On the night of May 17,1980, the eve of Peru's first presidential elections in 17 years, a group of youths broke into the town hall in the small Andean town of Chuschi. They took ballot boxes and voting lists, and burned them in the town plaza. The incident was lost in the avalanche of election news. Over the following months, while the press reported the theft of dynamite from a few mines, isolated bombs began to go off here and there. No one paid much attention until the end of that year, when the situation acquired a folkloric if sinister dimension: Early risers in Lima began to find dead dogs hung from traffic lights and lamp posts. They were adorned with signs that read, "Deng Xiao Ping, Son of a Bitch."
The Communist Party of Peru, known as Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) points to that remote May 17 as the beginning of the "People's War." In the ten years since then, Sendero has emerged as the most important armed movement in contemporary Peruvian history, and surely the most unique to appear in Latin America in decades.
No one attached much importance to the first skirmishes, because in 1980 Shining Path was a small regional organization that had not played any role in the great social movements that shook the country between 1976 and 1979 and forced the military government withdraw to the barracks.
Sendero was born in the Andean department of Ayacucho, one of the nation's poorest and most archaic, where until mid-century bankrupt landowners persisted in the serf-like exploitation of their Indians. Ayacuchans, however, did not have their backs turned to the mode world; they migrated by the thousands and flocked to schools to escape their misery and oppression . Their desire for education was so great that, unlike other Andean departments, the principal social movement in Ayacucho between 1960 and 1980 was not for land, but in defense of free education, which was cut back by the military government in 1969.
Ten years earlier, in 1959, San Cristobal de Huamanga University in Ayacucho re-opened its doors, the only school of higher education in the region. (Founded 1677, it had been closed since 1885.) The tiny regional committee of the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP) operating in Ayacucho took off soon after, when a group of professors signed up. The committee chair was a young philosophy professor named Abimael Guzmán Reynoso today the supreme leader of Sendero Luminoso.
Soon Guzmán, together with his most faithful followers, formed a clandestine “Red Faction” within the PCP, which was to be the forerunner of Shining Path. In January 1964, the PCP split into a pro-Soviet faction and another that was Maoist. The Red Faction aligned itself with the latter, and in a few years it gained influence in the student federation and among the faculty. It also helped set up a municipal federation of community organizations and a People's Defense Front, which took the lead in the massive movement in defense of free education. But in 1969, the faction suffered a double defeat, which deeply affected its development.
On the one hand, in June of that year, the free education movement suffered harsh repression. The leadership of the People's Defense Front was arrested, and the Front would never recover its former power. (However, shortly after the crackdown, the government did restore free education.) The other defeat came within the party. Several top leaders of the Red Faction, among them Guzman himself, were arrested along with the Front leadership. While Guzmán spent long months in jail, a fierce internal struggle shook the Maoist PCP. By the beginning of 1970, Guzman had been expelled from the party, reduced to his Ayacucho stronghold, and weakened even there. It was then that the Red Faction decided to become the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path. I began teaching at the university in Ayacucho that year, and had the opportunity to observe the development of Sendero first-hand.
At the same time, the military government in power since 1968 undertook a series of reforms that began to change the face of the region and the country. The Peru that, at least from Ayacucho, could still be seen as a semi-feudal nation similar to China of the 1930s, had its days numbered. Sendero, converted by then into a party, began a quiet race against time.
During the first half of the 1970s, the professors and students at the university in Ayacucho, who made up the backbone of the new party devoted themselves to systematizing a coherent and all encompassing discourse following the strictest of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. In that sense, Sendero was moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the Peruvian Left, which during the 1970s left the universities to participate in the great social movements of the second half of the decade.
Sendero compensated for the weakening of its impact on society by building a column of cadres steeped in ideology and increasingly well-organized. What it lost in influence among the masses, it gained in ideological rigidity and organic cohesiveness, until it became a sort of dwarf star - the kind in which matter gets so compressed it acquires a great specific weight, disproportionate to its size. For that reason nobody detected it in 1980; nobody noticed that despite its size, it had the power to affect decisively the Peruvian political scene of the 1980s.
Sendero had become a basic example of a party built from the top down and from its ideology out. It adhered strictly to Stalin's dictums: “The line decides everything”; and, when the line has been worked out and is “correct,” “The cadres decide every-thing.” While the rest of the Left was concerned with openly influencing labor unions and creating campesino federations or regional fronts, Sendero concentrated its attention on what it called "generated organisms": nuclei that were generally small but ideologically rigid and organically dependent on the party. They operated as factions within those mass grassroots organizations which Sendero had ever greater difficulty attempting to lead in a democratic fashion—such as the People's Defense Front, the national teachers union, and other urban unions.
“Generated organisms” were defined by Sendero as “separate movements, organizations generated by the proletariat on different workfronts.” Of course it was not the great proletarian masses that made up these movements, but Sendero itself, perhaps the party that had done the least work with labor of all the leftist parties of the 1970s. In Sendero's view, this was no confusion; they were the proletariat. The workers themselves had no capacity for initiative; they were simply passive spectators of the vanguard's activities. In the 1980s, the “generated organisms,” transformed from “transmission belts” into belts of subjection and control, would become the “thousand eyes and thousand ears” of the party, the most frankly terrorist face of its “undercover power.” And in the isolated countryside where Sendero was strong, these groups would become the basis of the “new state in formation,” displacing or totally absorbing autonomous grassroots organizations.
Sendero's decision to pursue armed struggle was not only the product of a strategic and tactical evaluation. It also involved, in a very important way, an ideological mutation. Sendero launched its adventure at a crucial moment in the history of both the Peruvian Left and the international communist movement—in a situation of clear disadvantage to itself on both fronts. On the national level, it was a time of great activism. Those were the years of the general strikes of 1977 and 1978 —in which Sendero took no part— which led to a democratic opening in 1980. The Left suddenly became a mass political force for the first time in Peru's history. On the international level, Mao Zedong had died in 1976; the Gang of Four headed by his widow had been defeated; and the Cultural Revolution, which had fed the imagination of a good part of the Peruvian Left and continues to inspire Sendero, had come to an end.
Denying those realities, Sendero proposed another scenario. It rejected the leading role of the masses in favor of the leading role of the party; the party decides everything. It rejected the primacy of politics in favor of the primacy of violence; violence is the essence of revolution; war is its principal task. According to Sendero, Peru was still semi-feudal, and the change of government meant nothing. Fernando Belaunde Terry, the winner of the 1980 presidential elections, represented “fascist continuism.” Faced with the impossibility of stopping time or blocking out the sun with one finger, Sendero chose to become the sun. With Mao Zedong dead and the Gang of Four defeated, Sendero proclaimed itself the beacon of world revolution, its leader the “fourth sword of Marxism,” after Marx, Lenin, and Mao.
It was a classic retreat forward. To sustain this alternative scenario required not only an act of supreme political will and enormous organizing ability, but also an ideological rigidity unprecedented in Peruvian political history. To resist the powerful currents sweeping the Left nationally and internationally, Sendero turned to a fundamentalism that maximized and lionized violence. Sendero was able to pull this off because it was basically outside the movement, disconnected from the classes that participate in production, from their daily lives and their pragmatic demands.
Several questions remain open. Why did such a group emerge? Was it because they had been reduced to a small political-intellectual nucleus in a region of ruined lords and rebellious serfs, a region closed off and abandoned by capitalist development yet achingly desirous of progress? How did Sendero manage to carry forth its scenario mercilessly throughout the 1980s? It is my position that as it matured, Sendero picked up the archaic characteristics of that regional society and of national political life and, in the middle of the generalized crisis of the 1980s, became the active vanguard of the “rearchaization” of society and politics.
Some consider Sendero to be a messianic or millenary movement, rooted in Andean Indian culture. But its leadership has always been made up of “mistis”—small-town mestizos—rooted in the Andean seignorial system. If they incorporated some form of messianic or religious content, it was not due to Indian traditions, but on account of what we could call "excess of reason." They are the last children of the Enlightenment who, 200 years later and isolated in the Andes, ended up converting science into religion. Given the degree of passion that Shining Path developed and unleashed, it seems strange to define it as a hyper-rationalist movement, at least among the leadership. But for the top leaders of Sendero, Pascal's phrase - "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing" - should be inverted to say "Reason has its passions of which the heart knows nothing."
The founders of Sendero form part of a long tradition of provincial elites who rose up against a system that concentrates everything in the capital, and who embraced indigenismo as a reaction against the hispanismo of the Lima upper classes. Since the 1920s, but especially mid-century, such elites in many parts of the country adopted Marxism, most often combining it with a re-evaluation of Andean reality that links them to indigenismo. That is not the case with Sendero, whose official documents ignore the ethnic dimension or reject out of hand Andean cultural re-evaluation as "folklore” or bourgeois manipulation.
In that sense, Sendero is the "coldest" of the Marxist ventures that arose in Peru during the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, its vision, one that sought to be absolutely scientific, became exceedingly emotional, offering its members a strong religious identity. One of its important documents defines communism as "The society of 'great harmony,' the radical and definitive society toward which 15 billion years of matter in movement - the part of eternal matter of which we know – is necessarily and irrepressibly heading .... A single, irreplaceable new society, without exploited or exploiters, without oppressed or oppressors, without classes, without state, without parties, without democracy, without arms, without wars."6
Sendero's epic, then, is a cosmic one. Its leaders are intellectual warriors in the service of a most exact science that regulates the universe like a limitless cosmic ballet. They must put everything in order according to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, overcoming or destroying whatever resists its ineluctable laws. As it turns out, according to that science Peruvian society is "semi-feudal." Maybe Sendero's venture would not have had to generate so much violence in China of the 1930s, because in that “semi-feudal" society they would not have found, for example, engineers repairing electric towers, agronomists doing rural extension work, anthropologists advising campesino federations, or foreign volunteers developing health programs. The possibility of assassinating those people would not have come up: They did not exist. The degree of violence is as great as it is, among other reasons, because Sendero has to make reality fit an idea - not only must they stop time, but turn it back, until the page is once again blank, and on it they can then write the script the party has worked out.
This is not to imply that there is no point of contact between Peru's reality and Sendero's vision of it. If that were the case, they would not have been able to build a base of support. Sendero takes up people's long-standing desire for progress and focuses it through the lens of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. But at the same time, it carries to an extreme the authoritarianism of the old provincial misti elites - against the grain of the principal trend in the country, which is aimed, rather, at breaking misti power. A fundamental characteristic of Sendero's activity is disregard for grassroots organizations: campesino communities, labor unions, neighborhood associations. These are all replaced by "generated organisms," that is, by the party that "decides everything," as before everything was decided by the misti lords and officials.
The most notorious example is the "armed strikes" that have been held since 1987 in various localities. These are not called by any union or regional front but by the party or its "generated organisms." This contrasts with Sendero's attitude regarding national strikes called by the labor movement. Between 1977 and 1988 nine general strikes took place in Peru. Millions of people took part in the July 1977 and May 1978 strikes, the most important mobilizations in contemporary Peruvian history. Sendero's stance varied between absolute indifference and frontal opposition. In January 1988, for the first time, Sendero decided to back the ninth strike, which turned out to be quite unremarkable. Sendero's participation was limited to very minor actions. -They burned tires on the central highway, and disrupted the rally of the General Workers Confederation in the Plaza de Mayo, shouting slogans and setting off dynamite caps. Nonetheless, on the next day, the headline in EI Diario, the semi-official party mouthpiece, read, "Historic Day for the Peruvian Proletariat." Obviously it was not a "historic day" because of the magnitude of the strike, but because the party had decided to back it, producing a kind of proletarian Pentecost that marked "a new direction for the working class, nourished for the first time by a more elevated experience of struggle."7
The point is that if, "except for power, all is illusion," as a favorite Sendero slogan maintains, then the party, conceived as the central instrument for winning that power, is the only reality. Except for the party, everything is an illusion: Society, for example, only acquires reality when the party touches it.
Gods of a belligerently monotheistic religion, they don't let anyone else onto their Olympus: They must be the only force that brings order to the rural world. But in Peru, unlike China of the 1930s and despite the growing weakness of the state and of civil society amid the current crisis, those spaces where Sendero would like to be a solitary demiurge are relatively well-populated with campesino organizations, unions, left parties, the progressive church, non-governmental development organizations, and the like. Sendero lashes out not only at the state, but also at these other actors, believing that PCP-Sendero Luminoso should be the only one that relates to those masses, so as then, finally, to "educate them in the people's war."8
Sendero's leaders take on the role of traditional authoritarian teachers who believe they possess the truth and, therefore, ought to have absolute power over their students. That is how the major Sendem documents set forth the party-mass relationship: "…people's war is a political exploit that by means of overwhelming actions hammers ideas into the minds of men..."9 Abimael Guzmán himself stated that, "...the masses have to be taught through overwhelming acts so that ideas can be pounded into them ... the masses in the nation need the leadership of a Communist Party; we hope with more revolutionary theory and practice, with more armed actions, with more people's war, with more power, to reach the very heart of the class and the people and really win them over. Why? In order to serve them - that is what we want."10
The language itself displays an impressive degree of violence against the "masses," who the same paragraph says are to be loved and served. This ambiguous relationship is deeply rooted in the Andean seigniorial tradition The mestizos, who make up the backbone of the party, a group that has always considered Indians to be inferior, even when they identified with them sentimentally, called for their liberation from servitude, and sought their support to confront Lima's Westernized Creole elite. Sendero's attitude resembles that of certain indigenista intellectuals of the past who expressed the authoritarian tortuous, violent love of the superior for the inferior, whom they sought to redeem or “protect" from the evils of the modem world. Sendero's behavior could also be compared with that of the traditional teacher in his relationship with a student who is good, but somewhat awkward or rebellious, and has to be shown that, as the Spanish proverb puts it, La letra entra con sangre (a more explicitly pedagogical version of "Spare the rod, spoil child").
Why do such conceptions capture the imagination of certain circles of provincial youth? Often in Peru, in order to explain something one has to go far back into history. In this case, back to the very beginning, to the ambush that took place in November 1532, in Cajamarca. The Spaniards, having arrived on the scene, sent an invitation to the Inca emperor, who, curious to meet them, set out for the encounter. He entered the plaza of Cajamarca surrounded by his warriors, but found only a priest who handed him the Bible and said, "This is the word of God." The Inca raised the book to his ear, heard no word, and disappointed, threw the Bible to the ground. The priest then shouted, "Christians, the word of God in the dirt!" The conquest was justified. The hidden arquebuses could begin their task.
Thus emerged a society based on deception, a deception made possible, in part, by the monopoly that the rulers exercised over knowledge of the Spanish language. From that time on, the conquered peoples fluctuated between resignation and rebellion. Rebellion, in turn, fluctuated between rejection of the "West" - Andean culture withdrawing into itself - and appropriation of the conquerors’ instruments of domination. Both tendencies are present throughout our history, but in the twentieth century the latter predominates. Among the instruments of domination Andean people seek to appropriate, one stands out: education. To take away from the mistis their monopoly on Spanish, on reading and writing, is equivalent to Prometheus's feat of taking fire from the gods.
As the century advanced, the energy with which Andean peoples launched into the conquest of education was exceptional. According to United Nations figures on access to education in Latin America, Peru moved from fourteenth place in 1960 to fourth place in 198011 In the 70-odd countries that the U.N. considers to have "a middle level of development," the percentage of 18- to 25-year-olds currently studying at the secondary level or higher rose from 17% in 1960 to 52% in 1980. In Peru it jumped from 19% to 76%. This drive for education even ran counter to state policy; from the middle of the 1960s on, relative state investment in education decreased. It stands out even more when compared to other vital statistics like infant mortality or life expectancy, in which only Bolivia and Haiti are worse off.
But what are people seeking in education? They are of course looking for practical tools: learning to read and write and do basic arithmetic. But in addition, as children of the deceived, they are looking for truth. Several testimonies gathered in Ayacucho in 1969, immediately after the movement on behalf of free education, were highly revealing.12 A campesino leader, asked about the situation of people from his region, answered, "They need to be instructed, they need someone to give them orientation, they need courses ... to see if in that way they can move forward, get out of slavery, out of deception. Otherwise they will continue to be poor and exploited."
Being educated equals "getting out of deception." Another leader said about the University of San Cristobal: "The university is waking us up, we are learning something new, something objective, which [the powerful] do not like; it doesn't suit them at all because they want us to remain deceived..."
Opposed to that deception, which goes back to the very moment of the conquest, would be the "objective" truth, to which one would gain access through education. Traditional authority, based not only on the monopoly of the means of production but also on the monopoly of knowledge and its deceptive manipulation, crumbles when the dominated break up both monopolies.
But even if education has democratizing effects visible on the social level, the same does not necessarily occur on the political or cultural plane. According to the first leader quoted above, the campesino needs "to be instructed," needs “someone” - implicitly from the outside - to "give him orientation." The old hierarchical order is translated here into the relationship of teacher (urban, mestizo) to student (campesino, Indian). Mass education can come about, therefore, without substantially breaking up the authoritarianism of traditional society.
The same campesino went on to say: "Our highest aspiration is for the progress of rural people; that their collaborators, or rather their guides, orient them toward achieving progress - to my view, by avoiding the vices that campesinos have: drinking, coca, cigarettes."
If there is a need for a guide from outside, there is no reason to be surprised at the appearance of a caudillo-teacher like the one who heads Sendero. The moralizing nature of Sendero and its punishment of adulterers and drinkers also fit the bill. Nor is there anything surprising about the rise in popularity of the most hard-line Marxist-Leninist tendencies in the nation's universities during the 1970s. It was the children of the deceived - young people of Andean origin from the provinces - who at that time entered the university en masse. There they met up with a simplified and accessible version of a theory that defined itself as the only "scientific truth," and was legitimized through references to the Marxist classics - the authorities. That science proposed a new but strictly hierarchical order where the students, upon acceding to the party and its truth, could move from the base to the peak of the social pyramid.
The revolution is perceived as a means for social mobility. One participant told me: "They said, look, it's 1981. By 1985 Ayacucho will be a liberated zone; by 1990 Peru will be an independent country. Wouldn't you like to be a minister? Wouldn't you like to be a military chief? Be something? ... In 1985 the revolution is going to triumph, and those of us who have been in the party longest will be the bosses..."13
This great need for order and progress in a context is still traditional, points to one of the roots of Sendero Luminoso's quasi-religious scientism, according to which "the ideology of the proletariat ... is scientific, exact, all-powerful" or, as its official documents say, "all-powerful because it is true."14 It also points to one of the roots of the personality cult and the hallowing of "Gonzalo Thought" (Guzmán's guerrilla alias is Presidente Gonzalo): The caudillo-teacher is education incarnate and, therefore, truth incarnate, virtue incarnate.
No other group in the Marxist tradition has placed such emphasis on the intellectual status of its leader. On Sendero's posters Guzmán occupies the center, dressed in a suit, wearing glasses, book in hand, surrounded by masses carrying rifles and flags, with the great red sun setting behind him.
The "Andean Maoism" of Sendero Luminoso is a hybrid, woven from Maoist authoritarianism and the most authoritarian aspects of Peruvian political tradition. This philosophy resonated in the mountains of Ayacucho, but as Sendero moved into the rest of the nation, it has been obliged to exercise growing violence against a people that dares to go beyond the designs of the party and travel its own road to liberation, refusing to be a blank page and instead, entering into history with all its complexity – and ambiguity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Anthropologist carlos Iván Degregori is a researcher at the Lima-based Instituto de Estudios Peruanos. He has written two books on Sendero Luminoso.