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Book Review

Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP

By Josh Sykes |
February 6, 2010
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Book cover for Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia
Book cover for Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP (Pluto Press, London: 2010) Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia

Professor James J. Brittain's new book, Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP (Pluto Press, London: 2010), is a thoroughly researched and documented academic study of the Colombian revolution and of its largest and longest lasting guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP). This alone makes it almost unique. Add to this the fact that it is based on five years of extensive research in Colombia’s countryside, both with the FARC and with the rural population, and it becomes clear that we have a one-of-a-kind book. What this study amounts to is a systematic and thorough defense of the FARC, facing the myths and allegations against the FARC squarely and putting them to rest. On this point, the book is invaluable.

In the book’s forward, James Petras puts it well in discussing “the political practice of demonology,” whereby the FARC have been vilified and slandered to such an extent that such characterizations have found their way into most academic accounts of the FARC. As Petras says, “this is vice’s tribute to virtue.” Brittain’s book addresses the claims that the FARC are a degenerated ‘narco-terrorist’ organization, devoid of politics, just another criminal gang in a country that has been corrupted from top to bottom by the cocaine trade. A lengthy chapter of the book is dedicated to “the political economy of coca,” and concludes that, through “a nationally applied partial crop substitution model, accompanied by regions under total crop substitution,” the FARC is “not only preparing to act as a legitimate government in a socialist Colombia, but readying the population for a post-capitalist society not monetarily dependent on the coca industry” (114). Meanwhile, Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia systematically traces the connections between the paramilitary death-squads, the U.S.-funded Colombian government and the cocaine industry.

In the process of dispelling all of the myths and distortions that have been spread about the FARC, the book advances a number of points. First, it clearly examines the history of the FARC and shows that it is a thoroughly indigenous social movement with broad mass support. It examines the FARC’s ideological commitment to Marxism-Leninism and approaches the FARC’s policy choices and strategic decisions in relation to that commitment. Similarly, the book examines the FARC’s military and political structures and its relations to the broader urban and rural popular movements. It also thoroughly explores what Brittain terms “dominant class reactionism,” presenting a history of paramilitarism and far-right politics in Colombia, showing that these phenomena are a result of the success of the revolution, not the cause of the revolution itself. And finally the book shows that the FARC is winning.

For Colombia solidarity activists, Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia is a tool. In the battle of ideas against all of the U.S. ruling class justifications for continuing to give billions of dollars to the Uribe regime through Plan Colombia, or in opposition to the U.S. escalation in Colombia through its seven newly acquired military bases, this book is a weapon. For anyone doing anti-intervention organizing, whether around Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, the Philippines or any place where the U.S. is oppressing the people of the world and where the people are resisting by any means necessary, this book provides a valuable case-study.

Brittain concludes his Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia with a quote from a campesino who he asked if the FARC would succeed in its revolutionary endeavors. The campesino answers, saying, “The FARC are and have been winning for a long time…I would never say that the FARC will lose, but I will certainly tell you that the state and the elite that repress the people of this country will never win.”


Josh Sykes wrote 6 years 33 weeks ago

Facts are stubborn things, O.

Facts are stubborn things, O. Gomez. Regardless of Professor Brittains aims when he set out on his difficult and admirable research, the reality is that he wrote a book based on carefully investigated and researched facts. In this case, that happend to mean writing a book that positively portrays the FARC and strikes blows against lies and distortion about the Colombian revolution.

The truth takes sides.

O.Gomez wrote 6 years 33 weeks ago

Well, I'd have to take your

Well, I'd have to take your word for it.

I do intend to acquire the book at the earliest opportunity, given the right circumstances.

The author's work will speak for itself, one way or another, but the review above is quite clear in its specific interpretations and the proposed uses for Mr. Brittain's research actively suggest a number of things. I believe those arguments can be directly or indirectly addressed by people such as myself.

Unless you want to argue that Josh Sykes, our esteemed reviewer, has been misrepresenting the contents and aims of this recent publication, to a greater or lesser extent, I think my comments are fair game at least as a reaction to what has been written here.

For the record, however, I will restate that my own opinions are not based on U.S. propaganda, though I realize that's always the easy way out in this kind of discussion, by assuming that there is no other valid source for criticism of FARC. It would be just like assuming that nobody can criticize, say, the Colombian government without having to resort to FARC or FARC-related information.

Tom Burke wrote 6 years 33 weeks ago

Brittain's book disturbs US war makers

Brittain's book is very good and deserves serious study and criticism from activists and scholars. However, O. Gomez would benefit from reading the book by James Brittain before commenting on it. Brittain is very clear from the outset about what he intends to do in writing the book. Brittain addresses most, if not all of the points raised by O. Gomez. This makes it very clear that O. Gomez is the one wearing blinders and not willing to consider serious scholarly study that contradicts the lies spread by US war makers.

Tom Burke

O.Gomez wrote 6 years 34 weeks ago

Yes, let's pretend everything is oh-so-very-simple

If by "extensive" you mean preemptively directed towards an absolutely and absurdly pro-FARC position before the author had even written one letter or taken one step into Colombia.

I wonder if he talked to FARC's victims or perhaps to peasants that aren't part of any of those "revolutionary projects" outside of areas of FARC influence, because a defense of FARC that simply uses a selective sample and partial testimonies from such sources, interviewed under the watchful eye of FARC guerrillas or militants no doubt, cannot be considered enough to pretend to dispel not just simple "myths" but well-documented accusations that both Colombian and international NGOs, not only the government, have put forward.

Using a similar methodology, one could probably write an "extensively" researched defense of Colombian paramilitarism by only visiting their zones of influence and interviewing those who have benefited from their activities, but such a piece of academic work would be found equally laughable by a sufficiently critical individual who isn't already favorably predisposed towards the subjects of his research and who admits that there is much more to be done in order to paint an accurate picture of a very complex conflict.

I'm sure that Mr. Brittain's research presents a valid and useful perspective of how FARC and its supporters are truly like in certain areas, which should indeed dispel or at least nuance a few misconceptions and the more exaggerated accusations, but to boastfully proclaim that his work absolves the entirety of FARC from any and all wrongdoing not just throughout the entire country but from beginning to end of all of Colombian history is preposterous.

FARC might well be winning or at least successfully surviving in those specific regions that Mr. Brittain visited, but I fear that he has completely neglected to sufficiently explore anything that would show otherwise elsewhere, in a country as vast as Colombia, because it would stray from the political agenda he is trying to push.

A responsible activist who doesn't just want to blindly believe in a given cause but desires to know the entire truth, even if parts of it will inevitably go against his deepest beliefs and desires, shouldn't be content to glorify this kind of academic work because it serves his predetermined goals and objectives. Rather, it should be taken into consideration and contextualized through the use of other sources, but not presented as the final word on a topic that is far from resolved by following a single-minded school of thought.

Peanut wrote 6 years 37 weeks ago

Actually, Uribe is the

Actually, Uribe is the narco-terrorist, not the FARC. Uribe got his start in politics as a client of the Medellin cartel. Uribe's father worked for the landowners and drug barons. Uribe's right-hand man is the owner of the largest potassium permanganate importing business in Colombia, a key ingredient in cocaine production.

The US government presence in Colombia has nothing to do with drug interdiction. DEA agents in Colombia are paid off by the drug cartels to betray informants and facilitate the entry of cocaine into the United States. Even the wife of the head of DEA operations in Colombia was busted for smuggling a sizable amount of coke into the United States!

Even if none of those facts were true, the US and its puppets have no business blaming other people for dealing dope. The CIA is directly responsible for the 1980s crack/gang epidemic in the United States, which they jump-started in order to fund their dirty war in Central America. Then they probably killed mainstream journalist Gary Webb for pointing this out in his book Dark Alliance.

The real reason why the US and their pet donkey Uribe are against the FARC is because the FARC is aiming to put them and their kind out of business forever. No matter. Uribe will eventually retire in Florida or something, but the FARC will persist.

Anonymous wrote 6 years 37 weeks ago


I agree with the previous comment. In addition, I think it is important to note that while the FARC may be responsible for "only 15%" of the massacres, as the reviewer stated, the paramilitary groups only exist as a response to the excesses of the FARC. While I agree that the story needs to be told of the political goals and the grass-roots work that the FARC has done to achieve those goals though social change, using that story as a weapon to justify the illegal and terroristic tactics of the FARC is reprehensible. The US has 2 goals. The first, to eradicate the cocaine drug trade at its source, is likely not achievable and I think their attention would be better directed toward eliminating the demand for the drug at home. The second goal is to eradicate violence as a means to achieve political goals and allow the Colombian people to choose their own way. This second goal may not be winnable either, with all of the outside support on both sides, but I think the only side winning that has a chance of resulting in freedom of choice and economic recovery for the people is the legitimate government. The FARC has shown over and over again that it is prepared to oppress the people to support its political ideals, which is the very oppression that they decry. The government is also rife with corruption, a situation that the US is also applying constant pressure to resolve. In the end, however, whichever side wins, the road ahead is going to be extremely difficult as Colombia has been operating under oppression and corruption for so long that the people do not know another way. The US only hopes to show them the glory of freedom of choice and let them choose their own fate. Viva Colombia! and Viva Uribe!

JS wrote 6 years 37 weeks ago

It is just these kind of

It is just these kind of ideas that Brittain's book challenges. I would suggest you read it.

Anonymous wrote 6 years 37 weeks ago

Sure... but...

While I agree that many people do not know much about the FARC and reading a book such as this can surely shed some light on political motivations and historical context, it cannot hide the fact that the FARC is still responsible for massacres of indigenous peoples, selective assassinations, and death threats.
That being said, the paramilitary and military are responsible for an estimated 85% of these human rights abuses in Colombia. And perhaps the FARC get blamed for more than they are responsible, but still "only" 15% of slaughter is still unacceptable.
There are many people in Colombia who do not want to be part of the armed conflict, and for them an armed group is an armed group, and often they use the same word to describe them without bothering to differentiate between paramilitary, military, or leftists. It doesn't matter to them their political motivations, because either way their communities, families, land, or they themselves are under threat.
And perhaps this book is honest about these issues, and covers these facts, but the review seemed to paint a very rosy picture of an organization that kills innocent people for their "cause" and I felt that needed to be more clear.