We wrap up our discussion of the Sixth Congress with a discussion of the political line coming out of the congress, and some related issues.
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Chang Kuo-t’ao [Zhang Guotao], The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party (2 volumes)
Daniel Kwan, Marxist Intellectuals and the Chinese Labor Movement: A Study of Deng Zhongxia, 1894-1933
Various 6th Party Congress documents in Chinese Studies in History vol. 3, #4 through vol. 5, #1
Yueh Sheng, Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow and the Chinese Revolution: A Personal Account
A Basic Understanding of the Communist Party of China
Some names from this episode:
Nikolai Bukharin, general secretary of the executive committee of the Comintern
Qu Qiubai, Named head of provisional politburo at August 7, 1927 Emergency Conference
Zhang Guotao, Leading Communist
Pavel Mif, Top Comintern China specialist
Li Lisan, Leading Communist
Zhou Enlai, Leading Communist
Xiang Zhongfa, Trade unionist and new general secretary of the CP
Xiang Ying, Leading Communist
Welcome to episode 106 of the People’s History of Ideas podcast.
Last episode, we left off by talking about how the Comintern China specialist Pavel Mif had gotten two of the top Chinese Communist leaders, Qu Qiubai and Zhang Guotao, to reconcile with each other for the good of the party as a whole, mainly through a kind of coercion using the Comintern’s authority in a way that Zhang and Qu both resented. Qu had been the main representative of a political line of striking out with armed struggle wherever and whenever possible, a line that was characterized at the Sixth Party Congress as ‘putschist’ and which would come to be referred to, even by Qu himself, as having been a line of ‘blind actionism.’ (We explored the content of this political line back in episodes 61 and 73.) Whereas Zhang Guotao had a more conservative orientation and was known for his emphasis on the need for organizing workers and unions.
So, at the point we left off last episode, working groups were formed which drafted a variety of resolutions and documents, which were then discussed, and then sometimes amended and approved by the congress. Some of these resolutions were not ever formally approved and have come down to us only in draft forms. I listed them last episode, but just to refresh your memory, the resolutions that have come down to us today from the Congress include resolutions on organization; the trade union movement; the land question; the peasant question; on the question of soviets (or the local organization of political power in areas controlled by the communists); on military affairs; on propaganda work; on the work of the Communist Youth League; on the women’s movement; a resolution to fix a regular memorial day to commemorate the Guangzhou Uprising; a resolution on the need to draft a party program; and a resolution on the question of national minorities. There was also a political resolution which was drafted which was based on Bukharin’s report to the congress. And a new party constitution was also drafted and adopted.
The actual importance of these various documents is somewhat varied. There is always, somewhat inevitably, a gap between the intentions of an organization as laid out in formal documents and what that organization can actually accomplish in reality. There is always the inertia of how things are already being done, and there is a common tendency to overestimate how many tasks can actually be accomplished by the limited number of cadre available to carry out those tasks. But in the case of the 6th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, this tendency for aspirational political documents to not quite match what will actually be carried out in practice was I think more exaggerated than usual. The circumstances would certainly lead you to expect this to be the case. The severe repression that the Chinese Communist Party had been experiencing meant that much of the mass work that the Party had been conducting, for example with workers or with women in major urban areas, had been smashed. In this context, then, the guidance for developing party work in the women’s movement or in forming trade unions that was contained in the Congress resolutions on those topics was contingent on first rebuilding something of what had been lost, a task that would never really be accomplished in the way the 6th Congress envisioned.
Likewise, what was the real meaning of the resolutions on land or on the peasant struggle when almost no one at the Congress itself was deeply involved in the intricacies of those struggles and all the complexity that emerged in the context of carrying out land reform and peasant organizing in practice? As the 6th Congress was taking place, the High Tide of land reform and party recruitment (which we discussed back in episode 88) was taking place in the Jinggangshan. That experience would ultimately be much more meaningful to the Chinese Revolution than what was written at the Congress.
And as long as we are discussing the disconnect between the Congress and the Jinggangshan experience, it is worth noting that, even as Bukharin, and the Congress more generally, discussed the problem of the influence of petty bourgeois ideology, and especially peasant ideology, on the Communist Party, and recognized that the Party was made up of a majority of members who came from peasant backgrounds, there were very few actual members from peasant backgrounds at the Congress. A report to the Congress which discussed the Party membership claimed that of 130,194 party members, 76.6% were peasants, 10.9% were workers, 7.2% were intellectuals, .82% were soldiers, and 3.5% were other. However, among delegates to the Congress, 51% were workers, 45% intellectuals, and 7% were peasants. (Of course, that adds up to 103%, so that tells us something about the exactitude of the source I have here, but I think even if we are rightfully skeptical about specific numbers, the general idea of there being massively overrepresented intellectuals and workers at the Congress compared to peasants is accurate.) Now, it is not surprising that urban people would be more likely to be at a Congress, and the obstacles for basic level party members from rural villages to rise out of those villages to become party leaders was an even greater feat than for urban workers arising from the basic masses in the cities. But still, I think this reflects how the rural party, and the most advanced rural experience that was being carried out in the remote base area of the Jinggangshan, was at some remove from the milieu of the Congress.
In any case, we can infer from the absence at the Congress of actual participants in the advanced rural revolutionary process that was going on at the time that the resolutions on land and on the peasant movement were drafted did not really represent the most advanced thinking in the Party on these questions.
Perhaps the disconnect between the wishes of the Congress and what reality would actually serve up to the Communist movement in China is best captured by the new Constitution’s provision that, because of the importance of party congresses as the supreme decision-making body of the Party, that the Party would hold a Congress annually going from here on out. In actual fact, the next Party Congress wouldn’t take place until 1945 (17 years later).
There are a couple of small points that I found in the resolutions of the Congress that I want to point out, just because they are of some interest.
In the draft Resolution on Work in Military Affairs there is a one paragraph long section titled “The assistance of fraternal parties,” which reads:
I found it very interesting that they were thinking in terms of using foreign nationals from the various imperialist countries that occupied China to try to subvert the troops from those countries who were in China. If I ever find any evidence of any actual attempts to carry this out, I’ll try to find enough material to put an episode together on it, although to my knowledge right now this effort never got put into practice.
Another piece of a resolution that I think is very interesting is the section on ‘Propaganda’ in the Resolution on Propaganda Work. That resolution has three parts, one on agitation, another on propaganda, and a final section titled ‘publications.’ What is really interesting to me here is that the section on propaganda is mostly concerned with raising the theoretical level of party members. It is clear that agitation is aimed outside the party, as part of mobilizing the masses, and then propaganda is mainly discussed in relation to educating the party membership. I want to read out some of this section, because I think it gives us a good sense of the general theoretical level of the party membership at this time, and so it’s a kind of window into the mental life of the Party.
Let’s move on now to examine the overall strategic orientation that came out of the Congress.
We’ve already gotten a taste of it from Bukharin’s talk about the nature of the Chinese Revolution two episodes ago. In its overall orientation, the Congress affirmed that the basic tasks of the Chinese Revolution involved developing the anti-feudal movement in the countryside and expelling imperialism from the country as part of carrying out a democratic revolution. However, there were two other important considerations here that affected how the Chinese Communist Party would proceed to try to carry out this democratic revolution in the immediate future.
The first of these considerations was the idea that we discussed in episode 102 that the world revolution was entering a new, ‘third period’ of global revolutionary struggle which would be one of great opportunities for carrying out revolutions around the world. Therefore, as the world entered this new phase, Communist parties would need to be poised to launch uprisings to take advantage of those opportunities. What this meant was, even though the past year of ‘blind actionism’ had been criticized as being ‘putschist’ and overly inclined to adventuristic military actions, in the upcoming period many of these policies might actually be seen as being now appropriate given the development of the objective conditions for revolution. So, while the documents coming out of the Sixth Congress contained admonitions that the party still needed to avoid the errors of ‘putschism’ on the one hand and ‘opportunism’ on the other hand, in practice it is going to be a pretty blurry line between ‘putschism’ on the one hand and trying to take advantage of a perceived change in objective conditions that now favored armed uprisings on the other hand.
This difficulty is going to be expressed in something that is going to end up being called the ‘Li Lisan Line.’ Just to give you a bit of a preview of where we will be going in this podcast in the relatively near future, this is how the Li Lisan line was summed up in a short book titled A Basic Understanding of the Communist Party of China that was published in Shanghai in 1974 and which attempted to codify many of the lessons learned during the Mao years related to issues surrounding the organization and life of a Communist Party.
This is in an end note which gave a quick summary of the ten major line struggles that had occurred in the Chinese Communist Party up to that point:
Basic Understanding 201
This description of the Li Lisan line serves as a nice bridge to the second major consideration that will affect how the Communist Party oriented itself strategically coming off of the Sixth Congress.
If, as Bukharin had stated, one of the main problems that was affecting the Communist Party was the influence of ideas rooted in the peasantry, the explanation that Bukharin and many of the Chinese Communists at the congress found for this problem was the large amount of peasants in the Communist Party membership compared to workers. In their thinking, the best way to address this problem was to recruit more workers, and in particular to put these workers into leading positions in the party. Without more workers, it was thought that the working class could not exercise leadership over the peasantry. Or, to phrase the same issue in the realm of ideas, it was thought that truly communist ideas about changing the world would be constantly subverted by ideas rooted in the petty bourgeois social relations that corresponded to peasant production.
The Congress’s Political Resolution put the issue like this:
And the outline for a resolution on organization (which is all we have of that resolution) put the problem this way:
So, the idea coming out of the 6th congress was that, in order to actually lead the democratic revolution in an appropriate way, it was necessary to exercise proletarian leadership of the peasantry. And in order to exercise proletarian leadership over the peasantry, it was necessary to have a larger number of actual workers in the party. So, even though the immediate tasks of the democratic revolution indicated a focus on the countryside in order to lead the peasantry against the landlords, it was thought that this could not be done in a good way unless the party had more workers in it. And these workers were not going to be recruited by focusing on the countryside. So, even though the main tasks of the revolution were in the countryside, it was going to be necessary to put a major focus on struggles that would lead to recruiting workers, so that those workers could then somehow help to guarantee a correct political orientation to the decisive struggle in the countryside.
This perceived need to win over large numbers of workers to lead the peasants led Bukharin, in his opening speech, to state that “At no time should we say that the Party cannot struggle for the small local demands or for the day-to-day needs of the working class.”
This perceived need to develop struggles that would recruit workers, on the one side, and need to develop the rural struggle to advance the democratic revolution, on the other side, leaves a lot of room for interpretation in terms of how the party should actually distribute its forces and what struggles should be emphasized and de-emphasized. You can’t take advantage of the opportunities of the ‘third period’ if you don’t have enough organization in place to lead the peasants in armed struggle. But you can’t lead the peasants the way you want to if you don’t have enough workers in the party.
So, we’ll see how the Communist Party deals with this contradiction in some upcoming episodes.
At the end of the Congress, the delegates elected a new, 23-member central committee, which met on July 19 and elected the politburo, which had 7 full members and seven alternate members.
The following day, the Politburo met and elected a worker and trade union leader from Wuhan, Xiang Zhongfa, as the new general secretary. Xiang defeated Zhou Enlai for the position.
The election of Xiang Zhongfa as general secretary was one way in which the Communists tried to immediately put into effect the policy of putting workers in command of the Party. However, even though Xiang had played a major role in leading strikes against warlords in support of the Northern Expedition and had been a Party member since 1921, he was not really cut out to play the overall leading role. This was definitely a case where someone was chosen more for their identity as a worker than for their capacity as a leading cadre.
Here are a couple of quotes from Zhang Guotao’s autobiography giving his thoughts on Xiang Zhongfa:
Zhang 77-78, 148
So, while Zhang Guotao was certainly not an unbiased observer here, there is a real reason why the political line that is going to come to be associated with the period when Xiang Zhongfa was general secretary is known as the Li Lisan line and not the Xiang Zhongfa line. Xiang simply is not going to exercise true political leadership of the party, despite his position as general secretary. And we’ll see how this develops in future episodes.
After the Congress, Zhang Guotao and Qu Qiubai are going to be kept in Moscow as representatives of the Chinese Communist Party to the Comintern, a maneuver which is meant to remove the main representatives of the right and left wings of the party out of day-to-day affairs in China. But we’ll see both of them back in action in China in future years.
With the Congress over, you may be wondering how all these delegates were safely transported back to China? Well, thankfully, there is a memoir that gives a nice account of how this was accomplished:
Alright, with our delegates safely escorted back to China, I think we’re done with the 6th Congress.
Before I end things here though, I just want to acknowledge all the positive comments and contributions that have come in the direction of the podcast these last few weeks. This has been a difficult year for me to find the time to produce the show, and it’s really encouraging to receive the words and other forms of support that people have been sending. It seems like there have been a lot of listeners who were missing the show while I was prioritizing some other things. So, I just wanted to put out this general thank you to all of you who have been sending those vibes my way.