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[If you are reading this article it is likely that you are an “insurgent”—at least as defined by the United States government. From Stan Goff’s perspective, since we are all considered insurgents, we may as well be good at it. This is the first segment in a series by Stan on what domestic counter-insurgency actually is, how it became that way, the role of gender in the equation, and how we can learn from the successes and failures of revolutionaries, past and present.—CB]


Stan Goff
FTW Military/Veterans Affairs Editor


© Copyright 2006, From The Wilderness Publications,  All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.


October 5th 2006, 12:34PM [PST] - No one should ever follow anyone who runs around saying “The sky is falling!” even if it is.  Good leadership does not sow fear, but patience, realism, and Sisyphean determination.  There are a lot of bad things in the world these days, and a bad system, and the people who run that system.  When they are using naked brutality is the time to be least afraid of them.  There real power is based not on fear, which we can lose comparatively easily, but on dependency.  The exercise of brutality is a sign of weakness, not strength, and from that revolutionaries should only take heart.

It’s easy enough for any of us to say, “Stop crying wolf, and do something.”  But we need to have some idea what to do.

This handbook is for revolutionaries.

Revolution is defined here as a fundamental transformation of the power relations within a society.

A revolutionary is someone who is committed to this vision, and who actively works to bring it about.

in·sur·gent Pronunciation (n-sûrjnt)
1. Rising in revolt against established authority, especially a government.
2. Rebelling against the leadership of a political party.
n. One who is insurgent.
[Latin nsurgns, nsurgent-, present participle of nsurgere, to rise up : in-, intensive pref.; see in-2 + surgere, to rise; see surge.]

Insurgents “intensively” “rise up.”  Seems to me, at least, a good thing… if done effectively.

Recent uses of the word insurgent popularized in the media have been based on the US War Department’s characterization of anyone who opposes US military occupations abroad… or as a claim of status for locals killed by American bombs and bullets.  Fifty Iraqis are killed, and the military reports that fifty insurgents are killed.  The news media repeats these terms to appear “in the know,” which further popularizes and legitimates the terminology.

The technical use of the term by the US government began during the Vietnam occupation, and was incorporated into a specific military, then security (military and police) doctrine, called counterinsurgency.  This is still a doctrine, and anyone who (1) opposes the government or (2) is known to be committed to the vision of transforming the fundamental relations of power in society, is considered to be an insurgent.

If we are called insurgents, and regarded as insurgents, and if the policies directed against our political vocation are counterinsurgency, then we’d better learn to become good insurgents.  I worked inside the US government’s counterinsurgency apparatus for a very long time.  That is why I am writing this handbook.

Any discussion of insurgency has to begin with Mao.  Let me make a few preparatory comments to inoculate readers from the inevitable knee-jerk reactions.

(1)  I am not a “Maoist.”  I do not deify dead revolutionaries, or accept the transformation of contingent strategies and statements from the past into religious doctrines.

(2)  Maoism was a theoretical perspective for national independence, not communism.  This point is often missed, because the organization that developed what is called Maoism -- in practice -- was the Chinese Communist Party.  They were the leading organization in a political struggle, but that struggle was not for communism, and they said so.  It was for the more immediate goal of Chinese autarky.

(3)  Maoism, the strategic theory, was developed for a specific time and place, China as a semi-feudal society, economically colonized, immersed in a cultural history of Confucianism, and militarily occupied by the Japanese.  It is not universally transferable as a cookie-cutter principle for other places and times, cultures, or social systems. The minute anyone tries to sell me on “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong-Thought,” s/he has already lost me.  A bible-thumping, millenarian, Southern preacher will hold my attention more effectively; at least he is telling me something about the society that I live in.

(4)  The specific approach of what has come to be called Maoism was developed in response to emerging situations during a protracted resistance, and tested in practice; it was not determined in someone’s head beforehand, then applied.  It only became an Ism after the fact.

(5)  Just because we cannot always generalize from specifics doesn’t mean no general principles ever emerge from specific circumstances.  Hand washing is a generally good preventative medicine measure.  Obviously, I believe that there are some more or less universal lessons that can be drawn from the Chinese Revolution led by Mao Zedong, or I wouldn’t be going to all this trouble to disclaim about the “Maoist” religious cults and their hagiographies of Mao, that serve to put a ridiculous face on the Chinese Revolution and any lessons we might learn from it.

(6)  Math matters.  That’s why I say we have to begin a discussion of insurgency with Mao.  The Chinese Revolution, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, did succeed in achieving political independence for the largest country in the world, and largely succeeded in protecting that independence from hostile encirclement.

That which has survived in terms of validity from the Maoist tradition, in this writer’s humble opinion, is the organizing principle called “mass line.”  The shorthand is, to think of the masses as in three general groups, based on how well they understand the system or the problem at hand:  Advanced, Intermediate, and Backward.  This is not a strict taxonomy, but one that facilitates a general method.

The guiding maxim of “mass line” is to consolidate the advanced with organization and strategic orientation that can (1) isolate the backward, and (2) win over the next layer of the intermediate to the advanced.   This, of course, raises a lot of questions about what constitutes “advanced” and so forth, but even that is contingent upon circumstances.  In organizing against the war in Iraq, for example, there were two distinct axes along which to plot out this schema: one programmatic, and one philosophic.

Within the larger mass movement, the programmatic question was unilateral and immediate withdrawal.  Those with whom I organized in that movement defined this as the advanced position.  Out now was advanced, stay and kill Ay-rabs was the backward (generalizing here), and those who wanted out but had questions about the repercussions of immediate withdrawal were the intermediate.  The vast majority of those who were politically engaged and wanted to understand the war better, those in the intermediate category who we targeted to win over to the advanced, were consolidated around their opposition to the Bush administration… in other words, mostly Democrats.  Obviously, an approach that identified all Democrats as the enemy and anyone who voted for Democrats as idiots would have defeated any chance we had of reaching that next layer of the intermediate.  And so we concentrated our public education efforts on being present, supportive, and visible at anti-Bush venues, expressing solidarity with those who shared our alarm and revulsion at aspects of the Bush administration’s actions and policies, then providing information about (1) the bipartisan history of imperialism (without all the lefty jargon that stimulates a post-McCarthy hiccup) that led to the current conjuncture, and (2) pointed out the underlying premise of white supremacy that underwrote almost every concern about a “bloodbath” that would inevitably ensue in the absence of Western troops in Iraq.  Isolating the backward, in this case, was a fairly straightforward case of persistently attacking a couple of key lies, i.e., that Saddam did 9-11 or that the US is a beacon of democracy in the region.

Within the somewhat smaller pool of people who are potential activists in a more general politics of resistance, the mass line approach focused more on philosophical orientation.  Advanced was taken to mean “anti-imperialist.”  Backward is seen as plain, uncritical, white-male patriotism.  Intermediate are those who fall in neither category, with the next logical layer targeted for the advanced being those who are showing an active interest in the larger questions of history and social systems.  Outreach here is more focused on teach-ins, workshops, book clubs, dinner-and-a-movie potlucks at people’s homes, and recruitment into actual work for political actions.

This is mass line in both “mass work” and “political work,” as the tradition calls it.  It is not based, when done correctly, on promoting a “line” to the masses.  It is based on paying close attention to the real grievances and anxieties of the masses themselves, and developing a political line out of that.  The term “line,” which has been much abused, does not mean imposing ideological conformity on everyone, even though this became its distorted meaning under the war-communism of Stalin.  It originally referred to a brick mason’s line, the string stretched on-level to go back and re-evaluate the placement of the last and next brick.  It is a strategic orientation, which is not the same as a concrete strategy.  In fact, I am going to argue that strategy should never be anything except an orientation -- written in pencil and not in ink, so to speak.

There is a reason I am taking readers through this Chinese museum.

The lessons of Maoism, and later of Che Guevara as well, as they relate to insurgency, were not just studied by the left around the world.  Our own government has been studying them for decades, and its entire social policy -- at one level -- has been based on thinking of us as insurgents or potential insurgents.  So in order to fully understand how the repressive apparatuses of the US state function, we have to understand that state’s organizing principles.

Saying that the US security state is becoming more repressive does not tell us much about it, nor does saying that the neo-cons are accelerating the pace of militarization of domestic and foreign policy.  What specific military doctrines are being employed, based on what canon of military analysis?

The answer has been the same since Vietnam.  The US-directed world system keeps (inevitably) throwing up resistance to an overwhelmingly superior technical military force, i.e., insurgency (or in the new vernacular, asymmetric warfare).  Yet few of us actually study counter-insurgency doctrine to see what it is.

Like it or not, if we don’t go along with the dominant program, we are already insurgents.  So we’d better be good at it.

Just as in the world-at-large, the claim that all political enemies are insurgents eventually creates the reality.  An effective politics of resistance will require that we learn principles of insurgency that outmaneuver the operational principles of counter-insurgency, not by taking up arms (did you get that, guys?), but by exploiting the interstices of the system, amplifying grievances (while weeding out the “backward” contents of the populist impulse), setting up “bases” off the grid (with the Chinese, that was geographical, organizing in the countryside to eventually surround the cities), building strengths beyond the reach of the Panopticon, creating de facto alternative social systems, destroying the legitimacy of the existing order in the minds of the masses, and eventually taking political power for the express purpose of establishing popular sovereignty.


I want to begin this section by thanking Ken Lawrence and Kristian Williams for the excellent pamphlet The New State Repression (Tarantula Press).  We don’t use pamphlets enough any more.  From The New State Repression:

Today’s political repression differs fundamentally from the repression practiced around the world in the past.  The most basic difference is on the level of strategy -- the general approach of the state, the outlook of the ruling class.

Their belief is that insurgency is not an occasional, erratic idiosyncrasy but a constant occurrence -- permanent insurgency, which calls for a strategy of permanent repression as the full-time task of the security forces.

In preparing to examine the validity of this claim, let’s go to the source:  the US government.


1-1. An insurgency is organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict. It is a protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control. Political power is the central issue in an insurgency.  (from FMI 3-07.22 , the US Army’s latest field manual on “counterinsurgency”, October 2004)

This could have been written by Mao Zedong.

It does not say simply armed conflict.  It says subversion and armed conflict.

This particular field manual was written to incorporate the lessons of Iraq.  In a very real sense, the tail was wagging the dog, since rather than reformulate their basic premises about insurgency and counter-insurgency (I/CI), they reformulated their experiences in Iraq to fit with their preconceptions about I/CI.  Welcome to the American government.

The American way of war includes mass, power, and the use of sophisticated smart weapons. However, large main force engagements that characterized conflict in World War II, Korea, and Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom in the Middle East have become the exceptions in American warfare. Since the American Revolution, the Army has conducted stability operations, which have included counterinsurgency operations. Over the past half-century alone, the Army gained considerable experience in fighting insurgents in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Philippines), Latin America (Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua), Africa (Somalia), Southwest Asia (Afghanistan), and now the Middle East (Iraq). Dealing with counterinsurgency since the Vietnam War has fallen largely on SOF [special operations forces]; however, conventional forces have frequently come into contact with insurgent forces that seek to neutralize the inherent advantages of size, weaponry, and conventional force TTP [techniques, tactics, and principles]. Insurgents use a combination of actions that include terror, assassination, kidnapping, murder, guerrilla tactics such as ambushes, booby traps, and improvised explosive devices aimed at US and multinational forces, the host country's leaders, and ordinary citizens.

While this introductory statement is self-consciously inclusive of the recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan (neither of which has been adequately or accurately interpreted), it does freely admit that US special operations forces were involved in places where the US had heretofore denied they were actually participating, i.e., Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, the first four in which I personally participated in US military missions between 1983-92.  I was in Vietnam, as an infantryman, in 1970-71.

Nowhere does this document acknowledge directly that the conventional capacity of US armed forces makes asymmetric warfare (which they selectively call terrorism, depending on the political content of specific actions) more likely, though this can be easily inferred.  The most remarkable thing, however, about this doctrine (FM’s represent doctrine), is the utter inability to differentiate between, say, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Iraq.  What this tells us is that either (1) they don’t know any better, or (2) acknowledging the differences carries too high a degree of political risk in the indoctrination of military officers.  In either case, the implication is the same for our purposes here:  they are hobbled by their own doctrine.  To this we shall return.

Counterinsurgency is those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency. It is an offensive approach involving all elements of national power; it can take place across the range of operations and spectrum of conflict. It supports and influences an HN’s IDAD [host nation’s internal defense and development] program. It includes strategic and operational planning; intelligence development and analysis; training; materiel, technical, and organizational assistance; advice; infrastructure development; tactical-level operations; and many elements of PSYOP [psychological operations]. Generally, the preferred methods of support are through assistance and development programs. Leaders must consider the roles of military, intelligence, diplomatic, law enforcement, information, finance, and economic elements (MIDLIFE) in counterinsurgency. (emphasis added)

Here we have to make a conceptual leap.  The US Department of Homeland Security is, at its very base, a counter-insurgency organization, imperial references to “host nations” notwithstanding.

We cannot start the history of the I/CI bias of the US state with 9-11.  That pivotal event was used merely to accelerate a process already in motion, and to author a massive government reorganization that would consolidate a higher level of executive power and simultaneously bust the government workers’ union (American Federation of Government Employees -- AFGE).  This makes more sense than many realize, because ever since the Vietnam occupation, when US domestic security adopted a I/CI model for population control, breaking mass organizations like unions  -- already a part of I/CI doctrine abroad -- has been integral to the I/CI doctrines.

The most infamous of the US state’s domestic counterinsurgency operations was the FBI-directed counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO), a massive, often extra-legal covert operations campaign directed at a whole range of social activist organizations and individuals in the 1960s and 70s.

The original adoption of I/CI doctrine by domestic state security forces in the US was a panicked reaction to the social upheavals of the 1960s, most especially the Black Freedom Movement (BFM).  The anti-war movement that emerged toward the end of this decade was largely facilitated by the ruling class disruptions caused by the BFM and the culture of resistance that was in its wake.


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