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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Mao writes A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire, January 5, 1930

A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire, poster People's Republic of China, 1977

On January 5, 1930, Mao Zedong finished his letter A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire, one of the most important revolutionary documents in the history of the world.

A counter to what he felt were defeatist narratives within the Communist Party of China in the wake of the defeat of the revolutionary uprisings of 1925-27, the letter called on the party to remain resolute.

Comrades who suffer from revolutionary impetuosity overestimate the subjective forces of the revolution and underestimate the forces of the counter-revolution. Such an appraisal stems mainly from subjectivism. In the end, it undoubtedly leads to putschism. On the other hand, 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.

Mao goes on to write:

The subjective forces of the revolution have indeed been greatly weakened since the defeat of the revolution in 1927. The remaining forces are very small and those comrades who judge by appearances alone naturally feel pessimistic. But if we judge by essentials, it is quite another story. Here we can apply the old Chinese saying, "A single spark can start a prairie fire." In other words, our forces, although small at present, will grow very rapidly. In the conditions prevailing in China, their growth is not only possible but indeed inevitable, as the May 30th Movement and the Great Revolution which followed have fully proved. 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.

He ends with stirring and prophetic words:

How then should we interpret the word "soon" in the statement, "there will soon be a high tide of revolution"? This is a common question among comrades. Marxists are not fortune-tellers. They should, and indeed can, only indicate the general direction of future developments and changes; they should not and cannot fix the day and the hour in a mechanistic way. But when I say that there will soon be a high tide of revolution in China, I am emphatically not speaking of something which in the words of some people "is possibly coming", something illusory, unattainable and devoid of significance for action. 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.

19 years later, on October 1, 1949, the People's Republic of China would be proclaimed.

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