Guevara in 1960 walking through the streets of Havana with his wife Aleida March (right).

Unconventional Warfare in Communist Strategy

Unconventional warfare has become all too conventional, even if it is not yet adequately understood. It is paradoxical that the coming of mighty engines of war that literally extend war "out of this world" and threaten violence measured in megadeaths should, in fact, lend strength to the resurgence of a kind of hostilities marked by poisoned bamboo spears, bazooka ambushes and civil war. In a recent article in these pages, the nature and dimensions of the problem have been thoughtfully analyzed.1 In the present discussion, I should like to focus attention on a series of 12 propositions derived from study of Communist theory and practice regarding the seizure of power by unconventional warfare.

Our starting point should be the fundamental role that internal war and unconventional warfare play in general Communist world strategy. On that foundation, we can examine Communist views on the expediency of waging unconventional warfare under various conditions, and on operational strategies likely to be used in cases where it is deemed feasible and desirable. Finally, it will be useful to take a closer look at guerrilla warfare in particular as a technique, in past and future Communist practice, for waging internal war. Thus we shall move from looking at unconventional war in Communist doctrine to looking at Communist doctrine on unconventional warfare.


Very simply, "internal," "unconventional," "irregular"-"class"-war is of the essence of Marxist-Leninist theory, hence at least theoretically at the base of Communist strategy. We became so accustomed to Stalin's reliance on the Red Army and the Soviet intelligence services as the most conspicuous elements of force in international politics that it takes a moment to place in focus the older-and newer-more fundamental Communist reliance on man?uvring and manipulating power on an indigenous political fulcrum. This is my first proposition.

Unconventional warfare-our very use of this expression jars one by its contrast to the Marxist-Leninist conception of the conventional nature of internal warfare-may assume various forms, depending on the concrete situation, its opportunities and constraints. Although in other areas the Communists may resort to rigid design or overcentralized planning, when it comes to the application of force they show an acute awareness of the wide range of kinds of unconventional warfare available to them. This is the second proposition I would raise. To rephrase the point: Communists are flexible in waging varied forms of internal war, and irregular warfare is but one of the means.

Not all activity of Soviet, Chinese or indigenous Communists should be considered a form of internal war-though one can define the term broadly enough to encompass most of it. But the Communist leaders do assign a major role to active civil violence at a certain stage of development of the class conflict. For such countries as the United States, that stage may be seen only very dimly-or perhaps merely assumed-in a vague and distant future. But in volatile and unstable societies emerging from colonial rule or undergoing modernization without adequate tools for the job, internal war is expected to have a future-if it is not already present. Thus my third proposition is that the Communists expect, plan and wage internal war as the final stage of class struggle leading to the seizure of power. Internal unconventional war is above all revolutionary war.


Bolshevism arose as a revolutionary movement with international pretensions; its fundamental outlook was hostile to the existing international order. None the less, after a number of unsuccessful attempts to wage revolutionary war beyond the borders of the old Russian Empire, in the period from 1918 to 1923, Soviet leaders began to recognize the need to be more selective in choosing the time and place to conduct revolutionary war. Also, as the years went by, they directed their energies increasingly to internal matters. The building of "socialism in one country" marked an indefinite extension of the original compromise by which the Soviet Union proposed to coexist with the outside world. The avowed revolutionary ends have continued unchanged, but means have become increasingly important in themselves. As occasions arose calling for sacrifice either by the Soviet State or by the forces of the Revolution abroad, Moscow's decision has invariably been at the expense of the latter. The subordination to Moscow of Communist Parties everywhere meant that the suitability of local internal war was defined in terms of the prevailing foreign policy objectives of the Soviet Union. And as a consequence, for over two decades Communist "internal war" boasted few campaigns and no victories. Only in China did an active revolutionary war even stay alive, and it did so by liberating itself from Moscow's strategic direction.

World War II brought new opportunities for building undergrounds and waging partisan warfare in many countries occupied by an alien invader. Local Communists (as well as other resistance elements), aided by the Allies, established strong forces in several countries. The Soviets themselves built up sizable guerrilla forces on their own German-occupied territory. At the close of the war, the Jugoslav and Albanian partisans were able to seize power with little opposition. The Chinese Communists were also immeasurably aided by the course and outcome of the war.

In the early postwar period, the sudden shift in the balance of power in areas on the Soviet periphery, and the not accidental projection of the Red Army into many of these areas, led to new opportunities for expansion of Communist rule by various means including internal war. Where Soviet occupation was prolonged, political and subversive techniques were used effectively to establish puppet Communist régimes. But beyond the shadow of the Soviet Army the story was quite different. A wave of attempts at subversion, rebellion and revolution struck in 1948-1949. Success in Czechoslovakia by subversive coup was not matched in Finland, and not even tried in France and Italy. In China, the Communists-against Stalin's advice- pushed on to take all continental China. But the revolutionary guerrilla campaigns in Greece, Malaya, Burma, the Philippines and Indonesia ended in failure; only in Viet Nam did such a campaign drag on to an important partial victory in 1954. Causes of failure varied, but one important general one was that the balance of power in the world had become stabilized anew.

In the current phase, since about 1960, there has been a new wave of Communist guerrilla efforts in Laos and South Viet Nam, a failure in the Congo, and a seizure from within of the successful guerrilla movement in Cuba. Similar efforts to take over other native, non-Communist rebel forces, for example in Angola and Colombia, are at present under way.

In summing up this brief historical review, we reach a fourth proposition: One of the key conditions for resort to revolutionary war, in Communist eyes, is the general world situation (as well as the local situation). And as a related fifth proposition: While the general strategic balance of terror today increases the dangers to the Communist bloc of resorting to direct aggression and creating Soviet-Western military confrontations, it reduces the risks involved in indirect, unconventional war.


Communist strategies for waging revolutionary warfare place a high premium on the political content and context of a campaign. Some strategies, beyond the purview of this article, involve exclusively political action. Others involve infiltration and subversion, where the political vulnerability of the opponent is of cardinal importance. Subversion (which should be distinguished from agitation, propaganda, trouble-making and other overt or underground Communist activities) can be either a substitute for a revolutionary war or a complementary tactic in it, but in general it has not proven nearly as versatile a Communist tool as many of us tend to think. Subversion is usually directed against existing governments, but it may be directed against indigenous revolutionary movements, as in the Cuban case. Infiltration and subversion, political isolation and manipulation, and economic penetration all ultimately should-in the Communist strategy- lay the groundwork for the seizure of power either by coup d'état or by revolutionary war.

As my sixth proposition, I would advance the hypothesis that the Soviet leaders generally prefer the use of subversion, or other non-violent means, to the use of guerrilla war, because the seizure of power by indigenous revolutionary forces tends to make local Communist rulers too independent of Moscow's control. The only countries other than Russia where local Communist forces fought and won their own victories are China, Jugoslavia, Albania and Viet Nam (with Cuba as a quasi-fifth). All, with the uncertain exception of North Viet Nam, are today serious problems for the Soviet Union.

The Chinese-absorbed by their own internal problems and struggles with the Russians, smarting over the frustration of continuing irredentist claims, and "on the make"-have not developed the qualms or subtle calculations which mark the Soviet attitude toward the means of extending Communist power. Maoism as an export item has done well in Indochina; a number of other Communist Parties-especially, but not only, in Asia-are turning to China in the course of the growing division within the Communist movement. The Soviet leaders do not, of course, turn their backs on the theory or even the practice of national-liberation revolutionary war. None the less, my seventh proposition-companion to the sixth-is that the Chinese Communists are likely in the future to be the guiding spirit in most Communist revolutionary guerrilla wars.

In further support of this conclusion, I offer as my eighth proposition that Soviet experience in 1941-44 (and 1918-20) is not really relevant to the current problems of Communist revolutionary war. In Russia, guerrilla warfare was supplementary and distinctly subordinate to the actions of regular armies; it was national rather than class, and defensive rather than offensive in character. Communist revolutionaries today are aware of this inapplicability of the Soviet experience. Che Guevara states, early in his book "La Guerra de Guerrillas," that:

For the proper analysis of guerrilla warfare, it should be noted that there are two different types: first, the guerrillas supplement the effort of a large regular army as in the case of the Ukrainian guerrillas; second, an armed group is fighting against an established government. We are not interested in the first type. We are interested only in the type where an armed group is carrying on a fight against an established colonial (or other) power.2

While Mao in the 1930s paid tribute to the Russian experience and to the theoretical contributions of Lenin and Stalin, he stressed that they could not simply be transferred to the Chinese scene because, as he put it, "there are a great number of conditions special to the Chinese revolution and the Chinese Red Army." The "laws of war and military directives in the Soviet Union embody the special characteristics of the civil war and the Red Army of the Soviet Union; if we copy them and apply them mechanically and allow no change whatsoever, it will also be like whittling down our feet to fit the shoes, and we shall be defeated."3 (A curious figure of speech, by the way, suggesting that the Russians couldn't fill the shoes of the Chinese.) Indeed, Mao had won leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in a bitter contest over the very issue of independence from Moscow. He therefore insisted that the Chinese experience in revolutionary war included important features and even "laws" of its own. This, it should be noted, also carries implications for the transferability of Mao's thought and Chinese experience to other countries.

The Sino-Soviet dispute has brought to the surface significant differences in the current Chinese and Russian approaches to revolutionary war. The Soviets have explicitly granted priority to the task of prevention of "war," for which the Chinese have attacked them. Under the pressure of polemical controversy with the Chinese Communists, the Soviets have refined their own conceptions and have been led to distinguish three different "categories" of war: world war, limited or local wars, and "national liberation wars and popular uprisings." Recognizing the disastrous consequences of general nuclear war, and the risk of such war in direct Western-Communist confrontation in limited wars, they oppose local as well as world wars. The Chinese are not wholly insensitive to the dangers of nuclear war, but they stress the "inevitability" of local wars in contrast to Soviet emphasis on "averting" them. The Soviets as well as the Chinese of course favor internal "wars of national liberation," so long as they are against the West. The divergence between them arises from the fact that the Soviets are more cautious than the Chinese in evaluating the risks that they believe the Communist bloc should assume in overt support of revolutionary wars.

In the most explicit and authoritative Soviet pronouncement on revolutionary war, Khrushchev declared, in 1961: "Liberation wars will continue to exist as long as imperialism exists, as long as colonialism exists. These are revolutionary wars. Such wars are not only admissible, but inevitable, since the colonialists do not grant independence voluntarily. Therefore, the peoples can attain their freedom and independence only by struggle, including armed struggle."4 But it is clear from Soviet discourse and action that, while they surely favor such wars in principle and do support them in some concrete cases, this support is not unqualified or universal.

It would be incorrect to write off Soviet influence, interest and impact on Communist revolutionary war and warfare. Many well-developed techniques of Communist conspiracy are useful in this kind of activity. The Soviets have substantial relevant assets, and they have not forsworn all violence. None the less, for guidance on the tactics and operations of revolutionary guerrilla warfare, and for direct support, the Soviets do not have the experience, the doctrine, the cadres or the missionary zeal of the Chinese Communists.


The leading Communist theoretician of guerrilla warfare is Mao Tse-tung; the other two most influential writers are the Vietnamese General Giap and Che Guevara of Cuba. Without summarizing the development of Mao's doctrine on guerrilla warfare, nor reviewing in detail the Chinese Communist and Vietnamese experience, we should note some of the key political aspects of Communist doctrine for waging guerrilla warfare, and also some of the key related military tactics.

Almost all Mao's writings on military matters date from the period 1936-38. But in 1929, in one of his earliest pieces, he succinctly stated the political purpose of irregular, internal war: "When the Red Army fights, it fights not merely for the sake of fighting, but to agitate the masses, to organize them, to arm them, and to help them establish revolutionary political power; apart from such objectives, fighting loses its meaning and the Red Army the reason for its existence."5 One of the best known of Mao's dicta is the statement, "Every Communist must grasp the truth: 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun'."6 It is instructive to note the context of this statement, as it is not that usually assumed and ascribed in Western commentary. The gist of Mao's thought was that it was necessary in a revolutionary class war to implant and cultivate in the masses of the people awareness that they could, with gun in hand, seize power. Naturally, the Communist Party would lead them in this effort and harvest the result. But the idea was not simply that with military might one could take power; it was that the very process of revolutionary mass warfare could give invaluable political impetus to the military effort. This, then, is my ninth proposition: the Communists see revolutionary war not only as a means, expedient under some conditions, to seize power, but also as a means of building political support which will sustain power.

General Giap, in his recently published "People's War, People's Army," stresses that guerrilla war is waged for people, not for territory.7 Space is often traded for time, and time used for political advance. The "high ground" of most importance is popular support, or at least popular non- support of the incumbent authority. Mao considered this as cardinal. As he put it, "Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if its political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people."8 This is probably true, with the important qualifications that the political objectives must appear to coincide with the aspirations of the people-even if they do not-and that the people compare the revolutionaries with the incumbent régime on the basis of both their own experience and the net image that propaganda and information from all sides convey. Finally, apart from "aspirations," the popular reaction is strongly influenced by expectations as to who is winning.

Mao, Giap and Guevara all stress the importance of exemplary conduct in relations with the population. Mao, especially, warned against excessive or indiscriminate repressive measures. Ten years ago Giap repeated this Maoist doctrine, but gave attention also to a minor-key Maoist theme recommending selective terror against local representatives of the incumbent régime in order to destroy its control. In South Viet Nam, the Communist-led Viet Cong have in recent years turned to systematic selective terror against local government officials on a large scale. They seek by this means to intimidate those who could organize opposition to their activities, and to paralyze the existing administration of the countryside at its very base.

Turning now to the military tactics of revolutionary guerrilla warfare, my tenth proposition is that the Communists have no "secret" doctrinal formula for success, but they do have considerable experience and a basically sound theoretical expression of their doctrine for waging guerrilla warfare. It is very difficult to summarize usefully the many relevant tactical concepts, especially those in the writings of Mao Tse-tung, but also those of Che Guevara. In 1942, the Soviets prepared a manual on partisan operations, and in 1944 added a chapter on the subject to their regular army "Field Regulations." But except for doctrine on combined and supporting operations for regular war, these are strictly technical and of little relevance to Communist guerrillas in other countries. Incidentally, Mao's chief military writings, and Guevara's, have only recently appeared in Russian translation.

Mao proceeds from the premise that "The principle of preserving oneself and annihilating the enemy is the basis of all military principles,"9 Measures to achieve flexibility and adaptability include dispersion and temporary concentration to achieve local superiority for sharp attacks before shifting to another point of pressure. The enemy is thus forced to disperse and is kept off balance. Guerrilla campaigns must be carefully planned and purposeful in terms of a broad strategic design, and yet susceptible to alteration in order to meet changed conditions. Bases should not be established if it involves pitched battles and position warfare to defend them. Surprise, speed, secrecy, deception, initiative and reliable intelligence are all at high premium. Guerrillas, said Mao, should be "as cautious as virgins and as quick as rabbits."10 Mobility, man?uvrability, ability to melt into inaccessible terrain or into the peaceful population are important qualities in an effective force. I have already discussed morale and rapport with the population. Other necessary characteristics are discipline, ingenuity, Spartan living, ability to live off the land without excessive requisitions, and substantial reliance on captured arms and equipment.

Mao's concept of "protracted war" is now widely, if not always well, known. He advanced the thesis in order to explain the particular situation in China in the 1930s (though on occasion he also did assume a wider applicability), when neither the government forces nor the guerrillas were strong enough to annihilate the other. A protracted period was necessary to shift the balance to the revolutionaries.11

The eleventh proposition: Guerrilla warfare, in Communist strategy, is only a stage in the growth of the revolution in a particular country. Usually it must be succeeded by regular civil war before power can be grasped. Mao categorically stated that "guerrilla operations must not be considered as an independent form of warfare,"12 "In the course of the prolonged, ruthless war," he explained, "guerrilla warfare should not remain its old self but must develop into mobile warfare. Thus the strategic role of guerrilla warfare is twofold: supporting regular warfare and transforming itself into regular warfare."13 Guevara likewise holds that "guerrilla combat is a phase of warfare that cannot of itself attain complete victory; it is important to remember that guerrilla fighting is only a beginning or preparation for conventional warfare."14

In conclusion, I would note as my twelfth and final proposition: The future role of revolutionary guerrilla war in Communist strategy is probably more dependent on local opportunity than on anything else. The politico-military premises of Communist-chiefly Chinese-thought on revolutionary warfare is basically sound, as is their tactical doctrine for such operations. The most vulnerable point, then, is the local societies and polities which may be threatened. This is not a novel idea, but if our analysis of Communist thought and action brings us back to this point, we have at least discovered that there are no short cuts for either side-no basic flaws in the Communist approach, but also no secret weapon in their arsenal. 1 Franklin Lindsay, "Unconventional Warfare," Foreign Affairs, January 1962, p. 264-274. 2 Translation in Army, March 1961, p. 24. 3 Mao Tse-tung, "Strategic Problems of China's Revolutionary War" (December 1936). Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1954, p. 3-4; see also p. 2, 5, 18 and 31. 4 N. S. Khrushchev, speech of January 6, 1961, in Kommunist, January 1961, p. 19. 5 Mao Tse-tung, "On the Rectification of Incorrect Ideas in the Party" (December 1929), "Selected Works," v. 1. New York: International Publishers, 1954, p. 106. 6 Mao Tse-tung, "Problems of War and Strategy" (November 6, 1938), "Selected Works," v. 2, p. 272. 7 General Vo Nguyen Giap, "People's War, People's Army." Hanoi: Foreign Publishing House, 1961, p. 48 et passim. 8 Mao Tse-tung, "Guerrilla Warfare" (1937), quoted by Brig. Gen. S. B. Griffith, U.S.M.C. (Ret.), in "Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare." New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1961, p. 43. 9 Mao Tse-tung, "Strategic Problems of the Anti-Japanese Guerrilla War" (May 1938). Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1954, p. 6. 10 Quoted by Lt. Col. Robert Rigg in "Red China's Fighting Forces." Harrisburg: Military Service Publishing House, 1952, p. 226. 11 See, in particular, Mao Tse-tung, "On the Protracted War" (June 1938), in "Selected Works," v. 2, p. 157-243. 12 In Griffith, op. cit., p. 41. 13 Mao Tse-tung, "On the Protracted War." "Selected Works," v. 2, p. 224. 14 Guevara, in Army, March 1961, p. 24.

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