Theory of revolution associated with the Cuban guerrilla leader and politician Che Guevara (1928-1967).
It is not necessary to wait until revolutionary conditions have developed, since a dedicated small group can ignite a revolution, thus creating both the uprising and the conditions which make it possible.
Foco theory thus goes further than either detonator theory or Leninism in its reliance on revolutionary elitism.
Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (London, 1982)
Like other theorists of his era (such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Amílcar Cabral), Che Guevara believed that people living in countries still ruled by colonial powers, or living in countries subject to newer forms of economic exploitation, could best defeat colonial powers by taking up arms. Guevara also believed in fostering armed resistance not by concentrating one’s forces in urban centers, but rather through the accumulation of strength in mountainous and rural regions where the enemy had less presence.
Foco theory, which was formally theorized by Régis Debray, draws on Guevara’s experience of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, where a small group of 82 members landed in Cuba on board of the Granma in December 1956 and initiated a guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra. During two years, the poorly armed escopeteros, at times fewer than 200 men, won victories against Fulgencio Batista’s army and police force, which numbered between 30,000 and 40,000 in strength. The small group finally took Havana after the December 1958 Battle of Santa Clara.
This surprising success led to the foco theory which inspired by Mao Zedong’s doctrine of people’s war counted on the support of the people to win the war. However, the foco theory stated that this popular support would be created during the armed struggle itself, therefore against the predominant Marxist theory there was no need to wait for the “objective conditions” of a popular uprising to engage the last stage of the revolutionary struggle (i.e. armed struggle). In other words, a small group of revolutionaries was considered to be enough to jumpstart a revolution since this group could begin the revolutionary struggle while at the same time developing the conditions necessary for popular support for the revolution. This theory focused heavily on the notion of vanguardism and on the moral value of the example.
While foco theory drew from previous Marxist–Leninist ideas and the Maoist strategy of “protracted people’s war”, it simultaneously broke with many of the mid-Cold War era’s established communist parties. Despite Nikita Khrushchev’s eager support for “wars of national liberation” and the foco’s own enthusiasm for Soviet Union patronage, Cuba’s own Popular Socialist Party had retreated from active confrontation with the Fulgencio Batista regime and Castroism/Guevarism substituted the foco militia for the more traditional vanguard party.
In Guerrilla Warfare (La Guerra de Guerrillas), Guevara did not count on a Leninist insurrection led by the proletariat as had happened during the 1917 October Revolution, but on popular uprisings which would gain strength in rural areas and would overthrow the regime. The vanguard guerrilla was supposed to bolster the population’s morale, not to take control of the state apparatus itself and this overthrow would occur without any external or foreign help. According to him, guerrillas were to be supported by conventional armed forces:
It is well established that guerrilla warfare constitutes one of the phases of war; this phase can not, on its own, lead to victory.
Guevara added that this theory was formulated for developing countries and that the guerrilleros had to look for support among both the workers and the peasants.
In power, Castro sided with the Soviet Union in the 1961 Sino-Soviet split while Guevara sympathized with China. Perhaps accelerated by this divide, the latter man shifted his energies away from Cuba to adventurism, promoting guerrilla foco theory overseas. Though this method had triumphed in Cuba, Guevara saw it subsequently fail in Africa and Latin America. Laurent-Désiré Kabila put it in practice in Congo. Guevara’s attempt to forge an insurgency in Bolivia led to his capture and subsequent execution in 1967.