As both the Guomindang and the Communist Party benefit from their collaboration, tensions build.
Tony Saich, The Origins of the First United Front in China
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
Alexander Pantsov, The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution, 1919-1927
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Arif Dirlik, “Mass Movements and the Left Kuomintang”
Some names from this episode:
Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yatsen, leader of the Guomindang
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Chen Jiongming, Southern warlord, ally and then enemy of Sun Yatsen
Chiang Kai-shek, Japan-trained military officer, close confidant of Sun Yatsen
Lev Karakhan, Soviet ambassador to China beginning in 1923
Gregory Chicherin, Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Welcome to episode 22 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
On December 1, 1923, Sun Yatsen delivered the following words as part of a speech preparing his followers for the forthcoming reorganization of the Guomindang, which is where we left off in Episode 20:
“Now our good friend Borodin has come to us from Russia. The Russian Revolution started six years later than ours. However, the Russians managed to implement their ideas completely during one revolution. The position of the revolutionary government there becomes stronger day by day. Why did the Russians succeed, while we cannot gain victory? They won because the whole party, supported by the military, took part in the struggle. We should learn Russian methods, their organization, and their training of the party members. Only then can we hope to achieve a victory.”
At the upcoming congress of the Guomindang in January 1924, the Guomindang would be reorganized, with the help of Borodin and other Soviet advisors. The new organizational model would be the same used by the Communist Party. The idea was to weaponize the organizational structure of the Leninist party, with its hierarchy and discipline, without adopting the Marxist ideas which the party structure had been invented to advance. If Communists could use the party structure to become more than the sum of the individual party members in the cause of communism, maybe Nationalists could do the same thing?
Sun Yatsen and his Soviet allies hoped that the new party structure could be put into practice to facilitate mass mobilization for a revolution which would reunite China, which had been divided into fiefdoms by different warlord cliques, and to make China truly independent, by kicking out the foreign powers who dominated the country (often in collusion with the warlords). Previously, Sun had mainly relied on making alliances with relatively progressive warlords, but this had proved a perilous strategy, as the allegiance of self-interested warlords could shift. This had already happened in 1922, when the warlord Chen Jiongming suddenly turned on him and Sun Yatsen had to temporarily flee Guangzhou (humiliatingly, on a British navy ship), before rallying his forces and taking back the city.
The guiding philosophy of the Guomindang was officially something called the Three People’s Principles. The three principles were nationalism, democracy and people’s livelihood, although they can also be legitimately translated as populism, civil rights and people’s welfare, so it’s important to understand that there is some flexibility in how the concepts are translated between Chinese and English. The meaning of these principles was left pretty vague, and this had been helpful in making the Guomindang a big tent party that could encompass both left- and right-wing nationalists. As Chiang Kai-shek was leaving the Soviet Union in November of 1923, he was given a document drafted on behalf of the Executive Committee of the Communist International reinterpreting the Three People’s Principles in the most revolutionary light.
In this document, nationalism was interpreted as meaning a commitment to the struggle against the imperialist powers, as well as a commitment to the self-determination of minority nationalities within China, such as the Mongolians, Tibetans, Uighurs and others. Democracy was interpreted similarly to its interpretation under the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat, as something to be enjoyed by working people and those people and organizations which opposed foreign domination of China, but denied to the foreign exploiters and those who worked in their interests. It was not an in-born right, but something to be granted or denied based on social and political position. And people’s livelihood was interpreted as state socialism, the nationalization of much of the economy and its modernization. Also included was a provision for giving peasants the land they tilled and abolishing landlord-tenant relationships in agriculture.
Chiang Kai-shek was affronted by the document, but passed it along to Sun Yatsen, who endorsed the document almost entirely and turned the whole thing into a reworked and rearticulated Three People’s Principles which were enshrined as party ideology at the first Guomindang Congress. The only section which Sun outright rejected was the land reform component. This gave a strong leftist political coloring to the Guomindang Congress, as did the very active participation of Communist Party members, several of whom were named to the new Guomindang Central Executive Committee. Li Dazhao and Mao Zedong were particularly active at the congress.
Lev Karakhan, the Soviet ambassador to China, wrote to Gregory Chicherin, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs (basically, the foreign minister), that “the Guomindang is turning into a really vital, active, correctly organized national-revolutionary party, such as we do not have in any other country.” But, not unlike Maring after the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, Mikhail Borodin expressed frustration at the “complete ideological and organizational confusion” of the Guomindang; at its tendency to compromise with imperialism and to neglect the mass movements; and at the opportunism of Sun Yatsen. Clearly, while the newly reorganized Guomindang now had created room for Communists to work within it, and in its name, and had committed itself on paper to politics far to the left of most of its longtime membership, the actual political beliefs and practices of most Guomindang members and of Sun Yatsen himself could not be changed overnight.
As things were coming together for the re-organization of the Guomindang, in late November 1923 the Central Committee of the Communist Party had held a meeting to work out exactly what their work within the Guomindang would look like. Finally, they were able to get much more concrete than they had been earlier in the year (and as we discussed in episode 20), about how the Communists could work inside the Guomindang.
The first task was to enlarge the membership of the Guomindang. In areas where the Guomindang didn’t have a branch, which included large and important areas like Hunan, Beijing and Nanjing, the Communists would work to establish functioning local party branches, in which they hoped to exercise a preponderant influence.
Within the Guomindang, the main ideological goal was to push the organization to fight against imperialism. The fact that Sun Yatsen had been able to be bailed out of Guangzhou by a British naval warship in 1922 is indicative of the vacillating nature of the Guomindang’s opposition to the various foreign powers dominating China, especially as Japan came to be seen more and more as the biggest threat to China. The Communists would keep pushing for and emphasizing a strongly anti-imperialist interpretation of the nationalism component of the Three People’s Principles.
The Communists were to maintain their own secret organization within each Guomindang party branch, so as to coordinate their activities to have the greatest possible impact and to utilize the Guomindang and the Communists’ work within the Guomindang toward the ultimate aims of the Communist Party, rather than losing sight of why they were working within the Guomindang in the first place. The problem here was that this hardly remained a secret. It was suspected from the beginning by many Guomindang members, and already at the first Guomindang Congress some rightists objected to Communists joining the Guomindang for this reason.
Finally, the Guomindang was seen as a vehicle for spurring mass movements among different sections of the people. It’s worth quoting the Central Committee resolution here to see exactly how the Communists saw the united front as facilitating mass organization of different sections of people:
“a) The peasantry. The peasantry is the strongest force in the nationalist movement. Thus, the Guomindang should use the nation’s peasantry as its base and set up subbranches in the rural areas of every province. The movement’s strategy will be to begin by educating the peasants, using the slogan ‘For the benefit of all peasants,’ and working on irrigation projects, protection against robbers, boycotting foreign goods, and resisting heavy taxes. At the present stage, we should begin with a struggle to improve the economic situation of the tenant farmers even if it causes resentment on the part of the middle peasants.
“b) Workers. Labor unions deserve the same attention as we pay to party organization. We should nurse the workers’ class consciousness.”
It’s worth pointing out how vague this section on workers was, given that the Communist Party had ongoing union work of its own, and saw the workers as the social base of their own party. This reflects some confusion and disagreement within the party over how much the union work should be continued independently or through the Guomindang. Maring had pushed the party toward doing everything through the Guomindang, but Maring was gone now, and other noises had now been coming from the Comintern indicating that the Communists should maintain their work among the industrial proletariat independently of their work in the Guomindang. This was finally clarified in May 1924, when it was decided that Communists should maintain their independent identity when working with the industrial proletariat, but assist the Guomindang with artisans’ and salesmen’s unions.
Ok, back to the November 1923 Central Committee resolution’s list of different social groups and how to organize them under the guise of the Guomindang:
“c) Merchants. We should find out those, in the business associations of the localities and big cities, who are against the bureaucratic elements.”
By bureaucratic elements what is meant here are those capitalists who facilitated the penetration of China by foreign corporations. So essentially, the task laid out was to work within merchant associations to identify patriotic elements among the national bourgeoisie, that is, the Chinese capitalists who did not rely on foreign funding or patronage.
“d) Shop assistants. It is urgent that we set up shop-assistant associations in big cities such as Shanghai, Hankou, and Tianjin.”
While the urgency of the task isn’t exactly clear to me, the idea here was that the Guomindang provided a vehicle to recruit and organize white collar workers who would not otherwise be amenable to, or suitable for, the Communist Party.
“e) Government employees. As with the shop-assistant associations, associations of the lower-ranking government employees have a great influence in the cities.
“f) Students. Students provide a key link between the different organizations. Students in junior high school have played an important role in the peasant movement.”
Here, with students, I think little detail is given because the Communist Party had already done so much work with student groups, indeed many of its members came forward into the movement on university campuses, that there was little need to be expansive about how that work would proceed.
To sort of bring it all together from this list that we have just gone over, what brings it all together is that the Guomindang was to be turned into a vehicle for the mass mobilization of these social groups. Previously, while the Communists had urged the Guomindang in this direction, the Guomindang had been involved in only limited mass mobilization.
As it so happened, as 1924 progressed a difference in strategic orientation began to develop within the Guomindang. On the one hand, the right-wing of the Guomindang opposed a politics of mass mobilization, and wanted to rely mainly on political maneuvering among elites combined with armed force (either through working with warlords or through the Guomindang developing its own army, as was now starting to happen). But the left-wing of the Guomindang distinguished itself from the right-wing mainly in its support for mass mobilization. In many ways the left-wing of the Guomindang was very similar to the right-wing. Personalism and opportunism were pervasive. But perhaps the key issue which distinguished the Guomindang left from the right was its support for mass mobilization politics. The Guomindang left felt that mass politics was key in distinguishing their party from the warlords.
Now, it’s easy to forget that mass politics and mass mobilization are not necessarily the monopoly of progressives and leftists. It’s easy to forget, because of course the material interests of the vast majority of people do lie with left-wing, progressive solutions to the people’s problems, things like forming unions, land reform, and ultimately the eliminate of oppressive relations in society and in the world as a whole. But people can be mobilized on other bases as well, such as cultural or religious values. Mass mobilization has been a cornerstone of fascism, for example, and in Nazi Germany many German workers were convinced that their material interests were best served by identifying with the German nation to exploit and plunder other peoples, both at home and abroad. And a similar logic has also often been at work with how the ideology of white supremacy functions among white people in the United States. And of course, even absent fascist and white supremacist ideologies of mass mobilization, large-scale modern warfare between powerful countries is premised on the idea of mass mobilization of a country’s population, a fact that is easy to forget because it has been some time since two or more major world powers openly made war on each other.
So, how is this observation about the not necessarily left-wing nature of mass mobilization relevant to our discussion of the Guomindang Left? Well, given that some of the most prominent members of the Guomindang Left did go on to serve in the Japanese puppet regime which was set up in China during World War II, I think it’s only natural to have some questions about the nature of the importance that these people placed on mass mobilization at the time when they found themselves allied with the Communist Party. At the time, they did not support pushing mass mobilization efforts to the point that unity would be broken with, for example, patriotic landlords or capitalists, whereas the Communist Party was more willing to push those boundaries. At the time the Communists distinguished between the section of the Guomindang which believed in mass politics and the section which saw the nationalist revolution as a mainly military affair, and it called them the left and right wings of the Guomindang. And historians have largely followed suit. In fact, as the differences between the right and left of the Guomindang became clear, the Communists tried to pursue a policy of uniting with the left and opposing the right. But, in retrospect, and given the direction that many of the allegedly left-wing members of the Guomindang went, especially in collaborating with Japan, but also in uniting with the Guomindang right against the Communists at various times over the next few years of the history we’re covering here, I wonder if by labeling the mass-oriented faction of the Guomindang leftist, if they didn’t underestimate the reactionary nature of many of the alleged leftists.
The confusion of a mass orientation with a progressive overall agenda is something that we see repeatedly in the history of international communism. When one looks, for example, at the ability of the Nazi Party in Germany to recruit militants away from the Communist Party, one factor seems to have been the way in which those militants were drawn to mass-oriented politics aimed, at least ostensibly, at improving social welfare. The fundamentals of the political program advocated (radical equality in the case of the Communists as opposed to imperialist conquest and racist oppression in the case of the fascists) were not what counted to the former Communists who became Nazis. This sort of thing had happened in Italy as well, and, while the overall social process was of course multifaceted and can’t just be reduced to this issue, the lack of understanding about how not only the left, but the right as well, can mobilize masses for its own end, created a lot of confusion for people trying to deal with the threat of fascism. (And, I would argue, even today we see that in the way in which today’s proto-fascist movements are able to peel away people who had previously adhered to leftist causes.)
But anyways, back to China about a hundred years ago.
The left-wing thrust of the first Guomindang Congress, and the assertiveness with which the Communist Party began to utilize the Guomindang as an organizing vehicle prompted a strong backlash by the Guomindang right. The main motivation for the Guomindang right’s attack on the Communists was anti-communism, as well as opposition to the mass mobilization politics which the Communists were promoting within the Guomindang. But the main thrust of the attack by the Guomindang right had to do with secret Communist organization within the Guomindang itself. This was a tactic that allowed the Guomindang right to rally more centrist forces against the Communists.
At one point the Socialist Youth League, the Communist Party’s youth organization, made the mistake of publishing in its journal the party’s resolutions and tactics for working secretly within the Guomindang, and this prompted a very uncomfortable meeting at which Chen Duxiu, the Communist Party General Secretary, was confronted with the documents. Chen replied that the fractions were organized to insure that comrades abided by Guomindang decisions and worked actively, and that there was no intention to try to win power over the organization. I don’t think anyone believed this, but matters were not brought to a head.
By the summer, things had gotten so bad that the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued a circular, signed by Chen Duxiu and Mao, which prepared party members for the possibility that the Communists would be expelled from the Guomindang. As it turned out, they were not expelled. In a report written about the same time as the Central Committee circular, Borodin expressed the opinion that the right and left wings of the Guomindang, including Sun Yatsen, had become united in their opposition to the Communists. However, he thought that they did not move to expel the Communists because they feared a loss of Soviet aid, which was necessary for building up the army which would carry off the Northern Expedition.
And so by the summer of 1924 the united front that the Comintern had urged the Communist Party to form with the Guomindang had entered a fraught state of high tension which would persist, with some ups and downs, until 1927. The Communists had made good use of the Guomindang to mobilize in ways they couldn’t otherwise, and to recruit for themselves. By the time of the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party in January 1925, the party had grown to almost a thousand members, with a youth league of about 9,000 and influence in mass organizations such as unions and student groups far beyond those numbers. The Guomindang, in turn, had been revitalized by the energy of the Communists who were its most energetic organizers in the mass movements, and who carried out important executive tasks even as they faced fierce opposition from many leading Guomindang figures. And of course, the Soviet aid was pouring in. In another episode we will discuss the Whampoa Military Academy, which opened in late spring 1924 and where the Guomindang’s army would be trained by the Soviets.
So, to wrap up for this episode, as the united front policy was put into practice, both parties were benefiting from the collaboration, but the success was creating tensions, and it was clear already in 1924 that some sort of rupture was inevitable.