Thinkers at War: Chairman Mao

5 mins read


Iain King explores the military career of Chairman Mao

China’s official view of Mao is that he was ‘70% right and 30% wrong’. It is a generous compromise, particularly unfitting for a man who rarely offered generosity or compromise himself.

Mao’s status as a thinker is beyond doubt. He had a direct and very personal role in attempting to apply Marxist-Leninism – a very European theory – to agricultural societies in the Third World. He was also the author of the world’s best-selling philosophical text: his Little Red Book, which set out his ideology for the benefit of the Chinese masses.

That Mao was to Communist China as George Washington was to the USA is also beyond doubt. The country would be a very different place had Mao not lived; it may have split, or suffered even longer civil strife during the 20th century, had Mao failed to win power in 1949.

But Mao is also responsible for many millions of unnecessary deaths – credible estimates reckon his idiosyncratic insistence on catastrophic ideas, such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’, a doomed economic policy which led to widespread famine, caused as many as 45 million people to die.

Mao Zedong’s portrait still hangs over the entrance to Beijing’s Forbidden City, watching over the country he created, but also almost destroyed.

People’s War

It was during the opening phase of the Chinese Civil War that Mao refined his own doctrine of guerrilla warfare – a form of warfare still practised in many of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Most Communist revolutionaries before Mao had tried to follow Lenin’s city-centric approach: they focussed on the industrial working class and saw insurrection in the major urban centres as the key to revolutionary victory. But Mao believed the model was ill-suited to pre-industrial China, a huge country where the workers seemed to lack the numbers and unity to drive a revolution. Instead, Mao concentrated on impoverished peasants living in the vast countryside.

Mao’s doctrine of Peoples’ War has three phases. First, start in a remote area where the state is weak and unpopular. Use guerrilla attacks for their propaganda value, for example to highlight government corruption or oppression. Raise the security costs for the government until it cannot afford to operate in the area, and their forces have to withdraw.

Then, in stage two, consolidate pockets of control by enacting populist policies, and seek to establish further outposts. Use attacks to gather weapons, spread disorder, and demonstrate the growing power of the revolutionary movement. Gradually, the pockets join, as the areas under guerrilla control grow.

Finally, in stage three, launch a full-scale confrontation with the state. The guerrillas should remain mobile, but they no longer operate small-scale. Instead, they come to resemble the state forces they are trying to defeat and supplant; they are ready to become the new state themselves.

Maoist guerrilla doctrine has since been taken up around the world. The Viet-Cong, the IRA, the Taliban, Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, Nicaragua’s Sandanistas, and Communist revolutionaries in Nepal are among many groups which have followed the model, with varying degrees of success.

Born into a relatively wealthy peasant family in 1893, Mao was inspired to become a rebel soldier when he was 17, participating in an uprising against the last emperor of China. But instead of fighting for a decisive victory, the army Mao joined cut a deal with the remnants of the old dynasty. Mao resigned six months later, discovered Communism, and spent the next 16 years agitating for a full Marxist revolution.

The moment came in 1927, when Mao was appointed to lead Communist militias in Hunan province. Mao initiated an ‘Autumn Harvest Uprising’ among the peasants and ordered four regiments to attack a Nationalist-held city. But one of his four regiments defected. It then attacked and neutralised a second regiment, and the remaining two were roundly defeated. Mao’s force was routed, and he escaped with just 1,000 men.

For the next seven years, Mao’s revolutionary career suffered from political manoeuvrings within the Chinese Communist Party, and military manoeuvrings on the vast hinterland of south-eastern China. For a time, he managed to establish a self-governing ‘Soviet’, where Communist land reform policies were trailed.

But Mao’s wife was captured and beheaded by the Nationalists, and Mao himself caught tuberculosis. When enemy troops encircled his position for the fifth time, Mao decided to breakout – taking 100,000 people with him on his legendary ‘Long March’.

The Long March

The Long March was a devastating, year-long retreat. Mao’s men and women crossed rivers, climbed mountain ranges, and battled Nationalists – covering more than 6,000 miles in all. Fewer than one in ten of those who had set out completed the trek; most of the rest perished en route from famine, exhaustion, or in skirmishes (it is not clear how many simply deserted the cause).

By any normal measure it was a military disaster, but Mao made sure the Long March was not assessed normally. Instead, his propaganda made it iconic. The Long March gilded Mao’s status as a Communist leader, and his position at the top of the Party was never seriously challenged thereafter. The political impact on Mao is comparable to the way Churchill’s status as war leader was secured by the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940.

The Long March ended as the Japanese Army rampaged through Manchuria. Mao forged a ‘patriotic’ alliance with the Nationalists, and joined the World War against the Axis power.

Chinese soldiers of the Red Army.
Soldiers of the Chinese Red Army. Surprisingly, the Long March cemented Mao’s reputation as a military leader.

But the Civil War soon resumed. Having established his military credentials battling the Japanese invaders, Mao was more able to recruit fighters to his cause. He continued to fight ruthlessly, at one point besieging his opponents in the city of Changchun, until at least 150,000 civilians had starved to death.

By 1949, the Nationalists had been crushed and were forced to abandon mainland China for Taiwan. Mao moved on Beijing and became undisputed premier. The People’s Republic of China – Communist China – was born.

In many ways, it was at this moment of triumph when his deepest problems began: he had campaigned on promises; now he had to deliver.

Great leaps, great setbacks

China remained desperately poor, and Mao committed the country to a rapid industrialisation. But instead of trying to improve living standards, he devoted the nation’s resources to industry and armaments.

He ordered peasants to abandon their small-holdings, join collective farms, and set up iron furnaces in their backyards. Party bureaucrats set over-ambitious production targets and enforced them viciously. The result was as tragic as it was predictable: food production collapsed, and famine killed thousands, then millions, then tens of millions.

Apologists for Mao claim the truth was kept from him. That is implausible, although the scale of the tragedy may have been downplayed by the emerging cadre of yes-men. Nevertheless, Mao persisted, the determined visionary convinced his strategy would turn good eventually. Only when Mao’s calamitous policy was unnerving even the senior ranks of the Communist Party was it abandoned.

In 1966, to re-establish his grip on the Party, he encouraged radicalised youths to initiate a new revolution in China. Intellectuals were lynched, and Party officials tried in kangaroo courts. Called ‘the Cultural Revolution’, it deprived the country of all forms of opposition and fresh thinking. So many Party members were purged that the Communists almost lost control of their country.

By now, the ideology had become a personality cult: Mao’s once charismatic personality was a caricature of its former self. To stabilise China, and satisfy his immense ego, Mao was now all-powerful, much like the dynastic emperors against whom he had once taken up arms. He even nominated his spouse – his fourth wife – to succeed him in office.

When he died, in 1976, his very particular ideology died with him: his heirs to power, the so-called ‘Gang of Four’, which included his widow, were locked up within a month.

Millions grieved when Mao passed away, but much of what he stood for died unmourned.

This is an article from the August 2014 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.