State as Permanent Revolution: The Role of Military Principles of Mao Tse-tung in China's Revolutionary War

-Deba R. Mohanty, Research Assistant, IDSA

Proud and alert, they carry five-foot guns,
First rays of the morning sun illuminate the drill-field
The daughters of China are filled with high resolve,
To red garments they prefer the uniform.
Mao Tse-tung1


The People's Republic of China, as generally agreed by all, is on the path to become a superpower in a not so distant future. Its emergence as a great modern power is not an accident. It is in fact a chain of distinct historical developments that have led China to transform itself consistently as well as make others understand the change, both within and outside it. A study of modern China, its various societal components, demands not only a study of recent events that have only added complex dimensions to it but also a study of its origin and development (as a modern power) in the contemporary historical context that has shaped China, if not as a power yet, as a foundation for such a power. It is the proper understanding of such a foundation which I have tried to analyse in this article. In this endeavour, I have tried to study the role of the military principles of Mao Tse-tung in the famous democratic revolution that shaped the foundation of the People's Republic and played no mean a part in the subsequent socialist revolution.

A completely new system of life, economy and government commenced after China became a People's Republic in 1949. It was indeed a new challenge. The preceding developments had yet to be shaped and consequent events only complicated the process. It is during this time that China was experiencing a burgeois-democratic revolution and the tasks of transforming it into a socialist one had yet to be begun. The newly found independence had posed before China two major challenges: of domestic transformation in all spheres of activity with an eye on establishing a stable society and of facing the challenges posed by the external environment. It is the latter that led the Chinese leadership to contemplate on how to not only survive as a sovereign nation in a bipolar world but also to make it a power to face mighty external challenges as well. Military might with a stable society was the only option for attainment of such a goal.

In order to understand this dimension among a complex interplay of socio-economic and politico-strategic factors, it is necessary to understand the military principles of Mao who had followed thirty years of revolutionary struggle with almost thirty years of power to build a socialist state. During such a long course of action, he was not only misunderstood by his own men but also by powers like the Soviet Union during the initial years of independence.2 But this did not deter him from pursuing his self-devised set of programmes for a new China. His military principles, among others, comprise perhaps the most important factor that played a prominent role in laying the foundation of a modern power.

Military Principles

The term "military principles", as applied to Mao Tse-tung, immediately evokes the strategic and tactical principles of guerilla warfare that have aroused so much interest in recent years in the most diverse contexts. This is obvious for a number of reasons. First, his military principles were the corollary of the same thought that was put into action during the preceding years, at least one and a half decades earlier since the middle of the 1930s.3 Second, the principles were shaped to be fit subsequently for revolutionary purposes as China was experiencing a high wave of peasant revolution. Third, such principles could only be applied for the fact that China was populous, fragmented, lacked the capability of assimilating a democratic thought process and was indeed semi-colonial and backward. Attainment of a systematic takeover of power was nearly impossible without such tactics.4 And last, the wave of revolution and the role of peasants and workers were so positioned that these principles were perhaps considered to be the best possible alternative under the existing conditions.

It is interesting to note that the military principles of Mao that were originally shaped and applied during the revolutionary era found their importance even after China became independent. It is not surprising that a new system that ought to have demanded a new set of ideas did not find any alternative, but refined and applied subsequently those very principles into the system itself under the changed conditions. Part of the reason for such a continuation is that China was newly independent and had many other domestic priorities in setting its house in order. The nature of revolution and subsequent attainment of its objectives were the same for a new system as China strove hard to follow a socialist pattern which was its next objective.5 In other words, the ideological base of the new system of governance was not drastically changed unlike in other countries. Part of the other reason is that the man at the zenith was stronger now and could dictate terms with relative ease, and his thoughts, as can be understood from various literature,6 seldom changed. Only some pragmatic refinements were made.7 It is in this context that Mao's military principles assume significance. I have tried to analyse his basic ideas regarding the conduct of revolutionary war and tried to find the organic link between his military thought and his mind and personality as a whole.

Importance of Red Political Power

The prolonged existence within a country of one or several small areas under the Red political power amid the encirclement of White political power (imperial or similar kind of rule) is a phenomenon that is unique in the history of mankind. According to Mao, the most prominent reason for such a phenomenon lies in the fact that China is an economically backward country with a semi-colonial pattern of society.8 This can also occur in conjunction with another unusual condition, namely warfare within the White regime itself. One the characteristics9 of semi-colonial China is that, since the first years of the Republic, the various cliques of old and new warlords, supported by the comprador class and the landed gentry, had waged incessant, internecine warfare. It was fuelled by China's localised agricultural economy and the imperialist policy of division and exploitation. The prolonged splits and wars within the White regime provided the condition under which one or several small Red areas under the direction of the Communist Party could emerge amid the encirclement of the White political power.

It is necessary to describe the emergence, nature, composition and role of the Red Army in order to understand the importance of such an organisation in the political as well as military spheres. The capability and survival of the Red political power owe their eternal strength to both the Red Army and the Communist Party. Six groups formed the backbone of the Red Army. They are (a) troops formerly under Yeh (Ting) and Ho (Lung) in Chaochow and Swatow; (b) the former Guards Regiment of Wuchang; (c) peasant militiamen from Liuyang and Pingking; (d) peasant militiamen from southern Hunan and workers from Shuikoushan; (e) men captured from the forces under various warlords;10 and (f) workers and peasants drawn from the border areas. The first four groups formed the backbone of the Army. The composition was two-fold. One part consisted of workers, the other of elements declasses. Mao called for a gradual replacement of the contingent of elements declasses by peasants and workers. But it was difficult due to a number of reasons: there were not enough peasants and workers who were not available for the Army and also due to the superior qualities of the elements declasses. Hence, he changed this idea and instead stressed on political training of these elements in order to bring a qualitative change in them.11 The majority of the Red Army soldiers came from mercenary armies, but once they joined the Red Army, the mercenary system ceased to exist. The Red Army did not institute a system of regular pay, but issued only food and pocket money.

Mao's military principles were implemented at the soldiers' level, making them became class conscious and gain some elementary political knowledge about land distribution, establishment of classes, arming the workers, peasants, etc. Military training was not consistent. The soldiers of other Armies needed at least six months or a year's training before they could fight, but the Red Army soldiers recruited only a day before could fight today with practically no training at all. The consequence of this practice was very dangerous. Part of the middle and higher cadres and many soldiers thus had an extremely poor mastery of military techniques.

The material life of the soldiers was very low. Owing to the shortage of funds, each man got only five cents a day for food (though rice was supplied by local sources). Even this rate was very hard to maintain. Mao once said, "Perhaps no one's life is so miserable as that of the Red Army soldiers."12 The common saying of the soldiers, "Overthrow the capitalists, and eat pumpkins everyday" expressed their misery.

The most important reason the Red Army could sustain itself without being exhausted, in spite of such miserable material conditions, was the thoroughness of its democratic13 practice. The officers did not beat the soldiers; officers and soldiers had the same food and clothing and received equal treatment; soldiers enjoyed the freedom of assembly and speech; cumbersome formalities and ceremonies were abolished; the financial administration was absolutely open to all; and the soldiers' representatives inspected the final accounts. This was indeed remarkable. These measures gave great satisfaction to the soldiers. The main difference in the attitude of the soldiers was that although they were materially worse off in the Red Army than in the White, they were liberated spiritually. The fact that the same soldier fought more bravely in the Red Army than he did for others testified to the effectiveness of these democratic practices.

Understanding China's Revolutionary War

"The laws of war must be studied and understood by anyone directing a war. The laws of a revolutionary war must be studied and understood by anyone directing a revolutionary war. The laws of China's revolutionary war must be studied and understood by anyone directing China's revolutionary war.

"We are now engaged in a war; our war is a revolutionary war; and our revolutionary war is being waged in this semi-feudal, semi-colonial country of China. Thus, we must not only study the laws of war in general, but also the laws of a particular revolutionary war and, moreover, the laws of the even more particular revolutionary war in China..."14

In order to understand the particularities of China's revolutionary war, it is necessary to note the challenges Mao faced while explaining the particular Chinese conditions that played a great role in shaping the course of the revolution. He challenged the idea of some people who advocated that it was enough for them to only study the laws of war in general and apply these to China. He also challenged the view of others that China should follow a Soviet-pattern revolutionary war. He said, "Although we must value Soviet experience, and even value it somewhat more than experiences in other countries throughout history, because it is the most recent experience of revolutionary war, we must value even more the experience of China's revolutionary war."

According to Mao, there was a great number of conditions special to the Chinese revolution and the Red Army. Four of them need mention here. First, China is a semi-colonial country with a vast territory and rich resources, unevenly developed both politically and economically and has gone through the great revolution of 1924-27 which indicates that it is possible for China's revolutionary war to develop and attain victory. This characteristic, with coexistence of contradictory forces and thus vast room for movements, determines both political and military strategies and tactics for the next revolution. The second characteristic is the great strength of the enemy. There is a world of difference between the Kuomintang Army and the Red Army. The Red Army is confronted with such a powerful enemy that inevitably makes the war waged by it different in many ways from wars in general. The third characteristic is that the Red Army is weak and small. It is small in number and its arms are poor, and its access to food, bedding, clothing and other supplies is extremely difficult. It is dispersed and isolated in the mountainous or remote regions and deprived of any outside help. It possesses no really consolidated bases. The fourth characteristic which is the corollary of the first one is the Communist Party's leadership and agrarian revolution. Mao points out that China's revolutionary war can be victorious because it is led by the Communist Party and supported by the peasantry. The soviet areas, supported by the peasantry, possess great political power and stand firmly that in a military sense creates colossal difficulties for the Kuomintang regime. The Red Army has great fighting capacity because its men have sprung from the agrarian revolution and are fighting for their own interests, and because officers and soldiers are politically united.

The Essence of Guerilla Tactics

The Chinese Red Army, being small, weak and scattered, had to adopt guerilla tactics in order to achieve its supreme objective. The Red Army was confronted with "encirclement and suppression" by the enemy. To defeat the enemy, Mao advocated a new tactic which is called "exterior-line operation within interior-line operations." It is like circling a circle. To simplify, the essence of such a strategy is to confuse the enemy by adopting the same line that is adopted by the enemy but on its inner surface. In other words, it is encirclement and suppression within encirclement and suppression, blockade within blockade, the offensive within the defensive, superiority within inferiority, strength within weakness, advantage within disadvantage, and initiative within passivity.15 The victory in this strategic defence depends basically on this measure-concentration of troops.

Employing the Army in only one direction was what Mao called for. Rejecting the exponents of military equalitarianism who put forward the theory of "striking with two fists" and splitting the Red Army into two to seek victory simultaneously in two different strategic directions, he explained that throughout the history of warfare, the victory was always gained by the one that had a single objective and uni-directed operation to achieve that. "Whether in counter-offensives or offensives, we should always concentrate a big force to strike out one part of the enemy forces...our strategy is 'pit one against ten' and our tactic is 'pit ten against one'...These contrary yet complementary propositions constitute one of our principles for gaining mastery over the enemy..."16

Another significant idea put forward by Li Li-san was also rejected by Mao. His (Li Li-san's) idea to abandon arming the people and small-scale guerilla warfare and "concentrate every single rifle in the Red Army" was subsequently contested. Mao argued that the operations of the armed people and of small-scale guerilla units and those of the main forces of the Red Army complemented each other like a man's two arms. "The kind of concentration of forces we advocate does not mean the abandonment of arming the people and small-scale guerilla warfare.17

In fact, his advocacy for concentration of forces was based on the principle of guaranteeing absolute or relative superiority on the battlefield. Attacks on the enemy always depend on factors like location, concentration, size and others. It is possible to defeat a large Army by a small force. Also it demands sometimes a larger concentration against a few men. The essence of the tactic lies in the fact that we know the enemy but it does not know when we attack them. The Red Army generally operates by surprise attacks.

A peculiar attribute of the Chinese guerilla tactics was that it employed a new form of operation: encircling the cities from the countryside. Mao was the exponent of such a tactic. He was quite optimistic of the fact that the countryside had the power to defeat the cities. The essence of such a thought had sprouted from his long involvement with the countryside and peasant resurgence. He was of the view that a protracted guerilla battle carried on by the peasants would never be successful in any small Western country. But in a big semi-colonial country like China, it was a possibility. In a semi-colonial country, although the cities have a leadership function, they cannot altogether rule the countryside. The cities are too small and the countryside is too enormous, and the vast human and material resources can be found only in the countryside. Of particular significance is the fact that if the countryside loses a part, another vast part still remains. One needs a very, very large military force to defeat the countryside. Mao's line was to have a main base area from which to wage a war of resistance, and also a broad area behind the enemy lines in which guerilla warfare could be carried out. "The heart of China's protracted war of resistance, the source of her ultimate victory, is to be found neither in Nanking nor in any other great city, but lies in reality in the villages of the whole country, and in the firmness of the hearts of the people."18

Basic Revolutionary Military Ideas

Every Communist must understand this truth: political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.19 The Party commands the gun. The gun shall never be allowed to command the Party. Viewed from the Marxist theory of the state, the Army is the chief component of the political poower of a state. Whoever wants to seize and hold onto political power must have a strong Army. Mao advocated for the theory of the omnipotence of revolutionary war. According to him, such a theory was not a bad thing for a country like China, rather a necessity. He explained the case of the Soviets in detail to prove his theory. He also explained that experience in the class struggle of the era of imperialism taught that the working class and the toiling masses could not defeat the armed bourgeois and landlords except by the power of the gun. In this context, it can be said that the whole world can be remoulded only with the gun. According to him, war can only be abolished through war—in order to get rid of the gun, one must first grasp it in one's hand.

"War is the continuation of politics."20 In this sense, war is politics and war itself is a political action. There has not been a single war since ancient times that did not bear a political character. But war has its special characteristics and in this sense it is not identical with politics. "War is a special political technique for the realisation of certain political objectives."21 When politics has developed to a certain stage beyond which it cannot proceed by the usual means, war is made to sweep away the hindrances in the way of politics. In other words, politics is bloodless war, while war is the politics of bloodshed. A gigantic national revolutionary war such as China's cannot succeed without universal and thoroughgoing political mobilisation. To aim at attaining victory while neglecting political mobilisation means "trying to drive one's chariot southward by heading northward," a step that would inevitably forfeit victory.

An explanation on "conscious activity." This is a characteristic that distinguishes men from objects. Such a thought is of paramount importance as far as China is concerned. Mao says that the protracted war and the final victory cannot take place without human action. Action presupposes ideas, arguments, opinions, plans, directives, politics, strategies, and tactics. Ideas, etc. are subjective, while endeavours or actions are manifestations of the subjective component of the objective, but both are part of an activity peculiar to human beings. This is called "conscious activity." All ideas based upon and corresponding to objective facts are correct ideas, and all actions based upon correct ideas are correct actions. Conscious activity is a distinctive characteristic which is manifested in all of man's acts, but nowhere more strongly than in war. Victory or defeat in a war is decided, on the one hand, by the military, political, economic and geographical conditions, by the character of the war, and by international support on both sides. But it is not decided by these alone. To decide the issue, subjective efforts must be added, efforts in directing and waging the war, i.e., conscious activity in war.22


The head and front of Mao's pragmatic theoretical advance was his increasing valuation of the revolutionary potential of the Chinese peasantry. Based in rural areas, seeking to animate and mobilise the active participation of the peasants by shattering the traditional Confucian social ideal, reform and redistribution of land-owning, political education and military training, the Chinese Communist's conviction of the prodigious resevoir of revolutionary power in the peasantry took progressive hold. Such an act in the new revolution was to be directed by the apex organisation, the Communist Party. The leadership of the Party was thus not only a means for directing the revolutionary war, but along with the Red Army it was expected to achieve the desired goal: victory of the masses.

Mao's military principles are in truth more than simply a specialised and secondary aspect of his thought. They offer a further and concentrated expression of that voluntarism which has been stressed as Mao's outstanding, and in many respects unMarxist, characteristic as a revolutionary. His youthful enthusiasm for Chinese military history no doubt contributed to his grasp of the principles of his self-devised type of warfare, which he summarised in a laconic formula: "Enemy advances, we retreat; enemy camps, we harass; enemy tires, we attack; enemy retreats, we pursue." In the long struggle of the Communist Party for survival and victory, Mao's philosophy of energy and will found perhaps its most triumphant vindication in the experience of successful guerilla war. In the period of consolidation of power, he sought to mobilise the same militant, heaven-storming spirit for the very different problems of orderly government and peaceful social transformation. Whether he succeeded in his later endeavour is not discussed here as it is beyond the scope of this article. But undeniably it can be summed up that Mao's radical military principles played the most prominent role in China's revolutionary struggle for attaining an orderly (although tortuous) transformation of society in a typical Chinese way.



1. This poem, on a picture of the women's militia, was written by Mao in February 1961. See Stuart R. Schram, Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969), p. 339.

2. The internal opposition to Mao's rule is narrated by many scholars. For example, see Dennis Bloodworth, The Messiah and the Mandarins: The Paradox of Mao's China, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd., 1982) p. 83-124. Doubts from abroad especially came from the Soviet leadership. According to Khrushchev, Stalin had been extremely worried about China's new ruler. "What kind of a man is this Mao Tse-tung"?, he had asked his colleagues. For details, see Dick Wilson, Mao: The People's Emperor, (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1979), p. 264-5.

3. Wilson, Ibid., p. 271.

4. Bloodworth, Ibid., p. 96.

5. Very few have attempted to analyse this particular aspect. See Edwin E. Moise, Modern China: A History, (London: Longman, 1986), p. 126-50.

6. n. 5, p. 135. Also see, Jerome Chen ed., Mao, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1969) p. 86-88.

7. n. 1, p. 26-7.

8. Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. I, (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1970), p. 64-5.

9. "One of the characteristics" was added in 1951. The earlier writing on this subject used "most striking characteristics." See n. 8, p. 65.

10. They are Hsu K'e-hsiang, T'ang Sheng-chih, Pai Ch'ung-his, Chu P'ei-te, Wu Shang, and Hsiung Shih-hui. See n. 8, p. 67.

11. n. 8, p. 83.

12. n. 8, p. 85.

13. Mao in 1928 employed the term min-ch'uan (the second of Sun Yatsen's Three People's Principles) to convey the idea of democracy. In 1951, he substituted the term min-chu, the more usual word for democracy.

14. Extracted from Strategic Problems of China's Revolutionary War, written in 1936 and first published in 1941. See, n. 8, pp. 179-81.

15. n. 8, pp. 235-39.

16. n. 1, p. 281.

17. n. 8, p. 237.

18. n. 1, p. 290.

19. Extracted from Mao's concluding remarks at the Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee, in November 1938. For details, see, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. II, pp. 224-25.

20. This is extracted from "On Protracted War." For a detailed discussion on various aspects of war in general and specific Chinese revolutionary war in particular, see n. 19, pp. 151-54.

21. This sentence has been replaced by Clausewitz's well known dictum about war, which had been used by Lenin as well. See n. 1, p. 286.

22. n. 19, p. 152.