Small Wars Journal

Mao and Now: Evolution in the Art of Insurgency

Fri, 02/01/2013 - 3:30am

Throughout most of the 20th century, Mao’s thoughts on organization of a guerilla-cum-insurgent struggle have enjoyed a pride of place in academic discourse on this subject. If insurgency is all about standing up against the forces of status quo – the debate about right and wrong insurgencies not being germane to this piece – the art has evolved in a big way during the last decade of the 20th and first of the 21th century.

I believe insurgency has evolved in five seminal ways. One, the distinction between Maoist stages has blurred and the insurgent movements now progress in (often concentric) circles instead of moving along a linear path. Second, the central role of a demagogic leader (like Mao, or even Lenin) has waned and people have tended to guide their own destinies. Third, the storm of insurgency is now brewed in the politico-social hothouses of reasonably affluent urban communities instead of the disaffected slums and the alienated countryside. Fourth, insurgencies are spearheaded by tech-savvy facebookers and tweeters instead of Mao’s peasants and even Trotsky’s factory workers. And lastly, increasingly, the insurgents have a globalist outlook instead of Mao’s paranoid jingoism. 

Here is a brief explanation of these changes.   

One: Stages to Simultaneity

Maoist thought and precedent on insurgency is replete with mentions of graduations, stages, and linear progression. Mao and his comrades considered it natural to work slowly and patiently on winning popular support and on mobilization of a meaningfully large segment of the populace before moving on to arming and training party cadres, and gathering force like a storm.

This was perhaps essential in his time and environment. He operated in 1940s. Back then, computers were weighed in tons, and men and merchandise still travelled in boats across China. Spreading the word was not easy. He also operated amongst a people who, for millennia, had thought they had nothing to do with the world outside the Middle Kingdom and who therefore were not easily inflamed by the revolutionary spirit. Lastly, Mao’s was a peasant society tied to their home and hearth and their farms. They were averse to, and afraid of, leaving their place and pedestal.

The world of modern insurgencies, even in places ruled by psychos, is the world of ubiquitous information. The word is out there, always riding the air, for everyone to hear, see, and feel. Global and local media, both mainstream and alternative, keeps prepping  people through informing and educating. The most ignorant person, in the darkest corner of the world, would also know the state of his things in comparison to the rest of the world. All someone needs to do is ring the bell and then keep people informed. Stages of the insurgency overlap. Young men and women take to the streets to protest. Elders stay back, pray, and talk to local and global media. The naughtiest take up arms and start to organize themselves before someone proves tall enough or wise enough to assume leadership.

Over time, the insurgency bifurcates. Some stay on the streets with banners, others get behind the foxhole with bayonets. Depending on the reaction of the forces of status quo, banner or the bayonet take the leadership mantle. Where the regime comes down too hard on the people, like Libya, militants take charge of the movement and political street takes the back seat. If the regime generally stays political, like in Egypt, the political elements stay in the lead. However, most importantly, all this sorting and sifting and adjusting takes place on the move. The Taliban insurgency in Af-Pak region is another example of simultaneous talking through the minaret and the machine gun – a kind of messaging through massacre.

Two: Man-Gods to Leaderless Herds

Mao, with the help of his able associates, built a cult around his personality and the sacrifices and bravery of hundreds of thousands who endured unspeakable misery was subsumed in the larger-than-life image of the leader. In the final analysis, Mao’s communist revolution was about him more than about the communities he claimed to represent. More than their inner voice, people across China responded to the voice of the leader.

Modern insurgencies, on the other hand, are practically leaderless, at least to begin with. The volcano of public disaffection erupts without any clear sense of direction for its flow; the sheer weight and heat of the moment takes it to the lower, wider valleys of the state and the society and, over time, intelligent people rise up to give it a compass.

The Tunisian insurgency, for example, was ignited by the flames of a poor vendor who burnt himself in front of the Presidential Palace. Out of the ashes of his young body, bloomed a million fragrant flowers of freedom and free will, and swept Ben Ali out of power. Next doors in Egypt, tens of thousands of educated tweeters literally finger-arranged a rebellious mob and built gradually into a storm that flooded Mobarak’s bulwarks built over decades of unchallenged tyranny. The same can be said about the ongoing struggle in Syria and the inevitable insurgencies simmering under the surface in several other Middle Eastern Kingdoms.  Even in a medieval, tribal setting like Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency has tended to work more like a network with a highly diffused leadership.

It is also interesting to note how such leaderless insurgencies undergo a painful and chaotic transition into responsible and responsive governments for and of their people. While Mao’s unquestionable supremacy ensured a stable modulation of China from Nationalist dictatorship into a Maoist dictatorship, 21st century insurgencies may not be orderly but they do usher in a period of democratic freedoms from the womb of ruthless despotism.       

Three: From Countryside to Cities

In China of 1930s and 1940s, Mao saw the countryside and peasants as the right ingredients of a powerful insurgency. Cities were too busy and too hard to convert to the communist cause. Trotsky and Lenin thought the same thing about factories and industrial workers because of a different set of reasons. Mao considered the Chinese peasant the right ordnance for his guns because, in his own words, the Chinese peasant ate bitterness from his birth to his burial. Moreover, Chiang Ki-shek’s Nationalists generally were less unpopular in cities than in villages and were better equipped to control a city riot than a storm brewing quietly in the distant corners of the Middle Kingdom. Mao therefore sensed an opportunity in the countryside. While employing urban supporters as the cement, Mao used peasant as the building block of his revolutionary struggle.

Modern insurgencies, on the other hand, are thoroughly urban. From Kiev to Cairo, and from Tbilisi to Tunis, city dwellers have led all the mass movements in recent decades. Even the Taliban of Afghanistan have repeatedly shown their focus on the main population centers (there are hardly any truly urban centers) of the country. Of course, this changing trend is, in part, due to the phenomenal growth of cities and rapid urbanization. When a huge majority of a state clings to main urban centers and slums spring up like tumors, such places are bound to be the seedbeds of disaffection and resentment. However, most remarkably, the revolutions across the Arab world and Eastern Europe were less about hungry stomachs clamoring for food and more about aching hearts yearning for freedom and dignity.

Chairman Mao had to carefully craft his messages promising food to the peasant but freedom to the town dweller. In many of the modern insurgencies, poverty and hunger are not very high on the agenda of the insurgents. What they ask for is their pride and their right to choose their own rulers. Pre-insurgency Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria were not badly governed; they were governed by bad people, or so the insurgents thought.       

Four: Farms to Facebook

There was of course no facebook or an I-phone or a blackberry available to Mao. Modern insurgencies benefit from the liberating influence of these technologies.  However, an important question is: would Mao be fond of facebook and twitter if these were available in his times? My bet is: NO. The kind of revolution communists were struggling to bring about would have been destroyed by free flow of information. Social media is synonymous with society and a politically empowered society is anathema to totalitarian regimes. Curbing and controlling free flow of information has been the hallmark of tyrannies. It is interesting to see how some of these recent social-media-driven-insurgencies have quickly moved past the initial success in regime change. It is also interesting to see how political insurgents in Egypt have refused to sit on their laurels in terms of ouster of Mubarak and have instead reasserted themselves against the perceived constitutional encroachments of the new administration.

Even in relatively under-developed settings like Afghanistan and Central Asia, politico-militant insurgencies have shown a remarkable dexterity in use of social media as a tool to further their narrative and celebrate their successes. All these insurgencies seem to believe in getting the word out there sooner than their opponents. They do not seem to be trying to control information – a mission impossible.    

Five: Jingoistic Paranoia to a Globalist World View

Like the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) and the Xinhai Revolution (1911-12), the Communist Revolution of 1949 was ultra-nationalist in its narrative and got most of its steam from paranoia and conspiracy talk. Be it Japanese occupation or Western imperialism, Mao and his comrades put anti-foreigner message to an effective use.

The rank and file of the Chinese Communist Party was filled with people who loved their mother land and hated the foreign interference. Modern insurgencies, on the contrary, love their motherlands and love, in fact long for, foreign interference to help them steer their collective destiny in a newer, brighter direction. Across the Middle East and Eastern Europe, insurgents and revolutionaries thrived on the support of their own people as well as the wider world around them.

The reasons driving this change are many. We live in an inter-connected and interdependent world. No regime, however brutal and inward-looking, can survive without a benevolent appeasement of the actors and factors that work the world. Hence, any smart insurgent would know that what’s needed to win is not just the local support but also a favorable international public opinion and tangible foreign pressure on the forces of the status quo. The insurgents also know that the world may align with the right, but support of powerful capitals and corporations remains critical for victory.

In sum, the art of insurgency is changing and political and military leaders will be well-served by taking another, closer look at the relevance of their collection of books on this subject.

About the Author(s)

Mehar Omar Khan has graduate degrees in International Security Studies (Kansas State University) and International Relations (Balochistan University Quetta).  He blogs on issues related to security with a focus on insurgency.  Views expressed are his own.  He can be reached at


I found this 1977 item interesting:…

Herein, the author of the linked article seems to suggest that "what's needed to win" -- in the future (our present) and vis-a-vis Mao -- will still need to be:

a. "Spiritual Power." (Islamism [hope that's the proper term] -- rather than liberal democracy/end of history -- better meeting this criteria in certain regions of the world?) And

b. "External Force." (The Iranian Revolution, and/or 9/11, likewise being a better "fit," in these regions, rather than the fall of the Soviet Union-11/9?)

Thus, as seen from this perspective and as in the past, "people and events," rather than "powerful capitals and corporations" (second to last sentence of this SWJ thread) are still what count.

("Powerful capitals and corporations," today as in the past, possibly being seen, not as essentially needed friends but, rather, as existential enemies.)

Outlaw 09

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 9:42am

Robert---as a former VN SF and Det A Berlin Bde/Company A 10th Bad Toelz veteran---interesting to note you are still using the term "unconventional warfare".

Your reasoning behind it would be interesting to hear?

Outlaw 09

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 9:38am

Concurring with Robert----when the dust finally settles on the history bin of Iraq hopefully someone analyzes the ability of AQI and the Iraqi born insurgent groups' abilities at using modern technology to recruit, train,fund, drive IO campaigns, and disseminate TTPs not only in Iraq but worldwide---not even the US Army's 1st I/O Command comes anywhere close to current Salafi use of the Internet---really would be a doctoral thesis at the Harvard level.

As the Army transitions to the concept of hybrid threat scenarios---seriously concerned they are not willing to learn from the loss of over 4K killed in Iraq and take those lessons learned the hard way forward.

It is almost like no longer there--- not interested---let's just not go back there.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 4:37am

Based on my study and experience,I believe that at a fundamental level, insurgency is little changed now than from any other point in the recorded history of mankind.

Certainly how an insurgency manifests, how the insurgents organize, what tactics might be employed, whether it is more urban or rural, etc all vary widely based upon the unique attributes that make each particular insurgency unique. But the fundamentals are rooted in human nature and seem pretty consistent over time and across cultures.

What has changed in recent years is the impact that modern information technologies have had on empowering individuals and nonstate actors in general to more effectively challenge systems of governance deemed so inappropriate as to create conditions of insurgency among some populace group. It is much harder for governance systems to simply suppress conditions of insurgency through some mix of buy-offs and security. Now more than ever systems of governance must listen and evolve to meet the evolving expectations of much larger percentages of their populaces than they have in the past. These information tools make it far easier to organize and coordinate an insurgency in a mmaner that avoids the security systems dedicated to finding and crushing such illegal challenges to the current authority. These tools also make it much easier to conduct unconventional warfare, or more commonly, the practice of an outside party leveraging the insurgent energy in some foreign populace as a means to advance their own interests among that populace or within that place.

Times are changing, and new tools and new situations naturally spawn new tactics - but insurgency, internal illegal political challenge, remains fundamentally unchanged, IMO. (Likewise for war between systems of governance, but that is another dynamic entirely).

Outlaw 09

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 2:36am

The thesis is interesting and actually tangates something seen in 2003 in Baghdad.

When we arrived in Baghdad in 2003 we faced actually if one does uses Mao a full blown phase two guerrilla war with the Islamic Army of Iraq---who had already structured itself with fighter cells in place in major Iraqi cities, fighters in place, funding flowing and they had already started using RC IEDs in June 2003.

The core question that has never been asked and we should start asking ourselves as a Army is "how was that possible?".

My answer has always been---the Iraqi Intelligence Service had been at war with various internal Salafi groups for a number of years prior to our arrival and who had been suscessfull in surviving Saddam---now couple them with ISI intelligence officers trained by East Germany and Cuba and one no longer asks the question "how was it possible"---one now needs to ask--"why/how did the US IC miss the development"?


Fri, 02/01/2013 - 8:36am

Interesting take on the evolution of revolutionary thought and insurgency. Would be a good place to start an investigation of current thinking and associated doctrine.