The political condition within Western societies has, in recent years, increasingly been cast in terms of a ‘culture war’ between radically opposed value systems: between those that want to preserve a pluralistic society where the right to freedom of expression is upheld against those who believe that society should be protected from offensive behaviours and ‘hate-speech’, which are embedded within systems of structural discrimination and oppression.
What has this condition got to do with the ghost of the Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-tung? More than one might think. The legacy of Mao’s struggle for power in China, and his strategic formulations for winning power, casts a long – and little understood – shadow over contemporary political conduct in the nations that constitute the liberal-democratic West. Of all the strands of modern political theorising that may be said to influence current Western political conduct, it was Mao, above all, who articulated and put into practice ideas of so-called cultural warfare. Key to the idea of culture war is the understanding that the space to be conquered to gain and retain power is not necessarily the physical battlefield but the intangible sphere of the mind. The Maoist conception of the strategic utility of the mind, and its capacity to be moulded towards the waging of cultural warfare, presents some interesting challenges to traditional Western notions of strategic formulation, as this essay will endeavour to show.
Discerning the Strategic Dynamics
Although the notion of culture war is not new, its salience has heightened since 2016, and turned into actual violence in the United States and the UK in May/June 2020. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the US city of Minneapolis was the immediate cause of the violence. Arguably, however, it was the long-term consequence and logical escalation of forces that had been brewing in US and UK polities for the better part of six decades.
The manifestation of the culture war took the form of riots and civil disturbances across US cities, as well assaults upon public statues, heritage sites and icons. In non-violent form culture war continues in the felt need to ‘decolonise’ the alleged structures of oppression, from the secondary and tertiary curriculums of schools and universities to libraries, health services, the police, the armed forces, and to just about everything.
The motive towards cultural iconoclasm and the impetus to destroy an inconvenient past is something that should concern strategic theorists. After all, the role of strategic theory is to render explicit what is implicit in our social surroundings by identifying the purpose and the means that impel political actors towards actions that seek to fulfil ideological goals.[i] Yet few analysts, have sought to uncover the strategic dynamics at work in the culture war currently convulsing Anglophone institutions.
Looking at the philosophical creed that seeks confrontation with the Anglo-American liberal democratic project, we see the work of the radical Left, a broad movement dedicated to advancing notions of social egalitarianism that ultimately has no interest in the preservation of the existing structures of society. Unlike the constitutional or social democrat Left, the radical Left does not accept the legitimacy of the current capitalist democratic order. It is prepared to engage with the structures of that order to exploit its fault lines and expose its weaknesses with a view to overthrowing it.
How to advance towards the new social order has seen radical Left theorists develop a profound interest in matters of strategy, often attending carefully to the methods necessary to bring about the conditions for revolution. The strategy of cultural warfare on the part of the contemporary radical Left comprises an amalgam of many different strains of thought, from Vladimir Lenin to Antonio Gramsci, to Herbert Marcuse. However, this essay focuses on the underappreciated influence of Mao Tse-tung’s thinking on the strategy of cultural warfare in the West.
Maoist ideas of revolutionary war have filtered into Western political discourse ever since the late 1930s when Chinese communist forces, holed up in the caves of Yenan in the remote Shensi province after the Long March, attracted the attention of sympathetic American journalists, like Edgar Snow and Anne Louise Strong, eager to broadcast Mao’s struggles to the wider world. During this period Mao and his acolytes scrutinised the failures of former Communist strategy, extending back to the 1920s, which had initially sought to stimulate revolution through urban uprisings, before being forced out of its Kiangsi Soviet and onto the Long March in 1934/35. It was in Yenan that Mao and his comrades cultivated their vision of the revolutionary persona necessary to withstand the rigours of long-term political struggle.
The victory of the communists in 1949, but especially the impact of the Cultural Revolution after 1966, drew further Western adherents, who were attracted to Maoist ideas of revolutionary purification. Mao’s thinking had a particular impact upon a generation of French intellectuals that, in part, constitute what is often termed the New Left – Alain Badiou, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, among others. The New Left looked to sources of inspiration like Mao to reinvigorate communist thinking from its moribund condition following the revelations of Stalinist excesses in the Soviet Union. Largely via their reflections, Maoist ideas of cultural struggle arrived upon the shores of American campuses in the late 1960s. And never left.
Dissecting the direct and indirect intellectual influences of Maoist thought on Western radicalism reveals, as this essay discloses, a very different construction of the strategic realm than that which has traditionally constituted the basis of Western political conduct.
Maoist Thought Confronts Western Strategic Formulation
The principal difference in strategic approach resides in the Maoist conception of the self and its manipulation as a latent source of power. As Philip Short wrote: ‘Stalin cared about what his subjects did (or might do); Hitler, about who they were; Mao cared about what they thought’.[ii] How the mind could be moulded towards revolutionary ends was to become highly influential upon the theorists of the New Left.
In contrast to liberal-democratic notions of the individual self and its autonomy, Maoist thought devotes considerable attention to addressing how to break down the barriers between the interior and external worlds in a manner that undermines established Western understandings of politics to a degree often overlooked in appreciations of strategic formulation. In that regard, Maoist ideas open up possibilities little understood either among scholars of strategy or mainstream political practitioners.
Strategy can be understood as the endeavour to relate means to ends: the use of available resources to gain defined objectives,[iii] encompassing the attempt to maximise interests with available resources.[iv] Actions are thus consciously intended to have utility. They are intended to achieve goals and therefore are constructed with a purpose. Strategy is, then, an inherently practical subject, concerned with translating aspirations into realisable objectives. Strategy, as Colin Gray explained, functions as the ‘bridge’ between tactics, that is, actions on the ground, and the broader political effects that they are intended to produce.[v] From this perspective, we can analyse the challenges and possibilities that Maoism poses for strategic conduct in a Western liberal democratic setting.
Strategy as objectively observable
The conception of strategy as a goal-orientated enterprise thus delineates a pragmatic concern with realising tangible objectives with available means. In its intellectual and operational manifestations, therefore, strategy concentrates on practices as physically observable phenomenon. Strategy is revealed and evaluated in relation to material facts, acts and outcomes: political mobilization, armed clashes, organised violence, plans, battles, campaigns, victories and defeats. Simply put, a successful strategy can usually be gauged by real world effects that are clear and demonstrable: objectives achieved, battles won, victories secured.
Strategy as a method of completion
Focusing on achieving empirically observable outcomes, strategy, as traditionally conceived, has little to say about the mind: the sphere of the self of private thoughts, reflections and beliefs. Strategy, conventionally understood, is about transforming an idea – a desire to achieve an objective – into reality. Strategy, in this sense, is a movement from inception to completion. The desire for completion, winning in war or attaining any other goal, reflects the wish to make something final, that is, to reach a definitive end that will be hard to question or undo. Moreover, a physically observable aftermath demonstrating the achievement of aims validates that final completion. Where the aim might arise in the individual or collective consciousness is something in which the study of strategy has evinced little interest.
The political distinction between war and peace
This conception of strategy as something that is focused on achieving tangible outcomes also reflects the clear distinction often drawn in Western political thought between the state of war and peace. Although, of course, professional thinkers on strategy, military planners and policy makers, do not see strategy as simply a wartime activity, the point is that the liberal conception of war is regarded as a largely negative consequence of the public breakdown of civil or inter-state relations, requiring a decision to be reached through force of arms.[vi] By contrast, ‘peace’ is war’s antithesis – the absence of fighting – and an altogether more preferable state of affairs.
Indifference to the private sphere
Yet where ‘fighting thoughts’ come from in the first place is rarely, if ever, examined in Western strategic discourse. This dichotomy itself reflects understandings in Western philosophy concerning the self. Modern philosophy begins with René Descartes’ mind-body dualism and the method of doubt.[vii] Seventeenth century liberal thought gradually came to treat the mind as an internal sphere free from the legal and confessional controls imposed on external behaviour (the Catholic Church was very happy to examine men’s souls as was the Puritan version of election). This was for seventeenth century materialists a function of the body, whether it was the arm that threw the stone or the mouth that uttered an insult.
This mind-body dualism in Western thought over time came to delineate, at least in England, the separation of the private from the public realm, which in turn established the grounds of social contract theory and the ‘cultural inheritance’ of Western liberalism. Through a series of unintended consequences, it enabled a more liberal and rationally enlightened polity to develop. In essence, so long as subjects acknowledged their temporal allegiance to the constitutional monarch or the republic, the state would not seek to look into men’s souls.
Over time, the quid pro quo of outward conformity in return for the state’s indifference to the private beliefs of its subjects enabled a political language and practice of individualism. Inexorably, the idea of the liberal democratic state as a container of individual legal rights, including the right to free speech and dissent became normalised.
Although the concept of the private self was to be challenged by the growth of the administrative state and totalitarian ideologies during the twentieth century, the notion of the self-regarding autonomous individual – endowed with the vote and a right to political participation – remained the foundational condition of the Western liberal polity.
The Concept of Universal Struggle
In contrast, Mao sought control of the mind collectively and individually for the purposes of creating revolution. His strategic novelty in this respect resides in the challenge posed to notions of finality and completion in Western strategic discourse. For Mao, there was no endpoint, no single decisive victory, only endless struggle; a condition embodied in the phrase often ascribed to Mao (and Leon Trotsky) of ‘permanent revolution’.
Mao elaborated his thinking about the ceaseless nature of struggle in On Contradiction (1937). He asserted that the ‘interdependence of the contradictory aspects present in all things and the struggle between these aspects determine the life of all things and push their development forward’. For Mao, ‘contradiction exists universally and in all processes, whether in the simple or in the complex forms of motion, whether in objective phenomena or ideological phenomena’.[viii]
The implication of Mao’s ideas were that the interior realm of thought and belief was a site of contestation, and constituted the key to revolutionary progress because ‘Contradiction is universal and absolute, it is present in the process of development of all things, and permeates every process from beginning to end’. ‘The old unity with its constituent opposites’, Mao continued, ‘yields to a new unity with its constituent opposites, whereupon a new process emerges to replace the old. The old process ends and the new one begins. The new process contains new contradictions and begins its own history of the development of contradictions’.[ix]
Mao’s thinking about the universal struggle of contradictions confronts Western strategic understandings about the separation of the physically observable from the intangible. Mao was not, however, the first to make the connection between the material and the intangible elements of strategy.
Did Clausewitz Get There First?
Carl von Clausewitz is perhaps the one figure in the Western strategic tradition to challenge the notion of strategic completion. Clausewitz’s notion of the trinitarian theory is often associated far more with the ‘passions’ than the mind.[x] However, there are intimations, albeit somewhat inchoate, that he intuitively grasped the inherent power of the interior realm. In a short and under-analysed passage in On War, he observed: ‘The result in war is never final’. He continued: ‘even the outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date’.[xi]
What Clausewitz may or may not have meant by this passage is rendered opaque by the lack of much in the way of further elucidation. Consequently, we are, like quite a lot of Clausewitz’s incomplete thoughts, left to infer what he might have been hinting at or ‘read in’ what we – that is, Clausewitz’s modern interpreters – wish to see. Clearly, he was writing about his own experiences in the Napoleonic wars where the defeat of his beloved Prussia in 1806, did not turn out to be final. Likewise, the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 following the Battle of Paris did not turn out to be conclusive but arguably was in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo. Nevertheless, Clausewitz’s theoretical point is that the seeds of resistance are always present that might one day disturb or overturn the status quo. This holds true even in instances where no further attempt is made to violently contest the political conclusion in war. For example, the defeat and dismemberment of Germany after 1945 may have been categorical, but it did not stop Germany from re-uniting in 1990. In politics, all is change: and the political conditions wrought even by resounding victories or defeats are always, and can only be, provisional.
Thus, although Clausewitz did not enlarge upon his observation, it intimated that he, like Mao, considered that the conduct of war was not reducible to physical phenomena, but entailed an interior dimension that is obscured by the strategic focus upon the construction of visible means to reach a terminating point where fighting stopped, and peace began. Clausewitz’s other famous aphorism, that ‘war is a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means’,[xii] also implied that war is simply the overt expression of different interests generated by the internal clash of popular passions. Politics, in this rendition, is the sublimation of a continuous struggle made manifest.
In stating that the result in war is never final, Clausewitz contests conventional expectations that war and strategy is only about clinical endings and beginnings. War begins in the mind and does not necessarily cease with declarations of victory or defeat. Clausewitz infers that decisive outcomes in war are, in fact, inherently uncertain, unstable, and indeed may contain unresolved contradictions that could see war recur as a consequence of continued mindful resistance to the status quo. Internal resistance may at some point break out into open physical violence once more. For that reason, the results in war remain impermanent because they create, to paraphrase Mao, new conditions and therefore new contradictions in which conflict can arise.
Political Power Grows Out of the Mind, Not the Gun
Clausewitz’s reflections on the philosophical origins and purposes of war present intriguing parallels with Mao’s writings on the unity of opposites and the perpetual struggle between contradictions. It may be of some interest that there remains a continuing historical debate as to whether Mao might have read and been influenced by Clausewitz.[xiii] Pondering Clausewitz’s potential influence on Mao it is possible to contradict his oft-cited maxim that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.[xiv]
Mao undoubtedly approved of revolutionary violence ‘whereby one class overthrows another’.[xv] ‘Only with guns can the world be transformed’, he wrote.[xvi] His injunction about power growing out of the barrel of a gun was, though, issued principally in order to reiterate the necessity of retaining political control over the means of violence as the following sentence reminded his audience at the Sixth Plenary Session of the Communist Party’s Sixth Central Committee in November 1938: ‘Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party’.[xvii]
In fact, if we accept that there is an overlap between Clausewitz’s thinking about the result in war never being final and war as a continuation of politics with Mao’s contentions regarding the continuous struggle between contradictions, then it suggests, logically, that political power does not only grow out of the barrel of a gun, as a Mao’s phrase might suggest, but rather that it grows out of the passions, fears, and moral beliefs held within the minds of individuals. This reading, moreover, would seem to fit more accurately with Mao’s understanding of the cognitive sources of revolutionary struggle, as stated in his 1937 tract, On Practice, where he maintained: ‘Cognition starts with practice and through practice it reaches the theoretical plane, and then it has to go back to practice’.[xviii]
Given Mao’s interest in unlocking the revolutionary potential of collective action, it followed that controlling the mind was the key to unleashing the power of mass resistance. Maoist ideas opened the strategic possibility of exerting control over the private sphere as a tool of struggle and revolt. Mao’s ruminations on how the interior world could be instrumentalised towards revolutionary emancipation offer a systematic philosophy of the human mind as both perfectible and perfectly malleable. The Maoist conception proceeds methodically from the assumption that under capitalism and imperialism the mind is polluted by cultural accretions requiring permanent rectification and purification if the collective will of the masses is to be made strategically useful.
Maoism seeks purification for a purpose, to make control of the interior realm strategically instrumental. Mao emphasised that the final stage of cognition was ‘the leap from rational knowledge to revolutionary practice’. Having ‘grasped the laws of the world’, Mao stated, ‘we must redirect this knowledge to the practice of revolutionary class struggle and national struggle’.[xix] The imperative for revolutionaries in this respect was, first and foremost, not to wage violent struggle, but to ‘reconstruct their own subjective world, that is, to remold their faculty of knowing; and to change the relations between the subjective and external worlds’. Finally, he added: ‘When the whole of mankind of its own accord remolds itself and changes the world, that will be the age of world communism’.[xx]
What Mao Should Be Remembered For
When analysts consider Mao’s contribution to strategic thought they tend to focus on his three-stage theory of people’s war to win power. Arguably, though, his most original and influential contribution lies in his understanding of the latent power that can be instrumentalised through mind control. As Apter and Saich state, Mao’s goal ‘was nothing less than the generating of new modes of power: the power of discourse’.[xxi]
Tracing the evolution of Maoism in the West, it is possible to perceive how 1960s radicals began to redirect their thinking towards Mao’s ideas on cognition and the generation of ‘alternative’ modes of power. As disillusion with the armed struggle set in during the early 1970s, radicals moved to embrace other methods. As Collier and Horowitz noted of the Maoist inspired Black Panthers: ‘The Party no longer seemed to believe now that power grew out of the barrel of a gun but from community organizing’.[xxii] By adopting such means, the Panthers were not abandoning Mao’s tenets but rather moving towards his position on cognition as a means to elevate the revolutionary spirit by reshaping the external environment.
As the era of violent ‘direct action’ subsided in the course of the 1980s, Maoist ideas of social control and thought reform gained currency in activist circles. Bill Tupman, a Marxist scholar explained in 1991: ‘The young revolutionary has only the one place to run to. Maoism gives people something to do: Trotskyism was about waiting around and selling newspapers. I see it coming back in a big way’.[xxiii] Channelling the Maoist appeal to ‘do’, finds its expression across the modern campus Left with academics asserting that universities should act ‘as missionaries, teaching new ideas’ that ‘enable active citizenship and even inspire some to take up activist roles’.[xxiv]
The instrumentalization of the socially re-constructed mind toward activist roles, and committed towards waging cultural warfare, is pure Maoism in action. In its applied ‘critical theory’ guise, it focuses on ‘controlling discourses, especially by problematising language and imagery it deems theoretically harmful’, in a manner that leads to the scrutiny, rectification and policing of thought.[xxv] This social activist mindset percolates from the universities to the wider professional and business world beyond. From schools to media services, to multinational corporations, ‘Organizations and activist groups of all kinds announce that they are inclusive, but only of people who agree with them’.[xxvi] In his 1937 tract, ‘On the correct handling of contradictions’, Mao explained how to address incorrect, ‘non-Marxist’, ideas. ‘As far as unmistakeable counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs of the socialist cause are concerned, the matter is easy, we simply deprive them of their freedom of speech’.[xxvii]
Conclusion: Harnessing the Power of the Private Sphere
Obviously, the notion of culture wars and the impact of Mao’s thinking on contemporary political practices in the West is a vast subject, and at best one can only draw attention to its general contours in a brief essay such as this. This short article has therefore sought to illustrate how the all-pervasive thought and language policing within public and private institutions in evidence across the Anglosphere attests to the little understood influence of Maoist strategic ideas. His proto-constructivist writings on how perceptions of the exterior world can be re-ordered by changing one’s subjective cognition may be found in any number of contemporary social science texts in Western academic literature, and which in many other respects provides the fuel for culture war. Whether or not one regards these developments as a progressive good, the ideas regarding the harnessing of the power of the internal sphere as a latent realm of power represents Mao’s most innovative contribution to strategic thought, more so than his writings on guerrilla warfare. Certainly, it represents his most enduring influence on the post-modern West.
Whatever else Maoism may be in a Western setting, it repudiates the liberal understanding of politics, which draws a separation between the personal and the political. Maoist understandings of the private sphere reject this view and hold that the un-curated mind is a barrier to social transformation and needs to be sanitised of all impurities. Politicising the private realm is precisely what Maoist strategic conduct aspires to. Mao made no secret of his aversion to liberalism. He despised its civility, its willingness to hear ‘incorrect views without rebutting them’, and its latitude for permitting ‘irresponsible criticism in private’.[xxviii] Whatever one’s viewpoint on contemporary political and cultural developments, there should be few illusions, Western Maoism seeks to eliminate the liberal-democratic conception of the West.
[i] See Matthew Clapperton, David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith, ‘Iconoclasm and Strategic Thought: Islamic State and Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria’, International Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 5 (2017), pp. 1205-1231.
[ii] Quoted in Timothy S. Chung, ‘In search of Mao Zedong – two views of history’. Taipei Times, 25 May 2000, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2000/05/25/0000037415, (accessed 29 April 2021).
[iii] Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars (London: Counterpoint, 1983), p. 36.
[iv] F. Lopez-Alves, ‘Political crises, strategic choices, and terrorism: the rise and fall of the Uruguayan Tuparmaros’, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1989), p. 204.
[v] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 15-53.
[vi] See Michael Howard, War and the Liberal Conscience (London: Hurst, 2008), pp. 5-22.
[vii] Renati Des-Cartes [René Descartes], Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animæ immortalitas demonstratur (Paris: 1641).
[viii] “Mao Tse-tung, On Contradiction,” (August 1937), pp. 2-3, Maoist Documentation Project, available at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_17.htm (accessed 3 May 2021).
[ix] Mao Tse-tung, On Contradiction (August 1937), pp. 2-3, Maoist Documentation Project, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_17.htm (accessed 3 May 2021).
[x] M.L.R. Smith, ‘Politics and Passion: The Neglected Mainspring of War’, Infinity Journal, Vo1. 4, No. 2 (2014), pp. 32-36.
[xi] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 80.
[xii] Ibid., p. 87.
[xiii] See for example, Edward Katzenbach and Gene Hanrahan, ‘The revolutionary strategy of Mao Tse-tung’, Political Science Quarterly, 70/3 (1955), pp. 321-340; Francis Miyata and John Nicholsen, ‘Clausewitzian principles of Maoist insurgency’, Small Wars Journal, 24 October 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/clausewitzian-principles-maoist-insurgency (accessed 3 May 2021).
[xiv] Mao Tse-tung, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. II, pp. 224-225, Maoist Documentation Project (2004),
[xv] https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/ (accessed 3 May 2021).
[xvi] Mao Tse-tung, ‘Report on the peasant movement in Hunan’, February 1927, Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949, Vol. 2 (New York: Armonk, 1992), p. 434.
[xvii] Mao Tse-tung, ‘Problems of war and strategy’, in Mao’s Road to Power, p. 553.
[xviii] Mao, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, pp. 224-225.
[xix] Mao Tse-tung, On Practice (New York: International Publishers, 1937), p. 11.
[xx] Ibid., p. 11.
[xxi] Ibid., p. 15.
[xxii] David Apter and Tony Saich, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic, p. 35.
[xxiii] Quoted in Peter Collier and David Horrowitz, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties (New York: Encounter, 1989), p. 166.
[xxiv] Quoted in Simon Strong, Shining Path: The World’s Deadliest Revolutionary Force (London: HarperCollins, 1992), p. 253.
[xxv] Sandra J. Grey, ‘Activist academics: What future?’ Policy Futures in Education, 11/6 (2013), p. 708.
[xxvi] Helen Pluckrose and James Lyndsay, Cynical Theories (London: Swift, 2020), pp. 61-62.
[xxvii] Ibid., p. 65.
[xxviii] Mao Tse-tung, ‘On the correct handling of contradictions among the people’, People’s Daily, 19 June 1957.
[xxix] Mao Tse-tung, Combat Liberalism, 7 September 1937, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/mswv2_03.htm (accessed 12 May 2021).