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Mao and the Bolsheviks on Guerrilla Warfare

29 Apr


Without question, Mao Zedong was one of the prominent leaders of the 20th century, and the road leading to his successful consolidation of power in the People’s Republic of China was heavily informed by the Bolshevik idea of a radically revolutionary break and guerilla warfare tactics.  Mao was a firm believer that “a potential revolutionary situation exists in any country where the government consistently fails in its obligation to ensure at least a minimally decent standard of living.”[1]  While guerilla warfare certainly existed before Bolshevism, Mao was inspired by Bolshevik anti-imperialism, revolutionary self-determination of colonized populations, and civilian participation.  Mao’s literature on military strategy drew heavily from Lenin’s On Guerilla Warfare, citing both Lenin’s political ideas and military tactics and sharing the belief that a “people’s” revolution was inevitable.  Furthermore, even Western military men viewed Lenin as key to the Marxist revolutionary trends because they thought, “only when Lenin came on the scene did guerilla warfare receive the potent political injection that was to alter its character radically.

Despite the influence, Mao did not adhere to Moscow demands calling for a proletarian revolution, but instead he believed China’s revolutionary potential was housed entirely in the peasantry.  Mao “knew and trusted the peasants, and had correctly gauged their revolutionary potential.” At least at this seemed to by the case to Samuel B. Griffith wrote the 1961 introduction to his translation of Mao’s on Guerilla warfare.[2]  While Mao’s Cultural Revolution and collectivization would later bring cause take a huge toll on the countryside, his initial use of peasants was in contrast to the distrust and disdain Lenin and especially Stalin had for the Russian peasantry.  Mao’s view was a such source of dissension between him and the Kremlin that Moscow even sanctioned the attempt by Zhou Enlai and a group known as the “28 Bolsheviks” who tried to replace Mao in 1934.  These tensions would remain and only grow into the Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War.

For revolutionaries and Western military minds alike, Lenin’s variant on Guerilla warfare was a logical extension of the notion put forth by Carl Von Clausewitz that war is politics by a different means.  Guerilla warfare had existed, as Griffith notes, long before the Bolsheviks, but Lenin and Trotsky combined tactics with a revolutionary political program that focused on winning over civilians while simultaneously engaging in combat.  As an international idea, Mao relied on the Bolshevik example, compared it with other examples, and then adjusted Lenin’s program to fit the Chinese context.  The work of both Lenin and Mao would soon become case studies for a growing body of military literature that is still vital to U.S. and world security concerns today known as counterinsurgency warfare.

Further Reading On Guerrilla Warfare, Conterinsurgency, Mao, and the Bolsheviks:

Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. London: Praeger Security International, 1964, 2006.

Lenin, Vladimir, I. Guerrilla Warfare published in Lenin Collected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers, Vol. 11, pp. 213-223.  Available online at

Luk, Michael Y. L. The Origins of Chinese Bolshevism: An Ideology in the Making, 1920-1928. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Nelson, Harold W. Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, 1905-1917. Routledge, 1988.

Trotsky, Leon. The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects. Seattle: Red Letter Press, 2010.

Tse-Tung, Mao.  On Guerilla Warfare– Translated and with an Introduction by Samuel B. Griffith. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1961.

[1] Mao, 5.

[2] Ibid., 17.