The decision to hold the Sixth Party Congress in Moscow, and some of the political debate inside the Communist Party of China leading up to that Congress.
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Patricia Stranahan, Underground: The Shanghai Communist Party and the Politics of Survival, 1927-1937
Daniel Kwan, Marxist Intellectuals and the Chinese Labor Movement: A Study of Deng Zhongxia, 1894-1933
Chang Kuo-t’ao [Zhang Guotao], The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party (2 volumes)
E. H. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, vol. 3
Organization of Communist Revolutionaries, “The CP, the Sixties, the RCP, and the Crying Need for a Communist Vanguard Party Today: Summing up a century of communist leadership, organization, strategy, and practice in the United States so that we can rise to the challenges before us”
Some names from this episode:
Qu Qiubai, Top leader of the Chinese Communist Party from the August 7, 1927 emergency meeting until the 6th Party Congress
Zhang Guotao, Leading Communist
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party until summer 1927
Zhou Enlai, Leading Communist
Welcome to episode 101 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we ended with Mao’s January 1929 departure from the Jinggangshan base area. And during our discussion of the Bailu Conference, where Mao and other leaders decided on leaving the base area, we also discussed how the Chinese Communist Party had held its 6th Congress in Moscow during the previous summer, and we talked about a directive that arrived in the base area that Mao ended up suppressing from coming to light during this conference. All the details on that are in episode 100. But we hadn’t talked about the Sixth Congress before, and so I wanted to go back in time a little bit and start talking about that Congress.
Ever since the August 7, 1927, emergency conference, which we discussed in episode 56, the Party center had been led by Qu Qiubai and the party policy had been to pursue every possible opportunity for launching armed uprisings. The most important examples of these uprisings were the Nanchang mutiny which created the Communist Red Army, the Autumn Harvest uprisings, which led to the creation of the Jinggangshan base area after Mao retreated there after the Autumn Harvest uprising in Hunan was defeated, the Guangzhou Uprising, which had led to the very short-lived Guangzhou Commune, and the South Hunan Uprising. We’ve discussed all those uprisings in past episodes of this podcast.
But as we talked about in episode 73, these were just the most significant examples of an overall policy which saw the Communists attempt to kick off armed struggle in a great many local contexts. The thinking behind this policy, which later came to be critically referred to as ‘blind actionism,’ was that the country was on the verge of a major social revolution if only the peasants and workers could be given some leadership and pushed into rising up. This thinking was based on the idea that the revolutionary enthusiasm that the masses of people had shown during the Northern Expedition had not been exhausted by the repression that the Guomindang had exercised on the mass movements during the first half of 1927, and so if only the Communists could rally the peasants and workers, the Guomindang could be overthrown and the Communists could take power, at least in some significant portion of the country. And what was meant by this was not that the Communists would just end up controlling a mountain redoubt like the Jinggangshan, but that some major cities like Wuhan or Changsha or Guangzhou could be conquered, and a soviet regime set up there.
How these policies were carried out, and how the political situation in the country had actually changed and made this policy of ‘blind actionism’ untenable has been one of the major themes of this podcast for the past two years. In particular, we have followed Mao’s evaluation of this problem and his ongoing conflict with higher level party authorities on this question, as he looked for a way to keep the revolution going despite the unfavorable turn in the objective conditions. So, I won’t belabor the point here, since we have talked about it so much, from a few different angles, already.
At the level of both the Party Center and the Comintern leadership in Moscow, by spring of 1928 it had become clear to many people (but not all) that the favorable assessment of objective conditions for revolution endorsed by both the Party and Comintern leadership had been wrong. So, in order to steer a new course for the revolution, the Comintern and Party Center decided to hold a Party Congress, and that due to the overwhelming repressive campaign being waged against the Communists in China’s cities, the only way that the security of the Congress could be insured would be to hold it outside of China. So, it was decided to hold the Congress in Moscow. In April the Comintern suggested that Qu Qiubai, Zhou Enlai, and three other leading comrades go to Moscow to begin preparations for the Congress.
And as preparations for the Congress began in Moscow, the political debate within the Communist Party inside China sharpened up. In May 1928 the Jiangsu Provincial Committee passed a resolution criticizing the Party Center and Qu Qiubai’s leadership. The Jiangsu Provincial Committee was one of the most important bodies within the Party. It served as leadership for the city of Shanghai as well as the rest of Jiangsu province, and we discussed something about how it functioned in episodes 83-85 and we also talked some about a peasant uprising launched by the Jiangsu Provincial Committee in episode 73.
This criticism claimed that the central committee had failed to “notice defeats and pessimistic moods among the workers” and that the optimistic party policy of fomenting armed uprisings whenever and wherever possible “sprang from a subjective appraisal of the position, and did not correspond to the objective situation.” This had led to “the divorce of our party from the masses.” In other words, the criticism alleged that the desire of Qu Qiubai and the other members of the central committee to carry out an armed revolution had blinded them to the fact that the conditions were, at least in most places in China, unfavorable for launching armed uprisings. The criticism alleged that the top party leadership was reading the situation just as being what they wanted to see, not what the situation actually was. And that this was leading the party to become disconnected from the masses of people who would not just keep throwing their lives away in revolutionary efforts which were doomed to fail.
This criticism of the central committee was published in full in Moscow in the journal of the Sun Yatsen Communist University of the Toilers of China. This was the training school for Chinese Communists run by the Comintern. The resolution was accompanied in the journal by an editorial note that endorsed the “just criticism of the errors and shortcomings of the central leadership of the party” while also noting that “the policy of a rising adopted by the August conference of the party could not be condemned in the conditions prevailing at that time.” So, in other words, while it may have been initially understandable to have adopted a very aggressive attitude toward launching armed uprisings back at the time of the August 7, 1927 Emergency Conference, the Comintern leadership was now pretty sure that the time had passed and that it was time for the party leadership to come to terms with the current objective situation.
Aside from the issue of how it assessed the objective conditions for launching armed uprisings in China, the central committee also came under serious criticism on one other major issue. This concerned its response to the Jinan Incident of May 3, 1928.
Jinan is the capital of Shandong province, and Shandong was part of Japan’s sphere of influence in China. You may recall from past episodes how China had been carved into different spheres of influence by the different imperialist powers, and this entailed stationing many foreign troops in different parts of China in order to safeguard the interests of the different foreign powers in China. So, as the Guomindang continued the Northern Expedition in the spring of 1928, fighting northern warlords and trying to consolidate the whole country under its own rule, it eventually took over the city of Jinan in April 1928.
The Japanese in Jinan had become very worried about the advance of the National Revolutionary Army, and so thousands of Japanese troops had been sent into the city. Things were very tense between the two armies occupying the city, and on May 3 fighting broke out between the two sides. After a week of fighting, the Guomindang forces had been badly beaten and driven out of Jinan, which would remain under very harsh Japanese military rule until March 1929, when an agreement was reached that allowed the Chinese to take over the administration of the city, although it remained part of the Japanese sphere of influence. Large numbers of Chinese civilians were killed during indiscriminate bombing of the city by Japanese artillery.
These events in Jinan aroused strong anti-imperialist, and specifically anti-Japanese, sentiment in a lot of Chinese people, especially in the cities. It was the contention of the Jiangsu Provincial Committee that the Communists should have tried to put themselves at the head of the anti-imperialist upsurge. However, Qu Qiubai and the Central Committee argued that this would be a mistake, since Qu thought that it would put the Communists in the position of supporting the Guomindang, which was after all the main political force trying to kill the Communists. As a result, the Communists did not try to intervene in the mass outpouring of anti-imperialist sentiment following the events in Jinan. In this case, the Executive Committee of the Comintern very much thought that Qu Qiubai was mistaken.
As it turned out, quite a bit later on in the revolution, Mao is going to make a major political issue out of trying get Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang to fight the Japanese rather than the Communists. This is going to come to a head in 1936 with a series of dramatic events, called the Xi’an Incident, where essentially part of the Guomindang military is going to be won over to support a united front with the Communists in order to fight Japan, and that part of the Guomindang military is going to literally force Chiang Kai-shek to begin fighting Japan. And it is going to turn out to be a tricky balancing act on the part of the Communists to emphasize the fight against Japan in a way that does not, ultimately, redound to the benefit of the Guomindang. However, the Communists will be helped immensely in this regard by Chiang Kai-shek’s complete reluctance to fight the Japanese and his desire to always go after the Communists, which will strike all patriotic Chinese people as completely absurd. As Chiang Kai-shek saw it, in his own words, the Japanese were a disease of the skin, but the Communists a disease of the heart. Few Chinese people agreed, however, and this would ultimately really cost him politically.
So, what with the criticisms of the Central Committee that had been made by the Jiangsu Provincial Committee, and the Comintern leadership’s general unity with those criticisms, the stage was being set for the upcoming Party Congress. Invitations to the Congress went out in mid-May and the Congress was to be held in June, which means that those invited needed to more or less drop whatever they were doing and begin traveling to Moscow. We can get a concrete idea about how travel to Moscow took place from Zhang Guotao’s memoir. It took him two weeks to get from Shanghai to Moscow, taking a boat from Shanghai to Dalian, then going north from Dalian to Harbin, where he was able to get on the Chinese Eastern Railway to begin the long train ride to the Soviet border at Manzhouli and then across Siberia to Moscow. On arriving in Moscow, he was taken directly to an old manor house on the outskirts of Moscow which was near a village which was off the beaten track and where the Congress could be held without attracting much notice.
I managed to track down an image of the old manor house that Zhang refers to here, and I’ve used it as the episode artwork for this episode. I know that most podcast players don’t show episode artwork, so if you can’t see it on your app, you can find the image on the peopleshistoryofideas.com website.
Anyways, listeners with a good memory might recall from our series of episodes on life underground in Shanghai, episodes 83-85, that Zhang had been kind of biding his time in Shanghai and not doing much of anything, because he was in a kind of political disgrace after receiving some of the blame for the defeat of the Southern Expedition at the November 1927 politburo meeting in Shanghai (which we discussed back in episodes 71 and 72). Zhang was one of several major leaders who had been on the outs with the Party Center who were invited directly to the Congress by the Comintern, which wanted to insure that the major voices of disagreement in the Party would be heard at the Congress. Most people who attended the Congress were issued invitations from the Party Center, but in these several cases the Comintern circumvented the local Party and invited these disgraced leaders directly because otherwise they probably would not have been invited.
Notably, this also included Chen Duxiu, the former general secretary of the Party who had been deposed at the August 7 emergency conference and who had not been given any revolutionary tasks since that time. Chen decided that he wasn’t going to attend the Congress. When Zhang Guotao had gone to try to convince Chen to go, this is what Chen said to him, according to Zhang’s memoir: “The harsh criticism against me contained in the resolution of the August Seventh Meeting has indicated the Comintern’s intention to get rid of me. Because of this, my attendance will do me no good.”
Zhang told Chen that “If you don’t go, a break in the relationship between you and the Comintern or CCP Central Headquarters will be a matter of time.”
Now, one thing we see happening with leading communist figures from around the world at this time who had ended up losing out in leadership struggles or who had espoused political lines that ended up getting repudiated, is that it wasn’t uncommon for the Comintern to find ways to make use of these people in Moscow. It was a kind of ‘kill two birds with one stone’ way of dealing with deposed leaders. On the one hand, it got them out of the way on the local scene, which meant that they wouldn’t be faced with a choice between either unenthusiastically implementing policies that they disagreed with or continuing to implement the old policies that they believed in but which the Party and Comintern had decided against. Additionally, it avoided having former top leaders (who often had considerable egos) who had clashed with the new leaders in the recent past having to work under the people who had replaced them in leadership. And using these old leaders in Moscow meant having relatively experienced and competent people in Moscow to carry out the many tasks that needed doing there. One of the great weaknesses of the Soviet Union was the shortage of people who were competent to do the organizational tasks required to build socialism and promote revolution abroad, and so the Comintern could make use of these people in Moscow. In fact, we’re going to see this happen to Qu Qiubai after the 6th Congress, when he gets replaced. We’ll get to the details there in a future episode.
I’ve been reading a book-length history of the communist movement in the United States which was recently published in a journal called Kites, where I was reminded of this practice, where they discuss how the Comintern tried to resolve a leadership struggle inside the Communist Party of the United States in the late 1920s between William Foster and Jay Lovestone by having Lovestone move to Moscow and take on work for the Comintern over there. In that particular case the tactic didn’t work and Lovestone refused to accept his loss in the leadership struggle. But there are a good number of examples of people from all over the world who did go and become useful in Moscow after their participation in the local struggles of their own countries became problematic due to new constellations of leaders and political lines that didn’t leave much room for the old leaders.
And just as an aside on this history of the communist movement in the United States that I’ve been reading, it’s a very interesting document and I think that some people who listen to this podcast would enjoy reading it. It’s a somewhat unique product in that it is a, for the most part, serious and in-depth history which uses a range of reputable sources and which has been produced by a communist organization for its own political purposes. And so, it reads very differently than something written by an academic, such as me, who produces their work at least partially under the constraints of the various ways in which producing knowledge (or, perhaps more accurately, as they say these days, producing content) as part of a career path affects the work that one produces, however progressive one might want to be. This difference has both positive and negative aspects. But it’s definitely engaging and has a lot of food for thought in it. In fact, one of the reasons that it has taken so long for this podcast episode to come out is because I have been slowly reading and making notes on this book. It’s definitely not for everybody, and I don’t want you to take my recommendation as endorsement of everything in it. That should go without saying, but I just want to be extra cautious because this is an overtly political document. In particular, I think that it is not very generous in considering the difficulties that would-be communists in the United States have faced in the past couple decades and sometimes veers in an overly military direction in its consideration of political problems. But honestly, given how long it has been since anyone on the revolutionary left has produced anything as serious as this history, it makes for highly engaging reading, and I had begun to doubt whether there were any Maoist forces remaining in the United States who were capable of the sort of sustained and collective intellectual effort that seems to have gone into this document. And I understand that they are also going to publish something similar about the history of the communist movement in Canada as well.
I guess since I mentioned a couple brief criticisms of it, I’ll point out something positive in it. Nowhere else will you find anything approaching a beginning evaluation of the intense efforts that Maoists made in the projects in LA and Chicago during the 1990s and early 2000s to create what they called political base areas, and also the efforts that were made to draw in progressive middle strata to support those proletarians, especially by working with the family members of people who had been killed by the police. So, if that’s something that interests you as much as it does me, it’s at least worth reading that section of the history. And hopefully they will publish a more complete summation of that work in the future. OK, back to China.
So, I brought all this up as a way of saying that, when Chen Duxiu said that “The harsh criticism against me contained in the resolution of the August Seventh Meeting has indicated the Comintern’s intention to get rid of me. Because of this, my attendance will do me no good.” That basically, I think that Chen was wrong. Of course, on one level it’s like, who am I to question Chen’s evaluation of his own situation back in China in 1928. But I do think that the record shows that the Comintern was very willing and desirous of finding ways in which deposed leaders such as himself could continue contributing to the global revolution, and I suspect that had he attended the upcoming Party Congress in Moscow, that he would have ended up staying in Moscow and working there in some capacity.
But of course, Chen had been a major national figure even before he co-founded the Communist Party. And we know that he had a massive ego. It was very difficult for him to now be subordinate, organizationally, to the younger men who were now in charge and who he really did not have that much respect for. They certainly lacked his learning, his experience, and his prominence. So, it isn’t totally surprising that he decided on a course of action that would eventually lead him to break with the Comintern. This break will become much more decisive in the near future as he gets together with some people who had been students in the Soviet Union and who brought Trotskyism to China. I’d like to do an episode on the emergence and significance of Trotskyism in China in the not-too-distant future, and Chen will be an important figure in that story. We’ll see if that happens.
So, the Congress took place from June 18 to July 11, 1928. There were 84 delegates in attendance with voting rights, and a further 54 people attending without voting rights. We’ll talk some about what exactly happened at the Congress next episode.