The reductionism of Sendero Luminoso

Yes, exceptionalism. I’m actually quite a strong believer in exceptionalism, not in the radical sense that if you go to, say, Japan then the laws of political gravity no longer apply, but in the sense that you need to be keyed in to the peculiarities of your environment. This might just be a manifestation of my broader historicist streak, but I think it’s basic common sense. That’s why Lenin and Mao and Mariátegui put so much effort into arriving at an empirical study of what was distinctive about Russia and China and Peru. I suppose Connolly could be included there, although Labour In Irish History hasn’t aged very well.

That’s why it’s interesting to take a brief look at Peruvian Maoism, just to get a stunning example of schematism. And that’s actually a point in itself. A lot of people have wondered why, when Latin America was being swept by the Cuban model of national liberation, and when Argentina and Bolivia had developed powerful Trotskyist movements, Maoism should take root in Peru alone and come to dominate the left there. The answer is relatively simple, and doesn’t require any deep study of Peruvian land ownership patterns or Quechua culture or notable similarities between 1970s Peru and 1930s China – which is kind of the point. It came about through the more or less accidental situation that Peru’s leftist military government of the early 1970s cultivated close links with China, and so it was that Mao Zedong Thought became the hegemonic discourse in Peru’s universities.

This is actually quite important in the case of Sendero Luminoso. There’s a tabloidised view of Sendero as rooted in the inscrutable culture of the Andean peasantry. Apart from owing a lot to Peruvian whites’ fears about Indian savagery, supposedly epitomised by the rebellious Ayakuchu region, it’s simply untrue. What is amazing is that Sendero did win a mass Indian base, given its radical insensitivity to Peru’s distinctive social system.

One of the great things about Mariátegui was that he gave real serious thought to Peruvian society and particular the intersection between race and class. It’s the obvious line of inquiry for a society where issues of race, class, language and identity are inseparable in the centuries-old tension between the mainly white elite and the Andean peasantry, not to mention the mestizo layers of the population. In fact, since Peru is even more diverse than it was in Mariátegui’s day, with large Japanese and Chinese populations making an impact in the urban centres, the founder’s insights are arguably more relevant than ever. And this project of a thoroughly Peruvianised Marxism ties in very nicely with Mao’s insistence on the Sinification of Marxism.

All this, however, was a closed book to Sendero. Even though they, in theory, drew on Mao and Mariátegui, these basic insights didn’t make into the party’s codification of “Presidente Gonzalo Thought”. What did make it into the party’s ideology was a mishmash of slogans and schemata imported wholesale from China. (Sendero’s deadly rivals in the PCP-Patria Roja charged that not only did they not understand Peru, they didn’t understand China either, and they were really just infantile leftists with only the most primitive grasp of Mao Zedong Thought. I have some sympathy for this view, but that’s another story.)

So, in this context, Sendero’s policy on the all-important issue of race was that they had no policy. No, that isn’t quite right – their policy was that, once the revolution was one, the problem would disappear. Sendero’s turn to the Andean peasants was not down to some affinity for Quechua culture or deep understanding of the racial divide; they turned to the peasants because their people’s war schema demanded a turn to the peasants.

Needless to say, the party was officially colour-blind in its internal organisation, and needless to say the indigenous majority didn’t benefit from this policy that would seem so unexceptional in the abstract. In fact, one of the most striking things about Sendero was that, while its footsoldiers were heavily made up of brown-skinned Quechua-speaking peasants, its leadership was almost entirely composed of Spanish-speaking white professionals. Nor were they entirely free from racial backwardness – under the Fujimori regime, the semi-official party paper El Diario on occasion resorted to open anti-Asian racism in its polemics against the “slitty-eyed” president, something that was to say the least incongruous from a tendency that supposedly worshipped Mao.

You had a similar thing with women. In this case, Sendero did slightly better in that they put some serious effort into promoting women cadres, and some foreign observers even took them to have made a refreshing break from Latin American traditions of Machismo-Leninismo. But on closer examination, the record wasn’t quite so good. A very high number of the women in the top leadership turned out to be the wives of male leaders. And, while organising women was encouraged, there wasn’t the merest hint of a programme for women’s liberation. Again, the line was that the victory of the revolution would sort everything out. The answer was socialism, and that was all there was to it.

Having said all that, the wonder is that Sendero managed to win the level of support that they did from the oppressed groups that they treated so dismissively. But really, for people in a desperate situation, “the answer is socialism” has a certain simplistic appeal. Combine that with a dedicated and energetic cadre who were deadly serious about the war, and it’s not really surprising that the oppressed could rally to the Sendero cause. And yet, that doesn’t make up for their reductionist logic, and it didn’t really inspire much confidence in how well the oppressed would have done if the war had gone the other way.


  1. July 11, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Peru had its strong trotskyist movement from the 1960ies to the 1980ies, a good book about trotskyist-lead peasant-struggles is Hugo Blanco’s “Land or Death: The Peasant Struggle in Peru” about the insurrectional peasant movement in the Cuzco area in the early 1960ies

  2. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 11, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    Very interesting. Read a book in the early 1990s that suggested that SL would sweep all before it in South America – that this time there was an implacable disciplined organisation that wouldn’t surrender, wouldn’t fracture. Didn’t think it was entirely convincing then and nothing since has made me change that point of view… 🙂 But, that said, a fascinating group. I sort of agree with you re exceptionalism although I’d draw it more widely. I’d think pretty much every set of circumstances is exceptional in that sense and again pretty much due to local conditions, cultures, etc, etc. The consequence of which for political struggles is either extremely good or bad depending on what way you look at it…

  3. July 12, 2008 at 12:50 am

    You write with amazing authority on something seemingly obscure at this point historically. Yet you have piqued my interest and I may return to your socialist world again. I have just watched Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes The Barley”, which in a filmic form contain some echoes of what you have written about in an Irish context. Keep up the good work.

  4. Ed said,

    July 13, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Sorry to be all moralistic but didn’t the Shining Path gather together all the ‘middle class’ people – teachers, doctors etc – in the villages that they captured and massacre them. As a teacher I have to say that I am against that sort of thing. I wasn’t fond of the Khmer Rouge either.

  5. Derek Wall said,

    July 26, 2008 at 8:59 am

    Interesting article. I don’t think it touches on the situation in Peru today, where Shining Path are a tiny group stuck in a couple of rainforest hide aways.

    The were murderous to the left (and I guess everyone else), I remember reading one account of how they maching gunned a socialist women leader and blew up her body with dynamite

    Hugo Blanco who led the the indigenous revolt in 1962 is still active and is one of the leading lights of the Ecosocialist International, he publishes a paper Lucha Indigena.

    Any way thanks for the piece above it was interesting.

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