A review of the new book about the civil war in Peru, The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution in the Andes, by Orin Starn and Miguel La Serna. This book is the first history of the Shining Path aimed at the general reading public to come out in a long time. Next episode, we’ll return to our series on the historical background to the Chinese Revolution.
This episode we’re going to take a break from our series on the historical background to the emergence of Maoism in China to jump all the way to late 20th century in Peru. Eventually, I expect the podcast will make its way here more organically, as we tell the story of Maoism and its globalization. But I wanted to take a time out from our current series in order to review a book which was recently published on the Shining Path (or Sendero Luminoso, in Spanish). This book, titled The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution in the Andes, by Orin Starn and Miguel La Serna, is the first scholarly book aimed at a popular audience aiming to provide a narrative history of the Shining Path from its origins through the decline of the organization following the capture of its leader, Abimael Guzmán. It’s important to note that even though the organization has gone into decline since the capture of Guzmán in 1992, and even more so after the capture of Oscar Ramírez, better known as Comrade Feliciano, in 1999, the organization does still exist in Peru. That said, one can’t really compare the Shining Path of the early 1990s with what exists today.
Okay, to give a quick summary of the civil war in Peru for readers who might not be familiar with the events: The Shining Path, which is one of several parties claiming the name of the Communist Party of Peru (and that’s why it’s just easier to call them by the more informal name Shining Path), is a Maoist party that launched a guerrilla war in Peru in 1980. They started off with very small actions, but quickly grew into a formidable force in the highlands around Ayacucho. From about the mid-1980s until 1992, when the leader of the group, Chairman Gonzalo, whose real name was Abimael Guzmán, was captured, the group mounted a serious challenge to the authority of the state, but it quickly diminished in strength and influence after that. Today, some remnant guerrillas still hold out in remote parts of the country, and some sort of remnant political structure still exists more or less countrywide. I know that when I have visited Lima, like when I was doing research for my book on Latin American Maoism, Transpacific Revolutionaries, which came out a few years ago, it’s always been pretty easy to find literature and political activists sympathetic to the Shining Path.
So, the book we’re reviewing, The Shining Path: Love, Madness, and Revolution in the Andes, covers a fairly standard timeframe, one I think that no specialists would have an issue with. And the authors take a pretty readable approach, well-suited to the broad audience that the book is aimed at. They use a story-telling technique that is fairly engaging, following a few key characters from Peru during these years who intersect with the Shining Path’s story in important ways, although because none of the characters are Shining Path members, none are really at the center of the story. This is despite the fact that the authors conducted a series of interviews with Elena Yparraguirre, one of Sendero’s top leaders, as well as with Osmán Morote, another top leader, and are the first researchers who I know of who have had access to the captured Shining Path archive which has been kept in reserve from researchers because it is being used in trials which are still being held against Shining Path leaders.
The reason for the lack of a ‘viewpoint character’ from the Shining Path is pretty easy to figure out. Typically, readers will identify with ‘viewpoint characters,’ in fiction and in popular nonfiction. And the authors are very upfront about their strong bias not only against the Shining Path, but against Marxism in general. It’s a repeated theme in the book, and it’s at the root of my two main criticisms of this book, which are what I’m going to focus on in this review here.
The authors’ open antagonism toward Marxism not only detracts from the book in serious ways, but it presumably is at the root of a failure to really deal with the Shining Path’s ideology in a serious way. The authors alternate between treating the ideology as absurd, or defeated on the world stage and thus not meriting serious exploration, or, as indicated by the subtitle, as a form of madness or insanity. Of course, the authors are welcome to their opinions about Marxism. But as historians writing about a political movement which is universally recognized as being highly ideological, including by themselves, the authors have some responsibility for trying to understand and explain the ideology which the Shining Path subscribed to. I certainly think that it is possible for non-Marxist and even anti-Marxist writers to do that, and the fact that the authors don’t is lazy and irresponsible in regard to both their readers and their subject matter. This leads the book to, on the one hand, leave the reader misinformed about the actual thought processes and issues which led the Shining Path as an organization to do what it did, certainly including many things which will seem strange to most people and to be major mistakes of revolutionary strategy to many others. And on the other hand, it leaves us with yet another book which seems to see its main social role as not so much informing the public about historical events, but about policing the limits of acceptable forms that dissent might take against a global capitalist system in which 16,000 children die daily from hunger and starvation, to take just one of many horrifying statistics that can be laid at the feet of the system that the book’s authors feel the need to ideologically defend against the legacy of a defeated guerrilla movement.
So let’s talk first about the ways in which the book constantly polices against any inclination a reader might have to sympathize with a group that, after all, set out with the goal of eliminating the brutal poverty that so many people in Peru still suffer from. The most frequent way the book does this is by sprinkling ad hominem attacks on Marxism and Marxists throughout the text. Often, so little thought goes into these ad hominem denunciations of the book’s subjects that the authors contradict things that they have just said which reveal at least some sort of humanity or living application of ideas on the part of Shining Path members.
For example, there’s one point where the authors describe how Augusta La Torre, who went by the name Norah, was in Huanta, her home town near to Ayacucho and more or less in the epicenter of the revolution, in 1982. It describes how she made sure that her childhood friend’s boyfriend, who was a policeman, was kept from being targeted by the Shining Path. Then, in the very next line, they say that La Torre was “always the rigid revolutionary” (this is on p. 142). The authors constantly do this seemingly reflexive thing, where every time they use the words revolutionary or Marxist they throw in an adjective like ‘rigid,’ ‘dogmatic,’ or ‘mad.’ They are particularly fond of the alliterative ‘mad Marxist.’
Here’s another example of the sort of statements that the authors pepper the book with, and which I think captures a lot both for its venom and its inaccuracy. On page 268, the authors give us this gem: “Their moth-eaten Maoist orthodoxy had always blinded the senderistas to rural complexities.” Ok, so that statement tells you a lot about the tone of the book. But let’s actually take apart that statement. First of all, the phrase ‘moth-eaten Maoist orthodoxy’ is an interesting one. The term ‘moth-eaten’ would imply that Maoism was old and stale in the 1980s. Yet, Maoism was certainly a much newer ideology than the competing ideological systems. Maoism really only came into being in the wake of China’s split with the Soviet Union, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution, in 1966-1976. So, why don’t we talk about the moth-eaten liberal capitalism which was a couple hundred years older and was Maoism’s chief ideological competitor in Peru during the war? In fact, the so-called orthodoxy of any particular version of Maoism, including that espoused by the Shining Path, was something that was contested at the time by the different Maoist parties around the world. So, really, if the Shining Path did have difficulty with rural complexities, we can’t really blame a non-existent Maoist orthodoxy (especially since Mao himself was particularly skillful at recognizing rural complexities and politically mobilizing diverse rural populations, as is well known).
But let’s take this a step further. If Sendero was faithful to a Maoist orthodoxy, maybe that just means they tried to do what Mao himself did. One of the main focuses of the book is on a village, Huaychao, which opposed the Shining Path. Here’s how Sendero initially tried to win support in Huaychao: they sent a detachment of eight guerrilla fighters led by a seventeen year old woman. This was a common way in which guerrilla fighters made contacts, did political propaganda and sought support in mountain villages. The senderistas went in, had a meeting with the villagers, and explained their political goals. By and large, these were not particularly complicated sorts of explanations. They would be along the lines of “the evil government is keeping you poor, we’re here to end exploitation,” that sort of thing.
The senderistas were trying to set up alternative authority, communist authority structures in the countryside, and so they told the Huaychainos that the Party (the Shining Path refers to itself as the Peruvian Communist Party) would appoint a People’s Committee to run the village. The Huaychainos replied that they already had their own authority structure, in which a bunch of old village men were essentially the village government. Then the Huaychainos killed the senderistas, with only one escaping. Now, let’s look at this as an example of so-called Maoist orthodoxy. Although the Chinese Communist Party championed women’s rights, it typically did not try to win the allegiance of villages where it was operating by immediately going in and having a young woman undermine patriarchal authority structures. Rather, although there was a real variety in the Chinese experience depending on time and place, the standard way in which the Chinese Communist Party appealed to villages for allegiance was based on some form of land reform, either based on lowering rents or on re-distributing land, depending again on the particular local forms of land tenure and whether the main enemy at the time was the Japanese or the Chinese Nationalist Party (the Guomindang). It’s actually quite striking just how radical, and radically different from what happened in China, what the Shining Path did here. Historically, despite the great gains made for women during the Chinese Revolution, I think a lot of people today would say that the Chinese Communist Party never went far enough in challenging patriarchy as a system, both in Chinese society and in the Party itself. There was a prominent communist writer named Ding Ling who made that case, and who was punished for making that case. If anything, one could say that the Shining Path represented on some level a radical feminist praxis compared to the Chinese Party.
Now, that didn’t turn out well for the Shining Path in the case of Huaychao, and that points to a very difficult to resolve tactical question in this case. To what degree should the Shining Path have tried to accommodate patriarchal prejudices and pre-existing patriarchal community structures in order to win the Huaychainos over to support the revolution? Certainly, what ended up happening, where almost all the initial squad of senderistas were killed, and then the Shining Path ended up taking a collective vengeance on the community of Huaychao by killing many community members over the next few years, was awful. As backward as the patriarchal authorities of Huaychao were, they were precisely the oppressed people that Sendero was trying to, and needed to, win over to the revolution. As difficult as it might have been in practice, this was a situation that Mao would have called a ‘contradiction among the people,’ even after the initial incident where the village had killed the senderista squad members. Mishandling this situation, and others like it, ended up proving devastating for the Shining Path.
But getting back to the sentence which we are deconstructing here, we can see that dismissing Shining Path strategies as ‘moth-eaten Maoist orthodoxy’ actually blinds us to very interesting and novel things that the Shining Path was actually doing, by sending young women squad leaders into villages to undermine local patriarchal authority. And, they certainly weren’t doing this because they were ‘blind to rural complexities,’ as the second half of the sentence we are deconstructing goes. The Shining Path conducted detailed surveys of rural conditions and had very detailed knowledge of rural life. This can be seen in a lot of the theses that future Shining Path members wrote while students at the university in Ayacucho, and one Shining Path leader, Antonio Díaz Martínez, had a long experience working in land reform and had published a book with a detailed survey of different Ayacuchan communities. And of course, most Shining Path members had roots in these sorts of communities. So they knew what they were doing.
But also, the authors ignore evidence that the Shining Path did indeed try to learn from its experience in Ayacucho. If one looks at Sendero’s experience in Puno and the Huallaga Valley, for example, one can see that major efforts were made to avoid creating the sharp and unfavorable polarization that was eventually created in Ayacucho. The authors make out that, failing in Ayacucho, the PCP’s strategy shifted to hoping to take over Lima in an insurrection. While that might make for a more manageable narrative, it leaves out a whole range of things happening around the country, and gives a very incomplete picture of how the Shining Path did in fact try to learn how to better handle rural complexities.
But the real function of statements like the one we just deconstructed, and the many similar dismissive statements, is not just a lazy way of avoiding description and analysis of the complex phenomena inherent to the revolutionary process. Its main function, intentional or not, is to constantly police the reader’s feelings about the Shining Path and communist ideology more generally.
This style of writing used to be quite common among historians of the Soviet Union and China, but was discarded almost entirely many years ago by most scholars in those fields, although works aimed at a broader reading public still often employ this sort of language. Apart from the tiresome nature of this sort of vitriolic language, the main reason it was discarded is precisely because it short circuits attempts to actually understand historical phenomena. For example, if you are constantly denouncing something as insane or dogmatic, it is very hard to actually come to grips with why large numbers of people were attracted to an ideology or participated in a movement. And this is a weakness that we see repeatedly in this book.
At no point in this book is there any attempt to come to terms with how and why so many people found Maoism, and more particularly the form of Maoism espoused by Abimael Guzmán and his followers so convincing. While the Shining Path definitely remained a small minority of Peruvian society for its entire existence, and because of its discipline was able to exercise an influence on events far out of proportion to its actual numbers, it did attract a remarkably large number of people, from a range of social backgrounds, from poor indigenous peasants to even members of Peru’s rarified elite, into its ranks. The rhetorical strategy of denouncement precludes a serious investigation into what attracted these people to Shining Path’s ranks. This is something that was noted by the review of the book that appeared in July’s issue of Harper’s Magazine as well.
It also precludes any serious treatment of the Shining Path’s ideology, leading to a lot of striking and basic errors throughout the book. As everyone who has ever studied the Shining Path has noted, including the authors, it was a highly ideologically motivated movement. One would think that would force authors of books on the Shining Path to study the group’s ideology in order to, at the very least, be able to accurately discuss the group’s beliefs. Yet, that’s not the case. The book is riddled with many annoying errors, such as inconsistently labeling the group’s ideology (which changed from Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought at the beginning of the war to later become Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, Gonzalo Thought), sometimes using accurate terminology and sometimes using bizarre variations on it. Also, the authors seem totally unaware of the English language conventions for much terminology which they translate from Spanish, rendering ‘standing committee’ as ‘permanent committee,’ for example, another indication of their lack of familiarity with the relevant comparative literature on communist movements in general.
But much more importantly, it leads them to ignore what the Shining Path actually said about why it did the things it did. For example, an important point about the Shining Path was that, after 1976, it considered socialism to have been overthrown in both China, and that a capitalist restoration had occurred in the Soviet Union much earlier. The authors, on pages 30 to 31, explain the Shining Path’s opposition to both the Soviet Union and China in these terms: “In the eyes of the Shining Path, the two great Communist powers had betrayed the masses by parleying with the United States and compromising their commitment to revolutionary ideals.” However, this really is inaccurate. It’s actually noteworthy that the Shining Path did not at all negatively comment on the Chinese rapprochement with the United States which began under Mao’s leadership. It also did not denounce the Soviet Union for parleying with the United States at all. Rather, and this was a central idea to the Shining Path’s conception of the socialist society they hoped to create in Peru, the Shining Path subscribed to a particular theory about how capitalism is restored in socialist societies based on the conditions under socialism giving rise to a new bourgeoisie within the Communist Party itself. This was an idea advanced by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, and further articulated by followers of Mao like Zhang Chunqiao, who was arrested soon after Mao’s death in 1976. This idea of a new bourgeoisie arising within the party itself is part of what created the internal party culture of the Shining Path which emphasized ideological purity and revolutionary commitment. The authors are repeatedly baffled at what they consider the madness of the criticism and self-criticism sessions held during party meetings. Their explanations of this internal party culture stop at the level of befuddlement. Yet how much richer would the book have been if the authors had actually explored the particular ideas that the Shining Path had, and how those ideas informed the actual practices of the party?
One of the reasons I find the Shining Path so interesting is precisely because so much of what they did arose out of ideological positions which they took in direct reference to global events of the past 150 years of the history of the International Communist Movement. They were organically linked to a tradition rooted in global efforts at revolution predating the Russian Revolution and that included the experience of building socialism in the Soviet Union and China. Based on this global history, they determined a strategy for revolution in Peru predicated on what they thought the laws of history entailed for their situation, including a peasant-based revolution in the countryside, sustained efforts at destabilizing the capital, Lima, and preparations for an eventual invasion by the United States which they calculated would unite the country behind them (echoing Mao’s ironic thanking of the Japanese for invading China). That the Shining Path got a lot of things wrong, was defeated at some key junctures, and committed some terrible atrocities is something that can be analyzed and understood in that context. One of the recurring problems of efforts at human liberation over the past hundred years or so is that the actual conditions of fighting for liberation often lead to events that appear to be the opposite of liberating. This is particularly clear in the case of Shining Path’s war of attrition with those peasant communities which opposed them during the 1980s and 1990s. And the echoes of larger tragedies in the Soviet Union and China are clear there as well.
But those tragedies are the result of the actual material difficulties that arise in the process of putting ideas into action. If those tragedies aren’t to be repeated in the future, or rather if they are to be minimized in the future, then we need to understand what actually happened. Books that cover that history just to denounce, but not to analyze and explain, are not particularly useful, except as props for a more brutal system than anything seen in the Soviet Union or Maoist China, which has brought us slavery, war, nuclear and chemical warfare, grinding structural violence, and climate catastrophe.
Alright, in our next episode, we’ll be going back to late 19th century China. See you there.