Looking at what Mao and Zhu De did to install a new Communist order after conquering Changting.
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Mao Zedong, “On New Democracy”
Some names from this episode:
Guo Fengming, bandit turned Guomindang local despot in Changting
Feng Yuxiang, warlord close to both the USA and the Soviet Union
Wang Jingwei, leader of the Guomindang left
Dai Jitao, Guomindang ideologue
Yan Xishan, warlord accused by Mao of being a running dog for the Japanese imperialists
Welcome to episode 111 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
We ended the last episode with the Red Army’s conquest of the city of Tingzhou, these days known mainly as Changting, on March 14, 1929. This was the largest city that the Communists had taken over to date. Changting had a population of tens of thousands, and served as a regional trading center, with goods coming in from the surrounding countryside to be bought and sold there. It also had some small-scale manufacturing, including small munitions and clothing factories that were of particular value to the Communists. And once again the Communists were operating in a majority Hakka area, with Changting sometimes referred to as the Hakka Capital, although it’s worth noting that the Hakka dialect spoken in Changting is not mutually comprehensible with the dialect spoken in the Jinggangshan. Anyways, with the 4th Red Army’s track record as a mobilizer of Hakka masses (to the point that in the Jinggangshan it was often seen as a Hakka organization within the ethnically polarized context of the region, as we’ve discussed in previous episodes), it’s not surprising that the Communists found a warm welcome in Changting. This led Mao to start off his second bullet point item in the letter that he wrote to the Central Committee on March 20 by writing that “The Tingzhou masses are excellent.”
Being a regional hub, Changting was in much more direct contact with the rest of China than either the Jinggangshan or Donggu, so here Mao was able to catch up on reading newspapers and get fully up to date on the goings on in the world. Getting to catch up on the national news was such an event for Mao, who had been constantly behind in keeping up with national events while in the Jinggangshan, that he mentioned this as the third bullet point item in that March 20 letter to the Central Committee.
But catching up on national goings on was only one of several very urgent priorities occupying Mao immediately upon the conquest of Changting.
One other task that Mao took up right away was investigating Changting’s political and economic situation, and the customs and habits of the local people, through holding meetings with people from different social backgrounds. Mao used the local party apparatus to quickly set up informal discussions with a variety of people, including revenue clerks, people who had worked as runners (basically messengers and gophers) for the old government offices, tailors, teachers, peasants, vagrants, and others. These conversations gave Mao an immediate sense of the local situation, and also helped the party in formulating its initial urban policies for ruling Changting.
Mao also set the party to work on immediately setting up its own power structure in the city. The influence of Donggu’s secret communist regime is apparent in the emphasis that Mao placed on the formation of secret party and mass organizations in the area. There was a quick, secret recruitment drive for party members undertaken, with the local party branch tripling in size in just a matter of days. Twenty secret peasant associations were formed, and five secret trade unions. Of course, with so many people involved in secret activities and organizations, it begs the question of just how secret any of this actually was. This is especially the case with the election of a revolutionary committee to rule Changting that took place at a meeting that was held with people representing many different walks of life, and which drew legitimacy at least in part from the idea of mass representation. Undoubtedly, many people knew about those aspects of the secret mass organizations that most closely touched their own lives. But despite the limited way in which secrecy could be maintained for trade unions that involved large economic enterprises, presumably it was hoped that the secrecy would provide at least some sort of buffer or hurdle that might stymie future repression more than just being totally open would.
In addition to undertaking social investigation and overseeing major organizational tasks in the newly conquered city, Mao also immediately got to work writing two major appeals which were published on March 16, just two days after taking the city. If I were writing these appeals, they would have taken up all my time during those two days, and while I may be particularly slow, I find it a testament to Mao’s energy and drive (as well as perhaps his chronic insomnia) that he was able to write these two major statements while carrying out all his other major tasks of investigation and organization which were necessary to quickly imprint a kind of Communist order onto Changting. The first of these major statements that Mao wrote was an appeal that was titled “A Notice to Merchants and Intellectuals,” and the second was titled “A Letter to Our Brother Soldiers Throughout the Country.”
The “Notice to Merchants and Intellectuals” is really a perfect expression of how the Communists thought about how their program of democratic revolution could appeal to and win over large sections of the petty bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie, so I want to deal with that document in depth in just a minute. But before we move on to examining that text, let’s look at some other details from the first couple days of Communist rule in Changting.
Zhu De’s main task after the seizure of Changting was to see to replenishing the ranks of the Red Army. As we’ve discussed in past episodes, one of the main sources of recruits for the Red Army was captured enemy soldiers. Because the Communists had no real capacity to hold prisoners of war for any but the shortest length of time, Mao and Zhu’s practice had been to give captured enemy soldiers a brief propaganda session during which the aims of the revolution were explained in very basic terms, with a particular emphasis on how as poor men these enemy soldiers had been fighting on the wrong side, and then to take in the captured soldiers as new recruits or release them to go back to their homes with a strong admonition not to rejoin the white armies.
After the capture of Changting, Zhu De was particularly unhappy with the quality of the enemy forces that had been captured. After reviewing them as potential recruits for the Red Army, he rejected almost all of them because so many were opium addicts and had been professional bandits for a long time, with the habits of criminality that a long bandit career tended to ingrain in people. The poor quality of the captured enemy troops was made up for by the local response to his recruitment campaign, with about a thousand local peasants volunteering to join the Red Army, and a couple thousand more volunteering for partisan guerrilla forces and local militias which were called Red Guards, with the Red Guards tending to be composed of younger men than the partisan guerrilla forces.
Agnes Smedley described the difference between these guerrilla partisans and the Red Guards which were formed after the capture of Changting, based on the description that Zhu De gave here:
So, we see here the formation of this three-tiered system of armed forces, with a regular army, a partisan reserve force that also served to wage guerrilla war behind enemy lines, and a militia force of people mainly involved in agricultural labor, but who can be called upon when needed for various support functions.
Zhu De also shared some memories from the days directly following the conquest of Changting that remained vivid for him eight years later when Smedley was interviewing him. This is how she recounted them in her biography of him:
Each red army soldier was given two uniforms, which, as we can see from Zhu De’s account, constituted a significant upgrade for them. Each soldier was also given five silver dollars in pay, which came from the fundraising activities that the army carried out upon occupying the city, which mainly consisted of confiscating the property of reactionaries and collecting what we might generously call donations from the various commercial enterprises in the city (along lines similar to what we saw in Ningdu in episode 109). In theory, red army soldiers were supposed to receive a small amount of pay regularly, but in reality, as we have seen in past episodes, the army had been in such dire circumstances that pay usually could not be distributed. What this meant was that, when cash was suddenly plentiful after capturing Changting, a relatively large sum was given to them which presumably was meant to make up for back pay which couldn’t be given. I haven’t seen anyone write about this problem in relation to the Red Army, but it’s hard not to think that in circumstances where regular pay is usually unable to be given, but then this is made up for when suddenly cash is flush upon conquering a city or town, that this sort of payment might, in some soldiers’ eyes, have been seen as a share of plunder or, in terms that are more generous and which might be familiar to some listeners (and which would be out of place in the China of a century ago), something like a ‘quest reward.’
OK, so, now that we’ve surveyed some of what went on right after Changting was captured, I want to switch gears and take a close look at the “Notice to Merchants and Intellectuals” that Mao put together after two days in the city. In some recent episodes on the Sixth Party Congress in Moscow, we discussed how a big deal was made about how the Comintern and the party leadership conceived of the Chinese Revolution as being at a democratic rather than socialist stage in its development. But this distinction can often seem abstract. Here in this “Notice to Merchants and Intellectuals” Mao gives concrete expression to some of the policies of democratic revolution, and I think that this document clearly expresses the ways in which the Communists saw the democratic revolution as being inclusive of, and potentially appealing to, some of the better off people in China who were not major exploiters of the peasants and workers and who also, albeit to a lesser degree than the peasants and workers, suffered from, or at least had their aspirations somewhat held back by, foreign domination and semi-feudal social relations.
So, let’s take a look at this document, and I’ll intersperse some comments as we go and at the end.
So, just to sum up these first three points, Mao is making a pretty straightforward appeal to the self-interest of the merchants and intellectuals and asking them to think about how they would benefit from the development of a healthy Chinese capitalist economy.
Ok, let’s get into a few particulars about this document, particularly from this final point six.
Mao’s discussion of the new war that had broken out between Chiang Kaishek’s faction of the Guomindang and various warlords who had recently been allied with him can be a little misleading if you don’t know the larger context.
First off, it’s worth mentioning that Mao’s statement that the Guomindang had completely disintegrated is more sort of polemical wishful thinking than a real statement of what had actually happened, although you can see how someone might think that this is what was in fact in the process of happening as this war broke out between Chiang Kai-shek and his former allies. In addition to Chiang Kai-shek, Mao mentions four other forces in the field in the war that had just then broken out in China, which came to be called the Central Plains War because that’s where most of the fighting took place between March 1929 and November 1930.
The Central Plains War broke out when a bunch of warlords who had allied with Chiang Kai-shek to complete the Northern Expedition in 1928 and, at least nominally, unite China under one government, resisted Chiang’s efforts to consolidate power. To fully explain everything going on here would be a whole other episode, and maybe I should do that, I’ll think about it, but right now I’ll discuss this point that Mao made in this document a little more narrowly.
The first of the factions that Mao named is the one led by the warlord Feng Yuxiang. Mao describes Feng as a running dog of the Americans in this document. But Feng is a little more complex than that. We met Feng back in episodes 29 and 54 already. Although he ranged widely in his military and political maneuvers, his main base of support was in northwestern China and in that region, he had been consistently allied with the Soviet Union in fighting other warlords in the area in a series of battles along the borders between the Soviet Union and Mongolia on the one side and China on the other side. And he had received copious aid from the Soviets in the form of advisors and material military aid. When we last saw Feng in episode 54, he was allowing Mikhail Borodin to retreat through his territory to return to the Soviet Union, despite having received a telegram from Wang Jingwei asking him to kill Borodin. And while Feng goes on to both oppose and support Chiang Kai-shek at different times, when he dies in 1948 it is going to be while crossing the Black Sea to visit the Soviet Union in a friendly capacity. So, to call Feng an American running dog is somewhat misleading.
And I bring up these details about Feng not so much to exonerate him posthumously of the accusation of being a sometime running dog of the US imperialists, but rather to make the point that all of these guys who Mao names here (Feng Yuxiang, Yan Xishan, Chiang Kai-shek, and the Guangxi and Fengtian cliques), all of these guys who Mao names here are not really reducible to being described as anyone’s running dogs (despite whatever alliances these forces had struck up with representatives of the US, UK, and Japan).
Now, Mao knew this, of course. And what he is doing in this “Notice to Merchants and Intellectuals” was more like a form of denouncing and name-calling, as one does to political opponents sometimes, rather than trying to offer an all-sided analysis of these other political forces that the Communists were contending with.
The reason I bring this up is because sometimes people get confused about this. Describing people as running dogs or servants or pawns of one imperialist power or another can be a powerful rhetorical device for denouncing a political opponent. But when taken seriously, it can seriously flatten out people’s understanding of the forces at work, both historically and today, in various social conflicts. This ultimately leads to inaccurate analyses, both historical and contemporary. And it also often manifests as an unintentional but very real expression of First World chauvinism, in which the agency of actors in the Third World are not taken seriously. Given the number of proxy wars being fought in the world right now as this episode is being released, it’s really not hard to find inaccurate commentary which ignores the motivations and cultural and social forces at play among local actors and which reduces events to expressions of the grand strategies of the biggest powers involved.
OK, moving on.
Another thing worth commenting on in Mao’s sixth point from the “Notice to Merchants and Intellectuals” is where he describes Sun Yatsen’s Three Principles of the People as “absolute rubbish” (or, in the more literal translation, “absolute dog fart”). As we discussed back in episode 22, Sun Yatsen’s Three Principles of the People were the guiding philosophy of the Guomindang and are usually translated into English as nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood, although they can also be legitimately translated as populism, civil rights and people’s welfare. These are pretty vague concepts if left undefined, and when Sun and the Soviet Union formed an alliance, the Comintern gave Chiang Kai-shek a document which gave a revolutionary definition to these principles. Chiang himself was totally offended by the Comintern’s document, but Sun accepted it and enshrined the Comintern’s revolutionary definition of the Three People’s Principles as party ideology at the first Guomindang Congress.
However, after Sun Yatsen’s death, as we discussed back in episode 36, this guy Dai Jitao, who was a friend of Chiang Kai-shek, put forward a much more conservative interpretation of the Three People’s Principles and of Sun Yatsen’s legacy in general. And this more conservative approach to the Three People’s Principles became the official Guomindang ideology. What’s interesting in this document is that we can see that Mao has, for the moment, given up contesting the legacy of Sun Yatsen. For people familiar with some of Mao’s better-known writings, this is a surprising passage. Because later, Mao is going to be concerned both with claiming for the Communists the identity as true heirs of Sun Yatsen’s revolutionary nationalist legacy, and also as the more correct interpreters of the Three People’s Principles.
When the Communists and the Guomindang form a united front to fight Japan, the Three People’s Principles will be part of their basis of unity (albeit with each side interpreting the principles differently), and some of Mao’s writings from this period (in particular his important work ‘On New Democracy’ written in 1940) go on a considerable length about the importance and relevance of the Three People’s Principles. So, it’s interesting to see here that, while Mao’s thinking will change later (and no doubt be highly influenced by the need for forming a broad revolutionary movement to fight Japan), at this moment in 1929 he seems to have no interest in claiming Sun Yatsen’s legacy and in fighting an ideological battle against the Guomindang over who the true best interpreter of Sun Yatsen’s Three People’s Principles is.
OK, there is one final point that I do want to address from this document. And it’s kind of a big one. Listeners may be surprised at hearing Mao talk about promoting the ‘freedom of trade’ of the petty and national bourgeoisies. Here, we must remember he is talking about the democratic revolution and note that he tactfully does not mention that the democratic revolution was, even then, conceptualized as being soon followed (or as soon as possible followed) by a socialist revolution (during which this freedom of trade would disappear).
Now, I could leave things at that, but this raises some questions for me, and I think for other people, about just how disingenuous (or sincere) this sort of statement by Mao was. But, between the holidays and travel and getting sick again and again, this episode has taken so long in getting out, that I think I will pick up here next episode and release this one as it is right here. So, see you next time.