Book Reviews

A Failed Attempt at Myth-Busting

The Myth of Mao Zedong and Modern Insurgency: Grice, Francis:  9783319775708: Books
A Review of The Myth of Mao Zedong and Modern Insurgency by Francis Grice

Alex de Jong

International Institute for Research and Education, Amsterdam, The Netherlands



Mao Zedong’s writings on insurgent war have had an international impact. In the book under review, Grice attempts to show that these writings not only lacked originality but that their influence has also been strongly exaggerated. Grice seeks to disprove ‘the myth of Mao Zedong’ as an original and influential military thinker, but fails to present a convincing argument for his case. The book relies on a questionable interpretation of Mao Zedong’s writings on warfare. In addition, the book is weakly sourced and does not address important self-avowed Maoist insurgencies.



Mao Zedong – insurgency – Maoism


Francis Grice, (2019) The Myth of Mao Zedong and Modern Insurgency, London: Palgrave Macmillan.


Recently, there has been increased study of the global influence and spread of the ideas of Mao Zedong. In 2013, Matthew Rothwell published Transpacific Revolutionaries: The Chinese Revolution in Latin America, investigating how Latin American revolutionaries adapted Maoist ideas to conditions in Peru, Mexico and Bolivia. Alexander C. Cook’s edited volume Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History was published in 2014, followed in 2019 by Julia Lovell’s Maoism: A Global History. These books discuss how activists ‘domesticated’ Maoist ideas, as well as the practical preconditions for the spread of these ideas: the production of books, translations, international links and travel.

Francis Grice’s The Myth of Mao and Modern Insurgency takes a different approach by instead focusing on one aspect of Mao’s writings: revolutionary warfare. Considering the central role of such warfare in both Mao’s writings and their impact on self-avowed followers of Mao, this focus on insurgencies could have been a useful entry point for a comparative study of the international impact of Mao.

Francis Grice’s The Myth of Mao and Modern Insurgency aims to show that Mao’s ideas on insurgency were neither original nor very influential. The Introduction states its claim:


This book systematically examines, critiques, and ultimately rebuts the assumption that Mao created a master formula which subsequent rebel factions have used and which their adversaries can use to understand their actions. Instead, the book demonstrates that Mao neither created nor transformed the character of modern insurgencies, that he failed to produce a coherent vision of how insurgencies should be fought, and that he was uninfluential in his impact upon subsequent insurgencies, including his own. (p. 4.)


For Grice, the myth of Mao’s influence was produced by both the followers and the opponents of Mao, who both had an interest in exaggerating the influence of the Chinese leader. Followers of Mao were interested in exaggerating the power of his ideology. And Cold War warriors contributed to the myth of Maoism by seeing a hidden Chinese hand in insurgencies, instead of considering these as the outcome of social contradictions. 

However, The Myth of Mao and Modern Insurgency is a disappointing work. Grice, an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at McDaniel College, USA, repeatedly relies on straw-man arguments, and at times shows a lack of familiarity with the basic literature and historical context. His main thesis, that Mao had few original ideas, is not new. As Paul B. Rich, editor of Small Wars and Insurgencies, points out, ‘Grice’s charge that Mao’s military thought lacked originality is itself unoriginal’. However, Grice goes further in the extent to which he denies originality and influence to Mao’s ideas. The book has a highly polemical tone throughout, aiming at different targets: followers of Mao, as well as military historians and counterinsurgency experts. They all have, in Grice’s eyes, fundamentally mistaken Mao’s ideas; ‘when analysing past, present, and future insurgencies, we must purge ourselves of the practice of using a Maoist lens as a short cut to understand their character and predict their actions’ (p. 208). 

Already, the Introduction displays major problems. The ‘Mao myth’ that Grice criticises consists of three parts: first, that Mao’s teachings were ‘fundamentally new’; second, that Mao’s methods were more successful than any previous method; and thirdly that such models were widely adopted by very different armed movements. But Grice does not show that the combination of these three elements into one myth is widespread among groups as diverse as ‘scholars and practitioners’ in the fields of insurgency and counterinsurgency. What Grice does, instead, is list authors who, in his eyes, adopt at least one of those elements. The result is a very disparate group of authors who would strongly disagree with each other about what a Maoist theory of revolutionary warfare would look like. Grice’s criteria for considering movements to be substantially influenced by Mao’s teachings are so strict and peculiar that he can conclude that some of the most avowedly Maoist groups and writers are in fact not followers of Mao at all. One important distinction that Grice erases is that between Maoist revolutionaries and those who think that Mao’s politics can be detached from his politics. 

The second category, especially represented among ‘counterinsurgency experts’ and military historians, sees Mao as a technical expert, whose ideas on warfare can be implemented by any group engaged in armed combat, regardless of politics. The first category would, on the contrary, contend that an essential component of Maoist warfare is its politics. If an element of the myth is that Mao’s teachings continue to have a profound influence on contemporary insurgents, including even anti-communist ones, such Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (p. 1), authors for whom Maoist methods of warfare are intrinsically linked to a project of communist revolution would not count as believers in the Mao myth.

But, then, what were Mao’s real ideas on warfare? The second chapter of the book, titled ‘What Mao actually taught’ claims to answer that question by providing an objective summary of Mao’s writings. Mao’s influence can then be measured by comparing the actions of different groups with ‘what Mao actually taught’. But the ‘systematic examination’ of Mao’s writings turns out to be a procedure that removes them from their political and historical contexts, erasing distinctions between different kinds of texts. 

Since Chapter 2 provides the basis for the remainder of the book, it is worth considering it in some detail. First of all, Grice’s selection of texts by Mao is questionable; he uses what he calls the nine volumes of Mao’s Selected Works and the ten volumes of his Collected Works. Of course, only five volumes of the Selected Works were published in China and there are no Collected Works of Mao. Volumes six to eight of the Selected Works are unofficial collections of texts by Mao, published in India during the nineties. The so-called Collected Works are documents ‘compiled, edited and published by the U.S. Government’s Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) in 1978’. This means Grice is discussing texts that many followers of Mao would not have had access to, and that Mao and the PRC might not have considered suitable for circulation. 

Grice then subjects these works to a ‘qualitative content analysis’, which means ‘coding the existence of themes within each of Mao’s works’. The existence and prevalence of themes ‘in Mao’s writings were coded using a sliding scale between -3 and +3, with -3 at one end representing an emphatic refutation of the theme, 0 representing the absence of a theme altogether, and +3 representing an emphatic endorsement of the theme’. The problems with this approach are obvious. The Selected Works consist of many different kinds of texts, such as lectures given at party schools, interventions in debates within the party, interviews with foreign observers, etc. The so-called Collected Works contain ‘selected speeches, articles, essays, reports, letters, interviews, declarations, decrees, telegrams, poems, inscriptions’: Grice’s method collapses the differences between the genres and occasions and considers all of them equally important for one specific field: that of warfare.

The upshot of the procedure is that Grice comes up with a summary of what Mao ‘really taught’ that will surprise many scholars of Maoism as well as self-described followers of Mao. Grice’s summary of Mao’s views on ‘the benefits of trading space for time’ especially demonstrates this. Trading space for time, i.e. avoiding battles to instead accumulate strength for later confrontations, is one of the most famous Maoist tenets for guerrilla warfare. As Mao put it in the letter A Single Spark can Start a Prairie Fire: ‘The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.’ 

But, according to Grice, this view of Maoist strategy overlooks the fact that, ‘what Mao really taught’ is ‘that defensive positional warfare was equally important to guerrilla warfare’ (pp. 20, 21). Grice does not consider how, during the different phases of a war, different methods could become more or less important. Trading space for time precedes positional warfare as it aims to build the regularised forces capable of holding territory. But, for Grice, Mao’s changing military priorities mean that he was ‘in two minds’ (p. 20) or ‘vacillating’ (p. 21) in his thinking. Yet, a military commander who consistently promulgates the same policies regardless of circumstances probably would be not very successful.

For this interpretation, Grice refers mostly to statements collected in Volume II of the Selected Works. But those statements either refer to operations in cooperation with ‘friendly armies’ and ‘other Chinese Troops’ (references to Chinese Nationalist forces), contradict Grice’s interpretation (positional warfare is only ‘auxiliary and secondary’), discuss future operations under changed conditions, or are general instructions, open to interpretation (‘it is necessary … to sustain our defence along the front lines’). Two additional references are not even meant to give instructions to Red Army forces; one is a telegram addressed to a Nationalist general, the other is a solidarity message to Spanish Republicans. 

Grice waves away criticism that his summary does not distinguish between more and lesser-known works of Mao by writing that such texts are all included in the analysis (p. 45). But texts that were widely read by self-avowed followers of Mao are mixed together with thousands of pages they would have had no access to. Grice’s argument that the so-called Collected Works and volumes 6 to 9 of the Selected Works are widely circulated and available on the internet makes no sense when discussing movements that rose and fell long before the internet existed. 

Grice also seems unfamiliar with the history of how Mao’s writings were (selectively) republished and circulated, claiming that Mao went to considerable lengths to have a ‘full compendium’ of his writings ‘made available across the world’ (p. 12). But, when Mao’s writings were being prepared for (international) publication, significant alterations were made while other texts were deliberately left buried. Stuart Schram’s classic study The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, originally published in 1963, had already detailed examples of this. Of the Selected Works, only the first four volumes were published while Mao was still alive. The selective publication and circulation of Mao’s texts were influenced by changing political currents in the PRC. Volume 5 of Mao’s Selected Works was only published after the fall of the ‘gang of four’. This book was a ‘weapon of ideological struggle’ of the new regime. There is no single ‘what Mao really taught’; what texts were published, and in what form, changed as political needs changed.

The third chapter argues that Mao had few original ideas. Grice discusses the Maccabean Revolt of 168–142 BCE in Judea, as well as the American Revolutionary War and writings by Lenin, to argue that Mao’s ideas on warfare were not new. Removing the historical and political context, in the way Grice has done, reduces Mao’s military writings largely to an assortment of generalities. This is clear in this chapter where supposed commonalities between different insurgencies in different eras are sketched in very broad strokes, such as the need for control of the population and resources. That, for example, popular support is important for a small force if it wants to defeat a stronger foe, and that it needs to control resources are conclusions that many insurgent leaders before Mao came to. 

But Grice also makes the claim that Mao had not come to such conclusions on his own. Mao, Grice suggests, instead took almost all of his ideas from earlier (Western) insurgent leaders. According to Grice, Mao made in-depth studies of leaders such as Michael Collins and T.E. Lawrence, as well as of events such as the American War of Independence (p. 92). To support this claim, Grice does not refer to China-specialists and he does not consider how Mao, having had an at-best rudimentary knowledge of English, would have been able to do this in 1930s China. Repeatedly, Grice makes unlikely claims like these while drawing on the work of popularisers and non-specialists, instead of up-to-date scholarly literature. The reference Grice gives for his claim that Mao studied ‘the works’ of Michael Collins (which were those?) is, for example, an unsourced 1990 newspaper article from the Los Angeles Times. 

The fourth chapter discusses the Chinese revolutionary war, raising the question ‘did Mao influence himself?’ Grice’s argument is that the development of the war had little in common with what Mao really taught, and concludes from this that Mao himself did not follow his own teachings. This conclusion is undermined by Grice’s fundamentally ahistorical standard. Grice uses texts that were written during different phases of the Chinese revolution without considering how such works responded to changing conditions. Some of the texts were written while the Chinese Communists Party was allied with the Kuomintang. During this period, it can even be unclear what Mao meant when writing ‘we’: did he refer to the Red Army and the Chinese Communist Party, or did he include the Kuomintang and its armed forces as well?

Again, Grice’s use of literature is questionable. Grice does not mention relevant works such as the studies by Gregor Benton of Communist forces during the war. On the other hand, Grice makes far too free a use of books that suit his narrative such as Otto Braun’s A Comintern Agent in China, 1932–1939. These memoirs of a German Communist who took part in the Long March are generally considered to be a valuable historical source – provided it is taken into account that this book (originally published by the GDR’s state publishing house) is strongly anti-Mao. The introduction to the English translation points this out; ‘Braun may depict Mao as largely black’, but ‘what he has to say about most of the other [Chinese Communist leaders] is in credibly varying shades of grey’. But Grice is not interested in credible varying shades, as his selective use of the material shows. In this, he is reminiscent of the highly contested biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, a book that is also repeatedly referred to. Grice is aware that the book has been severely criticised, but still repeatedly refers to it for factual claims. 

The fifth chapter of the book has a similar aim as the preceding one – this time globally. But although the book claims to make a global assessment of the influence of Mao’s ideas on war, it practically leaves out three of the most significant contemporary examples of self-avowed Maoist movements. The Maoist movements in Nepal, India and the Philippines are hardly mentioned. This decision of course helps Grice in his goal of arguing that Mao’s influence was insignificant. Grice’s brief discussion of Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) ideologue Jose Maria Sison shows a lack of basic familiarity with the relevant literature. According to Grice, a lack of Chinese aid moved Sison to declare that the CPP’s insurgency was ‘being fought using radically different methods’ than those of Mao (p. 192). It is difficult to see how Grice can conclude this from a text, Specific Characteristics of Our People’s War, that quotes Mao and outlines a strategy that is heavily characterised by traditionally Maoist elements such as a multi-phase, protracted rural guerrilla warfare. Rather than referring to the standard literature on the topic, such as The Communist Party of the Philippines, 1968–1993: A Story of Its Theory and Practice by Kathleen Weekley, Grice refers to sources that make the unsubstantiated claim that the CPP received significant amounts of aid from the Soviet Union.

Rather than discussing avowedly Maoist movements, Grice includes extended discussions of Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. It is well known that Ho Chi Minh was far from a slavish disciple of Mao, and other Vietnamese ideologues and strategists such as Võ Nguyên Giáp and Lê Duẩn also developed theories that clearly diverged from Maoist ideas. Grice writes that ‘it would appear the Vietnamese were being honest’ when they claimed ‘their methods were their own, not Mao’s’ (p. 167). However, according to Grice, ‘this has been dismissed by Western scholars as nationalist nonsense’, thereby necessitating him to correct the myth. But that Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communists are widely seen as followers of Mao’s strategy is a straw man of Grice’s making. Grice follows this up with another straw man: ‘The other theorist who is regularly portrayed as a disciple of Mao’s teachings is Ernesto Che Guevara’ (p. 167). For this surprising claim, Grice gives not a single reference. Of course, Grice concludes that Guevara was not particularly influenced by Mao.

A four-page-long discussion of Peru’s Shining Path is the only instance in which Grice purports to analyse a self-described Maoist insurgency. Again, relevant, widely-known literature such as Carlos Iván Degregori’s incisive study How Difficult It Is to Be God: Shining Path’s Politics of War in Peru, 1980–1999 is missing from his discussion. Grice’s determination to conclude that even the infamously dogmatic Shining Path, a movement that described its ideology as ‘Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, principally Maoism’, had little in common with ‘what Mao really taught’ leads to remarkable conclusions. Shining Path, for example, never constructed the kind of regularised military units that Mao deemed necessary to ultimately seize power. Grice considers this proof that the movement was not strongly influenced by Maoist ideas, as if its lack of success in building such forces were a choice. In this way, every defeated insurgency can be labelled as not being influenced by Mao, since he thought that victory was important. In order to suggest that Maoism was only one of several influences on the Shining Path, Grice brings up the old myth that Shining Path ‘drew on the glories of the Inca empire’. As references for this, Grice cites a piece by Ilan Stavans, who is an expert neither on Maoism, insurgency, nor Peru, and an academic article that argues, in some detail, that, on the contrary, Shining Path disparaged the history of Peru’s indigenous people, rather than drawing on their past glories (p. 170). 

The final chapter is a brief evaluation of why ‘the Mao myth’ has become so widespread. Here, Grice makes some common-sense observations about the motivations of different actors (the US State Department, insurgents, the Chinese Communist Party) to exaggerate the importance and power of Mao’s ideas. In this chapter, Grice returns to some of his earlier examples, and does so in a way that shows little understanding of them. In addition to his questionable discussion of Jose Maria Sison, Grice suggests that individuals such as Shining Path’s leader Abimael Guzmán positioned themselves as ‘forward-looking Maoist thinkers while branding their opponents as old-fashioned Stalinists’ (p. 192). Suggesting this kind of contradiction between Stalinism and Maoism would be blasphemy for Guzmán, for whom criticisms of such an ‘outstanding’ personage as Stalin were but pretexts for attacking ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Let us return to the central questions of The Myth of Mao Zedong and Modern Insurgency: that of the existence of a Mao myth and specifically of a Maoist doctrine for insurgent war. As a body of thought, ‘Maoism’ became a global phenomenon during the sixties when the People’s Republic of China increasingly presented ‘Mao-Zedong Thought’ as internationally valid and a superior version of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Books, pamphlets and journals were weapons in the Chinese competition with the Soviet Union for the claim to be speaking on behalf of ‘really existing socialism’. This ideological struggle intensified as Chinese claims for the power of ‘Mao-Zedong-Thought’ increased. 

In 1962, Zhou Enlai claimed that the centre of world revolution had moved from Moscow to Beijing. Around this time, translations of Mao’s works made up 70 per cent of exported books. No volume was spread more widely than the famous ‘Little Red Book’. During the period from October 1966 to May 1967 alone, over 800,000 copies were distributed in 14 languages to 117 countries. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s writings were celebrated as works of world-historic genius, with near-magical powers ascribed to them. Mao’s teachings supposedly inspired successes as diverse as increased peanut yields and paraplegics learning to walk again. 

A myth was manufactured and promoted in which military aspects had a special place. According to Lin Biao (Mao’s designated heir until he fell from grace), ‘the Chinese people’s victory in the anti-Japanese war was a victory for people’s war, for Marxism-Leninism and the thought of Mao Tse-tung.’ The Introduction to the second edition of the Little Red Book, ascribed to Lin Biao, praised Mao’s work, ‘once grasped by the broad masses’, as a super-weapon: it was ‘a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power’.

What exactly ‘Mao-Zedong-Thought’ was, and what role it played in the revolutionary war, has always been a question of political importance. The Chinese Communist Party systemically exaggerated the role of Mao Zedong. Work such as that of Alexander V. Pantsov who, on the basis of research in Russian archives, argues that Mao’s strategy and rise to power was much more influenced by the Soviet leadership than has previously been assumed, significantly weakens this Mao-myth. Significant parts of the Chinese Communist movement did not become ‘Maoist’ until the beginning of the 1940s, and Mao’s writings were only fully established as orthodoxy following the bloody ‘Yan’an Rectification Movement’ of 1942–4. 

It was the Seventh Party Congress of the Communist Party in 1945 that officially canonised ‘the thought of Mao Zedong’ as the party’s guide. Ironically, Liu Shaoqi played a significant role in promoting the myth of Mao as the sole decisive leader of the revolution and his thought as the party’s unique inspiration. Comrade Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi declared in 1945, was ‘not only the greatest revolutionary and statesman in Chinese history, but also the greatest theoretician and scientist’. Having ‘raised’ the ideological level to unprecedented heights, Mao showed ‘the only correct road leading to complete liberation’. Liu Shaoqi’s panegyric on Mao’s leadership erased the contributions of commanders like Zhu Du and Peng Dehuai, and forerunners of what became ‘Maoism’ such as Li Dazhao, Peng Pai and Fang Zhimin. Ironically, such people are also barely mentioned by Grice who instead reverts to an earlier, Mao-centric view of Chinese history that looks a lot like that constructed by the CCP once it was in power – except that the value judgements are inverted. 

The myth that resulted concerned both Mao’s role during the revolutionary war and the supposed originality and power of his ideas. For ‘Mao-Zedong-Thought’, two claims were made: it was both ‘creative’, and orthodox in the sense that it was supposedly the purest form of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, as applied to specifically Chinese conditions. Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi declared, was ‘a talented and creative Marxist’, integrating ‘the universal truth of Marxism – the most advanced ideology in the history of mankind – with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution’. 

As an international export, Mao-Zedong-Thought went through different waves that initially stressed orthodoxy, and later creativity. A first wave came after Khrushchev’s partial criticism of Stalin and Stalinism, and the Soviet Union’s embrace of peaceful coexistence. Rejecting such innovations, the first ‘Maoist’ groups took shape, inspired by the CCP’s and Mao’s polemics against Khrushchev’s ‘revisionism’. A second wave of internationalised Maoism took place later in the sixties. Claims for the power of Mao-Zedong-Thought and its international validity reached new heights, and texts such as the ‘Little Red Book’ and the first four volumes of the Selected Works were widely translated and distributed. Only in this phase did ‘Maoist’ start to become an ideological self-identification rather than a pejorative label ascribed by detractors.

That Mao was supposedly a world-historic military thinker was especially emphasised during this phase, since Maoist people’s war was presented as the revolutionary alternative to the revisionism of Khrushchev. Lin Biao’s widely distributed essay Long Live the Victory of People’s War declared that Mao’s ‘theory of and policies for people’s war …. creatively enriched and developed Marxism-Leninism’. Differing from the presentation of Mao-Zedong-Thought that stressed it was the application of Marxism-Leninism to specifically Chinese conditions, Maoist tactics such as the establishment of rural revolutionary-base areas and the encirclement of the cities from the countryside were declared to be particularly important ‘for the revolutionary struggles of the oppressed nations and peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin America’. Furthermore, they were of ‘universal’ importance. 

By this time, Maoist theory had undergone a process of deep change. Any theory that travels from one context to another is to some extent transformed by the conditions that it encounters, its ‘conditions of acceptance’. In conditions that varied widely from those of 1930s China, like those of Western Europe in the sixties and seventies, ‘Maoism’ inevitably took on a highly syncretic character. Its flexibility was supposed to be one of its attractions. An organisation like the French Gauche Prolétarienne (whose supporters were among the earliest activists to claim the label of ‘Maoist’ for themselves) considered building a ‘people’s army’ an immediate task, even in early-seventies France. Gauche Prolétarienne’s activists dreamed of a revolutionary party and partisan units arising from the post-68 social struggles. Around the same time, the German Red Army Faction heavily quoted Mao, as well as Mao-influenced groups such as the Italians around Il Manifesto, to justify its ‘urban guerrilla’ concept. 

Were they not influenced by what Mao Zedong ‘really taught’? Such groups were attracted by similar aspects of Maoism as the initiators of more easily recognisable Maoist ‘people’s wars’ like Shining Path and the forerunners of today’s Communist Party of India (Maoist). They all shared an attraction to the voluntarism they found in Mao and admired his celebration of armed struggle as the ‘highest form of struggle’. 

Rather than addressing such interpretations and myths, however, The Myth of Mao Zedong and Modern Insurgency reverts to Cold War stereotypes and substitutes one myth for another. Given its fallacious reasoning, its lack of engagement with important existing literature, and selective engagement with the material, the reader is left wondering why an academic publisher saw it fit to publish. Readers would do better to instead look up the volumes by Rothwell and Cook. 




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