Mao Tse-tung was one of the most important military as well as political figures of the twentieth century. His doctrine of protracted guerilla revolutionary war had a major influence on the history of the second half of the twentieth century, and his military doctrines were successfully employed by the North Vietnamese to stymie the United States during the Vietnam war. Yet--in contrast to most famous generals--his military career is not one of dramatic victories won in the field. Indeed, his most famous single military exploit is a retreat, the Long March.
In order to understand the nature and significance of Mao's military thought, we must understand both the political context of that thought and the military context in which Mao operated. In spite of the famous dictum of Clausewitz that war is an extension of policy, the study of war and of politics have been largely isolated from one another in the Western world. Political philosophers paid little attention to war, and military theorists paid little attention to broader political issues. A striking exception to this pattern of divorce is Machiavelli, whose military thought was closely integrated with his broader political philosophy. To Mao, as to Machiavelli, war and politics were a continuum, not isolated compartments.
Mao was perhaps forced to this understanding by circumstances. The Chinese Communist Party originally pursued an urban insurrectionary strategy, in keeping with orthodox Marxist-Leninist theory; only when urban insurrection failed was the party forced to retreat to rural bases, and to rethink its political and military strategy to fit a rural context. In making this adaptation, Mao Tse-tung in fact quietly rejected much of Marxist-Leninist theory, according to which urban workers, not the peasantry, were identified as the revolutionary class. In this respect Mao's thought was a triumph of circumstance over ideology.
Another central influenc...