It’s difficult to make sense of the tactical decisions made by Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap during the Indochina Wars without understanding:
Revolutionary war, not guerrilla war. Clearly guerrilla operations are an important component of revolutionary war, but the underlying principle and fundamental objective is social revolution. So how to get there?…
Lenin came up with the notion of the vanguard party, a revolutionary elite that would work to create the conditions for revolution. Marxist theory held that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction, it was only a matter of time until the conditions would be right for the workers to rise in revolution and take over. But you had to let events run their proper course. Lenin decided he could kick-start the process by adding a brain that, rather than letting fate take its course, would act to force its hand. That was Lenin’s first great contribution to the theory and practice of revolution.
His second was the concept of the popular front. In many cases, early on, when the vanguard group has not yet gained broad powers and authority, the tactic defined by Lenin is to form a coalition, a front, with other parties to oppose a common enemy. For Lenin that enemy was the capitalist regime. Then, once in the good graces of the other front parties, the revolutionary elite—the vanguard party—move to infiltrate them from within, insidiously, the vanguard party then takes over and rules in its own right. History shows us that violent purges frequently follow. Mao and Ho would become masters of the execution of the popular front strategy.
Both Mao’s theory and its Vietnamese offshoot, Dau Tranh, are revolutionary in that they are both based on the Marxist-Leninist theory of class struggle. Mao’s great contribution to the theory of revolutionary struggle was the realization that social revolution didn’t have to start with the proletariat—industrial workers—as Marx believed. In the 1930s, you had a basic problem: Orthodox Marxist theory said the revolution would start with the proletariat—period. Yet they were such a small minority in China that they hardly mattered. Like all craftsman and builders in history, Mao worked with the materials available at hand– peasants. It wasn’t the crisis of overproduction, or the alienation of the worker, that mattered to them. No, what a Chinese peasant dreamed of was land; Mao understood this well and was enterprising enough to bend his Marxism to fit that reality. Its no surprise then that Mao’s rallying cry was for land reform. The problem is: how do you turn that into a social revolution? The result was Mao’s three stage theory of revolutionary war.
Mao Tse Tung’s
Three Phase Theory of
1. Organization, consolidation and preservation of base areas,
usually in difficult and isolated terrain.
2. Progressive expansion by terror and attacks on isolated enemy units
to obtain arms, supplies and political support.
3. Decision, or destruction of the enemy in battle.
What does this mean in detail?
The revolutionary cadres begin their work in remote rural areas. It’s easier to hide there and governments tend to ignore remote areas or, even better, discriminate against their inhabitants. That serves to helps with recruiting. Cadres come to villages to live and work and socialize with the locals. Over time they become trusted. In that newly fertile ground they develop a program, the party line, and recruit followers. The government on the other hand has the constant task of rooting out and apprehending the revolutionary cadres. That was usually a losing battle for them. In remote areas the peasant population is small; they all know and keep tabs on one another, but you can still move among them as long as you make friends with them. By contrast, strangers immediately stand out, so it’s harder for the government to infiltrate, to get intelligence. The Communists did not always co-mingle with the locals in such a benign way, sometimes they coerced villagers, but the track record (in China, Vietnam and elsewhere) reveals a trend toward cooperation rather than intimidation as the primary characteristic of the relations between revolutionaries and peasants. At least at this early stage. That’s phase one.
Next, the transition to phase two, guerrilla warfare, armed struggle. In guerrilla warfare, attacks are carefully planned for heightened effect, but usually not for military purposes per se. Instead phase two revolutionaries are interested in using military force for political purposes. What or who is the first target? This is low-intensity warfare at this point so the target will likely be an individual or a small group, a police chief for example, or a village chief, or maybe even a province chief or council. Kidnapping and assassination are the tools of the trade, not so much because they want to get rid of that person but rather to make a resounding point. To what effect? To demonstrate to the populace that the insurgents can get to the enemy, that their force is a real factor to be respected. It also induces fear in the ranks. The first attacks may do little physical damage to the enemy, but psychologically, fears of possible mayhem just around the corner get stoked. Suddenly, formerly comfortable officials begin to fear for their safety. They may then pull their forces further inward for personal protection, which usually made the villagers happy.
Another primary reason behind these first attacks is to get attention. Basically, when people read about the attack in the newspaper or hear about it on the radio or by word of mouth, they’re going to be curious about what is happening. Even if they’ve never heard of the revolutionary movement they may start thinking about it and seek to learn more. Engaging in that initial act of violence, or terrorism, demonstrates to the people that the revolution is real, that its agents are here and they mean business. And they can win. For villagers already opposed to the government, or even for those who were neutral, this represented a development worth watching, and maybe hope for something new and better.
From that initial purely political statement, progress toward the third and final stage is constantly evolving. In the third stage military objectives rise to the fore. Getting there involves the constant escalation of fear through violence. For example, an ambush of a patrol might net a weapons cache. Then a police station is overrun in the night, netting more weapons and ammunition, and perhaps information like names of informants. Then, finally, enough weapons, and money, are accumulated to encourage supporters to help. They begin to give information on government officials, and local families grow more willing to hide communist troops. Over time, more and more locals actually take up arms and join in the combat operations. Insurgent military operations become bigger and deadlier. Ultimately a regular military force emerges that can engage government forces on the field of battle. That’s the third phase. As we’ll see, the Vietnamese Communists put their own gloss on the theory and practice.