The Communist Party of China tries to find a way to implement the united front with the Guomindang in 1923, but ultimately has to wait for the Soviet-Guomindang alliance to mature.
Tony Saich, The Origins of the First United Front in China
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2
Some names from this episode:
Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yatsen, leader of the Guomindang
Wang Jingwei, leader of Guomindang left-wing, later president of Japanese puppet state in China
Cao Kun, northern warlord who controlled Beijing
Li Yuanhong, president of China from 1922-1923
Zhang Guotao, communist leader and opponent of ‘united front from within’ with Guomindang
Henk Sneevliet, alias Maring, Dutch Communist and Comintern leader in China from 1921-1923
Chiang Kai-shek, Japan-trained military officer, close confidant of Sun Yatsen
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Welcome to episode 20 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
When we left off at the end of the last episode, the Communist Party had just suffered a major defeat with the crushing of the strike by the railway workers of the Beijing-Hankou railroad line with a massacre of railroad workers on February 7, 1923. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and the Guomindang had reached an agreement for Soviet aid to the Guomindang. And within this context, the Communist International had been pressuring the Chinese Communist Party to form a close united front with the Guomindang that would involve Communists becoming Guomindang members.
But creating a policy and putting a policy to work in a concrete way in the real world are often two very different things. You can say that you want to do something, but it is often quite difficult to figure out exactly what to do or how to do it. When the Communist Party embarked on labor organizing in 1921 and 1922, the task was in some ways much more straightforward. The Party had to make contact with workers and organize them into labor unions. There was already a model for doing this sort of thing, both internationally and in China’s modernized coastal cities, like Shanghai, where other parties, like the Guomindang, had already done some union organizing.
But how would the Communists go about working within the Guomindang, and to what ultimate end? Especially if they meant to maintain their own identity as Communists in addition to being members of the Guomindang. Where would a line be drawn between promoting the Guomindang and promoting the Communist Party? And was the aim to support the Guomindang in carrying out a nationalist revolution, or was the aim to take over the Guomindang from within and use it as a vehicle for leading what would ultimately be a socialist revolution?
There was no real model to follow, and no clear instructions from the Comintern for what exactly should be done, other than that the Communists should join the Guomindang and work within it to promote a ‘national-democratic’ revolution (and, to the degree they could gain control of parts of the party, all the better).
Further complicating matters, the Guomindang was a party that including many factions and cliques. It was united around the personalistic leadership of Sun Yatsen, but it also had major secondary figures with agendas which fell out all along the left-right political spectrum, and who pursued their own political advantage as often as they pursued any particular political principles. This opportunism would be most dramatically demonstrated in 1937 when the leader of the Guomindang’s left-wing, Wang Jingwei, accepted Japan’s invitation to become the president of the puppet regime that Japan set up in Nanjing. But smaller scale, ‘everyday’ opportunism was the norm in the organization.
So, given the personalistic, cliquish and opportunistic nature of the Guomindang’s politics, the Communists had a difficult task in figuring out how to insert themselves into the party’s operations. And that is without even mentioning the suspicion with which the Communists were greeted by many Guomindang members. The right-wing of the Guomindang, to be sure, opposed the Communists on principle. But many other Guomindang members also resisted co-operation with the Communists. For example, in Shanghai, Guomindang union organizers resisted allowing the Communist-cum-Guomindang members into the union leadership out of fear of ceding control of the unions that they had organized.
In practice, the ‘united front from within’ that the Comintern and the Chinese Communists had argued so much about, would not really take place until 1924, when the Soviet-Guomindang alliance had developed beyond its initial phase and began to be implemented, with the Soviet-aided reorganization of the Guomindang and the arrival of Soviet military advisors and arms in Guangzhou.
But there was one major incident in 1923 which did demonstrate the Chinese Communists’ efforts to seize the initiative in shaping the united front with the Guomindang, and which also demonstrates how their conception of the Chinese Revolution was changing in line with the demands of the Comintern. It’s an incident worth recounting not for what was accomplished, but for what it shows us about how the Chinese Communists were adapting to the new political reality.
The Coup in Beijing and Shanghai’s Declaration of Independence
The precipitating event that caused the national moment of crisis that the Communist Party was responding to was a coup which took place in Beijing in June of 1923. Now, during the warlord era of Chinese history, the presidency in Beijing was an incredibly weak institution, and presidents served at the behest of the warlord who controlled Beijing. However, there was periodic hope for national reunification during the warlord years, and occasionally some warlords made nods in that direction. This is what had happened in 1922, when the warlord who controlled Beijing, Cao Kun, installed Li Yuanhong in the presidency.
Back in the Revolution of 1911, which we talked about in episode 11, and which began with a mutiny in Wuhan which grew into a nationwide revolution which ended the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Li had been a high-ranking military commander who the mutineers forced, at the barrel of a gun, to become the figurehead leader of their revolt. The mutineers needed someone high-ranking to give their revolution some status, and Li had a reputation for supporting the patriotic Railway Protection Movement, which we also talked about in episode 11, and so was a good choice for them. And even though he initially had to be forced to join the mutiny, he later became a more enthusiastic participant in the revolution.
In 1922, when there was some talk about trying to disband the warlord armies and reunite the country, Li Yuanhong, was seen as someone who could be president who everyone felt was basically a good and honest figure, and who might unite the country, and so he had been installed in the presidency with the hope that he could play that unifying role. He recalled the old disbanded parliament, and pulled together a bunch of very talented people to form his cabinet. But, as it happened, it was pretty hard to get the warlords to put down their guns, and by June of 1923 Cao Kun, who really had no intention of putting away his guns, decided he wanted to be president himself and overthrew Li in a coup. All of this was very dispiriting for people who had got their hopes up about a unified Chinese republic being established and about the warlords possibly putting aside their fighting for the sake of national unity. In response, in Shanghai, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce declared its independence from Beijing and its intention to set up a merchants’ republic.
The Chinese Communist Party was holding its Third Congress when the coup happened. The main significance of the congress was that it further drove home the policy of a united front within the Guomindang. Zhang Guotao had chosen the congress as the site to make another major stand against the united front with the Guomindang, and he attempted to get the congress to make a decision to keep the party’s trade union work exempt from the united front policy, so as to better safeguard the proletarian identity of the Communist Party. Zhang was narrowly defeated in the voting, and for his effort he was replaced by Mao Zedong on the party’s central committee. It appears that Zhang bore Mao a grudge for this, and a bit over a decade later that grudge would come to bear in a major leadership struggle between the two.
But in 1923, the crisis engendered by the coup in Beijing offered the Communist Party an opportunity to take the initiative in the united front with the Guomindang. Directly following the end of the Third Congress, the members of the party’s central committee, all of whom held joint membership in the Guomindang, sent a letter to Sun Yatsen which read in part:
“The political crisis in the north is in a phase of increasing confusion. Public opinion shows increasing activity; this gives our party a golden opportunity for development; we must not lose it. We as members of the party ask for your decision on the following two questions. (1) The organization of a strong executive in Shanghai or Guangzhou to develop the actions of party members in a uniform way and to unfold propaganda on a large scale. For this, special attention is to be paid to Beijing, Hubei, Hunan, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. If these centers are not well organized, all the work will be superficial and dispersed.”
The letter goes on to discuss the various warlord groups involved in the political crisis in the north. Since we haven’t discussed them before here, I think most listeners would need a lot more context on the particular names mentioned, so I’ll just pick up where the discussion of particular warlord factions leaves off with the main message: “(2) [W]e cannot follow the same course as the feudalistic warlords to conquer political power and territory with military strength. That would give people the impression that we are no different from the militarists. To build a new China with old methods and old forces not only is incompatible with logic, but cannot be realized in practice. The old force has means that are ten times stronger than ours. We can only use new means, take new directions, and create a new force. With respect to the people we must unite merchants, students, peasants, and workers, and lead them under the banner of the party. The new force that will arise from the people themselves will defend the Republic with new means and with a new comradely spirit…
“The crime of the generals in the southern provinces who enlarge their armies and oppress the people is no smaller than the crime of the militarists in the north… We ask you to leave Guangzhou and go to Shanghai, the center of public opinion, and to convene a National Assembly there… In this way a central force will be created for the solution of national problems as well as a central force for the national revolution.”
So, this letter from the Communist Party Central Committee to Sun Yatsen was meant to take the initiative in responding to the current crisis, and in shaping how the united front strategy would proceed in practice. As it was, the Communist Party had few concrete ways to interface with the activity of the Guomindang, but if a new, better organized Guomindang were set up in Shanghai in order to intervene in the national crisis, the Communists would probably be in a position to play a major role in the process. This is both because Shanghai was not historically a stronghold of the Guomindang like the south was, so that as new organizational structures were created, communists would fit themselves into some of those structures, rather than having to find ways to work in the already existing structure which was, as I explained earlier, more or less built in a way which excluded them, even after they formally joined the Guomindang. In fact, this sort of integration into the Guomindang did happen only after the Soviet-sponsored reorganization of the Guomindang in 1924, but had Sun Yatsen replied in the affirmative to this letter from the Communist Central Committee, it might have happened during the summer of 1923.
Secondly, the Communists were arguing for Sun to rely on mass mobilization efforts rather than on existing warlord armies, such as those in the south of China who he had tended to rely on. As it was, Sun was making moves away from reliance on southern warlords, not so much in the direction of mass mobilization, but in the direction of creating his own armed forces with the aid of the Soviet Union. We’ll circle back to this in just a second.
The Communist plan to take advantage of the national crisis of 1923 was totally conditioned on Sun Yatsen’s approval of the plan, and because Sun Yatsen declined to act on it, nothing happened. This has to have been one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to carry out the United Front for the Communist leaders. And ironically, it seems that Sun actually agreed with much that the letter said, at least as far as the need to reorganize the Guomindang and not depend on alliances with warlords goes. It just seems that Sun preferred to carry out those policies with aid from the Soviet Union, rather than in partnership with the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.
In addition to seeing the 1923 coup and the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce’s declaration of independence as a crisis which might serve revolutionary ends, the Chinese Communists also seem to have read the crisis as demonstrating a potential for rebellion among China’s national bourgeoisie that was greater than they had previously estimated. Indeed, for a brief moment the Chinese Communists entertained the idea that China’s national bourgeoisie might be capable of leading a nationalist revolution.
Mao himself, now a central committee member, wrote an article hailing the actions taken by the Shanghai merchants in the following words:
“The action of the Shanghai General Federation of Merchant Street Associations and the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce may be considered as the first instance of merchant involvement in politics, and as a manifestation of the fact that the merchants, who for three years had remained silent, now speak in awesome tones.
“The present political problem in China is quite simply the problem of the national revolution. To use the might of the people to overthrow the warlords and also to overthrow foreign imperialism, which colludes with the warlords in their evil acts—such is the historic mission of the Chinese people. This revolution is the task of all the people. Among the Chinese people as a whole, the merchants, workers, peasants, students, and teachers should all alike come forward to take on responsibility for a portion of the work of revolution. But because of historical necessity and the trend of current realities, the task that the merchants should shoulder in the national revolution is more urgent and more important than the work that the rest of the Chinese people should take upon themselves. We know that the politics of semicolonial China is a politics of the dual oppression of the warlords and foreign powers, which have banded together to fetter the people of the whole country. Under the politics of this kind of dual oppression, the people of the whole country naturally all suffer profoundly together. Nonetheless, the merchants are the ones who feel these sufferings most keenly, most urgently.”
What is remarkable here, and this was echoed in other statements by both the Chinese Communists and by Maring, their Comintern advisor, is that as soon as the Shanghai merchants made some expression of radical political demands, there was an almost Pavlovian Marxist response which fit the actions of the Shanghai merchants into an ideological framework which saw the national-democratic revolution as the proper domain of the bourgeoisie. Never mind the fact that for the past three years, the Chinese Communists, and their Comintern advisors, had been arguing fiercely that one of the lessons of the Russian Revolution was that a revolution in China did not need more than limited involvement by the national bourgeoisie, and indeed that China’s capitalist class was either too tied to foreign interests on the one hand, and on the other hand those who weren’t too tied to foreign interests were too weak and vacillating to play a leading role. Now that the Shanghai merchants had done something, the immediate response went something like, “Aha, the national bourgeoisie is playing the historic role laid out for it by Marx himself.”
What this response showed was that the innovations in Marxist strategy which had been made as a result of the Russian Revolution were tenuous indeed. As soon as an event took place which seemed to validate pre-Russian Revolution Marxist orthodoxy, it was very easy for the Communist movement to fall back on the earlier orthodoxy, almost as if in a sigh of relief. This is especially puzzling in the case of the Chinese Communists, as they had been drawn to Marxism as a result of the Russian Revolution, and were not Marxists before that. But it appears that the power of prior orthodoxy was so strong that it heavily influenced even the Marxism which the Chinese Communists had been trained in between 1920 and 1923.
In any case, the crisis dragged on over the summer and into the fall. Because Cao Kun desired the imprimatur of the acceptance of the recently recalled Parliament on his presidency, he did not disband Parliament, but rather wanted them to vote him into office. As it happened, they resisted until October, when he bribed each member of Parliament with 5,000 yuan to elect him. Naturally, this was one of the final nails in the coffin of the legitimacy of China’s national parliament, rather than a truly legitimating act for Cao Kun’s presidency.
In Shanghai, as it turned out, the declaration of independence was largely hyperbole, and the notion of merchants’ independent power was allowed to drop with no real follow-through. The ideological lens through which the Communists had analyzed events had turned out to make much more of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce’s declaration than was really there. It had been a very disappointing moment for the Communists. Both Sun Yatsen and the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce failed to rise to the occasion. And the Communists would have to wait until the beginning of 1924 to finally find a way to make the united front with the Guomindang work.
Chiang and Borodin
There were two major figures who got into motion in 1923, and who the beginning of effective united front work depended on. The first was Chiang Kai-shek, and the second was Mikhail Borodin.
Chiang Kai-shek was a member of the Guomindang who had served in the Japanese Army before he returned to China in 1911 to participate in the revolution. He was part of that wave of Chinese youth who went to Japan to study and then was won to join Sun Yatsen’s Revolutionary Alliance while abroad, a phenomenon we talked about back in episode ten. As a trusted member of Sun Yatsen’s inner circle, Chiang was sent to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1923 to tour Red Army units and military installations, and to learn about Soviet military methods. Most importantly, Chiang was able to discuss the terms of Soviet military assistance to the Guomindang. Apparently the discussions were wide-ranging, and at one point Chiang even broached the topic of a potential Soviet thrust into China’s northwest to aid a future Guomindang northern expedition to Beijing from the Guomindang base in southern China.
The Soviet mission to Guangzhou to aid the nationalist revolution departed Moscow in September, headed by Mikhail Borodin and including a high-level staff of Soviet military experts. Borodin was a longtime revolutionary and had been traveling extensively for the Comintern since its founding in 1919. He was fresh from a six month stint in jail in Scotland, where he had been working to reorganize the Communist Party of Great Britain. When he arrived in Moscow after getting out of prison Borodin was tasked by Lenin with reorganizing the Guomindang, and took over from Maring as the head the Comintern in China, with Maring having left China in August.
Under Borodin’s guidance, the first congress of the Guomindang was held in Guangzhou in January 1924. And now, with the Communists finally coming into the Guomindang under the new party structure, and with Chiang Kai-shek working with Soviet military advisors to set up a military academy to begin forming an army to march off to conquer the warlords, the united front, and the nationalist revolution, would finally take off.