The passing of Abimael Guzman, Colin Powell and bookending chapters of history

Abimael Guzman, the Peruvian Communist leader of the Maoist insurgent group the Shining Path, and former philosophy professor, passed away after decades in prison. A rebel with a definite cause, he remained true to his ideals of a people’s war against the Peruvian (and American-backed) oligarchy.

No, I do not endorse Maoism, and neither do I regard Guzman as the ‘fourth sword of Marxism’, following Marx, Lenin and Mao. However, he died fighting a financial oligarchy that condemned millions of indigenous and non-indigenous in Peru to poverty.

There was another death in October, one that highlights the opposite trajectory of Guzman’s – that of an imperial servant. It is possible for a professional military person to take on a mercenary role.

Colin Powell, former American Secretary of State and military officer, also passed away earlier this month. He was the loyal servant of a mercenary empire. He added, in a cynical way, ‘diversity’ to a project that has cost the lives of millions around the world, including Vietnam, Iraq, Panama, Grenada – not to mention the so-called ‘war on terror.’ Powell never questioned the motives of US imperialist wars, lied to the United Nations, and participated in and oversaw numerous war crimes.

Guzman, in his own way, changed the Communist Party of Peru – previously a collection of politicised peasantry and leftist students – into a powerful political force. Intending to transplant the successful example of agrarian-based, guerrilla war with a class struggle focus from Maoist China, he was eventually captured in 1992. The President of Peru responsible for Guzman’s capture, Alberto Fujimori, ended up in prison himself, convicted of corruption, embezzlement and human rights abuses during his time in power.

Guzman was put on display, liked a caged animal, by the Peruvian authorities in 1992. Wearing a pantomime black-and-white striped prison outfit, his outdoor cage was revealed to the assembled cameras in an act of gloating by Fujimori. Guzman spent the remainder of his life behind bars, never renouncing the ideology he steadfastly advocated his entire life.

Guzman’s organisation reflected his Maoist outlook – his party maintained a hostile stance towards other non-Shining Path leftist revolutionary organisations. Siding with China during the Sino-Soviet split, he held that the USSR was on a deviationist course from the one true Marxism. Ironically, it was Guzman who unhesitatingly flew the red flag in the immediate aftermath of the 1990-91 dissolution of the Eastern bloc, swimming against the anti-communist tide.

While I do not endorse his actions, it is also important to avoid the hysterical campaign of screeching condemnation and demonisation of Guzman. For as long as their are criminal oligarchies, using the police and army as instruments of their financial misrule – such as in Peru – there will be Abimael Guzmans in the future, ready to wage an insurrectionary class war.

Since his 1992 imprisonment, developments in official Peruvian politics confirmed Guzman’s central contention – the criminal and predatory nature of the oligarchic structures which dominate Peruvian society. After Alberto Fujimori, numerous presidents have been indicted for corruption, malfeasance and entanglement in financial scandals.

Colin Powell, in 1990-91, was one of the main US officers responsible for the one-sided attack on Iraq. That war, plus the sanctions on Iraq since then, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead. Powell, an architect with Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, never faced accountability for the crimes he committed. His behaviour was consistent throughput his career – he was a soldier fighting for the expansion of US imperial rule.

While it is impolite to speak ill of the dead, the current hagiographic outpouring for Powell necessitates a critical examination of his conduct. Actually, Powell as a politician played an insidious role – acquiring bipartisan support for industrialised mass killing. Powell was an effective communicator and political operative, neutralising whatever mild opposition – lukewarm as it is – from the opposite side of the political fence.

It is all well and good when a black American man makes it to the top. Powell, in his capacity as a serving officer, orchestrated and participated in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, a Caribbean nation which was headed by the New Jewel movement. The invasion destroyed not only a new social experiment, it returned a predominantly black Caribbean country to the service of American corporations.

Kelsey Atherton, in Jacobin magazine, notes that Powell was diligent and loyal – but these qualities mean nothing when they are devoted to the mercenary project of unceasing imperial violence. Perhaps he was a victim of deceit by the CIA – but he was also a willing victim. He had access to the highest corridors of power – and did nothing to challenge the deception at those levels.

Guzman died after in his own country, fighting against an oligarchy exploiting its population; Powell died after a lifetime serving a predatory empire deploying violence to further its interests.

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