Mao distilled a strategy for waging revolutionary from the periphery of a society that, to be honest, borrowed many bits and pieces from generations of revolutionaries who preceded him. Mao's prominence as a revolutionary thinker owes a great deal to how vividly and compellingly he pulled the old and new pieces into a direct, muscular, and credible formula for toppling an ancient regime. While other revolutionary movements had leaders who spoke eloquently about what to do after the seizure of power, almost none of them have the clarity and simplicity of Mao's works on how to make the old regime collapse. One of the strongest candidates is Lenin, so an important strain of revolutionary doctrine is fairly called Leninist.
Before getting into the details of the "Leninist" strategy, it's important to note how I'm using the term. Not all "Leninists" in the broad way I'm using the term are Marxists. Many Leninist groups, including some contemporary Islamic revolutionaries, despise Marxism. However, these groups would like to re-create an iconic revolutionary moment, Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg, in their own terms.
The Leninist approach attacks the centers of power directly. Where Maoists fight a war rooted in the countryside, Leninists wage their struggle in the cities—often, the capital. In this respect, theorists of revolution mirror the differences among theorists of conventional warfare. Where some, like Basil Liddell-Hart, advocate the "indirect approach," probing the enemy's weaker areas and circumventing the tough defenses surrounding the most valuable objectives, others argue for a direct assault on the enemy's "center of gravity." Strategic surprise is important, as are any other methods (mass attack, attrition, etc.) that can crack open or wear down the defenses around these vital objectives. For example, Grant finally succeeded where his predecessors as commander of the Army of the Potomac failed because he was willing to grab Lee's Army of Northern Virginia by the throat and not let go. He was willing to take horrendous casualties at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor that might have led other Union generals to resign. Grant held on, attacking hammering at the Confederate Army until it could no longer defend the Confederacy. This strategy had nothing of the indirect approach in it. Similarly, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution carried out a sustained political assault against the Tsar's autocracy, and then later, the short-lived coalition governments. They didn't always fight in the open, manning the barricades or leading mass demonstrations. However, unlike the Maoist strategy of slowly bleeding the regime's lifeblood away through a thousand tiny cuts, the Russian revolutionaries went straight for the jugular.
As I wrote earlier, many revolutionary organizations try to ride a general crest of dissatisfaction with the old regime. The Bolsheviks, Jacobins, Sandinistas, and Iranian Islamists all succeeded this way. The broadly-felt outrage against the regime lead to its collapse; in the confusion afterwards, the disciplined, organized, and motivated radicals seize power. In short, Leninist-style revolutionaries depend on alliances with other groups to topple the regime, and then happily turn on their former allies. Where Maoists see the revolution triumph with a final, massive assault on the regime, the Leninists see the moment of triumph as a putsch.
This pattern might explain why the writings of many "Leninists" often emphasize revolutionary consolidation. Where Maoists assume they have already won the allegiance of a broad segment of the population, the Leninist revolutionary vanguard cannot.
In other words, the theater and operational levels of strategy look very different between Maoist and Leninist approaches. The tactical and technical methods, however, may be very much the same. Organizing secret revolutionary cells, publishing propaganda, assassinating government leaders, and building political alliances through front organizations, are all tactical measures that Maoists and Leninists share. The higher levels of strategy that these tactical methods serve look very different.
During the 1960s, the doctrinal debates among Maoists and Leninists led to the creation of a term, urban guerrilla, that has created confusion ever since. The problem isn't figuring out the distinction between Maoist and Leninist strategies, which could not be more obvious. The confusion arose because of a matter of timing with a parallel historical development, the literally explosive emergence of terrorist groups in the Middle East and Europe. Were the Tupemaros in Uruguay and the Black September terrorists who slaughtered the Israeli Olympic team both urban guerrillas. In other words, were all urban guerrillas just terrorists by another name? For many in the thick of these tumultuous and frightening events, the answer was, Yes, of course. In hindsight, I think the answer should be, Clearly not.
Assassination, kidnapping, and sabotage are tactical methods shared by terrorists and urban guerrillas. The critical difference—again, driven by the operational, theater, and grand strategic levels—is the choice of targets. Urban guerrilla warfare uses these methods against the regime. Anyone who is a government official, police officer, or uniformed member of the armed forces is a fair target. Innocent bystanders are not.
People who adopt terrorist methods, deliberately attacking the population, have a distinct revolutionary strategy in mind. By necessity, they also have a completely different justification for their revolutionary methods than Leninist urban guerrillas. Holding airline passengers hostage, detonating bombs in train stations, spraying diners at a restaurant with automatic weapons fire—in the minds of terrorist strategists, these are practically necessary to meet their revolutionary objectives. The terrorist theorists believe attacks on the most innocent will trigger a chain of events that will lead more quickly and effectively to victory than scrupulously limiting the target list to representatives of the enemy government. Urban guerrillas, by and large, have rejected these methods as morally repugnant, or just practically counter-productive.
It's worth remembering here the critical distinction between terrorist groups and terrorist methods. We call Al Qaeda a terrorist organization because of its reliance on terrorist methods. However, other groups less clearly definable as "terrorists" occasionally attack innocent bystanders. For example, the National Liberation Front started its revolutionary struggle against the South Vietnamese government by assassinating police, military, and civilian officials. The regular killing of village and district chiefs was a trademark tactic of the NLF. However, the NLF also shelled villages with mortars and rockets, clearly a step over the line into terrorist methods. As I noted in earlier posts about revolutionary violence, revolutionary groups shift tactics. Except in the most obvious cases, the debates over which group deserves the terrorist label is usually pointless. At an academic level, there's no standard for how many terrorist attacks you have to commit before becoming a bona fide terrorist. At a practical level, we're trying to stop terrorist attacks altogether, regardless of who's executing them.
Since this post is pretty long already, I won't weigh down the Practice section with too many words. This description of the Leninist revolutionary strategy is obviously applicable the Iraqi civil war and other contemporary conflicts. It should also be pretty obvious why I express constant frustration about how the American press and the US government depict the Iraqi insurgency, as if it were a single enemy with unified goals and methods. It is not. There is no "Iraqi insurgency." There are several groups, all of whom have seized the opportunity to fill a power vacuum with their own political ambitions. In other words…
- Not every attack on Iraqi police and military recruits is a terrorist attack.
- Not every group fighting the current Iraqi government would approve of suicide bombings that deliberately target civilians.
- Not every group that wants to compel the United States to withdraw from Iraq seeks a revolution in its aftermath.
- Not every alliance of different political factions is sustainable, if "Leninists" (in my broad meaning of the term) lurk within their ranks.