The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The historical origins of Colombia’s FARC: class struggle towards ‘La Violencia’.

In this guest post, Oliver Dodd analyses changes to Colombia’s political economy in the period preceding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) founding to reveal the organisation’s historical roots. He argues that processes of political economic development in Colombia did not take place in an orderly and steady manner, but rather involved conflict and antagonism between various social-class forces engaged in a struggle for hegemony. Ultimately, Colombia’s economic development encouraged the spread of political terror, which was sponsored politically largely by Conservatives to combat the threat of a growing independent labour movement. In turn, this trajectory of violence permitted the Communist Party to establish ‘safe communities’ eventually resulting in FARC’s founding.

Social and political tensions between classes matured in the decades advancing to La Violencia in 1948. The Great Banana Strike of 1928, when the military slaughtered hundreds of striking workers at the behest of the UFC, symbolises this. Meanwhile, peasant-led campaigns for land reform were being regularly waged and crushed. Colombia's export-oriented economy was facing high rates of demand on the world market – known as “Dance of the Millions” – a fact that provoked capitalist expansion of production. These events led to an intensification to the rate of exploitation – in the form of longer working days for workers - to reduce the costs associated with labour, ‘bringing no respite to struggling hill-farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers, much less artisans and proletarians’ (Hylton, 2006: 29). Such events allowed Communist Party activists, as well as left-oriented liberals, to organise and channel workers’ grievances against capitalist classes.
When the Great Depression undermined the export-economy in 1929, large numbers of peasants and proletarians were left unemployed with no support from the government. Whereas Liberal and Conservative elites had proclaimed in their party manifestos that capitalist expansion would benefit all Colombians, worker and peasant expectations relating to improved standards of living collapsed. Politicians from petty-bourgeois background, like Jorge Gaitan, manoeuvred to capture the hearts and minds of the lower classes with inflammatory rhetoric used against the "rival factions of the socioeconomic elite" (Hylton, 2006: 28-30). Until this period, "middle-sector politicians were neither wealthy nor well connected" (Roldán, 2002: 17). But the workers who were becoming radicalised provided the social foundations for a left-populism to gain appeal throughout the country, thereby threatening the dominance of capitalist forces politically.

Gaitanismo, a radical wing of the Liberal Party, moved beyond other leftist currents in Colombia. It brought a “broad swath of peasants, artisans, workers, and sectors of the middle class together in a movement that challenged Colombia’s elites and was not afraid to talk about class struggle” (Gill, 2016: 55). The collapse of exports, which was followed by mass-migration to the cities, meant that the proletariat was becoming a revolutionary, class-orientated force for the first time in Colombia’s history. Workers increased their calls for higher wages, shorter working weeks, health and safety laws and improved living conditions. Thus, this radicalising proletariat pressed the political establishment to consider incorporating workers’ demands into their party programmes, or face the risk of a labour movement that acted independently, hence threatening Colombia’s economic system altogether.

Channelling the working class politically was not a simple task. Party leaders faced the basic reality of presiding over an economy that was integrated into the world economy. It was, therefore, subject to conditions that inevitably involved the exploitation of the proletariat to sustain profit rates and capitalist growth. Furthermore, politicians, having come from property-holding social backgrounds, generally had little experience representing the proletariat politically and tended to think that ‘democracy should not give way to a levelling process and a "republic of equals" in which "anarchy" reigned' (Hylton, 2006: 19).

With this background in mind, Liberals and Conservatives tried to incorporate the working class into their support base. The Liberals sought to control the labour movement using the populist Jorge Gaitan, and the Conservatives, with their landed-capitalist base concerned about international trade's strengthening of internationally-oriented capitalists, relied on the ‘Church to attack the secular and materialist tendencies of foreign capitalism' (Braun, 1985: 29-30). Because the Catholic Church stressed the importance of submission, obedience, and morality, as opposed to unregulated free market capitalism, there was a natural connection between the local bourgeoisie and the Church. Significantly, when Conservatives were struggling to achieve the support of the proletariat resulting from their hostility to rapid economic development in urban sectors, they were compelled to redouble "efforts to rule unopposed in rural areas to make up for territory won by liberals in the cities" (Hylton, 2006: 32).

With the Liberals favouring greater economic development in urban areas, which boosted employment for workers, widespread polls suggested that the Conservative Party faced political defeat indefinitely (Thompson, 2011: 335). To combat this, a Conservative-led alliance was formed with the Church, which mobilised sections of the peasantry on sectarian grounds, against ‘atheistic Liberalism,' and a campaign of repression was implemented against Liberal strongholds (Henderson, 1985: 3). In some areas, Conservatives mobilised peasants to massacre Liberals, and made “political polarisation and paramilitary violence [spread] incrementally all through the 1930s and 40s” (Hylton, 2003: 64). Because the peasants were commonly dependent on landowners for credit and favours, and were influenced by the Church more than other classes, they had cause to sympathise with Conservatives. 

After the Peace Agreement, FARC now operates as an official political party! Photo by Oliver Dodd!

Overall, the strategy employed by the Liberal Party proved more useful. With the working class not having been represented politically, they responded positively to Gaitan's calls for modernisation, higher wages, and an extension of the democratic franchise. Meanwhile, the Communist Party (PCC), complaining to the Communist International that most of its members were peasants and not urban workers, pursued a policy of organising peasants against the spreading sectarian conflict. Indeed, as the violence first spread throughout Colombia, communists gained a reputation for governing over the few areas that remained completely free from sectarian violence (Daly, 2012: 486). This reality provoked larger numbers of peasants to support them politically and migrate to those relatively safe and independent areas.

When Jorge Gaitan was assassinated on the streets of Bogota during the election campaign in 1948, the political response by lower classes was immediate. The largest insurrection in Colombia's history attacked government buildings, businesses, churches, and banks in what became known as the ‘Bogotazo'. The police took the side of the Gaitanistas, while revolutionaries broke into radio stations calling for the overthrow of the state. In some provinces, the workers' representatives replaced the government authorities.

However, because of the spontaneous character of the insurrection, and with Gaitan dead, ‘there was no one to direct or organise it’ (Hobsbawm, 2016: 59). The Communist Party, influenced by Soviet calculations, had regarded Gaitan as an enemy within the labour movement and, consequently, ‘did not recognise what was happening until it was too late’ (Hobsbawm, 2016: 59). With a full-scale military response to the insurrection being waged by the Conservatives, supported by American accusations that the ‘Bogotazo’ was the cunning work of international communism, ’the country subsided into [a] state of disorganisation, civil war and local anarchy' (Hobsbawm, 2016: 59). The situation was made worse by the Liberal Party’s refusal to embrace the spread of left-wing populism amongst the working class, which further ‘disorganised worker and peasant organisations and ensured that class conflicts remained within the clientelist political structures of Colombia's two-party system’ (Gill, 2016: 56).

Even so, this trajectory towards revolutionary social change assisted communists based in the rural periphery to construct models of political, social, and economic independence, free from the spreading violence. Although the state institutions had failed to moderate the differences between the various social-class forces, the history of the Communist Party's organising of peasants during this period had served as the basis for what eventually would become FARC. Indeed, when in 1964, the existence of these communist ‘self-defence zones’ provoked a US-sponsored military campaign using a third of Colombia's military, many of the peasants fled to the mountains to organise the ‘Southern Bloc' of what would become the FARC, convinced of two political realities: firstly, that capitalists dominated Colombia’s state and government, and secondly, that only through armed struggle could democracy be achieved.


Braun, H (1985). The Assassination of Gaitán Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia. London: University of Wisconsin Press.

Daly, S. (2012). Organizational legacies of violence Conditions favoring insurgency onset in Colombia, 1964–1984. Journal of Peace Research. 49 (3).

Gill, L (2016). A Century of Violence in a Red City: Popular Struggle, Counterinsurgency, and Human Rights in Colombia. London: Duke University Press.

Henderson, J (1985). When Colombia Bled: A History of Violence in Tolima. London: University of Alabama Press.

Hobsbawm, E. (2016). Viva la revolución. London: Little, Brown.

Hylton, F. (2003). An Evil Hour: Uribe's Colombia in Historical Perspective. New Left Review. 23 (1).

Hylton, F (2006). An Evil Hour in Colombia. London: Verso.

Roldán, M (2002). Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946-1953. London: Duke University Press.

Thomson, F. (2011). The Agrarian Question and Violence in Colombia: Conflict and Development. Journal of Agrarian Change. 11 (3).

Oliver Dodd completed his MA in International Relations in the School of Politics and IR at the University of Nottingham in September 2017. His dissertation on ‘What explains the underlying dynamics of the Colombian Civil War’ was awarded a distinction level mark as was the overall result in his MA. For his Ph.D. project on ‘Analysing the underlying dynamics of the 2016 Colombian Peace Agreement’, due to start in September 2018 at Nottingham University, he received a prestigious ESRC studentship.

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