Students, Peasants, and Communism in Colombia: An Interview with Oliver Dodd

Devon Bowers | Social Movement Studies | Interview | May 30th, 2019

This is a transcript of a recent email interview I did with Oliver Dodd, a PhD student at Nottingham University, where we expand upon his April 2019 article in the online edition of the Morning Star.

Talk in depth about the worker-student-peasant alliance in Colombia. How did these seemingly different groups not just come together, but unify without factions fighting for overall control?

While it is commonly declared that ELN was formed out of Colombia's student movement, and therefore that it consisted of solely middle-class political activists, the reality is much more complex. In fact, from the beginning, the ELN was made up of peasants and workers. The ELN was formed out of structures organized by workers, structures organized by peasants, and structures organized by students. It is, however, true that the ELN's first leader, Fabio Vásquez Castaño, had been a leader in the student movement. Castaño's student and urban based background, it appears, has led academics to claim that the ELN is middle-class in its origins, but this is a misrepresentation of the reality. The ELN drew on its initial membership from broad political structures that included peasants, workers, and students.

The ELN was developed out of an organization called "Movimiento Obrero Estudiantil Campesino" (MOEC) - the Peasants, Students and Workers Movement of Colombia - founded in 1960. This movement had been inspired by the Cuban revolution, which stressed the value of organizing an extensive coalition of social forces, including armed units as well as civil society structures, to bring about revolutionary social change. Hence, central to the ELN from the beginning was the idea of creating a coalition of revolutionary social forces.

This peasant-working-student alliance - MOEC - was not created in a social vacuum, in the minds of left-wing students - it was developed on the basis of decades of intense class struggle - which in the years preceding had been particularly turbulent. The movement was creatively developed according to the historically constituted conditions of Colombian society. For example, the peasants that provided the armed foundations for the MOEC had been members of left-wing rural guerrilla forces formed during La Violencia. They had resisted capitalist sponsored violence in the years following assassination of the left-leaning presidential candidate, Jorge Gaitán. Therefore, the ELN cannot be regarded as middle-class in its origins. Likewise, the workers and students that helped organize MOEC, and then the ELN, had been radicalized while in conflict with capitalist interests in urban territories. As such, these rural and urban class-based experiences, in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution, coalesced into MOEC, which was the main embryo and initial impetus for the ELN's formation.

The momentum, tensions, and struggles of the period persuaded these different structures to unify under MOEC. Indeed, MOEC was met with enthusiasm and proved to be a popular movement for many on the left, with communist activists and moderate left-wingers joining. It sought to build on the extensive revolutionary momentum and the class structures that formed during La Violencia and following the Cuban revolution, but MOEC was not an ideologically homogeneous entity. At the time, using the example of the Cuban revolution, there was a popular belief of a need for a movement less structured than the communist party - which was organized along democratic centralist lines. Therefore, MOEC consisted of several left-wing tendencies, and the movement was not unified by an integrated political ideology, such as Marxism-Leninism. The underlying political differences among the rank and file, however, quickly developed into factionalism. It was the process of attempting to develop a unifying and integrated ideology that led to factions and splits, weaknesses which were exploited by the state's forces.

MOEC's urban political structures were successfully targeted by the police and military. Important leaders were killed and arrested - entire urban structures were devastated, while the more rural structures were proportionally less affected. This encouraged emphasis on a more armed strategy based in rural territories, although some student and workers disagreed with this political course, sparking divisions over strategy and tactics. Ultimately, urban militants were being subordinated to the rural guerrilla forces, although it was never held that guerrilla forces could survive without an urban presence. The strategy was still based on overthrowing the state over time based on a coalition of social forces, including rural and urban structures.

Fabio Castaño, ELN's first leader, represented a guerrilla-oriented leadership that was not tolerant of political differences. Dissidents were dealt with harshly; many were executed. The government exploited this authoritarianism by planting agents inside ELN structures, who were instructed to make false accusations, and thereby spread confusion and fear within ELN's ranks. These processes exacerbated internal tensions, causing desertions and splits. As a result, in the first years, the ELN grew very slowly, and started to recover only after the death of Fabio Castaño and his replacement with Manuel Pérez in the 1970s. Today, those ELN guerrillas that make base-less accusations are punishable by death. The ELN appears to have been profoundly impacted by the troublesome early years.

Before La Volencia, what was the state of Communist thought in Colombia? How did La Volencia serve as a catalyst on some level to expand such thought?

Colombia experienced significant social unrest from politically excluded class forces in the decades and years leading up to La Violencia. The country's incorporation into global capitalism, along export lines, meant that Colombia's capitalist model was dependent on economic demand from international markets. When this accumulation strategy was frustrated with the Great Depression in 1929, mass-unemployment and political militancy followed. At the same time, capitalists, especially landowners, had long sponsored violence as a means to advance their interests locally in the midst of a weak state. Peasants, due to their precarious economic situations, were commonly reliant on local economic elites for favors and services - hence, the structuring conditions of Colombia's periphery facilitated the development of clientelism, which capitalists and political leaders exploited by sponsoring the formation of private armies to pursue their private ends. This violence, sponsored by the dominant classes, provoked peasant associations to form to protect their interests.

In order to ensure economic competitivity in the international market, the state forces often sided with capitalists. This was to keep the workers in check and maintain economic productivity. Infamous is the case of the Great Banana Strike of 1928, where Colombia's military massacred, at the behest of the United Fruit Company, hundreds of striking workers. Still, incorporation into the international capitalist economy, backed by foreign banking sectors, favored the growth of capitalist development. This was achieved at the expense of the more vulnerable peasant economies and indigenous communities, leading to the development of capitalist monopolies and the concentration of capital in few hands. Each of these class developments was reflected politically.

Increasing proletarianization provided the social foundations for left-wing ideas to spread. Growing militancy was expressed in the increasingly powerful trade-union movement and eventually the left-wing populist candidacy of the Liberal Party presidential candidate, Jorge Gaitan. Gaitan, supported by a radicalizing and increasingly powerful labor movement, succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of many workers and peasants. Parallel to this, communists organized peasants in response to the paramilitary violence sponsored by landowners. In other words, there was a clear trend, founded on the growing demands of the working class and its social forces, pointing towards social revolution.

Instead of achieving that social revolution, resulting largely from the maneuvering of the political elites, the ruling class nature of the two dominant political parties, Gaitan's assassination, and then the state sponsored military repression against the labor movement, the country descended into widespread violence. But because of the clientelist structures that had made peasants heavily dependent on local economic elites, it was mostly peasants that made up the 200,000 killed in "La Violencia" - a predominantly rural civil conflict that lasted between 1948-1958 - where, incited by capitalists and political elites, peasants went to war for the interests of their patrons. However, this developing terror across rural Colombia permitted communists and left-wing structures to organize some of the few areas that were free from the violence - thus providing the social foundations for the development of leftist insurgency two decades later. These "self-defense zones", as they were called, tended to be organized on socialist principles.

It was later in the early 1960s, in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution and the spread of socialist influence, that the "self-defense zones" were attacked militarily, with the support of the United States. However, while previously these self-defense communities were relatively static and defensively oriented, after being attacked these structures became more offensively oriented. The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN) were partly grounded in these events.

By working with already established organizations, such as trade unions, does ELN push these groups leftward? Is this push done by the demands of rank and file members or does the leadership come on board and the rest follow?

It is difficult to determine whether ELN's involvement in civil society struggles has a clear effect of pushing the labor movement leftward. As of yet, there have been no serious studies conducted on this issue. In Colombia, trade unions have been historically radical. More importantly, sympathizers of the ELN tend to be concealed because it is a criminal offense to express support for left-wing insurgents. Still, ELN's role in organizing trade-unions in Barrancabermeja has been documented by Lesley Gill in "A Century of Violence in a Red City". ELN's structures, it seems, however, were targeted by paramilitaries and reports have suggested that many of the social bases of the labor movement there were terrorized into submission. Whenever the paramilitary targets left-wing structures, not just insurgent ones, they have found allies from local businesses.

ELN's leadership supports a position of radicalizing the labor movement from within. To my knowledge, the ELN's armed units have not sought to do this using intimidation, although intimidation is employed regularly against those accused of corruption, in sectors like healthcare and education. The ELN has a policy in its areas of influence to oppose corruption within the public sectors, such as welfare, fundamental to improving the lives of the working class. Sometimes, social activists and trade unionists work with them on this. But ELN's activity in urban communities and the labor movement is much more decentralized than the armed guerrilla units and militias in rural zones. Ultimately, those affiliated to the ELN are revolutionaries and committed to socialist development, i.e. fundamental political and economic change. Elsewhere, many formerly armed combatants, politicized through the armed struggle with the ELN, leave to work legally in communities and the labor movement, and propagate for the ideas of socialist development. In this sense, the ELN is a radical element in the labor movement.

Based on my experiences of observing the ELN as part of my research for five-months, I witnessed little-to-no conservatism in their approach to capitalist sectors - they always demanded radical and revolutionary change. They spoke against voting in presidential elections along the lines that it was fraud, a choice between supporting various fractions of the capitalist class. I am not sure if this policy has changed since 2015, for example, regarding the left-wing candidacy of Gustavo Petro in the 2018 presidential elections. The ELN at the time I was observing them in 2015 only spoke against presidential elections - some candidates for local elections were supported by the ELN.

I have observed trade-unionists work with ELN structures to coordinate their activity against particular sectors. In some cases, trade-union representatives approach the ELN, and in other instances, the ELN approaches trade-unionists and social movements for assistance. I witnessed one example where a representative of an environmental organization, which was concerned about the government's support for fracking and the damage it causes to local communities, met with ELN's structures in an attempt to make political opposition to fracking part of ELN's regional agenda. This type of social concern, it seems, is regularly brought to the ELN from community structures, such as relating to the protection of endangered animals, struggles for the protection of water, and the protection of the environment from exploitation by multinational corporations.

Social communication between ELN and sympathetic sections of civil society is constant and fluid - some activists believe that, because Colombia is a capitalist state where the law primarily favors capitalist development - the ELN, because of its armed strength and socialist tendencies, can act as a counter-state that is able to effectively impose pro-working class policies onto capitalists. Just as the laws of capitalist society are geared to protecting private property, the ELN has its own regulations that, in theory at least, are geared to advancing the interests of workers. Thus, whereas the Colombian state is oriented to promoting capitalist development and defending dominant class interests, the ELN acts as a pro-working-class entity, at least in some of the territories it governs and when counter-insurgency pressure is minimal.

For example, in areas of ELN influence, workers and peasants regularly bring their complaints to "commissions" - political structures mainly organized by the ELN - to deal with social grievances. I observed one incident, where after a landowner had arbitrarily refused to pay a worker the agreed amount for six months of work 'because he didn't do a good enough job' - the ELN compelled, under the threat of imprisonment and fine, the landowner to pay the worker the full amount. This is not an isolated incident, but a policy authorised by ELN's political leadership. In this way, the ELN builds bridges with local communities and exploited sectors of Colombian society, though it is proving more difficult given the growing dangers of working openly in communities.

Similarly, when economic crisis struck Venezuela and many Colombians and Venezuelans committed to sabotaging the Venezuelan economy by transporting contraband to sell in Colombia, I detected that local ELN structures implemented a policy of prohibiting contraband, thereby sacrificing the potential revenue from taxing it. Whether this policy is still in place I am not sure - but the idea that Venezuela's government and the ELN collaborate, I believe, is a myth spread by the U.S. to justify intervention into Venezuela. I know of at least one very influential ELN leader who was targeted by the Venezuelan military - alias "William" - the former leader of the powerful Domingo Lain Front. I saw absolutely no evidence of collaboration between Venezuela's government and the ELN - on the contrary, from the Venezuelan armed forces point of view, there seemed to be hostility towards the ELN.

Regarding the interaction between the rank and file and the political leadership, the ELN are clearly a Marxist-Leninist organization, despite some academics having suggested that they are influenced largely by Liberation Theology. Based on my five months of observing hundreds of ELN members for my academic research, I saw zero influence of this Christian reputation, except for the fact that they celebrated some ELN figures who were influenced by progressive interpretations of Christianity, such as Camilo Torres and Manuel Perez. Accordingly, ELN's Marxist-Leninist doctrine is foundational to the organization as a whole. Decisions then, in the final analysis, are decided from the "center" at the organizations' National Congress every few years, and by the Central Command - essentially the "central committee". In this sense, the rank and file tend to come on board with decisions decided by the political structures.

How does working with the above-mentioned groups make ELN more flexible when political pressure comes down on them?

ELN's federal structures were not necessarily designed for the tactical purpose of resisting political pressure. While this is clearly a potential benefit of incorporating civil structures into the movement, the ELN does not argue that socialist change will necessarily come through armed struggle. The ELN does not pursue a modified version of "people's war", as the FARC did, where the aim was to gradually encircle the cities from the countryside, and defeat the armed forces. According to the ELN, force, because it has been used systematically by capitalists against the labor movement, is regarded as rooted in the historical conditions of Colombian society. In other words, if such conditions are to change in favor of the labor movement, even under a modified framework of capitalism, ELN's policy, at least in theory, is to reconsider the utility of armed struggle.

ELN's official policy is that the labor movement is fundamental to achieving progressive change in Colombia. Therefore, when ELN claim to aim to struggle for a setting of "peace with social justice" by incorporating civil societies' structures into peace talks, a prerequisite which Colombia's government has consistently refused, they believe they are working to shape the socioeconomic conditions where the labor movement and peripheral classes will no longer benefit from armed struggle, like in other post-conflict societies of Latin America today. The ELN's long-term vision for the peace talks, it appears, is to undermine the utility of political violence by creating favorable conditions through a negotiated solution that involves civil society.

In saying that, a powerful labor movement active in urban areas has always been essential to any successful revolutionary struggle using guerrilla warfare. In Cuba, for example, there was a strong urban underground, including trade-unions, student groups, and militias, which were linked with the 26th July movement, from the outset. It is arguable that ELN's dynamic and non-sectarian political strategy is based to a significant degree on Cuba's revolutionary war, not as it was recorded in the writings of the focoistas - as a small vanguard serving as the "catalyst" of social change - but actually as it played out - with a loose coalition of legal and illegal groups.

As class struggle is dynamic and intensifies in some conditions and not in others, and at particular conjunctures, it is useful for ELN's armed units, based in the countryside, to benefit from solidarity in the cities - where urban struggles often act as the vanguard. If ELN's armed units received no support from these urban sectors, the ELN would be left isolated from where the majority of Colombians today are based - indeed, from where class conflict is often most intense. As a result, the ELN would be unable to coordinate their actions in line with urban based struggles.

It is dangerous and difficult for any aspect of the labor movement to openly declare support for the ELN. On top of the mass killings of trade-unionists and social activists by landowner sponsored paramilitaries, Colombia's government has recently arrested dozens of trade-unionists accused of being affiliated to the ELN. Indeed, many of these trade-unionists played a role during the faltering peace talks with the ELN, in terms of helping to offer proposals for achieving peace. Rather than negotiate with trade-unionists in the peace process, Colombia's current right-wing government decided to arrest them. Further evidence of this is the government's reactivation of an Interpol notice, calling for the arrest of ELN's negotiating team in Cuba.

Specifically, by working with and alongside trade-unions and social movements, the labor movement can redirect attention against the socioeconomic system that has facilitated the rise of leftist insurgency - rather than the Colombian governments' favorite scapegoat - the leftist guerrillas. Using a Marxist understanding of the reasons for ELN's development, the labor movement helps to mobilize against the Colombian state's attempts to criminalize elements of the socialist movement. Political struggles and campaigns are routinely waged to highlight the class character of the Colombian government and its manipulation of the conflict as a pretext to attack the structures of the labor movement. The state sponsorship of paramilitaries as a central component of the counter-insurgency strategy can and has been repeatedly stated by progressive forces. The political and working-class make-up of the ELN can be defended, while the labor movement continues its political struggles for working class solidarity - against the same class enemy as the ELN.

Ultimately, in the militaristic circumstances like Colombia's , it will always be difficult for legal movements to declare sympathy with the rebels, but the class foundations and dynamics of the armed conflict can be emphasized, and this inevitably opens up an element of flexibility for the ELN. The political left is currently working tirelessly to reveal the dominant class agendas of the right-wing government in related to its support for continuation of the armed conflict. The labor movement generally seeks to highlight how some of Colombia's capitalist forces, especially the more landed based fractions, exploit the conflict to create a climate of fear, thereby distracting people from the underlying causes of the half-century civil war - capitalist development.

It should also be said that without ELN's armed units, in some areas at least, the paramilitary would be free to target the spaces of left-wing influence, which were opened up precisely because the ELN was able to push out, using armed force and political influence, the state's military forces. Without the left-wing guerrillas, many of these rural areas would be consumed by neo-liberal processes and right-wing paramilitaries. For example, since the peace accord with FARC in 2016, paramilitaries, drug cartels, and multinational corporations, have occupied previously FARC governed territory and used it to expand their economic investments. So, the ELN actually plays a role in terms of reducing political and economic pressure on some of the legal social movements, but only in particular areas of Colombia.