In revolutionary war the aim is always political[1].

To answer the question, the essay will first define the insurgency and discuss major points of successful revolutionary strategy. Then, it will discuss the method developed by Mao Tse-Tung, arguing that this was a very elaborate insurgent strategy. He emphasised the importance of popular support, extensive organisation, and the environment in a prolonged conflict with a stronger enemy – the government. Mao famously claimed that ‘politics is war without bloodshed; war is politics with bloodshed’, and it seems that this emphasis on politics rather than on violence was the key ingredient of his success.

The strength of Mao’s strategy is in the right balance between politics and violence, and in careful planning of each stage of the revolution. Also, he put the emphasis correctly: he values his revolutionary forces and does not hurry to put the arms up. Rather than that, he prepares to patently wait for the right moment. Mao’s strategy teaches to avoid direct confrontation with the authorities at earlier stages of the insurgency campaign, establish base areas, unify the efforts, regularly carry out political mobilisation of the masses, persuade and influence the people psychologically, and other very important points for conducting a successful revolution. In sum, Mao’s strategy is very much about politics, directed to the people, the ruling government, and the revolutionaries.

Contrary to Mao, Guevara discussed the success of the Cuban revolution in a highly technical and narrowly military manner, paying very little attention to the revolutionary situation that existed prior his appearance. Guevara attributed Castro’s victory in Cuba primarily to his foco, whereas some scholars argue that it was largely due to the socio-political situation in Cuba and ‘the culmination of long series of thwarted revolutions’[2]. Nevertheless, Guevara failed to correctly identify the main reasons of his success in Cuba, which led him to draw some controversial conclusions and lessons from this experience, and which perhaps contributed to his failure in Bolivia.


Insurgency: Definition and other Features

Insurgency is defined as ‘a struggle between a nourishing group and the ruling authorities in which the former consciously employs political resources (organisational skills, propaganda, and/or demonstrations) and instruments of violence to establish legitimacy for some aspects of the political system it considers illegitimate’[3]. The guerrilla warfare is designed not only to increase the human and material cost to the government, but also to demonstrate its failure to maintain effective control and provide protection within the country[4] by targeting primarily ‘the government’s armed forces, police, their support units and key economic targets’[5]. This form of warfare is ‘a weapon of the weak’[6], since it allows a comparatively small (in numbers) revolutionary group to defeat much larger and stronger governing authorities by using specific psycho-politico-military strategy. The main target of guerrillas is the countryside or rural areas, which with its poor transportation and communication networks and the isolation from the centre enables guerrillas to easily access the population in order to propagandize, control, and secure support from them[7]. Thus, the correct strategy choice is crucial for the guerrillas’ success, especially in the earlier stages of the revolution when they do not have much popular and financial support.

A major technique of revolutionary strategy is to deceive the governing authorities into making too little effort too late[8]. The pyramid-shaped[9] rebel structure misleads the authorities, giving the government an impression that the enemy is weak. Thus, the government mobilises insufficient number of soldiers and police to eliminate the rebel bases (which requires going through a very lengthy investigation process). If the security forces lack the means to dominate the entire country, they concentrate their efforts only on the ‘critical areas’[10] only. Meanwhile, the revolutionary political network remains planted among the people. As a result, the government fails to destroy the core of the problem. This weakens both the popular support of the government, and its ability to control the situation. The rebellions now have the opportunity to silently and slowly continue their revolutionary activity in the countryside, where the majority of their target population is based.

In the countryside, the revolutionaries and propagandists recruit the local population; gradually take control of isolated villages where they form local guerrilla bases. The local population gradually starts cooperating, either voluntarily or after some acts of intimidation and persuasion[11].

Most scholars argue that for successful insurgency the emphasis should be on politics not on violence, since insurgency is rather a political than a military phenomenon. Many scholars agree that effective revolutionary war must include several different stages. Crozier, for instance, mentions three distinct phases of revolutionary war: defensive, acceleration and expansion, offensive[12]. Giap mentions ‘stage of contention, stage equilibrium and stage counter-offensive’[13]; whereas for Cole, ‘people’s war must pass three stages: a defensive stage, a stage in which the opposing forces approach a balance and a stage of counter-offensive’.[14] In sum, the scholars argue, that revolutionaries should first gain the support of population and accumulate the force before engaging in any direct confrontation with the authorities. This position is supported by Mao in his strategy of protracted war, the aim of which is to reverse the power relationship (1) by wearing down the enemy’s strength with the ‘cumulative effect of many campaigns and battles’[15]; (2) by building their [guerrillas] own strength through mobilising the support of the people, establishing bases, and capturing equipment, and (3) by gaining outside political and military support[16].

The Maoist Strategy

The Maoist approach is a ‘sequential strategy’[17], with three distinct stages: political organisation-terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and mobile-conventional warfare. During the first stage (organisational) or ‘strategic defensive’[18], cellular networks are created and political-propaganda groups are built to win popular support and train terrorists to engage in selective intimidation of recalcitrant individuals[19]. In this stage, the main aim is to acquire the support of the masses and to recruit local leaders who, once in the organisation, will then attempt to detach the people from the government. Mao teaches that during this phase, the revolutionaries must avoid any battles at a
ll cost, since their resources are yet limited: ‘the focus is on local population, and the task is to politically indoctrinate the masses and train fighters’[20]. Tactical offensives are carried out to further stretch enemy’s resources.

The second stage in the Maoist scheme, the ‘stalemate’[21], which is guerrilla warfare, is characterised by ‘armed resistance carried out by small bands operating in rural areas where terrain is rugged and government control weak’[22]. The aim of this stage is to isolate the people from the government, to protect many potential targets and to goad the authorities to adopting a static defensive position[23]. Importantly, if during this stage the insurgents face a strong government opposition, they have an option to return to the first stage. If there is a satisfactory progress, and the government does not show a significant opposition, guerrillas move to the second half of stage two and expand their organisation in the controlled regions, establish regional forces, which together with full-time forces enable the insurgents to form a political network of the villages, and thus form a major base area. At this stage, ‘insurgents try to mobilise population by exploiting and satisfying popular aspirations’[24]. During the ‘stalemate’ phase, the target is also local officials: they must either leave or die. All the government peace proposals must be rejected in this stage.

Although the parallel hierarchy is more visible and military organisation is relatively stable in late stage two, the insurgents prefer to avoid direct confrontation with the government’s army in order to demonstrate the inability of the government to destroy them. Military actions in stage two are predominantly large-scale guerrilla attacks carried out from secure base areas in the hope the government’s response will be tardy, insufficient, and tactically misdirected[25]. Mao emphasises that during the late second stage military considerations and political calculations should receive equal attention[26]. The last stage of a Maoist insurgent strategy, ‘strategic offensive’,[27] is civil war characterised by mobile-conventional warfare. The aim of guerrillas at this stage is to displace the regime and the government. In this stage, the insurgents use all available force to destroy the enemy.

Despite the revolutionaries start almost from scratch, they must have a good organisation. In addition, they have to start secretly, and slowly build up their political power and extend their network and coverage. They then organise fronts, parties and pressure groups to mobilise the popular support[28] by all costs. As Mao has taught: ‘it was necessary to bring about a brief reign of terror in every rural area; otherwise we could never suppress the activities of the counter-revolutionaries in the countryside or overthrown the authority of the gentry’[29]. Mao described the military strategy of the revolutionary war as ‘using the villages to encircle the towns’, when the control is first gained over the rural population and then gradually expanded, creating the situation when the towns and the inter-town communications are under the insurgent control. The government, attempting to defend the main centres and vital points of the country will heavily concentrate its forces there, allowing the insurgents to jointly attack dispersed government forces one by one in conventional battle until victory is achieved.

For Mao, the objective of war is not only to annihilate the enemy, but also to preserve oneself[30]. According to McCuin, this must be a primary objective of every revolutionary strategy, because the existence of revolutionary forces requires the governing power to conduct expensive and tiring operations, which eventually may become so unpopular that the government will have to stop the war[31]. Based on his principle, Mao has developed his fundamental rules for decisive engagements: ‘… to fight resolutely a decisive engagement in every campaign or battle when victory is certain; to avoid a decisive engagement in every campaign or battle when victory is uncertain; and to avoid absolutely a strategic decisive engagement which stakes the destiny of the nation… It is beyond doubt that the refusal to fight decisive engagements means abandonment of territory, and we must have the courage to abandon it when (and only when) conditions require us to do so.’[32]

Mao emphasised the importance of establishing base areas: ‘…as the war is at once protracted and ruthless, it is impossible to sustain guerrilla war in the enemy’s rear without base areas’[33]. The base areas ‘are the strategic bases on which a guerrilla war relies for carrying out its strategic tasks as well as for achieving the goals of preserving and expanding oneself and annihilating or expelling the enemy’[34]. The base areas are built by revolutionary forces from the ‘backward villages’, and transformed into advanced, consolidated areas, into ‘great military, political, economic and cultural revolutionary bastions’[35] that are ready to fight the enemy. Unity or cohesion is another important variable that affects the success of insurgencies. In his analysis of guerrilla strategy, John McCuen concludes that unified effort is one of the core principles of every successful revolutionary strategy[36]. Mao recognises the importance of unity: ‘without centralised strategic command the partisans can inflict little damage on their adversaries, as without this, they can break down into roaming, armed bands, and then find no more support by the population’[37]. Thus, the centralised strategic command is essential for providing common sense of direction, integrated strategy and discipline.

Further, Mao teaches: ‘As the revolutionary war is a war of the masses, we can carry out the war only by mobilizing the masses and relying on them’.[38] Mao realises that in order to win, a great deal of work has to be done: ‘leading the peasants in agrarian struggles and distributing land to them; arousing their labour enthusiasm so as to increase agricultural production; safeguarding the interests of the workers; establishing co-operatives; developing trade with outside areas; solving the problems that face the masses, problem of clothing, food, and shelter, of fuel, rice, cooking oil and salt, of health and hygiene, and of marriage. In short, all problems facing the masses in their actual life should claim our attention. If we have these problems at heart and solve them to the satisfaction of the masses, we shall really become the organizers of the life of the masses and they will really rally round us and warmly support us’[39].

For Mao, persuasion and other psychological actions indeed play a significant role in the revolutionary mobilization of the masses. For Mao, ‘political mobilisation’ or persuasion through personal contact with people was very important: ‘
Every soldier and every civilian should be made to understand why the war must be fought and how it concerns him.[40]’ But for mobilising all the armed forces and the people effectively, a precise, specific political programme is needed. Mobilisation must be done not only once, but regularly ‘by word of mouth, by leaflets and bulletins, by newspapers, books and pamphlets, through schools, through mass organisations and through cadres’, it also must to be linked up with the life of the soldiers and the people, thereby transformed into regular movement[41]. Overall, Mao rightly regards political mobilisation of population as a ‘matter of the first magnitude on which victory primarily depends’[42].

The Cuban Strategy

For Che, the foco is the initial crucial mass of the guerrillas, the vanguard of the revolution, from which all else is derived; Guevara believed that from it the guerrilla movement itself could generate the conditions for a revolutionary victory[43]. He rejected the idea of subordinating the guerrilla force to the party in favour of placing primary emphasis on the army as the nucleus of the party[44]. Thus, for Che the party can arise from the guerrilla force itself, and there is no need of prolonged preparations and consideration. According to Guevara, the guerrilla success will eventually inspire local population to join the insurgents, and with the acquired mass support, the revolution will strengthen and eventually succeed.

If in his earlier writings Guevara admits that not ‘all conditions for revolution are going to be created through the impulse given to them by guerrilla activity’[45], in his later writings he insists that revolutionaries should not allow the words (such as ‘democracy’) ‘to be utilized apologetically to represent the dictatorship of the exploiting classes’[46], and arrives to conclusion, that a foco, properly employed, can ignite a revolution anywhere in Latin America[47].

According to Che Guevara, the Cuban revolution contributed ‘three fundamental lessons to the conduct of revolutionary movement in Latin America’: (1) popular forces can win a war against the army; (2) it is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist, the insurrection can create them; (3) in underdeveloped America the countryside is the basic area for armed fighting[48]. Guevara claimed that the leadership is the key, and if the leader had a team of thirty to fifty men (the foco), he could start a rebellion in Latin America given ‘their conditions of favourable terrain for operations, hunger for land, repeated attack upon justice, etc.’[49]. To put it differently, Guevara believed that if the conditions are favourable for the guerrilla warfare and the foco is established, all revolutionaries need to succeed is to take the weapons and fight.

Guevara believed that it was the foco strategy that secured victory in Cuba. But when he started to apply this strategy in Bolivia, it proved to be ineffective. This occurred mainly because Guevara did not take in account the economico-socio-political situation in the region. He assumed that peasantry in Bolivia would be just as destitute and neglected as their Cuban counterparts, and dismissed the fact that their social standing drastically increased after the National Revolutionary Movement’s (MNR) ascension to power in 1952, which established the Ministry of Peasant Affairs, mandated to improve peasant education and hygiene, as well as incorporate the peasant masses into national culture and study the needs of agrarian workers; importantly, since 1953 Agrarian Reform, the average Bolivian peasants were able to own the land they worked on[50]. Thus, the agrarian reform platform that has been used by Castro in the Sierra Maestra was irrelevant here. The Bolivian peasants indeed had something to lose, and they needed much more incentives than Cuban peasantry to start the uprising.

Also, it seems that Guevara did not expect that the Bolivian government would respond differently to his campaign than the Cuban Batista. Batista’s armed forces violently attacked rural villages: some 20,000 people were tortured between 1956 and 1958[51]. Batista’s totally immoral dictatorship and his violent counter-insurgency contributed to radicalisation of the peasants and ‘pushed them into the open and waiting arms of Castro’s revolutionary band, thus fuelling revolutionary fervour in the country’. Guevara mistakenly expected similar response from the Bolivian government[52]. President Barrientos made strategic steps in two directions: military and social. Firstly, he trained a special Battalion to destroy Guevara’s foco. Importantly, he ensured that no violence is taking place during these military operations. Secondly, being well aware of the crucial role the peasants could play, he spent nearly half his time in rural areas. Bolivian leader put the emphasis correctly by focusing on the peasantry: he not only prevented any acts of violence by the military against them, but also engaged in public works projects in order to improve his image in rural areas of Bolivia.

Guevara underestimated the importance of politics in his strategy, dismissing the fact that ‘democratic nationalist’ image of himself and Castro played a leading role in securing broad-based popular support of Cuban peasants and the neutrality of Americans (where he was portrayed as a patriot fighting against ‘monstrum horrendum’, Batista)[53]. In Bolivia, Guevara’s ‘lack of politics’ resulted in a disastrous campaign: instead of fighting for peasants rights and interests, Guevara started to focus heavily on the new enemy – capitalism, which ‘must be defeated in a world confrontation’[54]. The emphasis and task of his revolution changed in Bolivia: Guevara no longer concentrated on promoting peasants’ rights and interests, rather than that he wanted to create the new Vietnam[55] with the help of the people. Guevara aimed to liberate the entire Latin America from the imperialist threat and prevent it from turning into the colony of capitalist America, stressing the international nature of the revolution, ‘rather than playing off nationalist sentiments within the region’[56]. As such, the insurrection in Bolivia was doomed to failure. As a result, Barrientos was able to capitalize on national sentiments after Guevara’s first attack, sending out a communiqué that read: ‘…the national territory has been invaded by an armed group made up of diverse nationalities, the majority adhering to the Castro-communist line’[57].


The Bolivian example proves that the foco is not the only essential component of the successful revolution. Rather than that, the support of the people is crucial. Guevara failed to convince Bolivian peasant to join the guerrillas, as he failed to predict (or prepare to) the reaction and response of the government to the insurgents’ action. Bolivian case shows t
hat the behaviour of the people differs from one country to another, depending upon their level of satisfaction with the policies that are in place, as differs the counter-insurgency of the government. The task of a good strategist is to notice these differences and specifics of the country in which the revolution is attempted, and to reflect these in the strategy. Guevara’s strategy failed largely because Che underestimated the importance of socio-political climate, and failed to understand economic conditions of the Bolivian peasantry. Moreover, he provided a seemingly foreign force[58] to combat the Barrientos regime. Barrientos used this Che’s strategy weakness, and in June 1967 held a peasant congress where the guerrillas were branded as an anti-national force. As a result, Guevara’s revolution proved to be incoherent to the population and failed to draw support from it, as such he could not be considered as a good strategist.

Revolutionaries have much smaller resources in the industrial, economic and military fields than the government, especially if this government is supported by the West[59]. Thus, insurgents must first evade and then neutralise the superior strength of the enemy until their own forces are equally strong[60]. In order to do this, human and political mobilisation should be a priority for insurgent[61]. In his strategy, Mao stresses the importance of political mobilization of the masses, moreover, he teaches that it must be carried out on the regular basis. In order for the guerrilla to gain a popular support, they must identify the source of peoples’ frustration and grievances[62]. Che failed to communicate with Bolivian peasants, whereas Mao was aware of the vital role of communication, and actively practiced it with people by finding out their needs and grievances before starting propaganda appeals: ‘In all practical work of our Party, correct leadership can only be developed on the principle of ‘from the masses to the masses.’ Thus, Mao gave the primary role to the party and the need for political preparation before any military operation, whereas Guevara believed that the party can arise from the guerrilla force. In the Cuban case, military precedes politics, and this strategy of violence eventually leads to failure in Bolivia.

For Mao, the patience (time) is an important factor of the successful strategy: ‘A distant journey tests the strength of the horse and a long task proves the character of a man.’[63] If revolutionaries want to succeed, they not only have to be prepared for a long battle, but have to be ready ‘to fight indefinitely with complete faith in the inevitability of final victory’[64]. From Mao’s position, time allows insurgents to step back when the situation is unfavourable, and to renew their activity when it gets better. Maoist strategy is a multifaceted one, with the emphasis on several interrelated elements: popular support, organisation, and the environment. Through a combination of propaganda and organisation, insurgents prepare the people for prolonged conflict with the authorities and, once the conflict has started, sustain and gradually expand their support and involvement. The Maoist method requires flexibility, patience, and coordination of efforts. The key to success, according to Maoist strategy, is superior political and military skills, and emotional strength and commitment.

It would be wrong to say that Guevara’s theory does not highlight some of the factors crucial to revolutionary success, for instance Guevara gives more scrutiny to the initial stage of insurgency than Mao does. Nevertheless, Guevara fails to consider the importance of socio-political environment in the country in which the insurgency was attempted. In contrast, Mao successfully fused together military, political and psychological principles and techniques, at the same time maintaining a perfect balance between these three, and produced a strategy that worked perfectly in China and is still considered as an exceptional by many prominent scholars across the world.


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[1] Crozier (1970)
[2] Thomas in Moss (1972), p.142
[3] O’Neill (1980), p.1
[4] O’Neill (1980), p.6
[5] Asprey (1975), p.xi
[6] O’Neill (1980), p. 5
[7] Gurr (1970)
[8] McCuen (1966), p.35
[9] The structure where only relatively small number of guerrilla bands is actually visible to authorities
[10] The most the politically or economically sensitive areas; McCuen (1966), p.35
[11] McCuen (1966), p.33
[12] Crozier (1970)
[13] Giap, People’s War People’s Army, pp.46-7
[14] Allan B. Cole (1956), p.99
[15] Mao (1954), p.125
[16] Mao, Selected works (1954), vol II, p.125
[17] The term O’Neil (1980) employs when describing a step-by-step strategy, when each step is designed to partially achieve the goal and is dependent on the outcome of the previous step
[18] Kiras (2007), p.169
[19] O’Neil (1980)
[20] Kiras (2007), p.169
[21] Kiras (2007), p.169
[22] O’Neil (19800, p.28
[23] Pustay (1965), p.33
[24] O’Neil (1980), p.29
[25] O’Neil (19800, p.30
[26] Pustay (1965), p.75
[27] Kiras (2007), p.169
[28] McCuen (1966), p.31
[29] Mao Tse-tung (1954), p.27
[30] Ibid., pp.206-7
[31] McCuen (1966)
[32] Mao (1954), pp. 233-4
[33] Ibid., p.135
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] McCuen (1996)
[37] Mao ‘Strategy of Partisan Warfare’ in Jordan, p.404
[38] Mao (1954) Vol.I, p.147
[39] Ibid. 147-8
[40] Mao (1954), On the Protracted War, Vol. II, Selected Works, p.204
[41] Ibid., p.205
[42] Ibid.
[43] Kiras (2007), p. 172
[44] Debray (1967)
[45] Guevara (1969), p.8
[46] Guevara adjusts his theory in ‘Guerrilla Warfare: A Method.’, p.147
[47] Johnson (2006)
[48] Guevara (1969), p.13
[49] Ibid., p.112
[50] Johnson (2006)
[51] Moss (1972)
[52] Johnson (2006)
[53] Moss (1972), p.143
[54] Guevara (1998), p.171
[55] Guevara (1998)
[56] Johnson (2006)
[57] Weitz (1986), p.408
[58] The foco comprised of 17 Cubans, and 3 Peruvians along with roughly 29 Bolivians (Moreno, 1970, p.121)
[59] As in Bolivian case for instance
[60] Crozier (1970), p.18
[61] Crozier (1970)
[62] Gurr (1970)
[63] Mao in Crozier (1970) , p.10
[64] Crozier (1970), p.10