On Guerrilla Warfare: Two Takes, Mao vs. Guevara
Kyle W. Fonay
Both Mao Tse-Tung and Che Guevara had outsized impacts on the social, political and cultural landscape of the 20th Century. They also made significant contributions to the field of irregular warfare. To the untrained observer, their similarities are many. Both were committed communists who fought and won guerrilla struggles. Both understood the people were the key to safety, support and victory for the insurgent cause. Both even gave their books the same straightforward title, On Guerrilla Warfare. Yet after looking closely at each, a number of important differences emerge.
This review will cover key similarities and differences; and then take a wider view of their relevance and value for practitioners today. But before comparing them, it’s important to take a brief look at each author’s circumstances at the time of writing. These differing experiences go a long way in explaining the relative utility of one over the other.
When Mao wrote On Guerrilla Warfare in 1937 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been at war for a decade in one of the largest countries in the world. At first, the war was waged against the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) who ruled most of the country. But in 1937 the two parties found themselves in an uneasy alliance against the stronger Japanese military. Mao had seen countless disasters and barely escaped annihilation during the arduous “Long March” of nearly 8,000 miles. These experiences profoundly shaped his understanding of guerrilla warfare. Strategic patience, political action and deliberate methodical engagements are his greatest weapons.
Two decades later and only one year after he and Castro’s victory in Cuba, Guevara wrote his version of Guerrilla Warfare. When his booklet was published in 1960, he had scarcely more than a year of wartime experience. Unlike Mao’s decades of struggle, the Cuban Revolution was a fairly rapid affair against an elderly, tottering dictator. Consequently, his experiences and understanding of war differed from that of his predecessor. Where Mao’s style was measured and subtle, Guevara’s prose is that of a decisive young revolutionary eager for the next victory.
Topics of Discussion
The two men agreed on much, but their differing experiences led to a number of important discrepancies in their strategy. Additionally, there are a few areas discussed by only one author. Guevara, but not Mao, covers: the traits of a good fighter, the details of guerrilla life, and women’s role in the revolution. Mao on the other hand describes the traits of a successful guerrilla leader, and the history of irregular war.
Guevara spends more than 10 pages discussing the personality, behavior and world outlook of the ideal revolutionary. He begins with the ethics of a guerrilla fighter, stating that he, “must have a moral conduct that shows him to be a true priest of the reform to which he aspires” (Guevara, 1960, p. 72). The guerrilla must also be physically fit, “able to march to the place of attack across plains and mountains” (Guevara, 1960, p. 74). Guevara goes on to describe someone who is intelligent, at ease among the people and able to endure both physical and mental hardships. While Mao does give some advice in this area, it is tangential to his main arguments and is mentioned only sporadically through different chapters of the book.
Along with the traits of a successful fighter, Guevara also discusses the specifics of guerrilla life with a detail that likely made many reconsider this line of work. He compares the Guerrilla’s life to that of a, “hunted animal,” constantly on the move and terrified of spies potentially in their midst (Guevara, 1960, p. 76). A lack of food, terrible hygiene, and poor medical care for the sick and wounded are also described. While Mao discusses the hardships of war, he does so in a detached manner which does little to enlighten the potential guerrilla to the monotony and horror they may face.
Another topic exclusively covered by Guevara is the role of women in the revolution. While he makes a good case for their importance to the movement (Mao mentions the topic hardly at all), Guevara clearly did not see them as equal partners in the guerrilla enterprise. After a few sentences avowing their “extraordinary importance” and “ability to perform the most difficult tasks”; he goes on to confess that he believes, “she is weaker,” and her best role is to, “bring the qualities appropriate to her sex” (Guevara, 1960, p. 111-112). Despite this, he later explains their importance not only as cooks and companions, but as spies, teachers and nurses. He even admits that they can perform the same combat functions as a man, “on certain occasions” (Guevara, 1960, p111). While these attitudes may seem prejudiced to the modern reader, it is important to understand them in the context of their time and place.
Where Guevara covered the traits of a good guerrilla fighter, Mao discussed the traits of a good leader. Leaders should be, “unyielding in their policies, resolute, loyal, sincere and robust” as well as, “well educated in revolutionary technique” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 45). Mao then discusses where these qualities can be found, among, “students, teachers, professors, other educators, local soldiers, professional men and artisans” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 72). Surprisingly, four of these seven professions come from academia. Mao clearly valued educated and well-informed leaders, something in short supply in the semi-feudal China of the 1930’s.
He also wrote a great deal about guerrilla warfare in history, devoting an entire chapter to the topic. He discusses a wide range of conflicts and draws three conclusions. First, guerrilla armies can win. Second, guerrilla armies can win only after a portion of their force has transitioned to “regular” operations. And third, political methods are just as important as military ones. While Guevara agrees with each of these, the only historical narratives he uses are from first-hand knowledge in the Cuban Revolution. (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 58-65) (Guevara, 1960, p. 53)
Eight central topics are covered by both Mao and Guevara; they agree on four and disagree on four others. The matters on which they agree are: The population as the key to victory, the importance of political as well as military action, military tactics, and the importance of context when developing strategy.
The most important of these contributions is the necessity of the population’s support. Mao famously observed that a guerrilla swims among the people like a fish swims in the sea. Without the support of the people the guerrilla is a fish out of water, “it cannot survive” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 93). Guevara agrees, stating that, “the guerrilla fighter needs full help from the people... This is an indispensable condition.” (Guevara, 1960, p. 52). In order to achieve this, they both agree on the importance of treating civilians with respect. Mao gives three rules and eight remarks to guide guerrilla forces. Some are practical, for instance, “do not steal from the people,” “replace the door when you leave the house,” and “return what you borrow.” Others are more abstract, such as, “be neither selfish nor unjust,” and “be honest in your transactions” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 92). On this, Guevara states simply that behavior toward the people, “ought to be regulated by a large respect for all the rules and traditions of the people of the zone” (Guevara, 1960, p. 62). Both also wrote about the importance of treating prisoners of war compassionately. Something they believed helped win the people’s support and induced enemy defections (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 93) (Guevara, 1960, p. 75).
The second point of agreement is the inherently political nature of guerrilla warfare. Interestingly, Mao had clearly read Clausewitz’s declaration that, “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” while Guevara probably did not. Mao devotes more than a chapter to this subject, declaring that the war strategies pursued were followed, “only to achieve our political goal” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 43). He goes on to state that, “simple minded militarists” must, “be made to realize the relationship that exists between politics and military affairs” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 89). Guevara never states this as clearly as Mao, yet it is clear from the rest of his writing that he agrees with the basic necessity of this point. For example, he agrees on the importance of raising class consciousness among both the peasants and urban poor. He also states that in lieu of more military actions, it would be better to focus instead on efforts to convert people to the cause of the revolution (Guevara, 1960, p. 111).
The basics of guerrilla military tactics are another area of agreement between the two. Mao famously described these tactics using the following pithy phrase; “withdraw when he advances, harass him when he stops, strike him when he is weary, and pursue him when he withdraws” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 46). He also lists alertness, mobility, and attack as well as adjustment to the enemy situation as crucial to victory. Likewise, Guevara states that the Guerrilla band must flee rather than be pulled into a decisive fight with a superior force. He also lists mobility and adjustment to enemy actions as vital to victory (Guevara, 1960, p. 58).
The situation of every conflict is different. And both authors agree that understanding this unique context is vital to developing effective strategies. On this, Mao quotes Clausewitz’s verdict that, “wars in every period have independent forms and independent conditions, and, therefore, every period must have its independent theory of war” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 49). He goes on to discuss the importance of the environment, economy, customs, and national character. On this, Guevara says, “geographical and social conditions in each country determine the mode and particular forms that guerrilla warfare will take” (Guevara, 1960, p. 51). “We offer an outline, not a bible” he would later add (Guevara, 1960, p. 111).
There are four major points of disagreement between Guevara and Mao. All four of these can be directly attributed to the differing circumstances of the wars in which they fought. These are: the goal of the warfare they describe, the conditions necessary for revolution, the phases of guerrilla war, and the tone of their writing. In each case, the relatively short length of the Cuban campaign led Guevara to different conclusions than those drawn by his predecessor.
At the time of his writing, Mao’s major concern was the removal of a foreign invader. Guevara, on the other hand, was more concerned with the removal of a system of government. So when Mao lists the seven steps necessary for victory, two of them (recovering national strength and regaining lost territories) are only applicable in situations involving a foreign invader (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 43). This leads to a difference of opinion regarding cooperation between guerrilla and regular forces. Mao clearly sees regular forces as a vital part of the campaign, declaring that an attempt to use only irregular forces to win a war, “exaggerates the importance of guerrilla hostilities” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 55). He goes on to say that guerrilla activities cannot be separate from those of regular forces, which are the key to final victory. Guevara expands and clarifies the discussion by pointing out that there are two types of guerrilla warfare, one of which involves regular armies and one of which does not (Guevara, 1960, p. 53). Since the Cuban revolution did not involve such forces until the end of the war, his book does not discuss this cooperation. This concept is closely related to the phases of guerrilla war, which is discussed below.
The second major disagreement between the two concerns the conditions necessary for revolution. Mao does not list specific conditions for revolution, but does state that wars of this type are, “the inevitable clash between oppressor and oppressed when the latter reach the limits of their endurance” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 41). Mao assumes that before guerrilla action can begin, the people must be made aware of their oppression and ready to fight the enemy of their own accord. Guevara disagrees, stating that while certain conditions such as class consciousness are necessary for ultimate victory, they are not necessary to begin guerrilla action. He argues that these conditions, “very rarely come to exist spontaneously” and can instead be created through military action (Guevara, 1960, p. 56-57). This would later be known as the “foquismo,” or “foco,” theory of guerrilla warfare. Put simply, Guevara believed guerrilla forces could kick-start the revolution themselves, creating the necessary conditions as they fought.
Mao, on the other hand, organized guerrilla warfare into three distinct phases. The first of these is political work, the building of necessary conditions at the grassroots level (what Guevara hopes to skip using his foco shortcut). The next two are: guerrilla warfare and mobile warfare (these are not always sequential or uniform, and different elements of each phase can exist simultaneously across different fronts). Put simply, political work builds the necessary awareness and inspiration among the people. Guerrilla warfare seeks to weaken the enemy while further building the political base. And mobile warfare seeks the destruction of the enemy’s forces, capture of his cities and ultimately the fall of the old regime. Mao is fairly thorough in listing everything which must be accomplished before moving to Phase III, including: quality of equipment, levels of training, supply structures, medical and hygiene units, political bureaus and communications systems just to name a few (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 112-114).
Guevara agrees on the general concept of a phased war, but he does not specify levels or lay out a method of advancing from one to the next. Instead, he likens the spread of guerrilla forces to that of a beehive, and argues that when a guerrilla unit, “reaches a respectable power… ought to proceed to the formation of new columns” (Guevara, 1960, p. 57). When guerrilla forces grow sufficiently strong they should join together in a, “war carried on by regular armies” (Guevara, 1960, p. 47). While similarities between the two can be found, Mao offers a methodical approach to gradually overcoming the enemy on several fronts. Guevara argues for a more basic strategy of growth until critical mass is developed.
The final, and often overlooked, difference between the two is the tone of their writing. The struggles each endured undoubtedly affected their temperament, and this shows in everything from the style of their prose to the organization of their paper. Mao was twelve years older than Guevara at the time of writing and had nearly a decade more guerrilla experience. He is measured and calm. Guevara, on the other hand, rages against an unjust system, calling for the oppressed of the world to, “free themselves by means of guerrilla warfare” (Guevara, 1960, p. 50). The two following sentences clearly illustrate the authors’ differences in this regard. Mao describes the, “fundamental axiom of combat” as, “conservation of one’s own strength… in accordance with national policy” (Tse-Tung, 1961, p. 95-96). Guevara takes an entirely different view, describing combat as a, “most interesting event, the one that carries all to a convulsion of joy and puts new vigor in everybody’s steps” (Guevara, 1960, p. 79). After reading these two very different explanations of combat, one can almost see the grizzled Mao rolling his eyes at the young revolutionary.
Consequences and Continuing Relevance
Both works would profoundly impact international security. Mao is still regularly read by insurgents and counter-insurgents alike. But where Mao’s relevance has continued (or perhaps even grown), Guevara’s theories have yet to bear much fruit. Dozens of revolutionary movements attempted to utilize his foco shortcut, yet the only successful use thus far was in Cuba. Guevara himself would die 7 years later attempting the same thing in Bolivia. Other notable examples of the use of foco strategy are: the FMLN of El Salvador, the Symbionese Liberation Army in the United States, the FSLN “Sandanistas” of Nicaragua and many others. The Sandanistas are a powerful case study. After attempting foco based strategies for more than a decade, they finally succeeded only after ditching this strategy in favor of a grassroots popular uprising. Some of these groups had at least palatable ideas about building their nations and helping their people, yet all failed. Compare this to the Maoist inspired insurgency of Sendero Luminoso in Peru. By all accounts, Sendero was a truly awful organization. Yet by continually focusing on Phase I political development, it managed to stay in the fight for more than a decade.
This is not to say that Guevara’s theories are no longer of any value. His understanding of guerrilla tactics and descriptions of guerrilla life remain relevant today. He also agrees with many of Mao’s fundamental precepts: the primacy of political power, the support of the people and the importance of context. Furthermore, his call to action continues to inspire people throughout the world today. Even if some of his theories have not held true, insurgents and counter-insurgents alike would be unwise to discount him completely. Yet it is now clear that Mao, with his measured and pragmatic approach, more accurately describes the principles of effective guerrilla war. His extensive experience and lengthy study of the historical processes of war ensure his theories will remain relevant. Guevara’s book, which lacked a broad historical context, relied too heavily on the unique experiences of the Cuban revolution. This led to his faulty “foco shortcut” theory.
Despite these flaws, students, practitioners and policy-makers of international security would be wise to read both books. The nature of war is ever evolving; and today it is even less state centric than twenty years ago. The majority of future conflicts are going to look a lot like the one’s Mao and Guevara describe. For policy makers in the developed world, understanding the differences between the two approaches will help greatly in building strategies to defeat insurgent movements. For the brooding revolutionary considering his next move, it would be equally wise to study the options before him. Each should remember the following basic principles. The population is the key to victory, so treat them well. Political action is at least as important as military action. Remember that effective insurgent tactics will always seek to avoid the decisive battle, until they can win it. And finally, understand the importance of context when developing strategy. By remembering these values, insurgents and counter-insurgents alike will find themselves much better prepared for the battlefields of tomorrow.
Daniel III, J. Furman. “Rediscovering Counterinsurgency.” Lecture, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, June 11, 2013.
Guevara, C. (1960). Guerrilla Warfare (3rd ed.). Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc.
Tse-Tung, M. (1961). On Guerrilla Warfare. New York, NY: Preager.