MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




A territorial, administrative division in Russia.


Guerrilla Warfare

An aspect of popular warfare that is strategically defensive and tactically aggressive. Guerrilla warfare is strategically defensive because it spawns under a repressive government in defense of the interests of workers/peasants, or forms in the interests of national liberation against an occupying enemy force. It is tactically aggressive because its aim is to overthrow the repressive government, or force the withdrawal of an occupying army. Guerrilla warfare commonly begins spontaneously, but may be used as a means of revolutionary struggle.

Guerrilla warfare is organized and carefully planned combat; commonly employed in conjunction with conventional warfare tactics. Although units operate independently, they have a common political objective (overthrow the existing government, defeat occupying armies, etc.) linked to the aspirations of the people. Guerrilla warfare is commonly referred to as "political war"; all warfare, however, is political. When warfare is not fought on behalf of an existing government, then it is fought to establish a certain government, by a military that has political bodies/interests of some kind guiding its objectives in war. Guerrilla warfare is that type of warfare that represents the interests of an oppressed peoples.

The survival of guerrilla warfare is entirely dependent upon the support of the oppressed population, who provide soldiers for combat, food, shelter, intelligence, medical supplies, etc.; while the guerrilla soldier usually acquires their armament and equipment from the enemy or the arms market. Thus it has been constantly stressed by guerrilla leaders that the guerrilla soldier must: 1) establish and maintain exemplary relations among the people; 2) inspire the people with the ideal which they fight for; 3) vigilantly guard to ensure the ideal of liberation is forever anchored to the revolutionary cause, all of which depend on good communication. Thus information warfare is one of the most important battles the guerrilla soldier will fight. Without this battle won, the umbilical cord between the guerrilla fighters and the population will be severed, and the revolution will wither and die.

In combination with popular support, the success of guerrilla warfare is dependent on a united political objective and military command (ex. Cuban revolution). Guerrillas are formed from the mass of the population, something that was lucidly recognized by Mao in his organizational structure, establishing a command structure from the bottom up. With the foundation and strength of command in a diversified base, though overall instructions and tactical plans came from the top, the strength and continued existence of guerrilla warfare was insured even when top military leaders were assassinated.

Rural/Urban Warfare: The type of warfare a guerrilla engages in depends on the environment where popular support is located. If guerrilla support is among the peasantry/farmers, then rural guerrilla warfare is practiced; if support is among the working-class, then urban guerrilla warfare is the method. When their exists support among both workers and peasants/farmers, a double front of rural and urban guerrilla warfare may be established.

Protection for the guerrilla means freedom of movement and deceiving the enemy. Such protection is manifested through their environment and information networks; whether the dense jungle or concrete buildings, word-of-mouth or satellite networks. Methods of protection are as various and constantly shifting as the environment the guerrilla lives. In Cuba, guerrillas used the densely forested mountains as their area of movement; while the Vietnamese used both the jungle and a brilliant system of underground tunnels. Urban guerrillas have an even greater variety of options, everywhere from subway and sewer systems to buildings and busy streets of all types.

Guerrilla Warfare Tactics: The oldest formulation of basic guerrilla tactics can be found in: Sun Tzu's Art of War. Guerrilla warfare tactics rely on inexhaustible, primarily psychological, harassment (attacking the enemy by causing defection, fear, political and social pressures within its ranks, etc.), accomplished by extremely subtle, flexible, and improvised tactics designed to overextend the resources of the enemy. The time guerrilla warfare gains can be critical for the development of a conventional army to confront the enemy (Mao in China) or to divide and conquer the enemy psychologically (ex. Vietnamese guerrillas). Above all of course, guerrilla tactics adhere to the principles of survival and success (as mentioned above).

Anti-Terrorism: Guerrilla warfare is entirely opposed to terrorism, but degenerated and weak guerrillas may resort to terrorist tactics. The very nature of terrorism is opposite of popular support; such is the reason why it is reverted to by degenerate and isolated soldiers. Terrorism seeks by violent action, planed by a small group or single individual, to instill fear and terror in the masses and in the government through public bombings (guerrillas attack military, not civilian, targets). Since the birth of terrorism, its end result is alienation of workers, an increasingly repressive government, and the destruction of revolutionary organizations, leaving the mass of the population unprotected by a now sharper and more brutal government.

Combating the Guerrilla: The principal method imperialist and local armies employ to combat guerrilla warfare is through attacking the civilian population. The imperialist method can be divided into direct and indirect methods.(see Sun-Tzu )

Direct assault against guerrillas is commonly aerial attack with the aim of destroying urban centers, communications, transportation, etc (US in Vietnam). This form of direct assault has its own indirect method – with the aim of assassinating guerrilla leader's, impersonating guerrilla soldiers, and actually helping villagers/workers in strategic areas/districts with social projects to bring them on the side of the imperialists, gathering information, etc. – enacted by various special forces units.

Indirect assault against guerrillas is through psychological operations conveyed through all existing means of communication: air drops of propaganda leaflets, books, pamphlets, etc.; radio; television; news reporting manipulation, etc. The aim of psychological operations (like all warfare) is deception, enacted by reducing morale and guerrilla combat efficiency, promoting defection, and providing misinformation on imperialist movements/objectives. Thus the first task of psychological operations is to completely understand their enemy: what they believe in, what motivates the population, etc. The basic themes of enemy propaganda, heavily conveyed through cultural/historical references, are: the superior strength of the imperialist army, the inferiority and savagery of guerrilla fighting, that defectors are heroes who will be treated very well, guerrillas and their compatriots will be tortured, and that true victory lies within the [puppet] government which "really" supports the aspirations of the people. Psychological operations also use a form of direct tactics which aim to destroy political unity through introducing imposters to emphasize differences in the guerrilla movement, and make extravagant bribes for certain political parties to disrupt unity and drag the people away from struggle. (U.S. methods in Guatemala, Argentina, Panama, etc.)

In order for a guerrilla army to effectively combat both methods, the guerrillas most important objective is to insure complete and total integration/solidarity with the people of the country, both politically and militarily.

Synonyms: Guerrillas are also called partisans, insurgents, and freedom fighters.

Historic Origins: The origin of the English term for guerrilla warfare comes from the Peninsular War (1808-14), where Spanish guerrillas crushed Napoleons' occupying armies – in Spanish guerra means "war"; the tactics of the Spanish were so successful, that the name stuck.

Guerrilla warfare has been employed as early as conventional warfare existed. Recorded acts of guerrilla warfare first occurred in around 500 B.C.E. against the Persian King Darius; in around 350 B.C.E. against Alexander the great; in 218 B.C.E. against Hannibal; and later against the Roman republic by Spanish guerrilla fighters who fought against the Romans for over 200 years. Guerrilla tactics are sometimes attributed to various "barbarian hordes", while of course conventional tactics can also be attributed to "barbarian hordes" – tactics, however, represent the form of an army, not the content. While guerrilla fighting may resemble the form of some "barabarian hordes", their content is very different – the guerrilla fighter is someone who is organized and pursues a particular political objective, and who is fighting a defensive war.

Guerrilla warfare was employed by Arabs in defense against the Christian Holy Wars (Crusades), and also by the countrymen of Ireland after the Norman invasion in the 12th century. Kublai Khan's Mongolian army withdrew from its occupation of Vietnam after Tran Hung Dao's successful implementation of guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla fighters in Welsh shook the foundation of King Edward I's army, but were unsuccessful without conventional forces; while in the North the guerrilla tactics of William Wallace, and the long and brilliant combination of guerrilla and conventional warfare by Robert Bruce decimated the English army and gained Scotland independence. A century later, during the Hundred Years War between England and France, Bertrand du Guesclin led a guerrilla army to crush English occupation of France almost single-handedly.

With the advent of the matchlock rifle in around 1450, however, guerrilla tactics began subsiding to the power of conventional warfare. The technology, supply, and training needed to use rifles could only be supplied by a large government; and moreover, guerrilla tactics could not operate with the clumsy, imprecise, and bulky weapons. Guerrilla fighters could not put to serious use these new weapons and so were decimated by them when they tried. One of the most well-known examples of this is the mass genocide of the Native Indians of North, Central, and South America, who unsuccessfully employed guerrilla tactics primarily using bows and arrows against an enemy with rifles and cannons (though the tremendous role of disease should not be underestimated as the worst aspect of their European enemies).

Nearly three centuries later, by around 1750, guerrilla fighters began to employ rifles – thanks to the advent of the flintlock musket. The flintlock greatly increased the rate of fire, reliability, and ease-of-use of the rifle, making it better suited to guerrilla tactics of shooting and moving. In conventional warfare, the flintlock was a safer weapon, which allowed the formation of infantry "lines" – instead of needing at least a yard between firing soldiers using the matchlock rifle, the flintlock allowed soldiers to stand shoulder to shoulder, creating a "wall of fire". While the line of fire proved extremely effective in raw power, maintaining the line of soldiers proved difficult for commanders, and would soon be exploited by guerrilla forces.

Used in conjunction with conventional warfare, guerrilla units operated in the first two Sicilian wars (1740-45) and later in the Seven Years War (1756-63), on the side of Austria against Prussia. American workers employed guerrilla tactics in their first revolutionary war, conclusively demonstrating the inferiority of the line of fire tactics dominant throughout the British army. The line was unable to effectively combat guerrilla resistance, as the guerrillas came from all directions, usually under the cover of the environment.

In 1812, during Napoleon's failed conquest and retreat from Russia, Russian peasant guerrillas combined with mounted Cossacks to continually harass, demoralize and inflict tens of thousands of additional casualties. Guerrilla warfare was practiced to some extent in the colonized nations of India, Algeria, Mexico, China, Morocco, Burma, New Zealand, and the Balkans, but lacked cohesive unity and a united political agenda within its own population to be effective. Native American Indians in North America galiantly employed guerrilla warfare in defense of their land, their culture, and their people – but again lacked an effective political unity, sometimes fighting against themselves. In the Boer War (1899-1902), guerrillas in South Africa held off the powerful British army for over two years, until, not having any conventional forces, the British overwhelmed the guerrillas. In the 1890s Cuban guerrillas led by Jose Marti fought their Spanish overseers, but the United States intervened to ensure that the U.S., not Spain, had control over Cuba and its people. Deceiving the Cuban people that the U.S. was acting in their interests, Cuba and the U.S. together defeated Spain, while the Cuban people donned the new yoke of U.S. imperialism for almost 50 years, until guerrillas would rise up again, to overthrow their new masters.

In the 20th-century, in the 1916 Easter Rising, led in part by James Connolly, the Irish Republican Army engaged in guerrilla warfare that, in partial success, established a partition of Ireland in 1921. The IRA, however, would later degrade to terrorism; a tactic with a few positive results for over 80 years. In 1927, with Japanese imperialist forces occupying China, Mao Zedong led a 22 year war of liberation, that successfully combined guerrilla tactics with conventional warfare to remove Japanese imperialists from China, and later helped in the struggle for socialism against the nationalists. In 1937, Mao wrote his work On Guerrilla Warfare, summarizing his experience.

Throughout World War II, Communists throughout those nations that had been invaded by the Nazi or Japanese armies established resistance forces who employed guerrilla warfare tactics – in conjunction with the conventional forces of the Allied nations – to achieve victory; most notable were the Chinese guerrillas, and French and Belgian maquis.

The Yugoslav Communist lead Partisans were among the most successful of all communist lead guerrilla movements, having liberated almost all of Yugoslavia prior to the German surrender in 1945. Lead by Slovenian/Croatian leader, Tito Broz, the Partisans overcame centuries of national/religious antagonisms through tying up nearly nine German divisions. Their political platform defined themselves as fighting not only for national liberation from the Nazi occupier, but for socialist revolution, something that brought the Partisans into conflict with Stalin's Russia, who preferred a more low-key, simple national liberation approach that would not upset the Western Allies. One aspect of the Partisan struggle was the formation of "Prolaterian Shock Brigades", made up of the most politically advanced workers, members of the Yugoslav Communist Party, often from the same factory, who acted as shock-troops for the revolution, taking on the most difficult tasks or attacking the most fortified Nazi positions.

Following the success of the Chinese revolution in 1949, Cuban revolutionary fighters were embraced by the peasants and workers of Cuba, and united together to overthrow the Batista dictatorship relying entirely on guerrilla tactics. This revolution led to guerrilla campaign's throughout Latin America and in some places Africa, none of which were successful without conventional forces. Shortly five years later, however, the guerrilla forces of Ho Chi Minh forced the French army to release its stranglehold over Indochina. Later invaded by the U.S., Vietnam successfully dealt a catastrophic blow to the U.S. military, using solely guerrilla forces, to defeat the most powerful military in the world – a military with a budget 20 times greater than the entire GNP of the Vietnamese nation.

Later, Muslim guerrillas (the mujahideen) in a decade-long battle defeated Soviet imperialism in Afghanistan, but lacking political unity, accelerated by unbalanced U.S. intervention on the side of various factions, the nation still was unable to claim for itself victory well until the beginning of the 21st century with the establishment of the repressive Taleban. At the end of the 20th century, guerrilla warfare had been practiced throughout the nations exploited by imperialism (the so-called "Third World"); in Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Morocco, Angola, and Mozambique.

Modern Tactical Assessments: With the material impossibility of building a conventional army approaching anywhere near as powerful as the strongest imperialist armies, i.e. the U.S. Military, whose yearly budget is over $300 billion (2000) (more than the nation even spends on all education), many have no choice but to resort to guerilla war. Conventional forces who have opposed the U.S. like Iraq (1990) have been ruthlessly and easily crushed, while guerillas like those in Somalia (1993) achieved success. In 2001, the U.S. military has begun a transformation of priorities, so that it can better combat guerilla fighters in the future.

Further Reading: Revolutionary Spain, by Karl Marx; Guerrilla Warfare, by Vladimir Lenin; On Guerrilla Warfare, by Mao Zedong; Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, by Carlos Marighella; Guerrillaism and the regular army by Leon Trotsky, Do We Need Guerrillas? (Trotsky), Overcoming guerrilla-ism (Trotsky).