Small Wars Journal

Clausewitzian Principles of Maoist Insurgency

Sat, 10/24/2020 - 5:19pm

Clausewitzian Principles of Maoist Insurgency

Francis Miyata & John Nicholson


The dichotomy of old and new wars is premised on the rupture between interstate conflict and intrastate conflict, exemplified by the military theories of Clausewitz and Mao respectively. The present article’s task is essentially conservative. It will contest this narrative of an evolving nature of war both theoretically and historically. By underlining the formative influence of Clausewitz’s On War on Mao’s thought, from which the Chinese Communist leader derived the principles of insurgency, the present article will serve three functions: first, it will dispel the notion of a rupture between the two seminal theorists since 1945 and resultant notion of ‘new war’. Second, by situating Mao’s thought within a Clausewitzian framework it will render insurgency more intelligible, clarifying insurgency’s mode of operation with Clausewitzian vocabulary rather than obfuscating with redundant jargon. Lastly, by demonstrating the comprehensive reach of Clausewitz’s theory of war to encompass both ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’ warfare, it will add a more nuanced understanding of the Prussian general’s magnum opus, reflecting its enduring relevance for our understanding of war.

In the seminal counterinsurgency literature, much emphasis was placed on the insurgent’s ability to confound the paradigm of interstate conflict purportedly epitomized by Carl von Clausewitz’s On War.[1]  By investing himself in the population to avoid battle, the insurgent evades the traditional battlefield and therefore also the conventional state actor’s decisive strategic blow.[2] This juxtaposition of Clausewitz’s theory of war and insurgency gained full expression following the end of the Cold War. Advanced by Martin Van Creveld’s Transformation of War, Mary Kaldor’s New and Old Wars, and Fourth Generation War (4GW) theorists, Clausewitz became the intellectual edifice of antiquated conventional warfare, the old statist foil to the emergent non-trinitarian, non-state new wars of which Mao was the intellectual forebearer.[3] This narrative conceals the fact that Mao was a Clausewitzian strategist par excellence.

The confused dichotomy of old and new wars, emblematic of the perceived rupture between Clausewitz and Mao, issues foremost from its historical misconceptions. New wars did not result from a political rupture in the 20th century; insurgency was an attendant feature of the rise of conventional war itself.[4] The 18th century French Revolution precipitated the rise of mass politics, which was the precondition of not only the large-scale conventional war of Napoleon, but also its unconventional countermeasure: the mass political resistance of Spanish guerrillas in the Peninsular War.[5] Therefore, the political conditions of Europe in which Clausewitz conceived his theory of war was host to both massive uniformed battles and insurgent wars of ‘national liberation’. As Hew Strachan demonstrates, in opposition to the image of Clausewitz as a purely conventional thinker, Clausewitz was, for a time, an insurgent:

Between 1807 and 1812 Clausewitz and his seniors, [. . .] humiliated by Prussia’s subservience to France, planned a war of national liberation [ . . .] They proposed to mobilise the population as a whole, using guerrilla warfare and even terrorism. So, Clausewitz was an insurgent in terms of the method he advocated. Prussia was weaker than France and needed “military asymmetry” to achieve effect.[6]

    With the essential historical corrective that Clausewitz was not just an early 19th century officer in a monarchical army, but also a disaffected German nationalist who desired to wage insurgent warfare against foreign imperialism, the comprehensive character of On War comes back into relief.[7] It was a theory developed from both conventional and unconventional experiences of war. As a consequence, it contains the fundamental principles from which Mao developed his military strategy. 

Thus, the false image of Clausewitz belies the nuance of the Prussian theorist's life and thought. The effect has been an obfuscation of our understanding of war in general and Maoist insurgency in particular. In its more divergent forms, the recent literature has a tendency to abstract insurgency, and war generally, from the realities of the battlefield and confine it almost entirely to the political sphere.[8] This misconstrual of the interrelation of war and politics results in an incoherent analysis of insurgency’s strategic components.[9] This is most apparent in its underestimation of decisive battle, Clausewitz’s foremost strategic prescription. For example, Kaldor states, In guerrilla warfare, territory is captured through political control of the population rather than through military advance, and battles are avoided as far as possible’.[10] Conversely, ‘strategy’, Clausewitz states, ‘is the use of the engagement to attain the object of the war’.[11] Seth Jones substantiates Clausewitz’s assertion of decisive battle as a central feature of insurgency to the present

Since World War II, insurgent groups achieved victory by overthrowing a government or gaining independence in 35 percent of insurgencies that ended. [. . .] roughly three quarters of insurgencies ended with a battlefield victory by either the government or insurgents. [...] Put another way, insurgents that adopted a conventional[12] strategy achieved either a victory or draw nearly two thirds of the time.[13]

In short, history has proven decisive battle to be the ultimate means of insurgent success because the insurgent’s object is nothing less than the decisive overthrow of the prevailing state.[14] Far from personifying the supersession of On War, Maoist insurgency proffers refined military-strategic guidelines in conformity with the Clausewitzian strategic defensive, organized around the central principle of the decisive engagement. Rather than evading the necessity of seeking decision, Mao’s strategic defense is merely a means of multiplying the possibilities for employment of the offensive. That is, it allows pursuit of decisive engagements at the lower levels of conflict—operational and tactical—where an inferior force can conjure local superiority. These minor victories accumulate to produce a net subtraction from the enemy’s strength, aiming at a gradual reversal in the relative ‘correlation of forces.’[15] Upon completion, this reversal grants the previously weaker force the initiative to transition to a strategic counter-offensive. Decisive engagement remains central throughout. As this paper will demonstrate, Mao was a conscious disciple of Clausewitz, drawing from On War four fundamental principles: war as a continuation of politics, the strategic defensive, the offensive and limited war.

War as a Continuation of Politics

After the Long March and during his time in Yan’an, Mao began drafting pamphlets in which he elucidated his military-strategic principles. These pamphlets included Problems of Strategy in Chinas Revolutionary War with Japan, Problems of Strategy in Guerilla War Against Japan and most famously On Protracted War.[16] Throughout these Yan’an years, at Mao’s behest his subordinates began to translate Clausewitz’s On War into Chinese. Upon completion of each chapter’s translation, its contents were discussed in long weekly seminars led by Mao.[17] Thenceforth, Mao’s military-strategic thought was imprinted with Clausewitz’s intellectual signature.

The fundamental principle of Maoist insurgency was the interrelation between war and politics, extrapolated from Clausewitz’s dictum that ‘war is merely a continuation of politics by other means.’[18] Clausewitz states,

[E]ach age has had its own peculiar forms of war, its own restrictive conditions and its own prejudices. Each, therefore, would also keep its own theory of war [. . .] The events in each age must, therefore, be judged with due regard to the peculiarities of the time.[19]

Mao reaffirmed Clausewitz’s sentiments in his writings by emphasizing the uniqueness of the second Sino-Japanese war: ‘This was not just any war, it is specifically a war of life and death between semi-colonial and semi-feudal China and imperialist Japan fought in the Nineteen Thirties’.[20]  History, even from China’s recent past, no longer served as an adequate strategic reference point.[21] The laws of war generally, and revolutionary war in particular, were a necessary but not sufficient basis for the extrapolation of a Chinese strategy. He writes, ‘Chinese Revolutionary War, whether civil or national war, is waged in the specific environment of China and so has its own specific circumstances and nature distinguishing it from war in general and from revolutionary war in general [sic]’.[22] Consequently, he deduced a new theory of war with China’s unique conditions serving as a basis.

In its war against Japan, China faced unfavorable conditions. A conventional war waged against the technologically superior Imperial Japanese Army was a futile undertaking. Japan was strong, and China was weak. Mao states, ‘In seeking victory, those who direct a war cannot overstep the limitations imposed by the objective conditions.’[23] War’s instrumental grasp cannot exceed that which is offered by the political conditions. As the facts stood, Japan had immense war capacity. Visibly, China had very little in the way of war potential. It was a country ‘politically, militarily, and economically backwards’.[24] Yet, China was endowed with two primary resources: vast territory and a large population.[25] In and of itself this offered a meager war capacity relative to Japan, especially given the endemic disorganization of the masses.[26]

Mao understood the full dimension of war’s continuity from politics, that the character of war is modulated by precedent political conditions. For Mao, the political conditions which circumscribe the possibilities for military action are predicated on the ‘correlation of forces’, the relative disparity in strength between enemy belligerents. The correlation of forces is the primary factor in a belligerent’s strategic posture, be it offensive or defensive. The belligerent in possession of superior strength will, as a general rule, seek a strategic offensive, while the weaker will be forced into a strategic defensive. The ultimate object of Mao’s military strategy was the enemy’s total overthrow, which would necessitate launching a strategic counter-offensive. Therefore, he extrapolated from ‘war’s continuity from politics’ that his strategy’s principal object must first be a reversal of the correlation of forces.

War may be a continuation of politics but, more importantly, politics is the genesis of war. The relation between politics and war is not solely linear, but one of reciprocal influence.[27] Mao understood that he could militarize politics, actively altering the political conditions in his favor. He expressed the mutual permutation between war in politics in his formulation, ‘politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed’.[28] Modification of the political conditions in a protracted struggle could reverse China’s military inferiority—the disadvantageous ‘correlation of forces’—and thereby alter the character of war with Japan.[29]

[T]here will be a great reversal in the balance of forces, with China gradually rising and Japan gradually declining [. . .] China moving from inferiority to parity and then to superiority, Japan moving from superiority to parity and then to inferiority; China moving from defensive to stalemate and then to the counter-offensive, Japan moving from the offensive to the safeguarding of her gains and then to retreat—such will be the course of the Sino-Japanese war and its inevitable trend.[30]

By altering the political conditions, China would gradually grow stronger, and Japan weaker, allowing China to eventually transition in three phases to a strategic counter-offensive.[31] The essential question was how to formulate a defensive stratagem that would facilitate a reversal of the ‘correlation of forces.’

Strategic Defensive

If the object of Maoist strategy is the reversal of the correlation of forces, its primary means is the Clausewitzian strategic defensive. As the weaker antagonist, China would have no other choice than to begin from a strategic defensive.[32] Clausewitz states,

[D]efense should find its aim in [. . .] an alteration of circumstances, an improvement of the situation, which, therefore, when it cannot possibly be brought about by internal means, that is, by the defensive itself, can only be expected from without. Now this improvement from without can be nothing else than a change in the political relations.[33]

Further, Clausewitz states the conception of the defense is ‘warding off a blow’; its object is ‘to preserve’.[34] The defensive object is purely negative. A strategic defensive must be capable of warding off the enemy’s strategic attack so as to preserve one’s forces. Mao states, ‘All the guiding principles of military operations grow out of the one basic principle: to strive to the utmost to preserve one’s own strength and destroy that of the enemy’.[35] He would accomplish this through a novel defensive form that would provide a strategic umbrella under which a reversal of the correlation of forces could occur. To this end, China’s vast territory and large population were crucial.[36] Both would be paramount in establishing the negative aims of his strategic defense: mobilization of the population would allow the insurgents to embed themselves within it, conferring insularity to ward off the enemy’s blows, while the vast territory would provide the maneuverability to ‘trade space for time’, forcing the enemy to fight a protracted conflict in kind.

The People

The first means Mao conceived of for fulfillment of the negative object of the strategic defensive was established by means of the people. Clausewitz identifies this negative object as ‘warding off a blow’ to preserve one’s forces.[37] In China’s case, Mao recognized in Japan’s overwhelming strength the need to ‘avoid a strategically decisive engagement on which the fate of the whole nation is staked’.[38] To this end, the first political alteration engendered by Mao was the political mobilization of the people. By gaining the favor of the people, the insurgent is able to set up base areas from which to conduct operations. Mao states, ‘Without such strategic bases, there will be nothing to depend on in carrying out any of our strategic tasks or achieving the aim of war’.[39] Embedded in the population, these bases are capable of warding off the enemy’s strategic attack. Trinquier states, ‘[T]he army cannot use the power of its weapons against him because he hides himself permanently within the midst of the population’.[40] Stated otherwise, by hiding within the people, the insurgent drops below the threshold of utility of conventional weapons and avoids ‘strategic attack’.[41]

The relationship between the insurgents and the people, established through political mobilization, is the sine qua non of insurgency. Mao states, ‘If we lack national organization, we will lack the essential unity that should exist between the soldiers and the people’.[42] He famously likens this unity to the relationship between ‘fish and water’.[43] The people are both host and sustenance of insurgency. Providing a defensive buffer to avoid strategic attack, ‘[insurgency] can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation’.[44] Thus Mao was critical of ‘engaging the enemy outside the gates’.[45] Doing so would separate his forces from the source of their strategic defensive. Galula asks, ‘[W]hy should he cease to make use of an asset that gives his regular forces fluidity and freedom that the counterinsurgent cannot achieve?’[46]

The process of political mobilization encompasses four aspects. First is inculcation of the forces of the political aim of the war. Second is explanation of the steps and policies for the attainment of the political goal. Third is the means of communication: word of mouth, leaflets, bulletins, newspapers, books, pamphlets, etc. Last, and most importantly, to mobilize once is insufficient; continuous mobilization is necessary. Mao states, ‘[P]olitical mobilization for the War of Resistance must be continuous [. . .] we must link political mobilization for the war with developments in the war with the life of the soldiers and the people, and make it a continuous movement’.[47] Mobilization of the people was the first means Mao employed to alter the political conditions, like Clausewitz argued, for a reversal of the correlation of forces.

Trading Space for Time

The defensive’s negative object of preserving one’s forces to engender a reversal in the correlation of forces, if it is to be successful, requires that the conflict be extended over time. On the negative intention’s dependency on a prolonged time variable, Clausewitz states,

This idea of wearing out in a struggle implies a gradual exhaustion of the physical power and the will by long continuance of action. Now if we want to outlast the enemy in the continuance of the struggle, we must content ourselves with as small objects as possible [. . .] What it loses in effectiveness in its single act, it must recover with time, that is, the duration of the struggle.[48] 

Likewise, Mao understood that a reversal of the correlation of forces could take place solely within a protracted war.[49]

 The second aspect of the strategic defensive’s negative aim would be accomplished by China’s second natural endowment, its vast territory. Clausewitz states, ‘The boldest [defensive snare], and if it succeeds, the most effective, is the retreat into the interior of the country’.[50] Mao would fulfill this through the policy of trading space for time.[51] The vast territory conferred the maneuver-space on Mao’s lighter forces to continually evade, harass and withdraw from unfavorable encounters with the enemy. The Red Army’s Slogan was ‘the enemy advances and we retreat, the enemy camps and we harass, the enemy tires and we attack, the enemy retreats and we pursue’.[52] Mao believed that to avoid the enemy’s decisive engagement it was necessary to abandon territory and retreat inland, allowing them to prolong hostilities. He states, ‘The enemy’s plan for “quick decision” was thus foiled, and now he cannot help fighting a protracted war’.[53] This strategy denuded Japan’s superficial endowments and laid bare its deficiencies. The Japanese lacked manpower. Consequently, they were capable of occupying only a limited portion of China’s interior at a given time.[54] Japanese occupation was maintained in a ‘points and lines’ pattern—as they occupied strategic nodes and communications—leaving vast gaps open for guerrilla operations.[55]

Furthermore, insurgency’s time variable has the dual purpose of allowing the growth of the insurgent’s intangible assets while also aggravating the intensive maintenance of the counterinsurgent’s liabilities.[56] The insurgent, who operates initially at the political level and whose primary weapon is an idea, is under no time constraints to consolidate their political power.[57] The insurgent’s ability to extend the duration of the hostilities over time turns the superior enemy’s conventional strength into economic disadvantage, as the compounding costs of operational maintenance is exacerbated by their lack of effective employment against the insurgent. In the case of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japan was a resource-scarce nation conducting a resource intensive overseas occupation. Paine states,

Conventional warfare is expensive: It entails armies, parking lots of heavy equipment, massive firepower, and gluttonous logistical lines. Insurgencies are cheap: They require people willing to fire a weapon from time to time or to perform an act of sabotage or two. Often a packed lunch and a grenade will suffice.[58]

Japan was at a spatial and temporal disadvantage: lack of manpower limited the space they could occupy, their struggle was resource intensive, rendering them hypersensitive to time. The Japanese therefore sought a rapid and decisive victory as they had achieved in their previous two wars. Japanese war plans had conceived of China’s subjugation within a matter of months.[59] By leveraging space to buy time, Mao was able to bar Japan from forcing a decision and extend the duration of hostilities. Japan would be made to collapse under time’s crunch.


Clausewitz and the Decisive Engagement

Clausewitz’s theory of war is organized around the central military-strategic principle of the decisive engagement.[60] He defines strategy as the ‘use of engagement to attain the object of war’.[61] He states, ‘[T]he bloody solution to the crisis, the effort to destroy the enemy’s force, is the first-born son of war’.[62] Cognizant that war’s diverse character can obscure its strategic elements, Clausewitz went to great lengths to clarify the distinction between objects and means. Throughout history, political conditions have demanded of war the attainment of manifold objects, both negative and positive. Character of the objects aside, Clausewitz affirms that in war ‘[t]here is only one means: combat’.[63] Clausewitz repeats, ‘The destruction of the enemy’s armed forces is, therefore, always the means to attain the object of the engagement’.[64]

Strategic calculus and military activity culminate in the decisive engagement. The defensive is never an end, but merely a means to the offensive. The strategic defensive is the means by which ‘we intend to gain victory in order, after superiority has been gained, to pass over to attack, that is to say, the positive object of war’.[65] True defense is merely a latent offensive. Clausewitz appraises the strategic defensive as the superior conduct of war.[66] But this is only true insofar as it multiplies the possibilities for employment of the offensive:

A swift and vigorous transition to attack [. . .] is the most brilliant point of the defensive. He who does not bear this in mind from the first, who does not from the first include it in his conception of defense, will never understand the superiority of the defensive.[67]

Mao’s Active Defense

Mao took this understanding of the strategic defensive in its relation to the decisive engagement and refined its principles to conceive of a ‘protracted struggle conducted methodically, step by step, in order to attain specific intermediate objectives leading finally to the overthrow of the existing order’.[68] Its primary end is to enable a considerably weaker force to transition in three phases from a strategic defensive to a strategic counterattack. Mao systematized an approach whereby the accrual of minor decisive actions by unconventional forces produces a qualitative reversal in positions, enabling in its finale a transition to a major decisive action by conventional forces. Insurgency is no more than a refined methodology of Clausewitz’s strategic defensive.

Clausewitz states,

The ultimate aim of a defensive war can never be an absolute negation, as we have observed before. Even for the weakest there must be something by means of which he can hurt his opponent and threaten him. [. . .] Thus a great positive success can never be obtained except through positive measures, planned not with a view to merely awaiting the enemy, but with a view to a decision. In short, even on the defensive, there is no great gain to be won except by a great stake.[69]

Mao concurs with this point when he states, ‘Passive defence is actually a spurious kind of defence, and the only real defence is active defence’.[70] The negative objects of the strategic defensive are only attainable through the decisive engagement. Mao defined his conception of active defense as ‘offensive defensive or defense through decisive engagements’.[71] While the strategic defense aims to protract the war, the time variable is different at the lower (operational and tactical) levels of conflict. Mao states, ‘The reverse is true of campaigns and battles—here the principle is not protractedness but quick decision’.[72] 

The decisive engagement at the operational and tactical levels is the means to attain the positive object of attriting enemy strength through ‘positive and lightning-like tactical decisions’.[73] Mao states, ‘The principles of concentrating our forces to wipe out the enemy forces one by one is aimed chiefly at annihilating the enemy’s effective strength, not at holding or seizing a place’.[74] Mao confirms the prevailing efficacy of decisive engagement at the operational and tactical levels when he states, ‘A battle of annihilation, on the other hand, produces a great and immediate impact on the 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’.[75]

Limited War

            Clausewitz proposes late in his work the possibility of a war circumscribed by a limited aim, that is, one whose object is less than the total overthrow of the enemy. This idea was later criticized by maritime strategist Julian Corbett, who believed that the theory, though genius, was deeply flawed. He states, ‘[Clausewitz’s] outlook was still purely continental, and the limitations of continental warfare tend to veil the fuller meaning of the principle he had framed’.[76] Corbett believed that given the geopolitical circumstances, war between two contiguous land powers had an unavoidable escalatory tendency. A war with a limited aim would inevitably escalate into an unlimited war. Furthermore, a limited aim by land powers was indefensible, since pursuit of a limited object would sever one’s forces from home-defense, leaving one’s territory vulnerable to the enemy’s strategic attack.[77] That being the case, he surmised that limited war was the singular prerogative of maritime powers: ‘limited war is only permanently possible to island Powers or between powers separated by the sea’.[78] Corbett was, in many respects correct, yet Mao would demonstrate the possibility of waging limited war on land. 

Insurgent Base Areas

On the concept of limited war, Clausewitz states,

Even if the complete overthrow of the enemy cannot be the aim, there may still be one which is directly positive, and this positive aim can be nothing else than the conquest of part of the enemy’s country. The use of such a conquest is that we weaken the enemy’s national forces and consequently his military forces, while we increase our own.[79]

Reduced to its strategic components, limited war aims at the seizure of a part of the enemy’s territory as a means to reduce the strength of the enemy while also augmenting one’s own. Limited war is in principle assimilable to Maoist insurgency, which aims to reverse the relative strength of the belligerents. The question for Mao was how to seize the enemy territory without conventional ground forces to occupy it. This would be resolved in his innovation of the strategic base area.

Bases are a central innovation of Maoism and provide insurgency with its strategic coherence. Mao states,

Guerrilla forces rely [on strategic bases] in performing their strategic tasks and achieving the object of preserving and expanding themselves and destroying and driving out the enemy. Without such strategic bases, there will be nothing to depend on in carrying out any of our strategic tasks or achieving the aim of war.[80]

One of the great impediments to the conduct of war in his day was the tendency to dismiss the necessity of bases, which he called the ‘roving rebel ideology’.[81] He states,

Only when [the roving rebel] ideology is thoroughly overcome and the policy of establishing base areas is initiated and applied will there be conditions favourable for the maintenance of guerrilla warfare over a long time.[82]

Bases constitute the foundation on which the reversal of the correlation of forces takes place. They provide a seizure of territory with a high level of defensibility. Unlike a conventional occupation of land, bases can be shifted from place to place.[83] The fluidity of base areas gives the insurgency a nebulous quality that prevents the enemy from striking at any definite center of gravity. They are the groundwork on which power can be consolidated in the form of manpower and materiel, as well as the platforms for the conduct of military action. They raise insurgent action from banditry to warfare.

Establishment of Base Areas

Limited war aims to seize a portion of the enemy’s territory. The power of limited war is not in a single isolated employment, but the ability to apply it in succession to an unlimited conflict. The establishment of guerrilla base areas constitutes a form of limited war insofar as it is a limited aim to seize a portion of the enemy’s territory to weaken the enemy’s national forces while increasing one’s own. It utilizes ‘[s]mall offensive operations directed less toward permanent possession than toward a temporary advantage to cover losses’ that can be used within a ‘defensive system without altering its aim’.[84] The establishment of base areas from contested guerrilla zones begins with the decisive engagement to annihilate the enemy from a given territory, after which political power is consolidated by rousing the masses to dynamic resistance.[85] He states, ‘[S]uch consolidation is needed for maintaining protracted warfare and also for expansion’.[86] The gradual result is that the tactical encirclements grow to a strategic   stature, resulting in the total encirclement of the enemy, who becomes hemmed into a few strongholds.[87] Over time, the enemy’s strength, both his military forces and his territory, are whittled down, and the insurgency eclipses the state. The product of numerous limited wars is the enablement of the insurgent’s transition to the use of conventional armies to strike a final blow at the enemy.


There are no ‘old wars’ and ‘new wars.’ The perceived rupture stems from a misunderstanding of the principles encapsulated by Clausewitz’s On War, and the epochal historical events that informed them. If there was a rupture in the character of war, it came amid the late 18th century of Clausewitz, not the 20th century’s relative absence of interstate conflict after 1945. It was the dawning of mass politics, the firm integration of the people into war through the French Revolution that portended both the definition of war as ‘a continuation of politics by other means’ and the superiority of decisive engagement in kind. Clausewitz’s life as royal officer and disaffected nationalist insurgent embodied both the conventional and unconventional corollaries of his famous dictum and his strategic prescription of decision. The intellectual result was a theoretical treatise, On War, conducive to the strategic-military requirements of a Chinese Communist insurgency more than a century later. 

            In 1937, China was an underdeveloped country facing an overwhelming superior conventional opponent. To expand the possibilities of China’s strategic posture, Mao grasped Clausewitz’s dictum in its full extent, realizing that war was not simply a continuation of politics, but more importantly that the political conditions were the genesis of war, the basis for the unfavorable correlation of forces he faced. Understanding this, Mao sought to alter the political conditions by leveraging China’s demographic and geographic advantages to cohere his strategic defensive into a war-winning platform.

The political mobilization of the people occurred in tandem to geostrategic retreat into China’s vast interior. Dropping below the threshold of the enemy’s preponderant conventional force, the protraction of war fulfilled the negative aim of Clausewitz strategic defensive, disabling the enemy’s capacity for strategic attack while enabling the insurgent to conjure local superiority in the decisive tactical and operational actions of limited war. Over time the enemy’s military forces and territorial bounds were dissipated, and the correlation of forces gradually tilted in the formerly inferior insurgent’s favor, such that strategic defensive gave way to strategic counter-offensive; tactical and operational engagements of limited war gave way to large scale conventional battle of unlimited war. In 1937, the communists commanded around 30,000 inferior troops, sustained by a single small base in one of China’s poorest provinces.[88] By 1945, the communist regular forces had grown to about 1 million, while local forces grew to an estimated 2-3 million.[89] Clausewitz states that strategy ‘makes itself known only in the total result’.[90] History bore out Mao’s strategy and by extension Clausewitz’s postulates of war. By 1949, Mao’s insurgency had concretized into the People’s Republic of China, the lasting manifestation of the successful reversal of the correlation of forces.


[1] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006), 5.  Galula asserted the population was both the means and end of insurgency: ‘The picture is very different in the revolutionary war. The objective being the population itself, the operations designed to win it over (for the insurgent) or to keep it submissive (for the counterinsurgent) are essentially of a political nature. In this case, consequently, political action remains foremost throughout the war’; Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2008), 3: Trinquier was unequivocal in asserting the fundamental rupture in warfare: ‘We still persist in studying a type of warfare that no longer exists and that we shall never fight again’.

[2] Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 16-18: ‘The soldier meets his adversary on the field of battle and in uniform. He fights within a framework of traditional rules that both sides respect’... ‘[T]he partisan and the irregular who oppose a regular army [. . .] violate the rules of warfare in fighting without a uniform [. . .] and the army cannot use the power of its weapons against him because he hides himself permanently within the midst of the population’. Bruno C. Reis, “David Galula and Roger Trinquier: Two warrior-scholars, one French late-colonial insurgency,” in The Theory and Practice of Irregular Warfare: Warrior-Scholarship in Counterinsurgency, ed. Andrew Mumford and Bruno C. Reis (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), 36-8 notes how both Galula and Trinquier conceived of their tracts as a means to advance the primacy of insurgent warfare in the post-1945 world.

[3] Martin Van Creveld, Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (New York: Free Press, 1991); Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in the Global Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); Hew Strachan, The Direction of War (Oxford, 2014), 47-63 provides an excellent historiographical assessment of the post-1991 and post-9/11 anti-Clausewitzian shift;  On 4GW see ed. Aaron Karp, Regina Karp, Terry Terriff, Global Insurgency and the Future of Armed Conflict: Debating Fourth Generation Warfare (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008)

[4] Rupert Smith, Utility of Force: Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 158-161.

[5] Ibid.; David A. Bell, The First Total War (Boston, MA: First Mariner Books, 2007), 1-20; Macgregor Knox, “Mass Politics and Nationalism as Military Revolution: The French Revolution and After,” in Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, ed. Macgregor Knox and Williamson Murray (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press) 57-73.

[6] Strachan, The Direction of War, 58-9.

[7] Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 207, 212-4.

[8] Michael Evans, ‘Elegant Irrelevance Revisited: A Critique of Fourth Generation Warfare’ in Global Insurgency and the Future of Armed Conflict: Debating Fourth-Generation Warfare, ed. Aaron Karp, Regina Karp, Terry Terriff. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008) 67-74. 

[9] Strachan, The Direction of War, 10-25 illuminates this in a broader critique of the divergence between policy and strategy and strategy from the uniformed services generally as problematic legacy of the Cold War in post-9/11 strategy. The underlying subtext is that strategy has been divorced from the necessary recognition that war is ultimately about fighting, passim.

[10] Kaldor, New and Old Wars, 355.

[11] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, in The Book of War, trans. O.J. Matthijs Jolles, ed. Caleb Carr (New York, NY: Random House, 2000), 390.

[12] Seth G. Jones, Waging Insurgent Warfare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 49: gives this definition of ‘conventional’ strategy: ‘The goal is to win the war in a decisive engagement or a series of battles by destroying the adversary’s physical capacity to resist’. In other words, as the unequivocally Clausewitizian objective of overthrowing the enemy means of resistance through battle. 

[13] Ibid. 9, 52, respectively

[14] Ibid. 10

[15] Mao Tse-Tung, "On Protracted War May 1938," in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung (Peking, China: Foreign Language Press, 1968), 208-210. 

[16] Mao, “Problems of Strategy in China's Revolutionary War December 1936,” in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung, (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1968), 77-152;  "Problems of Strategy in Guerilla Warfare Against Japan May 1938," in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1968), 153-186; "On Protracted War May 1938," in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung (Peking, China: Foreign Language Press, 1968), 87-267.

[17] Hans Van de Ven, China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China 1937-1952 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 140-141.

[18] Clausewitz, On War, 280.

[19]Ibid., 918.

[20] Mao, On Protracted War,” in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1968), 195.

[21] Ibid., 199.

[22] Mao, “Problems of Strategy in Guerilla War,” in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung (Peking: Foreign Language Press), 78.

[23] Mao, Protracted War,” 226.

[24] Ibid., 197.

[25] Ibid., 197-198.

[26] Ibid., 260.

[27] Strachan, Direction of War, 77-78, passim.

[28] Mao, Protracted,” 229.

[29] Mao, On Guerilla Warfare. (FMFRP 12-18. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1989) 89.

[30] Mao, Protracted,” 216, 217.

[31] Ibid., 211.

[32] Ibid., 210.

[33] Clausewitz, On War, 944. Italics mine.

[34] Ibid., 618-619.

[35] Mao, Problems of Strategy,” 155.

[36] Ibid., 197-198.

[37] Clausewitz, On War, 618.

[38] Mao, Protracted,” 254.

[39] Mao, Problems of Strategy,” 167.

[40] Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 18.

[41] Smith, Utility of Force, 299, 272.

[42] Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, 89

[43] Ibid., 92-93.

[44] Ibid., 44.

[45] Prashant Kumar Singh, “Rereading Mao’s Military Thinking.” Strategic Analysis 37, no. 5 (2013): 558-80.

[46] Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, 9.

[47] Mao, Protracted,” 229.

[48] Clausewitz, On War, 287-288.

[49] Mao, Protracted,” 208-210.

[50] Clausewitz, On War, 945.

[51] Mao, Protracted,” 255.

[52] Taylor Fravel, Active Defense: China's Military Strategy Since 1949 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 62.

[53] Mao, Protracted,” 255.

[54] Van De Ven, China at War, 149.

[55] Yang Kuison, ‘Nationalist and Communist Guerilla in North China’ in The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, ed. Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, Hans Van De Ven (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 310.

[56] Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, 4.

[57] Ibid., 4.

[58] Sarah Paine, Wars for Asia: 1911-1949 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 125.

[59] Ibid., 130.

[60] As William Honig, “Clausewitz's On War: Problems of Text and Translation,” in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) has critically noted, the now standard Michael Howard and Peter Paret English translation of On War has seriously obscured Clausewitz’s emphasis on the superiority of decisive battle by overstressing the subordination of war to state policy rather than the broader political conditions reflected in the original German. This has imbued the early 19thcentury Prussian theorist with a liberal, utilitarian view of war he never possessed, creating a false sense of disjuncture within On War between a revised Book I, stressing policy, and the other volumes, stressing battle.  In fact, as a reactionary monarchist, Clausewitz saw the people as an escalatory factor in warfare’s character, symbolized by his conflation of the people with irrational passion in the trinity. Similarly, if Chapter I, Book I of On War is surmised as the sum of Clausewitz’s thought, his blunt injunction against philanthropic conceptions of war without bloodshed (Clausewitz, On War, 265), and his qualification against policy acting as a ‘despotic lawgiver’ (ibid., 279-8) on military operations betray the continuity of his thought.  Decisive battle remained the ‘first born son of war’ even after war ‘became extension of politics by other means.’  As Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars viscerally demonstrated, mass democratic politics and the relentless pursuit of decisive battle could easily go hand-in-hand. See footnote 3 for sources on said relationship.

[61] Clausewitz, On War, 390.

[62] Ibid., 295.

[63] Ibid., 289.

[64] Ibid., 290.

[65] Ibid., 635.

[66] Ibid., 619.

[67] Ibid., 635.

[68] Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, 2.

[69] Clausewitz, On War, 943, 947.

[70] Mao, “Problems of Strategy in China's Revolutionary War December 1936.” in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung, 77-152. (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1968), 105

[71] Ibid., 105; Fravel, Active Defense, 62.

[72] Mao, “Strategy,” 143.

[73] Mao, Guerrilla, 98.

[74] Mao, “Concentrate a Superior Force To Destroy The Enemy Forces One By One September 16, 1946,” in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung, 315-319. (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1968), 317-318.

[75] Mao, “Problems of Strategy, 146.

[76] Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), 49.

[77] Ibid., 52.

[78] Ibid., 54.

[79] Clausewitz, On War, 940.

[80] Mao, Problems of Strategy,” 167.

[81] Ibid., 168.

[82] Ibid., 168.

[83] Ibid., 169.

[84] Clausewitz, On War, 944.

[85] Mao, Problems of Strategy, 170-171.

[86] Ibid., 173-174.

[87] Ibid., 174.

[88] Hans Van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China: 1925-1945. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2003), 5.

[89] Kuisong, ‘National and Communist’, 325.

[90] Clausewitz, On War, 391.

About the Author(s)

John Nicholson earned an MA in the History of War from King’s College London in November 2019.  His research interests include German and British military history, the World Wars, maritime strategy, the history of geopolitical thought and insurgency.

Francis Miyata earned an MA in War Studies from King’s College London in November 2019. His research interests include Chinese military history, maritime strategy, insurgency and political philosophy.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:18am

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