While guerrilla warfare has existed since the dawn of civilization, the modern principles of guerrilla strategy emerged during the early 20th century, with prime examples being found in the Russian Revolution of 1905. While Karl Marx closely studied military history, his focus was primarily upon conventional military doctrine rather than the use of guerrilla tactics. However, Vladimir Lenin not only recognized the effectiveness of guerrilla warfare, he also recognized the relationship such strategy shares with the revolution of the working class. After analyzing the Revolution of 1905, Lenin wrote his classic piece on the subject, simply titled Guerrilla Warfare.
Lenin begins by explaining that revolution and guerrilla warfare do not necessarily go hand in hand. In order for a guerrilla campaign to be successful in aiding a revolution, it must be closely linked to the struggle of the masses. Should individual groups act separately to the masses, it will simply demoralize and disorganize the revolutionary movement. Still, he is careful to point out that it is not the guerrilla action itself that poses these risks, but rather a weakness in the controlling parties of a movement who fail to keep such actions under their control. This is his counterargument to claims that guerrilla actions run counterproductive to the movement, and Lenin points out that with any new form of struggle, new dangers and sacrifices will be found in the absence of a proper and prepared leadership.
Lenin recounts the events of the 1905 revolution; how it gradually grew from economic protests, to demonstrations and strikes, until it finally reached the point of armed insurrection. It is at this stage of the revolutionary process where Lenin argues that guerrilla warfare is both essential and inevitable, and where the important relationship between the two must be strong. Lenin states “Guerrilla warfare is an inevitable form of struggle at a time when the mass movement has actually reached the point of an uprising and when fairly large intervals occur between the ‘big engagements’ in the civil war”.
After 1905, Lenin states that proud, smug Social-Democrats viewed guerrilla movements as being beneath them. To this notion he replies that guerrilla warfare paired with social uprising is the most revolutionary doctrine in the world, and that the seemingly distasteful aspects must be looked past. This statement returns to his initial argument that guerrilla warfare and revolution of the masses are inextricably linked, and an individual must not analyze and judge one component without the other.
Lenin’s study of the Revolution of 1905 and his work on Guerrilla Warfare would go on to inspire future Marxist leaders and intellectuals. Successful revolutionary leader Mao Zedong wrote his own work on Guerrilla Warfare and the political issues associated it with 31 years later. His work closely aligned with Lenin’s , even including direct quotes. Perhaps the most famous guerrilla fighter of the 20th century, Che Guevara ran a doctrine contradictory to Lenin’s lessons gleaned from 1905. Attempting to run guerrilla campaigns in Africa and Bolivia without first establishing mass uprising, Guevara would ultimately be captured and killed as both efforts quickly collapsed. While much has changed in the world since 1905, guerrilla warfare still remains, and Lenin’s work still provides relevant insight on the matter.
Vladimir Lenin, Guerrilla Warfare. Marxist Internet Archive – https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/gw/index.htm#i