Time is Short: War of the Flea: A Review

As radicals, we believe that another world—a world without patriarchy, white supremacism, capitalism, colonialism, or ecocide—is possible. But in the face of the reality in which we live our day to day lives, it can become difficult to remember not only the possibility of successful resistance to power, but also its rich and proud history, of which we are a part. This is all the more true when we recognize that a potent resistance movement will have to include militant, underground resistance. Being aware of our place within that legacy and re-telling the stories of past movements serves to fan the flames of our own will to resist, and are crucial pieces in building a culture of resistance.

But beyond simply reminding us of the potential for struggle against brutality, turning a sharp and studious eye towards that history can lend us invaluable strategic insights as well. Through a thorough examination of past movements, we can learn to recognize pitfalls and traps to be avoided, as well as strategies and tactics that can be applied to our own situation.

War of the Flea, written by Robert Taber is one such examination. Originally published in 1965, the book takes a detailed and critical look at the conditions and strategy of guerrilla war. Rather than focusing on the particulars of one specific conflict, Taber draws his conclusions from an analysis of the patterns that repeat across a variety of such struggles: Cuba, Greece, Cyprus, Israel & Palestine, Malaysia, both of the Vietnamese wars for independence, the Irish struggle for independence, and more. A closely interwoven narrative of specific real-world examples and abstract theory & strategy, War of the Flea presents an easily accessible yet very informative mapping of guerrilla anti-colonial and liberation wars.

Taber’s insights hold great value for resisters today, with much we can learn from past movements and their strategies, successes and failures. He outlines the guerrilla struggle as being primarily a political engagement, rather than one of military force. The goal of the guerrilla or insurgent group is not to militarily defeat those in power, but to create a ‘climate of collapse’ in which it becomes impossible to maintain the status quo, and that house of cards comes tumbling down around former rulers.

The resonance of this with the strategy of attacking infrastructure to aid in the collapse of civilization should be obvious. And that similarity between the core strategy behind the asymmetric guerrilla conflicts Taber studies and a resistance movement to bring down civilization extends further to the general strategy.

Perhaps the ultimate achievement of War of the Flea is the detailed grounding it brings to the strategy behind these struggles. As Taber notes, protracted popular warfare consistently follows a three-stage strategy. In the first stage—the strategic defensive—the guerrilla force focuses on building capacity while avoiding any sort of serious confrontation with the overwhelming force of the opponent. Then the struggle moves into a phase of strategic stalemate, wherein neither side has the force or resources necessary for a decisive victory. Finally, as the guerrilla group builds the necessary strength—and the opponent group suffers a slow eroding of its power base (thanks to the ‘climate of collapse’), the conflict moves in the strategic offensive stage, where the guerrilla force takes the initiative and brings down the government or opponent group.

That this can be applied to our own situation should be readily apparent, even if it is a more figurative than literal equivalent. The core of Taber’s analysis of a staged strategy, focusing first on survival and asymmetric action and scaling up to more coordinated and decisive action as resisters take the initiative, can and should be applied to our own radical movements today. While out-and-out armed battles of any sort are both unlikely and unwise, the principles that have made the ‘war of the flea’ successful over and over around the world hold much promise for us, if we’re ready to learn from them and develop our own strategy for waging—and winning—a decisive ecological war.

That said, the book is not without its shortcomings, the most obvious being that it was written almost fifty years ago, and much has changed since Taber’s time, and the time of the movements and struggles he cites. Those in power have found new ways to both divert or channel dissent back into supporting the status quo, and to disrupt or neutralize those who stand against them. While this is by no means Taber’s own fault, it should be taken into consideration when putting his work in context.

The more important limitation of applying Taber’s analysis to our own times stems from the fact that our struggles, for all they share in common with those Taber surveys, may have a fundamental difference.

A movement to dismantle civilization is unlikely to be waged as a guerrilla operation. Protracted popular war requires popular support—something a movement to dismantle civilization will likely never have, at least in the Global North. Without the sustained loyalty and material support of the general population, the guerrilla model of struggle will never be a realistic option.  Additionally, while the guerrillas in all the conflicts Taber cites fought for greater self-determination, they were not fighting against the basis of their own society and subsistence, as a resistance movement against civilization within the privileged world would be.

Yet while War of the Flea may not be a straightforward blueprint for a resistance movement against civilization, there are still critical points we can take away from it.

Perhaps the most apparent of these is that our movement—a movement to dismantle civilization—will likely never be a guerrilla military struggle, so we shouldn’t act like it is one. There’s a tendency within radical circles to glorify or romanticize guerrilla conflicts (and militant resistance in general). Combined with the machismo that continues to characterize the culture of the Left, we’re left with much romantic masculine posturing about pitched battles with the police and those in power, which both destroys the movement and distracts us from more productive work.

One of the most valuable parts of the book comes as Taber posits several criteria necessary for successful insurgency; general pre-requisites to be met before people will take up arms. These include political, social and economic instability; a compelling moral and ideological political objective (or “cause”); the proven impossibility of acceptable compromise with the opponent; and finally, established revolutionary political organization(s) capable of providing leadership towards the accepted goal. While Taber draws these points from his study of guerrilla resistance movements, these “ingredients” stand on their own as shaping conditions for effective struggle through other means as well, and can doubtlessly be applied to our own situation.

Of additional note is the breadth of struggles cited and overviewed in the book. If nothing, this alone makes War of the Flea worth reading. Taber’s analysis goes well beyond the romantic and rhetorical, examining the strategies, successes and failures of an impressive variety of 20th Century insurgencies; from the IRA in Ireland to EOKA in Cyprus, the Viet Cong in Vietnam to the Communists in Greece, from Mao Tse-tung to Che Guevara. It is, without a doubt, a serious study of armed resistance movements and their dynamics.

While no study of past movements will do the work of the present, work such as War of the Flea provide us with important insights, allowing us to learn from the mistakes of those who’ve come before us, and lend us the strategic knowledge that is crucial to success. They also remind us of our place within a long and proud history of people who’ve fought against the odds and the numbers—and won. If we are to have any hope of dismantling civilization, we’ll need to learn everything we can from them.

Time is Short: Reports, Reflections & Analysis on Underground Resistance is a biweekly bulletin dedicated to promoting and normalizing underground resistance, as well as dissecting and studying its forms and implementation, including essays and articles about underground resistance, surveys of current and historical resistance movements, militant theory and praxis, strategic analysis, and more. We welcome you to contact us with comments, questions, or other ideas at undergroundpromotion@deepgreenresistance.org

4 thoughts on “Time is Short: War of the Flea: A Review”

  1. Well said, Alex!

    “Perhaps the most apparent of these is that our movement—a movement to dismantle civilization—will likely never be a guerrilla military struggle, so we shouldn’t act like it is one. There’s a tendency within radical circles to glorify or romanticize guerrilla conflicts (and militant resistance in general). Combined with the machismo that continues to characterize the culture of the Left, we’re left with much romantic masculine posturing about pitched battles with the police and those in power, which both destroys the movement and distracts us from more productive work.”

  2. A huge problem regarding batteling with the police is that its not even always something that the left wants to do (and I know such a comment may not be applied to every single corner of the globe). But if you are out protesting in this giant protests like the anti-g8 meetings and so on. Its almost impossible not to reach such heights. Since the Police will do whatever they can to stir up emotions among thousand upon thousand of protesters and especially among younger ones, its like the cops have some sort of sick taste for combating angry teenagers.
    There is this huge gap between adult and teens in the whole resistance movement and so many diversive groups to join that this is a complex problem that has no easy answer I think.
    I usually think there is a time and place for everything. Even batteling the cops if it was part of some larger operation that lead to something than just this enldess waves upon waves with clashes with the police. And cops is something the establishment can bring in endless hordes it seems. So many wétikos out there…

    But I also wanna throw in that if you do end up in battles with cops (or whoever really) your behaviour and actions will be very different if you fight with love or if you fight with hate and rage inside of you.

  3. In the review of the War of the Flea, the author comments that “Protracted popular war requires popular support—something a movement to dismantle civilization will likely never have, at least in the Global North. ”
    Let me comment that the key words here are “in the Global North.” The classical model for civilization is a resource-hungry city and a resource-drained countryside. My comment focusses on the fact that you can’t have the one without having the other. It is not in the city that the support for protracted war will be found — there, most of the population, to include the working class, actively supports the oppression of the countryside. Rather, the support for protracted war will be found in the nations of the resource-drained countryside.
    Typically, a countryside nation is split into two populations, a third-world settler population and a forth-world indigenous population. The third-world settler population is normally ruled by a local elite set up and supported by the first-world. In the forefront of struggles against civilization are the forth-world indigenous, and typically they struggle against the third-world elites, since it is in the jungles and mountainous areas where the forth-world live that new discoveries of resources to steal are made. However, in certain places like Cuba or Venezuela or Bolivia or Nicaragua, the forth-world population has teamed up with the non-elite settlers and has politically overthrown the local elite and have taken on the task of fighting the first-world — normally in the name of national sovereignty and independence.

    Also, inside the first-world nations themselves, some support for protracted war against civilization can be found. Such nations invariably contain some internal, distressed, non-urban areas such as the Appalachians, being destroyed mountaintop by mountaintop, places like the Pacific Northwest whose natural beauty is being despoiled by pipelines and bomb trains, and also remnant forth-world populations living on reservations such as Pine Ridge and the Navajo Nation.
    It should be noted that there are some places for which this analysis does not hold. The populations of southern India, China and Southeast Asia, for instance, are largely indigenous and they have their own issues with indigenous civilizations to fight against.

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