[This issue of Peking Review is from massline.org. Massline.org has kindly given us permission to to place these documents on the MIA. We made only some formatting changes to make them congruent with our style sheets.]

A Forceful Criticism of Lin Piao’s
Right-Deviationist Pessimism

— Notes on Studying A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire

by Shih Chih-chien

[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, #2, January 11, 1974, pp. 7-9.]

In his report to the Tenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Comrade Chou En-lai pointed out: “Lin Piao joined the Communist Party in the early days of China’s new-democratic revolution. Even at that time he was pessimistic about the future of the Chinese revolution. Right after the Kutien Meeting held in December 1929, Chairman Mao wrote a long letter ‘A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire’ to Lin Piao, trying seriously and patiently to educate him.” Dated January 5, 1930, Chairman Mao’s letter is included in “Selected Works of Mao Tsetung,” Vol. 1.

The following article gives a brief account of the background and basic idea of the letter and analyses the sources of Lin Piao’s Right-deviationist pessimistic ideas. —Ed.

AFTER the failure of the First Revolutionary Civil War* in 1927, the Chinese revolution was temporarily at a low ebb. A fierce struggle between the two lines took place in the Party at that time, centring on how to look at the situation and future of the revolution and which road the Chinese revolution should follow.

On the one hand, the Right capitulationists represented by Chen Tu-hsiu, badly frightened by Chiang Kai-shek’s bloody massacres, moved from capitulationism to liquidationism—opposing the Party leadership over armed struggle and maintaining that the Chinese democratic revolution had been “completed” and that a “socialist revolution” would be carried out some time in the future when conditions were ripe.

On the other hand, the “Left” putschists represented by Chu Chiu-pai, while denying the defeat of the Great Revolution, regarded the revolutionary situation in China as a “permanent upsurge.” With the big cities as centres, they tried to organize local uprisings which had no prospect of success.

In the face of such a situation, Chairman Mao, the great leader of the Chinese people, waged a resolute struggle against the opportunist lines pushed by Chen Tu-hsiu and Chu Chiu-pai, united with the revolutionary comrades in the Party, vigorously carried on armed struggle and set up revolutionary bases, thus advancing the Chinese revolution to a new stage.

At this crucial historical juncture, Lin Piao sided completely with the Right opportunists. Regarding it as hopeless, he felt that “the situation in China and the world as a whole gave no cause for optimism” and that “the prospects of victory for the revolution were remote,” Pessimistic and despondent, he raised the question: “How long can we keep the Red Flag flying?” This fully showed that, intimidated by the counter-revolutionary tide which seemed powerful in appearance, Lin Piao had lost confidence in the revolution and consequently had become a waverer.

A Diametrically Opposite Appraisal of the Situation

In his famous letter A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire, Chairman Mao tried seriously and patiently to educate Lin Piao in the light of the latter’s Right-deviationist pessimistic views. On the question of how to size up the revolutionary situation, Chairman Mao, while criticizing the “Left” putschism represented by Chu Chiu-pai who regarded the revolutionary situation as a “permanent upsurge,” emphatically criticized the Right deviationist pessimism represented by Lin Piao. Chairman Mao pointed out: “Underestimating the subjective forces of the revolution and overestimating the forces of the counter-revolution would also constitute an improper appraisal and be certain to produce bad results of another kind.” Whether there would soon be a revolutionary high tide in China could be decided only by making a detailed examination to ascertain whether the contradictions leading to such a high tide were really developing. Precisely by employing the basic principles of dialectical materialism and historical materialism to scientifically analyse the contradictions in Chinese society and the situation regarding class struggle at that time, Chairman Mao came to the clear-cut conclusion: “Once we understand all these contradictions, we shall see in what a desperate situation, in what a chaotic state, China finds herself.” “All China is littered with dry faggots which will soon be aflame.” “We need only look at the strikes by the workers, the uprisings by the peasants, the mutinies of soldiers and the strikes of students which are developing in many places to see that it cannot be long before a ‘spark’ kindles ‘a prairie fire.’”

When the revolution met great difficulties, Chairman Mao went beyond phenomena to view the essence of the situation, pointing out that “it was actually the time when the counter-revolutionary tide had begun to ebb and the revolutionary tide to rise again” and the revolutionary forces’ “growth is not only possible but indeed inevitable.” Showing a high degree of revolutionary optimism, he rid the revolutionary ranks of pessimistic sentiment and at the same time organized them, to overcome all difficulties and obstacles on their road of advance, thereby guiding the Chinese revolution to win new victories. This fully demonstrated a proletarian revolutionary’s steadfast principled stand and his dauntless spirit of daring to go against the tide.

Why did Lin Plao arrive at a diametrically opposite conclusion regarding the same revolutionary situation? It was simply because he took the stand of the landlord and capitalist classes and viewed the revolutionary situation from an idealist and metaphysical world outlook. Directing his criticism at this world outlook of Lin Piao’s, Chairman Mao pointed out: “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.” Seeing through the appearance to perceive the essence is an important question in the Marxist theory of knowledge and an important method in using the materialist-dialectical world outlook to observe and know thjngs.

Shutting his eyes to the social contradictions and the reality of class struggle in China at that time, Lin Piao reversed the order between the essence and the phenomenon, between the whole and the parts and between the principal and the secondary aspects, and regarded what was developing and changing as static and isolated. Only seeing the superficial phenomenon that the enemy was powerful for the time being and the revolution was temporarily at a low ebb he failed to see that the enemy would inevitably go from strong to weak and that the revolutionary high tide would surely come. He did not know in the least that so long as there was a correct political line, a revolutionary “single spark,” though it appeared to be weak for a time and might continue to suffer from the reactionary classes’ bloody suppression, would sooner or later burst into ever raging flames and finally become a prairie fire which would consume everything decadent in ashes.

Lin Piao was absolutely ignorant of the objective law of historical development that new-born things are bound to triumph over the decadent and that the revolutionary forces are bound to defeat the reactionary forces. When there were some dark clouds, he thought that the sun would never come out again and everything was finished. A man like Lin Piao who did not care a bit about the masses and the Party and was chicken-hearted in the face of the enemy invariably overestimated the enemy’s forces and underestimated the people’s forces. When the revolution suffered set-backs, he always became pessimistic and wavered and even deserted and betrayed the revolution.

A Different Conclusion Concerning the Revolutionary Road

Different appraisals of the situation invariably lead to different conclusions as to the road to be taken by the Chinese revolution. Lin Piao did all he could to oppose the correct course charted by Chairman Mao—the road of setting up revolutionary political power in the rural areas, deepening the agrarian revolution and expanding the people’s armed forces, so as to speed up the revolutionary high tide throughout the country. He babbled that it would be lost labour to try to establish political power by hard work; instead he expected to extend political influence through the easier method of roving guerrilla actions. He advocated the fallacy that “we must first win over the masses and then establish political power.”

At a time when the Chinese revolution was at a critical juncture, could roving guerrilla actions win over the masses and hasten a great nationwide revolution? Absolutely not! Sharply criticizing Lin-Piao’s “roving guerrilla actions,” Chairman Mao incisively pointed out that “the policy which merely calls for roving guerrilla actions cannot accomplish the task of accelerating this nationwide revolutionary high tide” and “their theory that we must first win over the masses on a country-wide scale and in all regions and then establish political power does not accord with the actual state of the Chinese revolution.” He added: “The policy of establishing base areas; of systematically setting up political power; of deepening the agrarian revolution; of expanding the people’s armed forces” “is undoubtedly correct.”

That Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line is correct is because it is based on Marxism-Leninism and on a scientific analysis of the contradictions in Chinese society and their interrelations as well as an analysis of the balance of class forces. Judging from the actual conditions in China at that time, the landlord class was the main social foundation of the country’s rulers while the ruthlessly exploited and oppressed peasants were the main force of the Chinese revolution. It follows from this that to lead the revolution to victory, the proletariat must mobilize and arm the peasants to carry out the agrarian revolution and overthrow the landlord class. Only in this way could mighty revolutionary contingents be formed to put an end to the rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism in China. To make the peasantry the main force of the Chinese revolution, it was necessary to set up revolutionary base areas in the countryside. Moreover, it was only natural that we could not fight decisive battles in big cities because the powerful imperialists and their allies—the reactionary ruling classes—had long held the major cities and the emerging revolutionary forces were still not very strong. The only road was to turn the vast and backward countryside into strong military, political, economic and cultural revolutionary positions. Only by doing this could we defeat the ferocious enemies and step by step win complete victory in the revolution through protracted battles. The historical experience of the Second Revolutionary Civil War (1927-37) proved that it was only after the revolutionary base areas had been set up that we were able to extend our political influence, deal the reactionary ruling classes fatal blows, shake and disintegrate the counter-revolutionary camp, and accumulate the revolutionary strength and develop the people’s armed forces. Only thus could we hasten the revolutionary high tide. Lin Piao knew nothing about all this and his empty verbiage such as “winning over the masses,” “extending political influence” and “a great nationwide revolution” without setting up revolutionary base areas was sheer humbug. If we had followed his reactionary ideas, the Chinese revolution would have been defeated.

Nearly half a century has elapsed since Chairman Mao wrote A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire, and Lin Piao was finally swept into the dust-bin of history. This was the inevitable result of his long persistence in the landlord and bourgeois world outlook and the Right opportunist line. Though the Party and Chairman Mao patiently and seriously criticized and educated Lin Piao over a long period of time, he obstinately clung to his bourgeois idealist world outlook and refused to remould it. At every critical point in the revolution in later years, Lin Piao always made Right-deviationist mistakes and finally got on the criminal road of betraying the Party and the state. What was ridiculous was that after the convening of the Ninth Party Congress in 1969 this clown who went against the tide of history had the effrontery to deck himself out with fine feathers and brag, “Since I have lofty ideals and firm faith in Marxism-Leninism, why should I doubt that a single spark can start a prairie fire?” But this was only a futile attempt to reverse the earlier correct verdict on his Right-deviationist pessimism. He resorted to all kinds of counter-revolutionary double-dealing tactics to try to deceive the Party and people, but sham is sham and history inexorably tore away from him all his masks. He together with the lies he spread finally crashed to pieces at Undur Khan in the People’s Republic of Mongolia, and he, a traitor, will remain for all time notorious.


*   This was the great revolutionary war fought by the Chinese people against imperialism and feudalism in 1924-27. After getting the Kuomintang led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen to co-operate in 1924, the Communist Party of China organized the National Revolutionary Army and brought about a nationwide revolutionary high tide. Setting out from its base in Kwangtung Province in 1926, the army started the Northern Expedition to overthrow warlord rule and, in spring 1927, advanced to the Yangtze and Yellow River basins. Just as the revolutionary situation was rapidly developing, the Right opportunist line represented by Chen Tu-hsiu became dominant in the Party’s leading organ, and the Kuomintang Rightists headed by Chiang Kai-shek ganged up with the imperialists in launching a counter-revolutionary coup d’etat. As a result, the Great Revolution ended in failure and Chiang Kai-shek set up his reactionary rule with imperialist backing. Following this, there was a temporary low ebb in the Chinese revolution.

Peking Review Index   |  Chinese Communism  |  Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung