Chapter 5 – The end of the colonial world

From guerrilla warfare to revolutionary warfare

Mao Zedong, without having formulated it theoretically because his innovation was unorthodox under Marxist theory, focused mobilization not on the proletariat—which in China was cadaverous and had been demolished during the urban insurrections led by the left wing of the Party—but on the impoverished peasantry. During his experience on the ground, he found that it could be mobilized as long as it was given good leadership.

So he applied this unorthodox line, and drafted officers who blended in with the peasants in the villages and worked over time on spreading propaganda and mobilizing the people; this would allow him to transition from guerrilla warfare to revolutionary warfare. The latter used the same methods: surprise, mobility, and harassment. But with a different goal, which was to constitute, progressively, not irregular but regular forces, and not to weaken a regular army but to seize power though a war of destruction. The peasant insurrection organized as a guerrilla was one step of the plan; it was intended to be used as back-up for a regular army being constituted. It thus played the part of an army of partisans, since its role was to support the regular army, which would deal the final blow when the adversary had been weakened.

Mao Zedong’s innovation, which was to convert guerrilla warfare to revolutionary warfare in order to seize power, would not be perceived until well after his victory in 1949. The only ones to have understood the originality of the Chinese revolutionary approach and methods were the top Vietnamese officers in contact with China during its civil war. They would be able to put these lessons to work during the Indochina War, inflicting the Diên Biên Phu defeat on the French colonial forces in 1954.

The victory of 1949 was unexpected. Who, two years earlier, would have predicted Mao’s triumph? US assistance to the nationalist troops was considerable. Stalin, for his part, had advised Mao to set up a coalition government with the Kuomintang. Mao’s contribution, through his writings and the practice of his armed forces, in which General Zhu De’s action was far from meager, was both political and military: mobilizing the population thanks to officers organized as an underground political infrastructure; changing, over time, its weakness into strength through a lengthy war; winning over to the cause the prisoners from the nationalist army and turning them into propagandists of choice; using tactical defense under an overall offensive-strategy framework intended ultimately for nothing less than suppressing the adversary. In a civil war, there can be no compromise; power can be seized only if the enemy is floored.

The Japanese aggression (1937-1945) allowed the Chinese Communists to show themselves as patriots and revolutionaries fighting against foreign invasion and at the same time for social justice in the countryside. The Kuomintang was also fighting, perhaps even more so, against the Japanese, who, given their numerical inferiority, were battling with relentless rigor and practicing a policy of terror.

On his side, Mao was determined to carry out an extended phase of strategic defense, given his inferior resources, but his political objective remained offensive since he claimed military victory to be the expected outcome. Throughout the war, he had to articulate the partisans’ actions with the army’s in order to combine tactical defense and strategic defense. On several occasions, Mao ordered evacuation of the ground because what was most important was to preserve the armed forces. Withdrawal and dispersion proved to be necessary against the destruction campaigns initially perpetrated by the Kuomintang, then by the Japanese when they decided to practice a policy of intense repression.

Revolutionary warfare consists in combining agitation and propaganda, leadership of the masses and armed struggle. The coordination role of political commissars was crucial. As war chief, Mao used irregular-warfare methods against the Kuomintang before moving on to regular army operations when he had the means to do so, then moved back to partisan warfare against the Japanese oppressor, and after defeating the Japanese, back to partisan operations combined with a general counteroffensive carried out by a regular army against an adversary whose morale was broken. The strategic defense based on time and space (in the case of China) would gradually impose a favorable balance of power by multiplying tactical successes exhausting the adversary. As for the general offensive, it consisted in concentrating resources for the decisive clash.

In the case of China, there was a first civil-war phase until 1937, then a foreign-war phase (1937-1945), then a return to civil war (1947-1949). The revolutionary-war model was then initially adopted by the Việt Minh, then increasingly imitated by organizations not connected to Marxist-Leninist ideology. When the Taliban dispense justice in the villages, they are practicing a model inspired—whether they know it or not—by Mao Zedong. Indeed, irregular warfare is not won only at a strictly military level. It is mostly won through administrative control of the populations.

This is where the Western failure of the past fifty years lies, from Indochina/Vietnam to today.