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Studying Marxist Works

Restudying ”A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire”

by the Writing Group of the Yunnan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China

[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, #7-8, Feb. 25, 1972, pp. 10-12.]

TODAY when socialist revolution and socialist construction in China are forging ahead and when the revolutionary struggle of the world’s people is advancing, we are tremendously inspired by restudying our great leader Chairman Mao’s A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire. The development of history has proved that Chairman Mao’s correct line reflects the objective law of the Chinese revolution and all the erroneous lines that have appeared run counter to this law. Chairman Mao’s thesis that “a single spark can start a prairie fire” is a Marxist-Leninist scientific foresight and revolutionary truth, and it will always inspire us to advance triumphantly along Chairman Mao’s correct line.

Correct Analysis of Revolutionary Situation

A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire was a well-knownn letter written by Chairman Mao in the early stage of the Second Revolutionary Civil War (1927-37) in criticism of pessimistic ideas in the Party. Following the defeat of the momentous revolution in 1927, the revolution was temporarily at a low ebb throughout the country. At this crucial juncture, there was in the Party an extremely intense struggle between the two lines centring around the basic question of how to appraise the revolutionary situation and future and what road the Chinese revolution should take.

Frightened to death by Chiang Kai-shek’s bloody massacre, the Right capitulationists represented by Chen Tu-hsiu were pessimistic about the future of the revolution. Raving that China’s democratic revolution had ended and that the proletariat could only wait for some future day to stage a ”socialist revolution,” they slid from capitulationism to liquidationism. The ”Left” putschists represented by Chu Chiu-pai, on the other hand, refused to admit that the great revolution had failed and, mistakenly regarding China’s revolutionary situation as a ”permanent upsurge,” tried to organize, with the big cities as the centres, a series of local uprisings which had no prospect of success. If the ”Left” or Right opportunist lines had been followed, the result could only have been the end of the Chinese revolution. With fearless proletarian revolutionary spirit, Chairman Mao waged a tit-for-tat struggle against the opportunist lines of Chen Tu-hsiu and Chu Chiu-pai and opened the way to victory for the Chinese revolution.

Lenin, great teacher of the revolution, pointed out: “Marxism requires of us a strictly exact and objectively verifiable analysis of the relations of classes and of the concrete features peculiar to each historical situation.” (Letters on Tactics.) Whether a correct appraisal of the balance of class forces and of the situation in class struggle can be made or not is a precondition of whether the correct line and policies can be formulated and the proletarian revolution can be ensured to advance along the correct road. In A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire, Chairman Mao began with the question of appraising the current situation. Scientifically analysing the contradictions in Chinese society and the situation in class struggle at that time, Chairman Mao pointed out clearly that “the counter-revolutionary tide had begun to ebb and the revolutionary tide to rise again,” that the revolutionary force’s “growth is not only possible but indeed inevitable,” and that “all China is littered with dry faggots which will soon be aflame.” Though the revolution was temporarily at a low ebb at that time, Chairman Mao optimistically foresaw that the revolutionary high tide would soon arrive. “It is like a ship far out at sea whose mast-head can already be seen from the shore; it is like the morning sun in the east whose shimmering rays are visible from a high mountain top; it is like a child about to be born moving restlessly in its mother’s womb.”

Contrary to Chairman Mao’s scientific thesis, those persons in the Party persistently maintaining pessimistic ideas tailed after Chen Tu-hsiu’s liquidationism and, considering the situation at that time completely bleak, spread all kinds of pessimism. They did not believe that the revolutionary high tide was imminent and held that the situation ”gave no cause for optimism” and that the prospects of victory were ”remote.” They even asked the question: ”How long can we keep the Red Flag flying?” Misled by the transient phenomenon of an overcast sky and frightened by the Kuomintang reactionaries’ attacks, the pessimists began to waver in working for the cause of the people’s revolution.

Deciding on the Correct Road

Different appraisals of the situation inevitably led to different conclusions with regard to the road the Chinese revolution should take. Integrating the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution, Chairman Mao pointed out for our Party the only correct road of the Chinese revolution, which was: Under the leadership of the Communist Party, build rural base areas and use the countryside to encircle and finally capture the cities. This revolutionary road was correct because it was based on a scientific analysis of contradictions in Chinese society and of the revolutionary situation and balance of class forces, and it was in complete conformity with the objective law governing the development of the Chinese revolution. In The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman Mao pointed out: “The contradiction between imperialism and the Chinese nation and the contradiction between feudalism and the great masses of the people are the basic contradictions in modern Chinese society. Of course, there are others, such as the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and the contradictions within the reactionary ruling classes themselves. But the contradiction between imperialism and the Chinese nation is the principal one.” The feudal landlord class was the main social base of imperialist rule in China, while the peasants were the main force of the Chinese revolution. If help was not given to the peasants in overthrowing the feudal landlord class, then a strong force of the Chinese revolution could not be organized to overthrow imperialist rule. Therefore, “the peasant problem becomes the basic problem of the Chinese revolution.” In order to lead the Chinese revolution to victory, the proletariat had to mobilize and arm the peasants, carry out the land revolution and build solid revolutionary base areas in the countryside. As a result of contention among the imperialist countries, China was not politically and economically unified, and there were prolonged splits and incessant wars within the reactionary ruling classes. This made possible the establishment and expansion of revolutionary base areas in the countryside. “In semi-colonial China the establishment and expansion of the Red Army, the guerrilla forces and the Red areas is the highest form of peasant struggle under the leadership of the proletariat, the inevitable outcome of the growth of the semi-colonial peasant struggle.”

Proceeding from a wrong appraisal of the situation, the pessimists did everything they could to oppose Chairman Mao’s correct thinking on building rural revolutionary base areas. They spread the nonsense that the revolutionary high tide was still remote and that it was ”futile” to undertake the arduous task of building political power. They put forward the fallacy of ”first winning over the masses and then building political power.” They were neither willing to admit nor did they understand the various contradictions in Chinese society and their interconnections; instead, they kept their eyes shut and talked nonsense, trying to substitute ”roving guerrilla actions” for the establishment of rural revolutionary base areas. This was completely out of accord with the actual state of the Chinese revolution, and was a wrong line. Whether or not to build rural revolutionary base areas was a major question of principle over which Chairman Mao waged repeated struggles against both the ”Left” and Right opportunist lines in the period of the democratic revolution. How could the land revolution be carried out and the masses won over without establishing rural revolutionary base areas? How could political influence be increased without consolidated rural revolutionary base areas? And without such base areas and using them as the basis for continued advance in a series of waves, how could the revolutionary forces be accumulated, the people’s armed forces expanded and the nationwide great revolutionary high tide hastened? Instead of building rural revolutionary base areas, they babbled about ”winning over the masses,” ”extending our political influence” and ”a great nationwide revolution.” All this was diametrically opposed to Chairman Mao’s correct line.

In the course of leading the Chinese revolution, Chairman Mao repeatedly criticized the ideology of roving rebel bands which did not want to build base areas. In Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan, Chairman Mao stressed: “The conflict between the idea of establishing base areas and that of fighting like roving rebels, arises in all guerrilla warfare.” ”Ridding the minds of guerrilla commanders of this idea [roving-rebel idea] is a prerequisite for deciding on a policy of establishing base areas.” The erroneous idea of not establishing revolutionary base areas criticized here corresponds with the pessimism criticized in A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire.

Two different roads lead to two different futures. By mobilizing the masses of peasants to take an active part in the land revolution in accordance with Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line, we succeeded in building the Red Army even when we did not have one before, established revolutionary base areas from scratch and expanded these base areas. The result was a single spark rapidly became a prairie fire. If we had acted according to the pessimists, the result would only have been separation from the masses and liquidation of the revolution.

Irresistible Historical Tide

Pessimistic ideas have their deep roots in world outlook. Keeping in mind the idealistic and metaphysical world outlook of the pessimists, Chairman Mao said in A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire: “When we look at a thing, we must examine its essence and treat its appearance merely as an usher at the threshold, and once we cross the threshold, we must grasp the essence of the thing; this is the only reliable and scientific method of analysis.” An important question in the Marxist theory of knowledge is to see through the phenomena and grasp the essence. In appraising a situation or comparing our forces with those of the enemy, pessimists act contrary to this Marxist theory of knowledge. They always mistake phenomena for the essence, minor aspects for the main aspects, and the parts for the whole, and regard things that are developing and changing as static and isolated. After the defeat of the great revolution, they failed to understand that although the subjective forces of the Chinese revolution were weak, the forces of the counter-revolution were relatively weak too, that although the subjective forces of the revolution were small, they could expand rapidly, and that although the revolution was temporarily at a low ebb, the revolutionary high tide would come soon. They did not know that small and big, weak and strong, defeat and victory, and darkness and brightness were all two contradictory aspects each of which, in given conditions, would transform itself into its opposite. Reactionary forces look ferocious, but since they represent the corrupt and decadent classes, they are bound to be defeated. On the other hand, revolutionary forces represent the direction in which history develops, so in essence they are invincible. At the beginning, they may be weak and small, and may even suffer temporary setbacks, but as long as they have a Marxist-Leninist line, they can grow in size and strength and turn defeat into victory.

Pessimism is the world outlook of the declining landlord and capitalist classes. Those who cling to such an outlook always overestimate the strength of the enemy and underestimate the strength of the people; they never have faith in the masses and do not rely on them, and they do not have faith in or rely on the Party. When they meet temporary difficulties or when the revolution is at a low ebb, they waver, run away, become traitors or resort to adventurism and putschism. When the revolution advances smoothly or is at a high tide, they often take an ultra-”Left” stand, regard all successes as their own and push a reactionary line that is ultra-”Left” or ”Left” in form but Right in essence. Persons clinging to this reactionary world outlook will inevitably set themselves against the masses, keep back the tide of history and become reactionaries vainly trying to stop the earth from rotating.

Lenin pointed out: “A revolutionary is not one who becomes revolutionary with the onset of the revolution, but one who defends the principles and slogans of the revolution when reaction is most violent and when liberals and democrats vacillate to the greatest degree.” (Notes of a Publicist.) Chairman Mao’s criticism of pessimistic ideas demonstrates the proletarian revolutionary’s firm principled stand and fearless spirit in struggling against erroneous trends. With the same spirit of upholding principle, Chairman Mao waged resolute struggles against Wang Ming’s ”Left” and Right opportunist lines and against Chang Kuo-tao’s Right splittist line, and led the democratic revolution in China to victory.

* * *

The 50-year history of our Party has proved that the struggle between the two lines always begins with different appraisals of the revolutionary situation. To oppose Chairman Mao’s proletarian revolutionary line, opportunists and revisionists who vainly try to hold back the tide of history always distort and vilify the excellent revolutionary situation and create public opinion for pushing their counter-revolutionary revisionist line. This is true of such renegades as Chen Tu-hsiu, Wang Ming and Chang Kuo-tao, and also true of Liu Shao-chi and other political swindlers. This is what we should be on special guard against. In studying the brilliant work A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire, we should learn to use Marxist-Leninist methods to analyse the political situation and appraise the class forces, constantly raise our consciousness of class struggle and the struggle between the two lines, see through in good time the counter-revolutionary features of the class enemies and smash their sinister plots.

Chairman Mao’s scientific thesis that “a single spark can start a prairie fire” has revealed the objective law of the development of the revolutionary tide. In his great practice in leading the Chinese revolution, Chairman Mao always educates and inspires the whole Party and the people of the entire country with the concept “A single spark can start a prairie fire” and the thoroughgoing revolutionary spirit of daring to struggle and to win, in order to defeat domestic and foreign enemies, overcome opportunist adverse currents within the Party and continuously advance from victory to victory. “A single spark can start a prairie fire” is an apt description of the progress of the Chinese revolution, one of continuous victory of Chairman Mao’s proletarian revolutionary line over ”Left” and Right opportunist lines within the Party. The correctness or incorrectness of its line decides the success or failure of a political party. If the line is correct, then revolutionary sparks will rapidly become a prairie fire, but if the line is incorrect, a political party will lose the political power it has seized. The 50-year history of our Party and the history of the international communist movement have proved this irrefutably.

(Abridged translation of an article published in ”Hongqi,” No. 13, 1971.)

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