One of the most controversial parts of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is the claim that Protracted People’s War is a universal development of Marxist theory. In fact, it’s oftentimes the biggest roadblock that keeps would-be Maoists from making the jump. Many people will object to the idea of Protracted People’s War being universal on the basis that it was developed in a semi-feudal and semi-colonial context (China) and it can’t be carried over to the context of an imperialist country. A similar objection is based on a misconception of People’s War being a peasant-based revolution where the cities are “surrounded from the countryside,” which is obviously not something that can be applied universally. Others say that waging People’s War in the imperialist centers is “adventurist” or asking to get us all killed.
The purpose of this article is to provide some explanation of how Maoists come to the conclusion that Protracted People’s War is universal and what we mean by that, and touch on some points that will address these objections. It will also serve as an introduction to Protracted People’s War for anyone unfamiliar with the theory, so even if you don’t accept the Maoist thesis, you can at least come out better informed so your counter-arguments will be that much stronger.
How proletarian theory develops, from particular to general and back again
“Discover the truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth. Start from perceptual knowledge and actively develop it into rational knowledge; then start from rational knowledge and actively guide revolutionary practice to change both the subjective and the objective world.” — Mao Zedong, On Practice
The development of proletarian theory emerges (and can only emerge) from revolutionary struggle. Looking back, we draw general conclusions from various particular instances of class struggle and revolution. Then we take this general knowledge and apply it back to our particular circumstances, which will produce new general conclusions, and so on. This is what the Communist Party of Perú (PCP) did with Mao Zedong’s theory of Protracted People’s War (PPW), developed in the intense struggle of the Chinese Revolution. They took what they understood to be the parts of PPW that were true of capitalism in general and applied them in their own context. Through this process, they concluded in 1988 that Protracted People’s War was indeed a universal theory. More importantly, there was an international body of Communist Parties from all over the world, called the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, that gathered together to assess the lessons learned from the Chinese Revolution and the People’s War in Perú and determine which ones were universal, solidifying PPW as an essential development of proletarian theory.
In his 1988 interview with El Diario, Chairman Gonzalo, the main theorist of the PCP and the People’s War in Perú, said, “… it is with Chairman Mao Tsetung that the international proletariat has attained a fully developed military theory, giving us then the military theory of our class, the proletariat, applicable everywhere.” That is, there’s something particular about the proletariat as a part of capitalism that allows it to use PPW as a general strategy for its own kind of warfare. When we say that Protracted People’s War is universal, we’re making conclusions about how capitalism works in general. This is important.
PPW is an attempt to bring together the military experience of the proletariat in waging revolution and make a general theory out of it. Not just the experience of the Chinese Revolution, but every revolution. Maoists also draw from the military experience of the proletariat that resulted in failure, especially failed attempts at insurrection in Europe, in order to synthesize PPW.
You could draw an analogy here between revolutionary theory and other sciences, like physics for example. When a new physical law is discovered through scientific experimentation, it’s understood to hold true for the past as well, even if we weren’t aware of it at the time. Just because we didn’t understand gravity doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. This is also true for Marxist theory. We discover new general understandings about how capitalism works and how we can fight for socialism through our own kind of experimentation—participation in the class struggle.
If the Maoist thesis is correct and PPW is really universally applicable, then it should be true that every successful socialist revolution must have had at least some aspects of PPW. Otherwise, it couldn’t have worked. This is also true for less-controversial theories like the Mass Line. We can see, looking back, that the Bolsheviks used something similar to the Mass Line, to which Mao provided greater theoretical clarity. So, Maoists who argue that PPW is universal also argue that the Russian Revolution was an untheorized instance of PPW, placing more emphasis on the protracted struggle beginning around 1905 than the insurrection at the very end. As J. Moufawad-Paul points out, “… when some of us argue that there was an untheorized PPW in the October Revolution we are not arguing that Lenin was a theorist of PPW, or that the Russian Revolution was fully an instance of people’s war, only that there was indeed some sort of process that allowed it to avoid the liquidation other attempted insurrections suffered.” As early as 1905, workers were getting into violent clashes with Tsarist forces in the streets and erecting barricades. Peasants rose up against landlords, setting fire to their manors and raiding their estates. Soviets were established as an organ of proletarian political power and counter-hegemony to the bourgeois state. When re-examining the period through the lens of PPW in works like History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), it’s clear that the revolutionary process in Russia was a protracted one.
Furthermore, when Maoists claim that PPW is a universal military theory for revolution, we mean that all revolution is protracted people’s war, past, present, and future. They are the same thing—we’ve just added greater theoretical clarity to the question of how revolution works. For another revolution to occur it must follow the general path outlined by the theory of PPW, whether the revolutionaries spearheading it are aware of it or not. This is why the Revolutionary Communist Party in Canada (PCR-RCP) says “Protracted people’s war is the only way to make revolution.”
Universal aspects of Protracted People’s War
Broadly speaking, Protracted People’s War can be summed up according to three (really four) main phases: accumulation of forces, strategic defensive, strategic equilibrium, and strategic offensive.
In a bit more detail, J. Moufawad-Paul explains:
“In other words a protracted and sustained process that begins with slowly accumulating revolutionary forces to produce a counter-hegemony so as to eventually launch a military operation (in the stage of strategic defensive) that will also work to continue to generate radical forces, further extending a counter-hegemony, to reach dual power (strategic equilibrium) and from this, hopefully, strategic offensive (the point where there can be frontal warfare that can take over the state). Obviously this will take different forms in different social contexts.”
But there’s more that can be said here. RedZeal (/u/kc_socialist on reddit) from Necessity and Freedom outlined the following main universal aspects of PPW:
- Recognition of revolution as a protracted process
- Three stages of the people’s war: strategic defense, strategic equilibrium, and strategic offensive
- Establishment of red base areas
- Utilizing the “three magic weapons” to win the struggle (Party, people’s army, and united front)
- Combination of illegal and legal actions
- Combat training of revolutionaries in preparation for seizing power and to form the nucleus of a people’s army
- Construction of dual power so that the working masses learn to rule the new society and organize themselves (revolutionary committees, workers’ councils, peasant associations etc.)
In a string elsewhere on the topic of PPW, RedZeal continued:
If I were to amend my “list” that is cited here, I would also add that PPW isn’t just solely warfare as is typically imagined, i.e. two combat forces engage formally or in guerrilla combat. It also contains the element of warfare being political, and therefore propagandistic. In imperialist countries, assuming a people’s army of some type existed, it wouldn’t necessarily be the goal to annihilate State forces as the only goal, but more so to win public opinion and hegemony through armed actions against said State forces. That is a universal aspect of PPW, that it is not only the things I listed, but political warfare above all else. No revolution will come about solely by force of arms alone, but by armed action in conjuction[sic] with a sympathetic mass movement.
A key point here is that PPW is people-based, not terrain-based. Hence the emphasis on PPW being a political struggle. PPW is not a set of military tactics suited for a particular terrain, like mountains or jungle, that give the bourgeois state forces a hard time and can provide cover for the people’s army. Many objections to the universality of PPW are based on this misconception. Furthermore, there’s a distinction to be made here between tactics and strategy. PPW is a universal strategy, but obviously the tactics will vary widely depending on the application to different contexts.
Something that’s not often added to this discussion is why Protracted People’s War works at all. The idea is basically this:
The bourgeoisie and proletariat are class enemies. The bourgeoisie needs the proletariat to exist by exploiting and living off of its unpaid labor, even though they’re constantly working against each other. The trick is that the bourgeoisie needs the proletariat, but the proletariat doesn’t need the bourgeoisie. If we look at it in terms of warfare, the bourgeoisie can’t possibly defeat the proletariat militarily. Why? Because it needs them.
The best the bourgeoisie can do to combat PPW is to wipe out its leaders, the Communists. The subjective forces (Communists) make the whole show run. So the tricky part here is winning over the masses for the people’s war. Mao wrote, “Many people think it impossible for guerrillas to exist for long in the enemy’s rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish who inhabit it.” This means gaining such complete support of the masses by serving them, devoting ourselves to them and integrating among them that they will mobilize to support the people’s army. This is what happened in Vietnam—it was impossible for the US Army to tell the difference between combatants and civilians! That’s why PPW is political; it never goes past what the people are ready for. Accusations that Maoists who uphold PPW are “adventurist” seem silly in this light.
Now the bourgeoisie is stuck. If the Communists do their work right, the best the bourgeois state can do is massacre entire communities, undermining their own workforce and building even greater support for the People’s War in the process. We can be sure, though, that they’ll do everything in their power to play dirty as hell—among other atrocities, the Peruvian military forces dressed up as PCP militants and massacred people to make the PCP look bad.
Why PPW is necessary over the theory of insurrection
The simple answer to the question “Why Protracted People’s War?” is basically, “Well, what else is there?”
The dominant “theory” of revolution in the imperialist centers is the theory of insurrection, or the “October Road.” The idea is that the revolutionaries avoid engaging in armed struggle, participating in a long and drawn-out legal process to gain support among the proletariat and the people until a crisis breaks out in capitalism and the revolutionaries can lead the masses in taking up arms and overthrowing the bourgeois state. Sounds great right?
Except when the German Communists tried to do this in the Spartacist Uprising they were totally crushed and lost everything they had worked so hard for up to that point. Every single attempt at the insurrectionary strategy since the Russian Revolution has resulted in totally disastrous defeat.
Since the Russian Revolution, the bourgeois state has become even stronger and more consolidated. Weaponry and technology is much more advanced and the bourgeois state is incredibly centralized. Nobody has any illusions that the deeply reactionary US Army will split to side with a Communist Party like the Red Army in Russia, or that it won’t fire on civilians in its own country—they’ve even bombed them in the past. How the hell is the proletariat going to compete with the beast that is the US armed forces, CIA, FBI and so on without getting some military experience first? A protracted struggle has become necessary because the proletarian forces always start off much weaker and less organized than the bourgeois military; an armed struggle has become necessary because the proletariat needs to learn how to fight.
When speaking of what conditions are necessary for a revolution to take place, Lenin outlined the following:
The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way.
In other words, a crisis in capitalism that prevents the ruling class from ruling the same way has to take place for a revolution to be successful. Why, then, would we sit on our hands and wait for it? This attitude puts the question of revolution in the bourgeoisie’s hands. We want the ball in our court. PPW takes this passive strategy and turns it into a proactive one; we need to do everything we possibly can to prepare so we can make the most of a capitalist crisis when it arises, including advancing the armed struggle and gaining military experience. By having an established people’s army and by having built up revolutionary base areas in many cities, the revolutionaries are in a much better position to do heavy damage to the bourgeoisie and take over when a crisis inevitably hits them.
The complete lack of substance behind the theory of insurrection is like a perfect cover for revisionism. Most self-proclaimed “Communist Parties” in the imperialist centers pay so little attention to the question of armed struggle that it’s like they don’t believe it can ever happen. In fact, they probably don’t.
When faced with this stuffy revisionism and legalist reformism, the Maoist theory of PPW feels like a breath of fresh air. We’re back to orienting our work toward the armed struggle, which is the only thing that will ever bring down capitalism. We can finally analyze the process of revolution and armed struggle in a concrete way, which is exactly what the PCR-RCP has done in its work to apply PPW to Canada.
What people’s war could look like in the imperialist countries
To make the abstract question of making revolution in an imperialist country more concrete, a good place to look is how the PCR-RCP outlines the phases of Protracted People’s War applied to Canada.
The following excerpts are taken from the PCR-RCP’s document, “More on the question of waging revolutionary war in the imperialist countries.”
Accumulation of Forces
The stage where the vanguard fights to create a revolutionary party and a revolutionary army, and to establish new and genuine proletarian organizations (committees, people’s councils, etc., so the broad masses can learn how to organize the future proletarian power) corresponds to a mandatory organizational process which will allow, thereafter, to start the first phase of the PPW (that is strategic defensive). We call this preparatory period the phase of accumulation of forces.
This is needed to challenge the political monopoly of the bourgeoisie and its monopoly on violence. Seen as a unity of opposites, during this phase the party’s actions are principally legal (as opposed to illegal). This will change as the masses move from one pole to the other.
In this first phase of accumulation of forces, the embryonic forces of the Red Army must develop a political activity by starting to wage armed propaganda actions. The goal of armed propaganda is not to make war to capitalism, but to make the revolutionary project to be known while helping the future leaders of the revolutionary army to gain experience.
At this stage the guerrilla, with the armed actions it carries, pursues mainly ideological objectives. The increasing activity of guerrilla makes it possible to better separate the camps which are opposed, to influence the class struggle and to accumulate forces for any revolutionary movement.
The experience of the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse, or BR) in Italy (1971-1976) showed that armed propaganda is an effective method to accumulate forces in an imperialist country. However, the same experience (1976-1982) also showed that this activity must be led by a correct line otherwise it will inevitably sink into militarism, economism, armed trade unionism and/or subjectivism.
The trouble with this phase is grappling with the question of how the revolutionaries can establish counter-hegemony and base areas. The PCR-RCP takes a creative approach:
As it is difficult to hide more important units or to even support them in logistical terms, the following problem will arise: how to sustain, in an imperialist country, the revolutionary fight and to build stable bases to develop the people’s war whereas the enemy controls all the territory?
In China, the revolutionary war benefited from base areas where the reactionaries could not go and where the revolutionary transformation of the old social relations could start. In the imperialist countries, this cannot apply in the same way. At the beginning, the guerilla units will probably act in guerrilla zones. It is only after the capture of some towns that temporary base areas could appear before we could see stable ones.
During the armed propaganda period, the brigades must avoid fixing themselves in a specific place. They must rather cover a vast territory applying the principle of mobility – to bite and run away. The bases are then limited to what is needed for the operations’ success.
But with the beginning of PPW, the guerrilla units can then operate normally in guerrilla zones. The guerrilla zones are formed by underground networks and party-generated organizations or organizations build by the proletarian masses which challenge the monopoly of the bourgeois power. We saw the most obvious example of guerrilla zones in Europe under the Nazi occupation. Hundreds of networks, newspapers and groups were then organized by thousands of people all working underground.
The guerrilla units, while continuing the armed propaganda as in the previous period, will then be able to attack some institutions and people who represent the bourgeois power. The transition from armed propaganda brigades to guerrilla units will require the party to be firmly established among the masses and that they would have recognized its political leadership.
The PCR-RCP also considers what might happen if the United States tried to intervene.
Looking on a more “macro” level:
Because the forces of the revolution will be spread out, the country will probably look like a chess set where the bourgeois forces will occupy specific sectors – residential districts, telecommunication and financial centres, military bases – surrounded by guerrilla zones which will be invisible and hidden, but nevertheless in operation. Here it will probably be possible to combine two strategies applied in Vietnam, that of the “cheetah” – where the territory is spotted by guerilla zones – and that of the “banana peel” – to tackle the periphery of the enemy zones.
Because both the guerilla zones and those controlled by the bourgeoisie will be close from each other, guerrilla will have the opportunity to concentrate and attack strategic objectives, while decreasing the risks of a massive surrounding by the enemy; moreover, this proximity will make a part of the enemy’s military arsenal unusable. At that time, the strategic attacks of the guerrilla combined with an insurrection in a large city should allow the creation of a first stable support base. Then we could be able to achieve a higher level of military actions by combining guerilla and mobile warfare carried out by regular units of the Red Army.
Strategic Equilibrium and Strategic Offensive
With a first stable base, the new revolutionary power should be able to exist openly. This will also correspond to the transition to strategic equilibrium whereas the two powers would clash. A military front would probably take shape opposing the two armies. However, because of the proximity with the enemy, and contrary to what happens in the oppressed countries, the role of stable support bases in capitalist countries would be completely geared towards the war and the destruction of the enemy and later only, towards the building of the new power. The fight could even continue within the base areas.
At this point, some cities will have to serve as temporary bases – a phenomenon that will require great attention. In Canada, on a very vast territory surrounding the four main centers of Canadian capitalism, there are a multitude of communities which are made up in major part of proletarians. Those cities are strategically important for revolution in Canada, both by their proletarian composition and the control they could exert on energy resources and various transportation roads. They will progressively become solid bases for the revolutionary camp and will allow the enemy forces to be isolated.
The capture of a large city should help to constitute and train new units of the Red Army. That will then reinforce the front and allow to combine the mobile with the guerilla warfare. That will also make it possible to transit from a war of attrition to a war of annihilation and fast decisions. Then it will be possible to advance towards the strategic offensive which probably will be a combination of battles and insurrections, until the whole of the territory will be under the control of the revolutionary camp.
What should be immediately clear here is that the PCR-RCP is taking the “Revolutionary” part of their name seriously. They’re studying the question of waging revolutionary war in their country, thanks in part to the more detailed framework that Protracted People’s War provides.
To summarize, Protracted People’s War is a uniquely proletarian and dialectical materialist approach to warfare. Part of the point of declaring PPW as universal is to break away from the failed strategy of insurrection and instead use historical materialism to analyze past experiences and military strategies for revolution so we can draw general understandings about revolutionary war from the particular instances of it.
- Protracted people’s war is the only way to make revolution
- In Defense of Protracted People’s War
- 10. The path of revolution in Canada: Protracted People’s War
- More on the question of waging revolutionary war in the imperialist countries
- On Protracted Peoples War as a Universal Development of Revolutionary Theory
- Misconceptions about Maoism
(New) Communist Party of Italy (nPCI)
Special thanks to Melkor Pradesh and RedZeal for their suggestions and critiques.