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27 June 2023

“Can the Weak Defeat the Strong? Mao’s Evolving Approach to Asymmetric Warfare in Yan’an” [Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) #33]

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Original post can be found here:

Today’s article is “Can the Weak Defeat the Strong? Mao’s Evolving Approach to Asymmetric Warfare in Yan’an”, by Andrew Kennedy. This is a nice, short, and easy-to-read article that serves as a great primer on Sino-Marxism, or how Mao adapted ideas from Marx, Engels, and Lenin into the Chinese Revolution and Great Leap Forward in the 1930s-1950s. For history buffs, this is a fun one- but a part of WW2 often overlooked. For my philosopher friends and researchers (especially my postmodernists, critical theorists, Radical Humanists, and/or Radical Structuralists), you may find this article too simplistic on the Sino-Marxist theory… but this is potentially quite useful for the next generation of international relations, military and defense strategists and conflict theorists to get comfortable with. You can find the article linked here below, and just as I promise in this series week after week, when I can give you a free article or monograph without a paywall, I will. This is one of those, and the Australian National University HTTPS below gives you the full monty. JSTOR keeps it behind their academic paywall for some odd reason:

The article explains how Mao would apply his “education, then propaganda, and last fighting” approach that is dissimilar from western military frames for how/why war (Clausewitz, Jomini, Fuller, etc). This essay also explains lesser known details on how Stalin did not back Mao, which would fester as a lingering issue between Communist Russia and China for decades. Washington also had a stance in the revolution, and along the way, Mao was close to being defeated many times. Indeed, the Russio-Sino split in Socialism would become a painful reality not necessarily due to significant differences in Marx, Engels, Lenin or Stalin and Mao, but that Stalin would back-stab Mao’s revolution by insisting he not take over all of China after the collapse of Japanese occupation in 1945, but to work with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (leader of the KMT) and Mao’s major opposition for seizing power in China. Things would be patched up through the 1950s into the 60s, but Mao would not forget what he considered a betrayal to ‘global Communist solidarity’ in the Soviet temporary treaties and appeasement to Chiang. Meanwhile, we westerners seemed to misunderstand or misinterpret much of this at the time, often projecting our own social paradigm, belief systems, and conflict philosophies upon others that did not host the same views.

Today, we (political leaders, policy makers, strategists, defense experts, the intelligence community, and so-on) focus tremendous analytical energy toward trying to “get in the head” of President Xi. When we consider what Taiwan means, and how Xi likely considers himself historically on par (or about to eclipse) with the legacy of Chairman Mao, this paper might be useful in enhancing that perspective. If you are already reading Jullien’s “A Treatise of Efficacy” (especially those of you entering this academic year at an Advanced Military Studies Program (AMSP) such as SAMS or SAASS), I think this paper is a powerful companion piece to that book on several levels. If it is not already faculty suggested additional reading for that module, I recommend they consider adding it!

Kennedy starts readers off by warning them not to assume too much that Mao’s theory for political warfare would simply extend from earlier war theories posited by Marx (and especially Engels in the 1870s-80s), or adapting a clone of Lenin’s warfare theory and lessons learned from 1917–1919. The author explains how China is not Russia, just as Russia was never London, Berlin, or New York for the disillusioned Marxists (gross, state-based, or what-have-you) that fretted in the Inter-War Period. Mao would have no likely exposure to Gramsci’s prison notebooks, nor likely encounter any of the Frankfurt School developments in that period, and would instead generate his own Sino-fusion of a more classical Marxist political theory of warfare. I would position Mao close to Lenin and certainly Engels for this consideration. Kennedy offers:

It is tempting to see Mao’s approach to military conflict as an outgrowth of his radically ‘‘leftist’’ ideology, starting in the late 1920s. In fact, one recent study has argued that Mao was ‘‘too emotionally impulsive and politically radical to be strategically cautious and tactful.’’ There is little doubt that Mao believed deeply in the power of revolutionary zeal in armed conflict, particularly after he witnessed the peasant uprisings in Hunan in early 1927. As he wrote at the time, the peasants represented ‘‘a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to suppress it.’’ While Mao soon saw a need for more regular forces as well, this eye-opening experience in his home province clearly laid a foundation for his belief in the ability of the weak to challenge the strong. Nevertheless, he was far from consistently ambitious in the wake of this experience. In fact, there were times in the 1930s when he was more conservative in his military outlook than many of his colleagues, as the following analysis will show. So while Mao’s ideological radicalism was undoubtedly important, there is more to the story that remains to be told. (p.866)

It is significant not to ignore Mao’s core belief (Marxist, coupled with deeply established Chinese natural philosophy foundations of Taoism and Confucianism underneath) that were not interchangeable with ancient Greek philosophy, Westphalian constructs, or Clausewitzian war concepts (drawing from Kant and German Romanticism and in reaction to the Napoelonic Age and the scientific Age of Enlightenment in Europe). Western scholars, theorists, and military thinkers tend to be ham-fisted about wagging their fingers at anything that does not bow down to the Dead Carl Club (heavenly von Clausewitz, under which all war must obey and subscribe). Mao would work in the alternative war theoretical spaces that Marx and Engels would establish, and later Anatol Rapoport would wonderfully frame as ‘messianic eschatological’ in that war would not be an enduing cycle of politics and organized violence, but a transformation of reality where humanity would shed Capitalism and evolve (drawing from Darwin but folding that into a Socialist mindset) to no longer require war. Mao would prioritize warfighting priorities in a dissimilar manner to European theorists studying Napoleon… instead of striking purposefully at the enemy army so that the collective will of the state (people, leaders, army) would break. Instead, Mao would position “education” as the top priority for the military, followed by “propaganda” directed internally and externally, and only then “fighting” a distant third- which once more would be nuanced to where Mao was in the 1930s-1950s and how he saw the potential in direct engagements against seemingly superior adversaries. Kennedy provides evidence of this with:

On 1 August 1937, he wrote to Zhou Enlai (周恩来) and other leaders that the CCP should carry out ‘‘dispersed guerrilla warfare’’ against the Japanese invaders and not ‘‘concentrate our forces for a campaign.’’In addition, the CCP should only employ one-third of its forces initially, since otherwise it would be difficult to remain dispersed and they would ‘‘easily suffer a concentrated attack by the enemy.’’ Mao continued to stress dispersed, guerrilla tactics in subsequent letters that month. When CCP leaders met at Luochuan (洛川) at the end of August, Mao still favoured a tentative approach. He reportedly argued that Japan’s superior armament meant that its forces could do much more damage to the Red Army than those of the KMT. The CCP should thus resist the temptation to send its soldiers to the front to be anti-Japanese heroes. He proposed instead that the CCP should focus on dispersed guerrilla attacks behind the enemy’s front lines. At the same time, it should build up its strength by developing base areas in the enemy’s rear. (p. 888).

And Kennedy goes on to elaborate further with:

“Mao continued to argue for a restrained approach towards conflict with Japan into late September 1937. At Luochuan, his views had met with some resistance from Zhou Enlai, Zhu De (朱德) and Peng Dehuai (彭德怀), who believed the CCP should confront the Japanese more actively. Mao was keen to make sure the Red Army commanders did not try to do too much. Writing to Peng Dehuai on 21 September, he argued: ‘‘Today the Red Army plays no deciding role in any decisive battle. Nevertheless, it does have its own area of expertise, and in this area it can play a deciding role. This is truly independent and self-reliant guerrilla warfare in the mountainous regions (not mobile warfare).’ “ (p. 888).

Again, I know that the philosophers out there will find this as a somewhat simplistic rendering, but the author was framing this for a particular audience and I think it reads quite nicely for entry level military scholars, practitioners, those studying China today, and policy makers frustrated with a lack of explanation beyond our mirror-projection tendencies of explaining all adversaries only in the terms we use to understand ourselves.

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