Wednesday, February 15th marked the 40th anniversary of the death of Camilo Torres, a remarkable Colombian who dedicated his life to the struggle for freedom, against injustice, corruption and inequality. Forty years after his death, all revolutionaries should celebrate the life of this militant, while at the same time learning the lessons from his mistakes in the struggle for a Latin America free from the grip of imperialism.
Camilo was born in Bogotá, the Colombian capital, on February 3rd, 1929 into a rich upper-class family. His father was a privileged doctor, and his family as such was liberal in its political outlook. In the 1930s he lived with his family in Europe. After graduating from secondary school in 1946 he moved back to Colombia where he entered a seminary. His Christianity led him to be horrified with social inequality, the injustice and the extreme poverty. At this point he underwent slow political evolution, discussing social issues with the other students.
Travelling to Belgium to study sociology, he began to organise a political group, later ending up in Paris with a number of Colombian co-thinkers that wanted to carry out sociological studies of the reality in Colombia. In this he succeeded when he graduated with his thesis in 1958, which was later published under the title “The Proletarianisation of Bogotá”. This is an important work about poverty in Colombia that has been widely read in Colombia and throughout Latin America.
When he went back to Bogotá he intensified his political work, by organising the students as well as the exploited layers in the neighbourhoods. He began to rebel against the traditional hierarchy and customs of the Catholic Church. This quickly brought him into conflict with the established order and the high priests of the Church.
As the conservatives of the Church did not agree with his organisation of the students nor with his radical anti-capitalist thinking, he was expelled from all his positions in the National University and funding for his academic works on sociology was stopped.
His political thinking was developing at a rapid pace: Although he was a Christian and a priest, he was disgusted with the poverty and misery he witnessed and sought to find some kind of material explanation of the causes of this inequality. This led him to adopt a peculiar mixture of the ideas of Marxism and Christianity. He understood that it was necessary to completely transform Colombian society and break the stranglehold of imperialism. From his practical experience of life he drew sharper conclusions and began to advocate a new society of a socialist character.
In 1964-65 he began to organise what he called “The United Front of the People”, a movement with big meetings, demonstrations, campaigns, etc., organising in the neighbourhoods, the universities and the factories. But state oppression was ferocious and many activists were hunted down.
At this point Camilo drew the conclusion that it was necessary to smash the capitalist state. But how to do it was not completely clear to him. In 1964, he had established contact with the ELN (National Liberation Army), a guerrilla army that had recently been established, inspired by the events in Cuba and the ideas of Che Guevara. In October 1965, Camilo dropped all his activity in the mass movement and instead went to the mountains to join up with the forces of the ELN.
On February15th, 1966, he died during his first involvement in combat against the state army. He was mourned by thousands of peasants who put up flowers and crosses in his honour.
Today, forty years after the death of Camilo, it is necessary for all revolutionaries to look at the lessons of his life. Without doubt Camilo was an honest revolutionary that wanted to put an end to a system that produces this intolerable misery for millions of oppressed people. He was a good example of a person, coming from the upper class, that was disgusted with the capitalist system and joined the ranks of the revolutionary movement. His works, although not representing the standpoint of scientific socialism, are very interesting and a source of inspiration to all fighters for freedom, in the real sense of the word.
But his final conclusion, that in order to put an end to the capitalist state, one must organise an armed struggle in the countryside, was a mistake. Marxists do not oppose armed struggle, nor do we deny completely the methods of guerrilla warfare. What we do reject is the idea of guerrillaism, that is the idea that an armed minority can substitute itself for the struggle of the mass movement. The main lesson of the life of Camilo Torres is that revolutionaries are much more dangerous for the bourgeoisie, if they work alongside the masses in the factories, neighbourhoods and schools. The armed struggle must be subordinated to this struggle, must be a part of it. In this way, a socialist revolution is completely possible.
Today we honour the memory of Camilo Torres, a man who entered into the list of martyrs who fought for Latin American freedom, together with Julio Antonio Mella, Farabundo Marti, Emiliano Zapata, and so many other comrades who have given their lives in this struggle.
The only true monument that we can build to honour these great militants is a mass revolutionary Marxist movement that will complete the struggle by eliminating capitalism in Colombia, Latin America and the rest of the world.
February 16, 2006