general or global overview of the history, nature, causes and significance of national liberation movements in the second half of the Twentieth Century, in order to inform and put in global context the current Tamil political and armed struggle in Sri Lanka.

While I've been asked here today not to give a lecture in Anthropology , but to convey something that anthropological knowledge and insight - in this case mine - might have to say about national liberation movements, I think I have to start by describing what anthropology is, and how anthropologists arrive at their understandings of the world.

As a social or cultural anthropologist I am involved in the comparative study of human lifeways, and interested primarily in that uniquely human attribute, culture - that is, all of the learned, shared and taught ways in which human beings interact with one another and the world around them. Central to this study is meaning, for people, of all the world's creatures, attribute meanings to their world, their acts, and themselves. The human reality is to a large extent socially constructed - a structure of meanings rather than of external "facts." We share those meanings, our culture, with those who have shared our lives and experiences.

Anthropologists know a good deal about how societies work, both in general and in specific cases, about the nature and interrelationship of politics, economics, religion, social organisation and technology in societies of the most diverse sorts, and especially about the processes and impact of change. We know these things because we have lived and conducted research in these societies, speaking the language of the people, participating as well as observing and asking about their activities, and we have compared these phenomena from society to society. Cross-cultural comparison is the hallmark of anthropology.

My particular interest or specialisation within anthropology is the study of politics. Political anthropologists have studied the conflicts associated with the process of "decolonisation" in the Third World, and have produced in-depth studies of a large number of national liberation movements in many different societies and cultures. We have also compared these studies, particularly identifying their similarities and differences. National liberation movements are complex struggles which vary substantially from case to case. The history of each is to some extent unique, and in order to understand any given liberation movement you have to place it within it's specific historical, cultural, geographical and economic context. So it's difficult to talk about them comparatively or generically. But they do share some important general traits, and it's these which I hope to convey to you here.

There are both armed and unarmed national liberation movements, but because the majority of them in the past and present have been associated with armed struggle, and because these are most similar to the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka, I'm going to concentrate on the armed or insurgent ones. And while there have been hundreds or even thousands of national liberation movements since the rise of the first states some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, I'm going to concentrate mostly on the modern ones in the so-called "post-colonial" era since the end of World War Two.

up Caveat: "National Liberation" or "Armed Separatist" Movements?

The use of the term "national liberation movements" has political implications, particularly when the groups so named are generally referred to by states and the media as "terrorists." No one opposed to or critical of these movements calls them "national liberation movements" because liberation (freedom) has positive value connotations for most people. Nowadays, in the conservative global New Right era we live in, most academics seem to prefer the term "armed separatist (or secessionist) movements," which they claim is a more objective or neutral description.

This is not true; it isn't that one label has value connotations and the other doesn't, both have latent value connotations. In "armed separatist movement" the emphasis is on "armed" - the first word - which stresses means, in this case a means most people find morally problematic. Just as "liberation" expresses a positive value, "armed" stresses a generally negative one. Then separatism is stressed rather than freedom or independence; that they they want to break up an existing state (usually one which most people have been taught about in school geography and assume to be "natural" and legitimate). I unapologetically use the term national liberation movements, because armed separatist movement is in no sense more objective or neutral, rather it is simply more conservative and pro-state/government.

up States and Nations

Today, most books about global conflicts and the media in general use the terms state, nation, and nation-state interchangeably, and this has confused the issue greatly. Nations are geographically bounded territories of a common people. A nation is a self-defined group who see themselves as "one people" on the basis of common ancestry, history, society, institutions, ideology, language, territory, and (often) religion.

The existence of nations is ancient - that is, there have always been "nations" for as long as there have been human beings - and today there are somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 nations or distinct peoples or cultures in the world (Nietschmann 1987:1). As opposed to nations, states are relatively knew in human history. They are centralized political systems recognised by other states, that use a civilian and military bureaucracy to enforce one set of institutions, laws and sometimes culture (e.g. language and religion) within their claimed boundaries.

The thousands of nation peoples of the world are organized into the fewer than 180 states or countries represented in the United Nations. More than 95% of these states are multinational - that is, composed of many nations or distinct peoples, many of whom do not consent to being absorbed and governed by an imposed central government in the hands of a different people. That this is so, and how it came about historically, goes a long way to explain the phenomenon of national liberation movements.

No nation people has ever voluntarily given up their national identity and national territory, and both the states we know today and those that preceded them are and were all created by war and conquest in the history of empires. One of the most important geopolitical facts of our times is that many hundreds of distinct peoples or nations in the world today live in states they do not consent to be part of because they are oppressed, exploited and treated unjustly in these states. Nonetheless, governments invariably assert that their state is made up of one common people. This is frequently a political myth. As Benedict Anderson (1991) has shown, multi-national states are in fact "imagined communities." The true "nation-state" - that is, a state that represents one single nation or people is, in fact, a distinct rarity.

No directory, atlas or encyclopedia lists or describes all or even most of the peoples of the world, and almost no state refers to them as nations; they prefer to call them "ethnic groups", "minorities", or "tribals." These terms substitute state-related, non-people identification for the actual names that nation peoples call themselves and their territories (Nietschmann 1987). This is because nations are "candidates for statehood" - that is, each of them could, theoretically and by right, seek independence and become their own independent state.

"A people" has internationally recognised rights to self-determination and self-defence against invasion and external aggression; "ethnic groups" and "minorities" do not. For example, the UN Charter (1945) states that "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development" (cited in Nietschmann 1987:6).

up How We Got Here - States, Predatory Expansion, and Empires (Colonialism, Imperialism, Neocolonialism, Third World Colonialism, Internal Colonialism)

The first thing to note about national liberation movements in general is that they are the inevitable result of the rise and spread of states. One thing that anthropologists know is that the kind of society we live in today - the state - is a relatively new development in the history of humanity. For at least 98% of human history (about a half million years), people lived in "tribal" societies, usually foraging for a living, without accumulating wealth or power, without elites, without poverty, without soldiers or much in the way of warfare, with scarcely any occupational differentiation, political domination, or economic exploitation, and without revolutions or national liberation movements.

All of these things we know to have been inventions of only about the past 8,000 years or so with the development of the state, which was a consequence of the development of surplus food production. This allowed for the first time production for accumulation and exchange as well as for use, and lead to the origin of cities and the state, social status based on control of property and labour rather than on family and kinship, and associated with these changes, the appearance for the first time of governments, armies, markets, occupational specialization, social stratification, territorial conquest, ownership of productive resources, human exploitation - and yes, national liberation movements - and all the rest that we admiringly identify as "civilization."

There have been national liberation movements since the evolution of the first states. States have proven to be the most efficient form of social and military organisation ever devised by human beings for the pursuit of conquest or predatory expansion. The history of states is the history of empire, and from their beginning they spread by conquest and subjugation of neighbouring peoples until today all of the formerly independent nations or peoples have been conquered and included within their boundaries.

This process of world conquest by imperial states was greatly accelerated in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries as a result of the Industrial Revolution and rise of mercantile capitalism in Europe and later North America, heralding the development of the great age of mostly Euro-American imperialism and colonialism1.

During this historical era, almost all of the remaining unconquered and formerly independent nation peoples of the world were finally conquered and brought within the boundaries of states. These imperial states expanded until they ran up against other states who had the military capability to check their advance.

This created new borders and new colonial states which had never existed before, mostly, of course, in what came to be referred to as the "Third World." The boundaries of these colonial states were determined not by existing cultural boundaries, but by the struggles between the various European imperial and settler forces. They frequently completely ignored existing boundaries between indigenous peoples, with the result that many peoples of the world suffered the misfortune of being divided up between one or more colonial states.

Example: 25 million Kurds are divided among six states - Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, and Azerbaijan - and have been fighting for an independent homeland since 1880, over a century.

In the Nineteenth and first half of the Twentieth centuries Euro-American imperialism reached it's peak, and there were dozens of "national liberation wars" - mostly indigenous peoples trying to defend their freedom and traditional ways of life. Following the Second World War, a large number of colonial states, mostly in the Third World of course, were granted their formal independence and emerged as states in their own right. It is worth remembering that most of these states gained their independence either directly or indirectly through colonial wars of national liberation.

The period since the Second World War is sometimes referred to as the era of "decolonisation" or "post-colonialism". This is a misnomer because colonialism was largely replaced with neocolonialism; while these formerly colonised peoples were given their political independence, they still remained largely under the power of the former colonial powers who controlled their economies and development.

Furthermore, some of these independent Third World states have followed in the tradition of First World and emerged as imperialist powers in their own right, forcibly colonising and "absorbing" other peoples against their will.

These Third World states oppress and exploit these peoples in much the same way the European colonial powers formerly exploited them. Most of the "economic development" of some of these Third World countries has been achieved by the invasion and forced annexation of nation peoples' lands and resources (Nietschmann, 1987). This situation, where a state exploits and oppresses peoples and regions within their own boundaries much the way the European colonial powers used to exploit and oppress foreign colonies, has been described as "internal colonialism" (Hechter 1975). Sri Lanka is an example of this; many Tamils believe that they are, for all practical purposes, treated as an "internal colony" of the Sinhalese-dominated state.

Example: Tamil Grievances in Sri Lanka

* Sinhalese declared official language in 1956, Buddhism state religion in 1972.

* State-sponsored colonisation of traditionally Tamil areas by armed settlers. One quarter of island's poor Sinhalese population moved from Wet Zone to Dry Zone 1948-1971.

* Discrimination in education, employment, and economic development.

* Substandard infrastructure in Tamil areas.

* Small number of delegates to Parliament, so unable to affect government policy or defend rights.

* Repeated racial killings of unarmed Tamil civilians in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1974 and 1977.

* Government condoned and sponsored riots killing 3,000 Tamils and destroying their property in 1983.

* Tamil parliamentarians harassed, harassment and disappearances of Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere.

* Sustained military campaign against Tamil civilians and economic and military blockade of traditional Tamil homeland, under guise of fighting LTTE.

[Source: Brief Notes - No.A-1, Feb. '96, from Bulletin Board]

Many Third World peoples found that after "independence" they had simply traded one set of oppressors (white) for another (brown and black). The result is that today many Third World states, most of them the direct or indirect result of national liberation wars themselves, are now fighting against national liberation movements within their borders. Good examples in this part of the world include Indonesia (fighting national liberation movements in East Timor, West Papua, and Aceh province) and Papua New Guinea (fighting a national liberation movement in Bougainville).

Imperialism and colonialism are not gone; similar processes are still going on today all over the world, particularly the Third World. "Neocolonialism", Third World colonialism, and "internal colonialism" are the new forms of imperialism, domination, and exploitation characteristic of national politics and international relations. As anthropologist Kathleen Gough has pointed out Capitalist imperialism is still flourishing and "as bloody and cruel as it ever was" (Gough 1990:1707):

"It operates especially through the support, often covert, of governments which favour the interests of the US capitalist class, and through the extraction of economic surplus from the dominated countries by such means as withdrawal of profits, unequal trade, and especially recently, foreign debt" (Gough 1990:1705)

Similarly, Noam Chomsky (1993), in his history of colonialism and imperialism over the past five centuries, concludes that they are just as alive and well today in the so-called "New World Order" as they ever were in the past. For this reason, some argue that it is more accurate to refer to the post-World War Two period as the era of "recolonisation" rather than "decolonisation".

For example, Palestinians are not the only nation-people to experience settler colonialism in the so-called "post-colonial" era since 1945; the territory of the Yanomami people is being invaded by settlers and "developed" as an internal colony of Brazil, and Indonesia pursues a similar settler strategy in its colonies of East Timor and West Papua.

Since the end of World War Two, the nature of global conflict has reflected this. Rather than wars between states, internal wars within states are now by far the most common. Today, the vast majority of wars worldwide are between states and nations. Of the 120-odd wars, 72% (86) are state-nation conflicts. That is, internal wars between states and oppressed nation peoples within their boundaries. 98% of the conflicts (118) are in the Third World, and 75% (90) are between Third World states and Fourth World ("tribal"/indigenous) nations (Nietschmann 1987:7)2.

Modern national liberation movements are basically the result of the spread of world capitalism, which has established a global pattern of social stratification between the "haves" and "have nots." The spread of the capitalist market-place has created a world where the lives of uncounted millions of people are characterised by oppression, exploitation, violence, and injustice. The result of this is that many of these people have been forced to seek some form of defense against these experiences, and national liberation movements are one very important form of such defensive reaction.

up National Liberation Movements

National liberation movements are "peoples" movements seeking freedom, independence, and/or autonomy from what are perceived as oppressive and usually "alien" regimes. They are popular movements supported by whole communities of subjugated people, and depend on the active support of the population, mobilized by a revolutionary party or organisation.

They are not the activities of small groups of isolated individuals, though state authorities opposed to them frequently describe them as such for propaganda purposes. They are the struggle of rebellious nations against foreign invaders or the ruling classes of their society, of exploited against exploiters, of the governed against the governors (Taber 1965:151). They are revolutionary movements of the weak against the strong which seek to invert existing power relations3, to put the last first and the first last, and overthrow the existing status quo and replace it with another more just one. They are invariably defensive reactions to oppression and ethnocide (or cultural genocide - attempts to wipe out their culture through forced assimilation), and patriotism always plays a central part though, again, this is usually ignored by the authorities and media commentators.

They are born out of popular discontent, and emerge over long periods of time not only to combat oppressive conditions but simultaneously to express aspirations for a different and more just society. In general, national liberation movements seek self-determination. They want to control their own affairs and destiny - economically, politically, socially, and culturally. They seek this in the form of either greater regional autonomy from a strong central government, or outright secession and the establishment of their own new and independent state or country. Usually, they begin by seeking only greater autonomy, but are then driven into becoming full-scale independence movements by intransigent oppressive governments.

Beyond these common characteristics, national liberation movements express a tremendous range of ideological diversity. Many are left-wing with Marxist or socialist ideologies. These are very popular because they naturally appeal to poor and oppressed people. But a few are also right wing, for example, they can be "royalist" (e.g. the Zulu Inkatha movement in South Africa, which seeks to restore their king to power). In some cases class, ethnic and/or religious rivalries are important, in others they are not. Despite the diversity of ideologies expressed in various national liberation movements, the most common or "archetypal" form is a combination of nationalism, socialism, anti-imperialism, and religious and other cultural motivations.

up Wars of National Liberation

Every nation people will defend its identity and territory from breakup and eradication. Facing absorption and subjugation, many nations have had no other choice than to militarily resist the colonizing/conquering state. This is a defensive reaction. To defend their nations from being annihilated, many peoples have taken up arms and engaged in wars of national liberation. To understand armed national liberation movements, it is necessary to strip away the camouflage terms and explanations that states use to hide their true nature. The very thing they are fighting for - the survival of their nation - is the focus of distortion and misrepresentation by state regimes and most journalists and academics (Nietschmann 1987).

Instead of identifying them as patriots or freedom fighters battling oppression and injustice and seeking the liberation of their people, they usually refer to them as "terrorists." Every nation people that has resisted state domination or invasion has been accused of being terrorists. But armed national self-preservation or self-defense is not "terrorism" or "banditry". This was stressed by indigenous peoples gathered in Geneva in 1985, when they declared that "indigenous nations and peoples may engage in self-defence against state actions in conflict with their right to self-determination" (cited in Nietschmann 1987:4).

Wars of national liberation are not acts of aggression or conquest, they are a defensive response to the aggression of the state. monumental two volume history of guerrilla warfare, highlights the paradox of conquering states accusing resistance movements of being "terrorists." He makes the important point that to define and condemn armed struggle by conquered and oppressed peoples as terrorism "is to display a self-righteous attitude that, totally unrealistic, is doomed to be disappointed by harsh facts" (1975:279). He notes that this paradox is ancient, and uses the Roman Empire as an example. Celtiberian slaves working New Carthage silver mines regarded Roman legionnaires as weapons of terror designed to keep them in the mines:

From time to time, these and other slaves secretly rose to attack the Romans, who, upon seeing a sentry assassinated or a detachment ambushed and annihilated, no doubt spoke feelingly about the use of terrorist tactics. But who had introduced this particular terror to this particular environment? The Romans. Had they options? Certainly: they could have kept their hands off the Iberian Peninsula, or they could have governed it justly and wisely.

Instead, they came as conquerors ruled by greed, and, in turn, they ruled by oppression maintained by terror. What options did the natives hold either to rid themselves of the Roman presence or to convert it to a more salutary form? Only one: force. What kind of force? That which was limited to what their minds could evoke. Lacking arms, training, and organisation, they had to rely on wits, on surprise raids, ambushes, massacres. Was this terror or counter-terror? (1975:280. Emphasis in original).

Asprey goes on to note that the same paradox: remained very much alive in the imperialist philosophy of even the most advanced Western nations. By devious mental exercises conducted in the spiritual gymnasium of Christianity, colonizing powers defended the double standard: force used by themselves [to conquer and oppress] became benevolence; counterforce used by natives became terror (1975:281).

Hence, the condemnation of liberation movements for resorting to violence or armed struggle is almost invariably superficial, hypocritical, judgmental, and unfair, and tends strongly to represent another example of the generalised phenomenon of "blaming the victim." The violence of the situation, the pre-existing oppression suffered by those who eventually strike back, is conveniently ignored. The violence of the oppressed is a form of defensive counterviolence to the violence of conquest and oppression. In no armed national liberation movement I know of in history has this not been the case.

up Just War

This element of the relationship between violent and non-violent means deserves to be stressed because much of the debate about armed liberation movements centers specifically on the morality of political violence. As Robert Taber puts it, "The decision to fight and to sacrifice is a moral decision. Insurgency is thus a matter not of manipulation but of inspiration" (1965:148). Regardless of their cultural diversity, people everywhere generally consider violence immoral except under specific circumstances. The most general of these is that people must believe that they are living under conditions of intolerable oppression and injustice4, and that all peaceful means of changing this have proven to be ineffective. When violence is reduced to the only effective means a people have to pursue justice and end oppression, it is likely to be defined by an increasing number as not only necessary but moral.

Before armed struggle becomes possible, people must be convinced that the possibilities of peaceful struggle have already been exhausted. This is something stressed by all the classic theorists of guerrilla or revolutionary warfare, and is summarised by Taber:

We have defined guerrilla war as the extension of politics by means of armed conflict. It follows that the extension cannot logically come until all acceptable peaceful solutions - appeals, legislative and judicial actions, and the resources of the ballot box - have been proved worthless. Were it otherwise, there would be no hope of enlisting the popular support essential to revolutionary activity. If people are to accept the risks and responsibilities of organized violence, they must believe first that there is no alternative; second, that the cause is compelling; third, that they have reasonable expectation of success (1965:32).

All national liberation movements start out by seeking to achieve change peacefully through dialogue and persuasion. Almost without exception they find that this rout is foreclosed to them by those in power. When they turn to peaceful protest, it is often forcefully suppressed and they are jailed, tortured, and not infrequently massacred. They then take stock, and some begin to conclude that the only road to liberation, an end to their oppression, or any improvement in their situation, is armed struggle5. Is isn't that armed national liberation movements reject dialogue. Rather, they have found that it is only through armed struggle that one day real dialogue with the oppressor will be possible6.

As long as the regime isn't totally intransigent and there is the faintest real hope of progress - even very slow progress - through peaceful means, national liberation movements generally remain non-violent. But when the regime proves to be intransigent and oppressed people believe they have no effective peaceful means of achieving reforms or progress, then the stage is set for the emergence of armed struggle. The escalation to violence is therefore usually caused by unyielding regimes, and almost always it is the regime that strikes the first violent blow.

In 1984, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples issued the following statement on armed struggle:

Where there is no justice, there will be violence. We decry the need to resort to violence7. Those responsible for violence are not those who must resort to it as a last resort. The responsibility of violence rests upon the souls of those who deny justice. The resort to arms is justified, but only as a last resort, only after an appeal to reason is no longer available. But when a resort to arms becomes necessary, it should be done with pride and not with shame; it should be used with compassion and not with uncontrolled hate; it must be taken up always with a clear understanding that it is justified only for the sake of liberation of our people and not for the purpose of revenge or suppression of another person's right to life and liberty and self-determination (cited in Burger 1987:59. Emphasis in original).

Liberation movements become militarized when they discover that all roads to peaceful progress towards either reform or independence are blocked, and particularly when the regime reacts to their demands, protests and demonstrations with physical repression. After that, armed struggle is almost inevitable. And given the relative forces on the two sides, armed struggle means a guerrilla or "peoples" war. Guerrilla warfare is the means by which a militarily weaker force can defeat a strong enemy (e.g. the Vietnam War).

up The War of the Flea 8: Dynamics of Guerrilla Warfare9

Guerrilla war is revolutionary war, engaging a civilian population, or a significant part of such a population, against the military forces of an oppressive governmental authority (Taber 1965:17). Here, I want briefly to describe two elements important to an understanding of wars of national liberation - the relationship between the guerrillas and the people they are fighting to liberate, and the basic strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare.

When we speak of the guerrilla fighter involved in a national liberation struggle, we are speaking of a political partisan, an armed civilian whose principal weapon is not their rifle but their relationship to the nation people for whom they fight (Taber 1965:21). Guerrillas find their strength in their relationship to a discontented people, as "the spokesman of their grievances, the armed vanguard, as Che Guevara puts it, of militant social protest" (Taber 1965:28):

[The guerrilla] can afford to run when he [sic] cannot stand and fight with good assurance of wining, and to disperse and hide when it is not safe to move. In the extremity, he can always sink back into the peaceful population - that sea, to use Mao Tse-tung's well-worn metaphor, in which the guerrilla swims like a fish. The population, as should be clear by now, is the key to the entire struggle.

Indeed, although Western analysts seem to dislike entertaining this idea, it is the population which is doing the struggling. The guerrilla, who is of the people in a way which the government soldier cannot be (for if the regime were not alienated from the people, whence the revolution?), fights with the support of the non-combatant civilian populace: it is his camouflage, his quartermaster, his recruiting office, his communications network, and his efficient, all-seeing intelligence service. Without the consent and active aid of the people, the guerrilla would be merely a bandit, and could not long survive. If, on the other hand, the counter-insurgent could claim this same support, the guerrilla would not exist, because there would be no war, no revolution (Taber 1965:22-23).

The essential nature of guerrilla warfare is that it represents "the extension of politics by means of armed conflict" (Taber 1965:26). It is a form political warfare guided by political rather than military considerations. As Mao Tse-tung stressed:

"Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if its political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people, and their sympathy, co-operation and assistance cannot be gained. The essence of guerrilla warfare is thus political in character" (cited in Taber 1965:58).

While bombs and bullets are the guerrilla's physical weapons, the real lever is politics; the purpose of the war of national liberation is not to militarily defeat or conquer their opponents, but to create an intolerable situation for the government (Taber 1965:91).

Ultimately, the oppressive government relinquishes its grasp not because its armies have been defeated in battle (although this may occur), but because the rebellious nation, through guerrilla warfare, becomes either too great a political embarrassment to be sustained domestically or on the world stage, or too unprofitable, too expensive, or too discrediting:

The entire arsenal of revolution - guerrilla fighting, terror, sabotage, propaganda - is brought to bear in an effort to take the profit out of colonialism by demoralizing labour and impeding production, boycotting imports, inciting insurrection, forbidding payment of rents to foreign owners, wrecking foreign industrial installations, and in every way increasing the cost of exploitation and of political control - the expense of maintaining the bureaucracy and the police and military forces that must be used to put down the rebellion (Taber 1965:91). . .

The colonial power quickly becomes involved in a struggle that simultaneously blackens it before the world and inflicts financial losses that will soon be translated, at home, into political liabilities. The very efforts of a colonial power to end the struggle will only accelerate the process, for the more stringent the methods of suppression applied, the greater the hatred of the colonial population for the colonizers and the harsher the picture of oppression to be held up before the world (Taber 1965:92).

The basic strategic objective of guerrilla warfare is not generally the military defeat of the government; rather, it is to create a "climate of collapse" (Taber 1965:31) and reduce the government's will to continue fighting until they are prepared to negotiate a settlement.

State governments invariably respond to armed liberation movements with massive violence in an attempt to militarily defeat or suppress them. Because government forces find it extremely difficult to catch guerrillas on their own terms, they tend very strongly to make war on the civilian population - the "water" instead of the guerrilla "fish" that swims in it.

Bernard Nietschmann (1987) has noted that wars of national liberation are as dirty, vicious and destructive as any conventional wars between states - sometimes even more so. Civilians are often targeted by the state, who employ their security forces to kill or capture the guerrillas and crush civilian support. National liberation wars tend to be wars "without rules" or so-called "dirty wars," fought without regard to international standards of warfare and treatment of civilians and prisoners. When state armies militarily engage a national insurgency the warfare is euphemistically called "internal police action against terrorists," which avoids international attention and the Geneva Conventions:

No rules limit how state security forces may act against nation insurgents and their civilian supporters. Unshackled, state armies use genocidal tactics to stamp out resistance to state control: destruction of food supplies, eradication of communities, dislocation of populations into state camps or refugee camps in other states, killing of captured prisoners and wounded combatants, arbitrary and systematic arrest, imprisonment and torture to instill fear and submission and imposed military rule over entire regions and nation peoples (Nietschmann, 1987:13).

Nietschmann concludes that regular genocide is often the state's response to "irregular warfare." Counterinsurgency specialists like to say that if you can't catch the fish, poison the water. But, in effect, this is similar to pouring petrol on flames to try to extinguish them. State terror invariably only further alienates the civilian population and turns them towards the guerrillas. Guerrilla strategists are perfectly aware of this, and it is part of the basic dynamic of guerrilla warfare.

up Normative Structure of National Liberation Movements

The archetypal organisational structure of armed national liberation movements is composed of 1) the nation people who seek liberation, 2) a political organisation or party, and 3) the guerrilla army. The guerrilla army is, of course, always illegal or "underground," but the political organisation is sometimes legal or quasi-legal. It's purpose is to serve as the respectable facade of the armed movement, a civilian front, or, as the Cubans called it, resistencia civica:

made up of intellectuals, tradesmen, clerks, students, professionals, and the like - above all, of women - capable of promoting funds, circulating petitions, organizing boycotts, raising popular demonstrations, informing friendly journalists, spreading rumours, and in every way conceivable waging a massive propaganda campaign aimed at two objectives: the strengthening and brightening of the rebel "image", and the discrediting of the regime (Taber 1965:332-33).

It is also frequently the case that there are serious divisions within the liberation movement and more than one liberation organisation in a country. In this situation, these competing factions frequently fight each other as well as the oppressive government, and the government will employ "divide and rule" tactics against them. In fact, some of the most vicious fighting is not between the liberation movement and government forces, but between competing liberation factions struggling for dominance and support.

There are two basic ways liberation movements seek to overcome this factionalism. First, the strongest faction can seek to destroy their competitors. Second, they can combine together to establish a higher-level organisation - a "national liberation front". Fronts are umbrella organisations bringing together several independent insurgent groups. Sometimes they are formally organised as a "people's liberation front" made up of organisations representing a number of nation-peoples. A successful recent example was the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) which represented nine Eritrean nationalities and won independence from Ethiopia in 1992 after 30 years of war.

up Inequality, Stratification and National Liberation Movements

Earlier, I stressed the general connection between national liberation movements and the rise and spread of imperial states. To take this one step further, we can identify what it is about sates that produces this effect. The social causes of conflict and political violence in states can be traced directly to the correlates of social stratification - major institutionalized inequalities in access to wealth, status and power, or what the great social theorist Max Weber termed "life chances" 10.

Stratification refers to the fact that some categories of people get more of the valued things in life and others get less; a few get most, and most get what's left; some live well and long, more live poorly and briefly. Social stratification leads to such conflict inducing factors as ethnic, religious and ideological discrimination; socioeconomic deprivation; political inequality and its correlates such as infringement of rights, injustice, and oppression; the absence of effective channels of peaceful or systemic resolution of grievances and conflicts; and, of course, exploitation and alienation.

Gerald Berreman, an anthropologist who has dedicated his professional life to the study of systems of social inequality, has noted that wherever there is significant disparities between social groups in access to life chances:

there is suffering and conflict because these are systems which assure privilege to some at the expense of others, and people do not acquiesce easily to that situation. When they do, it is not because they agree to its legitimacy or inevitability, but because they know the uses of power (Berreman 1977:229).

Berreman argues that systems of social stratification are "everywhere characterized by conformity rather than consensus, by conflict rather than tranquility, by enforcement rather than by endorsement, by resentment rather than contentment" (1977:229).

This is worrying because what Berreman observed nearly twenty years ago seems to be even truer today:

Naked power is being resorted to more unabashedly as the conflict becomes more evident . . . the incidence, the likelihood and the impact of overt conflict between unequals is increasing both within and between societies and nations . . . Present trends suggest a worldwide polarization in access to power, privilege and resources - the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" increases with a diminishing willingness among the poor to continue to suffer deprivation, and among the wealthy to ameliorate it (Berreman 1977:236).

All of the major world problems are growing at an accelerated rate. The gap between the few who have much and the many who have little, between rich and poor, between "developed" nations and "developing" ones, is growing ever wider11. Karl Marx, who argued that this was the inevitable result of free-market capitalism, referred to this as "progressive emiseration."12

Put simply, stratification or gross forms of institutionalised social inequality are the "root cause" of revolution, including national liberation movements. That is why I emphasize social inequality here - and in my research, teaching, and writing - because I think it is the most dangerous feature of contemporary society. I think it worth focusing upon because it is an entirely cultural, human-made phenomenon which could be changed if people were to decide to do so. If it is not, the animosities it arouses may well be the end of us.

The ultimate cause may the pattern of states, of accumulation, territoriality, bureaucracy, poverty and accumulation which define or accompany stratification, but the proximal cause is surely the greed and envy, excess and suffering that inequality causes, especially that kind of inequality among entire categories of people which we call stratification. It is inequality alone that can be blamed for armed liberation movements today.

up Conclusion

Why is the contemporary world rent with national liberation movements, indigenous insurgencies, and other armed conflicts? Berreman (1980:10) provides two reasons. First, because oppressed people are not socially stupid even when they are poor, hungry, or uneducated. They understand only too well the social, political, and economic conditions of their lives, and, when the possibility to do so presents itself, they are prepared to act to improve those conditions. National liberation movements are one of the most significant ways people do this.

Second; as capitalists have repeatedly told us, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Delayed payment there surely is, but ultimately comes the bill collector, and for the affluent world which has for long been taking a monumental free lunch from the land, labour and lives of the world's poor, the bill collectors, in the form of the poor, the dispossessed and the exploited, [those Frantz Fanon (1963) called "the wretched of the earth,"] are at the door in no mood to compromise.....

Resentment leads inexorably to resistance in so far as that is possible and practical. Systems of institutionalized inequality carry within them the seeds of their own destruction in the form of the resentment they universally generate, seeds which can remain apparently dormant almost indefinitely, but which await only the proper conditions to suddenly germinate and flourish (Berreman, 1980:10).

Recent events in what (used to be called Yugoslavia) amply demonstrate this.

Since the end of World War Two there have been at least several hundred wars, producing perhaps as many as 100 to 150 million deaths, and not a single day of world peace (cf. Beer 1974). In fact, it is fair to say that in a number of places war has become a permanent feature or "way of life." Over the last couple of decades in particular, conflicts have been clearly more frequent, more serious and more radicalized, and the end of the Cold War has heralded a range of new armed conflicts in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with some twelve new wars starting in 1992 alone (An Phoblacht/Republican News 27 July 1993, p.8). The prospects of a more peaceful future are, to say the least, dismal.

Kathleen Gough predicts that:

The enormous size of the underdeveloped world and the increasing, totally unnecessary poverty of most of it, suggest widespread national revolutions in the not-too-distant future . . . In many low-income countries, we may see various forms of revolutionary movement, military or non-violent, according to the circumstances (1990:1708).

The only effective long-term means of reducing the incidence of social conflict and political violence in general, and wars of national liberation specifically, is to work to resolve or reduce the professed grievances of groups whose only effective political recourse is to employ these means.

A degree of conflict and violence may be inevitable in social life, but no social condition is inevitable. Social conditions are created by people, and what people create, they can change. Social conditions can, at the very least, be changed so that conflict and violence will no longer appear as the only effective political recourse many oppressed and powerless groups have at their disposal.

What I am suggesting is that national liberation movements are dependent variables in the equation of inequality. Wherever there are gross inequalities in access to life chances there is suffering and conflict because these are systems which assure privilege to some at the expense of others, and people do not acquiesce easily to that situation. As Berreman (1977:234) puts it, "In short, people are damaged by poverty and powerlessness, and they know it and they don't like it," and they will act, when the opportunity presents itself, to end their poverty and powerlessness. Again, that is why oppressed peoples form national liberation movements - to end their oppression, to achieve a more just society, and to improve their "life chances" and the quality of their lives.

National liberation movements are not controllable for long by police, armies, surveillance systems, deterrence and other tried and untrue formulae of state control and terror. They are controllable only by eliminating the root cause - poverty, oppression, injustice, want, envy - in short, inequality. They are a product of oppression, and as the psychologists Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovessey pointed out 45 years ago in their classic study "The Mark of Oppression", "There is only one way that the products of oppression can be dissolved, and that is to stop the oppression" (1951:387).

up Footnotes

[1] For the last 400 years, most imperalism has been capitalist, but some socialist countries have also practised it. Today, capitalist imperalism is still flourishing, but with the break up of the Soviet Union and other socialist regimes, "Second World" imperialism has almost ceased to exist (Chinese internal colonialism in Tibet is a noteworthy exception.)

[2] Nietschmann notes that "The Third World has declared a geographic war on the Fourth World. This global conflict is assisted by First and Second World states" (1987:15).

[3] I believe it was Mao tse-tung who expressed the principle that `power grows from the barrel of a gun'

[4] States opposing liberation movements frequently claim that their grievances are either exagerated or nonexisent, and that militants "exploit imagined grievances". This is simply more state propaganda; it can be stated with a high degree of scientific accuracy that armed resistance virtually presupposes real grievances.

[5] Frantz Fanon (1963) summed up the experience of colonised peoples everywhere when he observed that "decolonisation" is always a violent phenomenon, and concluded that "Colonialism only loosens its hold when the knife is at its throat".

[6] Guerrilla theorists not only stress that revolutionary war must be just to attract support and succeed, they also stress that the relationship between the "armed vanguard" and the people is a profoundly moral one: "Above all, the revolutionary activist must stand on solid moral ground, if he [sic] is to be more than a political bandit. One is led to believe, as in the case of the Viet Cong, for example, that guerrillas dominate unprotected rural people by threats and terror: it is a convenient thing for country people to say when confronted by government soldiers who ask them why they have sheltered guerrillas. In general, it is not true. There are judicious uses of terror, no doubt, but no guerrilla can afford to use it against the people on whose support and confidence he depends for his life as well as for his political existence. People are quick to detect the difference between opportunism and dedication, and it is the latter that they respect and follow. To be successful, the guerrilla must be loved and admired. To attract followers, he must represent not merely success, but absolute virtue, so that his enemy will represent absolute evil. If the soldiers are idle, drunken, and licentious, the guerrilla must be vigorous, sober, and moral. If enemies are to be disposed of, it must be for moral reasons: they must be traitors, murders, rapists" (Taber 1965:147-48). It is interesting to note this, in light of the common state propaganda that their opponents are "terrorists" who terrorise their own people into submission.

[7] The Irish patriot Patrick Pearse is famous for saying "War is not evil. It is the things which make war necessary that are evil."

[8] "Analogically, the guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his [sic] military enemy suffers the dog's disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with. If the war continues long enough - this is the theory - the dog succumbs to exhaustion and anaemia without ever having found anything on which to close his jaws or to rake with his claws. But this may be to oversimplify for the sake of an analogy. In practice, the dog does not die of anaemia. He merely becomes too weakened - in military terms, over-extended; in political terms, too unpopular; in economic terms, too expensive - to defend himself"  ( War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare [9] "Guerrilla" comes from La guerra de guerrillas, the war of small bands fought by Spanish partisans against Napoleon's invading armies, "refined in our time to a politico-military science" (Taber 1965:16).

[10] That there is stratification is no accident. As anthropologist Morton Fried (1967:235) has noted, the state "is a collection of specialized institutions and agencies that maintains . . . an order of stratification." Stratification and the state are one in origin and function - namely, the creation, protection and continuation of the powerful and privileged at the expense of the rest.

[11] In the three decades from 1960 to 1990, the populations of developed countries shrunk as a percentage of the world population. In 1960 about 35% of the world's population lived in "developed" countries, and 65% in "less developed" ones: In 1990, about 22% lived in "developed" countries and 78% in "less developed" ones (Gough 1990:1707): "The gap in wealth and technology between developed and underdeveloped capitalist states is widening alarmingly. Many more millions of people in the Third World are very poor, and many more are starving, than in 1960. Today, 40 million children die needlessly each year in the Third World, while the developed countries do less and less to aid them, and draw more and more of their wealth from these countries" (Gough 1990:1708).

[12] This reminds me that Medvedev argues that the basic cause of revolution is human suffering or misery (1979:5): "The Russian revolution came to birth in misery, revolution as a matter of fact, always presupposes misery, always presupposes an intensifying of the darkness of the past".


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