On Guerrilla Warfare is a collection of essays, speeches, and communiques by Mao Tse Tung, who ushered in communism in China after decades of fighting as a heavy underdog starting in the early 20th century. He is arguably the most important man in China’s recent history.
What drew me to this book is to learn exactly how he did it. How did he go from being a member of the rag-tag Chinese communist party with a small membership to eventually overthrowing the Western-backed Chiang Kai-shek after World War 2? The answer lies in time, extraordinary persistence, and genius. The below excerpts highlight the best components of his strategy.
According to the directives of the Communist International and the Central Committee of our Party, the content of China’s democratic revolution consists in overthrowing the rule of imperialism and its warlord tools in China so as to complete the national revolution, and in carrying out the agrarian revolution so as to eliminate the feudal exploitation of the peasants by the landlord class.
…strategy must be one of gradual advance. In such a period, the worst thing in military affairs is to divide our forces for an adventurous advance, and the worst thing in local work (distributing land, establishing political power, expanding the Party and organizing local armed forces) is to scatter our personnel and neglect to lay a solid foundation in the central districts.
…[the communist party’s] survival and growth require the following conditions: (1) a sound mass base, (2) a sound Party organization, (3) a fairly strong Red Army, (4) terrain favourable to military operations, and (5) economic resources sufficient for sustenance.
After receiving political education, the Red Army soldiers have become class-conscious, learned the essentials of distributing land, setting up political power, arming the workers and peasants, etc., and they know they are fighting for themselves, for the working class and the peasantry. Hence they can endure the hardships of the bitter struggle without complaint.
Any passivity, however, is a disadvantage, and one must strive hard to shake it off. Militarily, the way to do so is resolutely to wage quick-decision offensive warfare on exterior lines, to launch guerrilla warfare in the rear of the enemy and so secure overwhelming local superiority and initiative in many campaigns of mobile and guerrilla warfare.
In ancient warfare, the spear and the shield were used, the spear to attack and destroy the enemy, and the shield to defend and preserve oneself. To the present day, all weapons are still an extension of the spear and the shield. The bomber, the machine-gun, the long-range gun and poison gas are developments of the spear, while the air-raid shelter, the steel helmet, the concrete fortification and the gas mask are developments of the shield.
…the basic principle of guerrilla warfare must be the offensive, and guerrilla warfare is more offensive in its character than regular warfare. The offensive, moreover, must take the form of surprise attacks, and to expose ourselves by ostentatiously parading our forces is even less permissible in guerrilla warfare than in regular warfare. From the fact that the enemy is strong and we are weak it necessarily follows that, in guerrilla operations in general even more than in regular warfare, battles must be decided quickly, though on some occasions guerrilla fighting may be kept up for several days, as in an assault on a small and isolated enemy force cut off from help.
In real life, we cannot ask for “ever-victorious generals”, who are few and far between in history. What we can ask for is generals who are brave and sagacious and who normally win their battles in the course of a war, generals who combine wisdom with courage. To become both wise and courageous one must acquire a method, a method to be employed in learning as well as in applying what has been learned.
Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are decisive. The contest of strength is not only a contest of military and economic power, but also a contest of human power and morale.
…politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.
Winning hearts and minds
Apart from the role played by the Party, the reason why the Red Army has been able to carry on in spite of such poor material conditions and such frequent engagements is its practice of democracy. The officers do not beat the men; officers and men receive equal treatment, soldiers are free to hold meetings and to speak out; trivial formalities have been done away with; and the accounts are open for all to inspect. The soldiers handle the mess arrangements and, out of the daily five cents for cooking oil, salt, firewood and vegetables, they can even save a little for pocket money, amounting to roughly six or seven coppers per person per day, which is called “mess savings”. All this gives great satisfaction to the soldiers.
The most effective method in propaganda directed at the enemy forces is to release captured soldiers and give the wounded medical treatment.
…the concentration of forces to fight a numerically inferior, equal or slightly superior enemy force has often led to victory.
The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue. To extend stable base areas, employ the policy of advancing in waves; when pursued by a powerful enemy, employ the policy of circling around. Arouse the largest numbers of the masses in the shortest possible time and by the best possible methods.
…oppose adventurism when on the offensive, oppose conservatism when on the defensive,
A battle of annihilation, on the other hand, produces a great and immediate impact on any enemy. Injuring all of a man’s ten fingers is not as effective as chopping off one, and routing ten enemy divisions is not as effective as annihilating one of them.
Oppose fighting merely to rout the enemy, and uphold fighting to annihilate the enemy.
If the attacking enemy is far more numerous and much stronger than we are, we can accomplish a change in the balance of forces only when the enemy has penetrated deeply into our base area and tasted all the bitterness it holds for him.
Whether in counter-offensives or offensives, we should always concentrate a big force to strike at one part of the enemy forces. We suffered every time we did not concentrate our troops…
…creating misconceptions among the enemy and springing surprise attacks on him– mean transferring the uncertainties of war to the enemy while securing the greatest possible certainty for ourselves and thereby gaining superiority, the initiative and victory. Excellent organization of the masses is the prerequisite for attaining all this.
…the object of retreat is to induce the enemy to make mistakes or to detect his mistakes. One must realize that an enemy commander, however wise, cannot avoid making some mistakes over a relatively long period of time, and hence it is always possible for us to exploit the openings he leaves us.
A well-timed retreat, which enables us to keep all the initiative, is of great assistance to us in switching to the counter-offensive when, having reached the terminal point for our retreat, we have regrouped our forces and are waiting at our ease for the fatigued enemy.
“Fight when you can win, move away when you can’t win”—this is the popular way of describing our mobile warfare today.
…it is inadvisable to continue an engagement in which there is no prospect of victory.
…to destroy the enemy means to disarm him or “deprive him of the power to resist”.
In studying the laws for directing wars that occur at different historical stages, that differ in nature and that are waged in different places and by different nations, we must fix our attention on the characteristics and development of each, and must oppose a mechanical approach to the problem of war.
To learn is no easy matter and to apply what one has learned is even harder. Many people appear impressive when discoursing on military science in classrooms or in books, but when it comes to actual fighting, some win battles and others lose them.
…failure is indeed the mother of success. But it is also necessary to learn with an open mind from other people’s experience, and it is sheer “narrow empiricism” to insist on one’s own personal experience in all matters and, in its absence, to adhere stubbornly to one’s own opinions and reject other people’s experience.
In war as well as in politics, planning only one step at a time as one goes along is a harmful way of directing matters. After each step, it is necessary to examine the ensuing concrete changes and to modify or develop one’s strategic and operational plans accordingly, or otherwise one is liable to make the mistake of rushing straight ahead regardless of danger.
…although we must cherish the earlier experience thus acquired, we must also cherish experience acquired at the cost of our own blood.
Mao was a military historian who deeply studied past warfare, but knew that completely new tactics would have to be developed for China’s unique situation in geography and time.
Frequent smaller losses are better than big catrostrophes
The same holds true on the question of bringing damage on the people. If you refuse to let the pots and pans of some households be smashed over a short period of time, you will cause the smashing of the pots and pans of all the people to go on over a long period of time. If you are afraid of unfavourable short-term political repercussions, you will have to pay the price in unfavourable long-term political repercussions. After the October Revolution, if the Russian Bolsheviks had acted on the opinions of the “Left Communists” and refused to sign the peace treaty with Germany, the new-born Soviets would have been in danger of early death.
To prepare for a counter-offensive, we must select or create conditions favourable to ourselves but unfavourable to the enemy, so as to bring about a change in the balance of forces, before we go on to the stage of the counter-offensive. In the light of our past experience, during the stage of retreat we should in general secure at least two of the following conditions before we can consider the situation as being favourable to us and unfavourable to the enemy and before we can go over to the counter-offensive. These conditions are:
(1) The population actively supports the Red Army.
(2) The terrain is favourable for operations.
(3) All the main forces of the Red Army are concentrated.
(4) The enemy’s weak spots have been discovered.
(5) The enemy has been reduced to a tired and demoralized state).
(6) The enemy has been induced to make mistakes.
Historically, all reactionary forces on the verge of extinction invariably conduct a last desperate struggle against the revolutionary forces, and some revolutionaries are apt to be deluded for a time by this phenomenon of outward strength but inner weakness, failing to grasp the essential fact that the enemy is nearing extinction while they themselves are approaching victory.
This army is powerful because all its members have a discipline based on political consciousness; they have come together and they fight not for the private interests of a few individuals or a narrow clique, but for the interests of the broad masses and of the whole nation. The sole purpose of this army is to stand firmly with the Chinese people and to serve them whole-heartedly.
We should point out that, before the abolition of capitalism, absolute equalitarianism is a mere illusion of peasants and small proprietors, and that even under socialism there can be no absolute equality, for material things will then be distributed on the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work” as well as on that of meeting the needs of the work. The distribution of material things in the Red Army must be more or less equal, as in the case of equal pay for officers and men, because this is required by the present circumstances of the struggle. But absolute equalitarianism beyond reason must be opposed because it is not required by the struggle; on the contrary, it hinders the struggle.
The leader of Chinese communism believes in equality less than modern-day progressives.
Graduating from guerilla warfare to regular warfare
As you grow in strength and numbers, you must transition from guerilla warfare to regular warfare, where you finally have a superiority over your enemy. Your guerilla units now become infantry.
To transform guerrilla units waging guerrilla warfare into regular forces waging mobile warfare, two conditions are necessary–an increase in numbers, and an improvement in quality. Apart from directly mobilizing the people to join the forces, increased numbers can be attained by amalgamating small units, while better quality depends on steeling the fighters and improving their weapons in the course of the war.
War with Japan
Will China be subjugated? The answer is, No, she will not be subjugated, but will win final victory. Can China win quickly? The answer is, No, she cannot win quickly, and the war must be a protracted one. Are these conclusions correct? I think they are.
Thus it can be seen that the protracted and far-flung War of Resistance Against Japan is a war of a jig-saw pattern militarily, politically, economically and culturally. It is a marvellous spectacle in the annals of war, a heroic undertaking by the Chinese nation, a magnificent and earth-shaking feat. This war will not only affect China and Japan, strongly impelling both to advance, but will also affect the whole world, impelling all nations, especially the oppressed nations such as India, to march forward.
Mao provides an effective strategy for underdogs to defeat a better trained, better organized, and more numerous opponent. His own victory is proof of his tactics’ effectiveness, and I would be surprised to find that this text is not required reading in advanced military academies. His blow-by-blow account of revolutionary progress and setbacks even includes direct criticisms against his comrades. He honesty reveals not a bit of ego or aims for personal glory.
The book, however, was a difficult read. Though his writing improved over the years (the essays included span from 1928-1949), you’ll encounter dense information that lists Chinese names and places. If you’re not at all knowledgeable of Chinese history, like I was, you’ll miss most of the references and be lacking in context, meaning there will be long drags of information dumps until you get to the strategy. On the bright side, you’ll encounter hardly any communist propaganda. This work seemed to be intended to his fellow party members who already bought into the political program instead of the masses.
Mao was a great military and political strategist, but less skilled as a nation builder. Once in power, his policies resulted in untold suffering and death, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that he won a revolution against improbable odds. Mao’s lessons should be studied today as we face our own war against a far stronger enemy.
Read More: “On Guerilla Warfare” on Amazon