The Communist Party begins its labor organizing drive, and the Comintern pushes for a united front with the Guomindang.
Elizabeth Perry, Shanghai on Strike
Tony Saich, The Origins of the First United Front in China
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai 1920-1927
Some names from this episode:
Henk Sneevliet, alias Maring, Dutch Communist and Comintern leader in China beginning in 1921
Zhang Guotao, emerged from founding congress as an important Communist leader
Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yatsen, leader of the Guomindang
Li Qihan, communist teacher and labor organizer who pioneered utilization of secret society contacts in labor organizing
Huang Ai, anarchist labor organizer executed in 1922
Pang Renquan, anarchist labor organizer executed in 1922
Chen Duxiu, first general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party
Gregory Voitinsky, leader of Comintern delegation to China in 1920
Chen Jiongming, progressive southern warlord, sometime opponent of Sun Yatsen
V. Lidin, Comintern agent in China, subordinate to Maring
Li Dazhao, leading Communist
Adolph Joffe, Soviet ambassador to China
Georgy Safarov, head of eastern section of the Comintern
Wu Peifu, northern warlord who crushed railroad workers’ strike in 1923
Welcome to episode 19 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
We left off our last episode with a major strategic divergence between the Chinese Communist Party and the Comintern representative, Maring, who had been sent to China to guide the Chinese Revolution. The Communists overwhelmingly decided to focus their efforts on labor organizing after the first party congress in July 1921, while Maring had hoped to guide the Communist Party into an alliance with the Guomindang, or Nationalist Party, which was led by Sun Yatsen and which controlled an important part of southern China.
Communist Labor Organizing
At the first congress, Zhang Guotao had been named head of the party’s organizational department and set up the labor secretariat to coordinate the labor organizing work. The largest center for growing capitalist industry in China was in Shanghai, and this was where the labor secretariat was initially centered and where union-organizing work was most intense, although party branches in other parts of the country also threw themselves into labor organizing work.
One of the major complications of the labor organizing in Shanghai was that secret societies, especially the Green Gang, often controlled the labor market. It was a racket where the supervisors in the factories would be members of the Green Gang, and then in order to be hired workers would have to join the gang and pay off their foremen. This created a major problem for the communists. It was decided that it was more realistic to try to work with the Green Gang than to take the Gang on head-on. Here’s how one early Communist organizer described the dilemma:
“Our work met with many difficulties… Hardest to handle were the Green and Red Gangs. Finally we decided that several comrades should infiltrate their ranks. But at that time our comrades were all students. If we wanted them to jump up on a stage and deliver a speech or jump down and write an essay, there were always volunteers. But to enter the Green or Red Gang one had to knuckle down and learn their customs and regulations. Then, through various guises, one could begin work. Who had the patience for that?”
Li Qihan, one of the teachers in a school for workers that the Communists had set up, made the initial breakthrough in working with the Green Gang. He became good friends with a cotton worker who was a student in the school and was a member of the Green Gang, and she introduced him to her ‘master’ in the Gang, who accepted Li as his ‘disciple.’ Li was able to utilize his Green Gang connections to make inroads with workers in the cotton and tobacco industries, and by the end of 1921 Li’s contacts had formed Communist-sympathetic unions in those industries.
The work of the Labor Secretariat led to a strike wave in Shanghai in 1922. The longest of the strikes was a 27-day strike waged by gold- and silversmiths and was organized by Communist workers in that trade. The smiths resented that the workers were treated as inferior to the white-collar employees who sold the gold and silver. Almost all of the smiths hailed from Ningbo province, and the strike was eventually mediated by the Ningbo Native-Place Association, an organization which tied together migrants from Ningbo who lived in Shanghai, just like you have similar associations in most major US cities today for Mexican migrants from the different states in Mexico. As part of the mediated settlement, the smiths had to apologize for damaging a shop during a rowdy protest by setting off firecrackers and lighting candles.
One of the things that both the utilization of secret society contacts and the use of the Ningbo Native-Place Association in settling the strike by the gold- and silversmiths shows is how the Communists were flexible in utilizing pre-existing structures that were important in the lives of the workers as part of their organizing. So this then raises an interesting problem, both for the communist labor organizer and the historian examining these labor organizing efforts: Undoubtedly, the Communists could not have succeeded in their organizing without recognizing and adapting to the social structures that already existed in Chinese society. But, on the other hand, as Communists it was their duty to introduce ideas and ways of interacting with the world that would prefigure something entirely new. So were they able to strike a balance? Were they able to adapt to the old enough to gain entry into workers’ lives and minds, but also retain enough of their ultimate communist aim in order to actually introduce their new ideas into the workers’ lives, and to organize the workers not just to make unions and strikes, but ultimately to create a whole new world?
This was the dilemma for the labor organizers. And for the historian, then, the danger is that we see the unions organized by the communists, and then we have to try to understand just exactly what was happening there. Were these unions that just happened to be organized by communists? What portion of the workers in these unions came along and joined the party and adopted the world outlook of the Communists? One historian, looking at the union movement in Tianjin, for example, has said that what many historians have described as class struggle in Tianjin labor history might better be described as gang warfare. After all, the workers were connected to a gang, or secret society, whatever you want to call it, but the employers were too. And the employers were often connected to higher up members of the same gang. So you might have some Communist labor organizers connecting with Green Gang members and gaining acceptance and organizing the workers. And then the employers had their own secret society connections. Is it class struggle, is it gang warfare, or is it both?
We’ll be returning to this issue of Communist unions in Shanghai in the near future, and this question of workers’ consciousness in the struggle is just not an easy one to answer, and because of its centrality to everything we are talking about, we’ll keep coming back to it.
But right now I want to move from Shanghai to Hunan, and talk about what Mao got up to in his labor organizing over there.
One of the first things Mao did upon his return to Changsha after the founding congress of the Communist Party was to set up the Hunan branch office of the Labor Secretariat. Mao’s main focus was on recruiting two anarchist labor organizers, Huang Ai and Pang Renquan, into the Socialist Youth League, the Communist Party’s youth organization, which didn’t have as strict ideological rules on membership, and so it was less problematic to recruit Mao’s anarchist comrades to the Youth League rather than into the Party. There was a major setback, however, when Huang and Pang were executed by Hunan’s militarist governor in January 1922 for organizing a strike among cotton workers. According to Mao’s account in Red Star Over China, by May 1922 the Communists had organized more than 20 unions in Hunan “among miners, railway workers, municipal employees, printers, and workers in the government mint.”
In summing up his work as a labor organizer in 1922 in an article that he wrote in 1923, Mao wrote that: “There were a total of 10 strikes. Nine were victorious or semivictorious, and one failed. The total of persons participating in the strikes amounted to 22,250. The strike objectives had mostly to do with wages, but a few of them involved a struggle for the freedom to organize. All of the strikes took place between August and December of last year.” So we can see that the Communists in Hunan and Shanghai, and elsewhere in China, had some real successes in their labor organizing during the year and a half following the first party congress. But the defeated strike that Mao referred to in this quote was very significant, and we’ll come back to that in just a minute.
Maring and the Guomindang
While the rest of the Chinese Communist Party was tackling the task of getting going with its labor organizing, the Comintern representative Maring arranged to spend the winter of 1921 to 1922 in southern China, in areas controlled by the Guomindang, and to meet with senior Guomindang leaders, including Sun Yatsen. Maring was very impressed that an anti-imperialist revolutionary force controlled a major part of southern China, and advanced talks with Sun on possible collaboration and aid between the Soviet Union and the Guomindang, although no firm conclusions were reached. While Maring was in the south, the Guomindang-led sailors’ union went on strike in Hong Kong from January until March 1922, and he was in daily contact with the Guomindang leaders during it. The strike was a major disruption to the life of the British colony, which needed food and other supplies shipped in, and in the end the workers won their demands.
In Maring’s own words from a report that he gave in Moscow in the summer of 1922: “In my opinion, this trip to the south was the most important part of my stay in China. In Shanghai, I had become very pessimistic about the movement in China and its possibilities. In the south, I became convinced that fruitful work was possible.”
When Maring returned to Shanghai in spring, he made the case that the Chinese Communists should join the Guomindang and work within it, to push it in a communist direction and the lead it if they could. This strategy that he advocated was known as the ‘united front within,’ from the idea that the Communists should join the Guomindang and work as a bloc inside it.
In the months since the founding congress of the Communist Party, the Chinese Communist leadership had warmed up to the idea of working with the Guomindang, but not of joining it and working within it. The experience of working in the labor movement had of necessity engendered forms of cooperation with other progressive political forces in addition to the Green and Red Gangs that I mentioned earlier. The Communists had done what they could in Shanghai to aid the Guomindang-led sailors’ strike, for example.
Additionally, some Chinese comrades, including Zhang Guotao, who had been the most adamant opponent of cooperation with the Guomindang at the founding congress, had attended the Congress of Peoples of the Far East held by the Comintern in Moscow from January 21 to February 2 in 1922. One of the emphases of this Congress was the ‘national-revolutionary’ character of the revolutionary strategy that should be pursued in colonial and semi-colonial countries. Here is how Zhang Guotao reported on his impressions of the Congress on his return to China in March 1922:
“[M]ost leaders in Moscow thought that the Chinese Revolution was opposed to imperialism and domestic warlords and reactionary influences that were in collusion with it… This Chinese revolution must unite the efforts of all the different groups of revolutionary forces in all China. In the final analysis there must be cooperation between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party. Lenin himself had emphatically brought out this point.”
Lenin had had a private meeting with a Guomindang member who was at the Congress and two of the Communist delegates, one of whom was Zhang, and at this meeting Lenin tried to understand if an alliance between the Guomindang and the Communists were possible, and it was clear that Lenin hoped for such an alliance, and thought that an anti-imperialist revolutionary united front was the strategy to take in China.
So this emphasis at the Congress of Peoples of the Far East, and of Lenin in particular, on the strategy of an anti-imperialist coalition of forces deeply impressed Zhang Guotao and other Communists who were there, and so this combination of experience in the labor movement and also the influence of the congress in Moscow and Lenin led the Chinese Communist leadership to be very open to the idea of working with the Guomindang. But they were still largely opposed to the idea of actually joining the Guomindang and forming a ‘united front within.’ So instead they adopted a strategy for working with the Guomindang which was called the ‘united front from without,’ where the Communists would start to try to cooperate more with the Guomindang, but that they wouldn’t join it.
This wasn’t enough for Maring, who would be returning soon to Moscow to report on events in China. Anticipating that Maring would try to get the Comintern Executive Committee to order the Chinese Communists to join the Guomindang, Chen Duxiu took the highly unusual step of writing a letter to Voitinsky, the first Comintern representative in China from 1920, and with whom Chen had a much better relationship than he had with Maring, asking him to intervene on behalf of the Chinese Communists, and laying out numerous objections to being forced to join the Guomindang.
Among the objections that Chen raised were:
- That the basic aims and policies of the two parties were not the same.
- That the Guomindang policy of sometimes cooperating with the United States of America and with particular warlords to achieve its aims was incompatible with communism.
- That outside of Guangdong Province the Guomindang was seen as just like any other political party scrambling for power and profit, and so joining it would lose the confidence of the people in the Communists.
- That one particular warlord, Chen Jiongming, who the Communists had cultivated good ties with, was opposed to Sun Yatsen and so the Communists would meet with his hostility.
- That Sun Yatsen doesn’t listen to the opinions of others and lies a lot
- And finally that all the party branches of the Chinese Communist Party had met to discuss the strategy of joining the Guomindang and they all opposed it.
Sadly for Chen Duxiu, however, Gregory Voitinsky was not in a position to intervene effectively on his behalf.
Maring’s report to the Executive Committee of the Comintern in Moscow, which we quoted from already earlier, was focused almost entirely on the possibilities that the Guomindang represented as a force which might at the least prove a worthy ally to the Soviet Union in the region, and at best could be influenced in the direction of socialist revolution. In the words of V. Lidin, another Comintern agent who was working with Maring in China, “With the forces which we have to hand in China there is now a possibility of regulating the national-revolutionary movement to a significant extent and placing our organizations at its head.” That is, although Maring and Lidin were pessimistic about the Chinese Communists’ ability to make a revolution on their own, they were potentially useful as agents through which the Comintern might influence or take control of the Guomindang.
While Maring was in Moscow, the Chinese Communist Party held its second congress. At the first congress, the party had represented about 50-60 members. The 12 delegates at the second congress represented 195 party members. But perhaps more significant than the quantitative growth in membership, the documents from the congress demonstrate a qualitative growth. These second congress party documents clearly reflect the fact that the party had been involved in concrete work and thus are much more substantial than the documents which came out of the first congress. There had also been a certain clarification of the commitment needed to carry on the party’s work (after all, as we saw in the case of Hunan (and this happened elsewhere as well), organizers had been killed trying to lead mass struggles, and so the seriousness of the endeavor could not have been lost on anyone involved), and while there was still ideological disagreement, at least everyone who was at the congress had demonstrated a commitment to the party’s work, unlike many people who attended the first party congress. In fact, only three delegates from the first congress were present at the second congress. But Chen Duxiu did attend the second congress (after skipping the first), and Mao, who had been at the first congress, would have attended the second but forgot where it was going to be held and couldn’t find anyone who knew. (This sort of confusion and the resulting missed connections which ensued, by the way, was a constant feature of communist organizing which relied on both secrecy and person-to-person contact.)
The second congress also formalized the repudiation of the antagonistic stance that the party had taken toward other organizations in the documents of the first congress, and which we discussed in our last episode. And this was intended to help to pave the way toward trying to work with the Guomindang in a united front. However, when Maring returned to China in early August, he carried instructions from the Comintern which backed his position that the Chinese Communists should join the Guomindang, and it was time for a show-down on that point.
Having just completed their second congress in July, Maring now forced what was called a plenary session, or plenum, of the party’s central committee to have it out on the issue. The instructions that Maring carried from the Comintern Executive Committee called on the Communist Party to organize Communist groups within the Guomindang. And while the central committee members unanimously opposed joining the Guomindang, Maring argued that Comintern discipline required them to do so in order to carry out their tasks. In the face of Maring’s insistence, the Central Committee agreed to follow through on this order from the Comintern to implement the united front from within.
Li Dazhao and another Communist who had connections with leading Guomindang members met soon afterwards with Sun Yatsen, as did Maring separately, and Sun soon agreed that he would waive the requirement that new Guomindang members swear loyalty oaths to him personally, and at a special ceremony in September the first four Chinese Communists were sworn in as members of the Guomindang. This group included Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, the party founders. At the same time, Sun Yatsen began negotiations (mainly through representatives) with the Soviet ambassador to China, Adolph Joffe, over Soviet aid to the Guomindang. It seems quite likely that Sun saw the admission of Communists into the Guomindang as a trade-off for the help that he expected to receive from the Soviets. And, in any case, the Guomindang had always included a range of viewpoints. In fact, the right-wing of the Guomindang was not happy at all about the new united front with the Communists.
Despite the fact that some Communists were now joining the Guomindang and beginning to work within it, the issue was not quite settled. Chen Duxiu took advantage of his presence at the 4th Comintern Congress in Moscow from November 5 to December 5, 1922 to go over Maring’s head and protest the United Front from Within policy which had been forced on the Chinese Communists. This resulted in the matter being put to the politburo of the Russian Communist Party and then subsequently referred again to the Executive Committee of the Comintern. This forced Maring to be called back to Moscow in late December, where a sharp struggle broke out within the committee. Voitinsky and Georgy Safarov, the head of the eastern section of the Comintern, opposed the united front from within, because of Sun Yatsen’s strategy of trying to utilize alliances with warlords in order to come to power. However, Maring and Joffe were able to counter those arguments by relating their discussions with Sun about arranging Soviet aid in reorganizing the Guomindang along the lines of a Leninist party so that it could become more effective organizationally, as well as providing weapons and military training so that Sun could develop his own armed forces and not need to rely on militarist allies. In the end, Chen’s attempt to go over Maring’s head came to nothing, and the Comintern reaffirmed its instructions to the Chinese Communists to work within the Guomindang.
Ultimately, however, events soon played out which convinced many previously skeptical Chinese Communists of the need to work within the Guomindang. And this brings us back to the one defeated strike that Mao referred to earlier in this episode.
On February 1, 1923, troops from the warlord Wu Peifu broke up a meeting where a union was being established for workers on the Beijing-Hankou railway. The railway workers had been a particular focus for Communist union organizing activity, and there had been a lot of success. The workers had been particularly receptive to Communist agitation, and because of the spread-out character of the railway system, organizing railroad workers was an effort that tied together the organizing efforts of party branches around the country.
In response to having their union meeting broken up, a general strike was called on the railroad. Twenty thousand workers went out on strike, and the railroad was shut down. This railway was the warlord’s principal source of income, and his response was swift and brutal. On February 7 Wu ordered troops to fire into crowds of striking workers, killing about 30-50 workers, and wounding hundreds more. Leading communist organizers and their attorney were arrested and executed, and the railway union apparatus was basically crushed in the wave of repression that followed the massacre.
The contrast between the successful sailors’ strike that the Guomindang had led in early 1922 and the swift and brutal defeat that the Communists had just suffered made a deep impact on many Communists. Their small size, lack of armed forces and inability to respond to the repression made many Communists now much more amenable to an alliance with the Guomindang that might afford some protection from the brutality of the warlords. Mao himself was reportedly so pessimistic in the wake of the defeat that he saw China’s only salvation as lying in the diplomatic and military intervention of the Soviet Union.
And that intervention was coming. On January 26, 1923 Sun Yatsen had signed an accord with Adolph Joffe which would bring Soviet forces to the aid of the Guomindang. We’ll pick up there in out next episode.
Before we bring this episode to a close, I want to remind listeners that you can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re covering some complex history here, and if there is anything that isn’t clear, I would be happy to expand or clarify on things in future episodes. I really welcome hearing from listeners.
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Alright, see you next time.