The Communist Party tries to figure out how to put the workers in the lead of the nationalist revolution, and has some initial success.
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
Some names from this episode:
Deng Zhongxia, Leading Communist labor organizer
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of the Communist Party, often credited as China’s first Marxist
Li Lisan, Leading Communist labor organizer
Chen Duxiu, Chen Duxiu, General secretary of the Communist Party
Gregory Voitinsky, Comintern representative in China in 1925
Yang Zhihua, Communist leader in women’s movement
Welcome to episode 24 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
At the beginning of 1925, the Chinese Communist Party held its Fourth Congress in Shanghai from January 11 to 22. As we discussed in episode 22, the party had been growing as a result of the united front with the Guomindang, or Nationalist Party, but also tensions between the two parties had been pretty serious. A major theme of the Fourth Congress was in determining how to proceed with independent labor organizing and how that fit in with the united front strategy, and the determination that was made was that, as the party of the working class, the Communist Party should mainly proceed with organizing workers under its own banner. Although, as we will soon see, it was much easier to disentangle the nationalist revolution from the workers’ revolution conceptually in theory than it was to do so concretely in practice.
In the resolution on the labor movement which was adopted at the Congress, the relationship between the labor movement and the nationalist movement was described in the following terms:
“[T]he most important mission of the Chinese working class at present is not only to emphasize, theoretically, its own independent labor movement but also to participate in the nationalist revolution in order to gain the leading position. In practice, moreover, this is to adapt to the fact that it is easier to develop the labor movement as the nationalist movement unfolds. At the same time, however, because the labor movement tends to be used by the nationalists, we should fight for the independence and progress of the labor movement and fully revolutionize the nationalist movement.”
As this resolution recognizes, the movement of the working class Chinese people for their emancipation had anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist aspects to it, which were bound up with each other in practice even if they could be recognized as conceptually distinct. The Communists saw their role as striking the precise balance between these aspects of the working class Chinese people’s liberation movement so that a nationalist revolution would be led in a way which facilitated a socialist revolution. In practice, this was going to be a very tricky proposition.
The Chinese Communist Party’s labor organizing had been in retreat since its unions were crushed at the time of the February 7, 1923 massacre of railway workers. Now, the Party reemerged from this retreat with a new vigor which came from the organizational gains made during 1924.
The strategy which the Communist Party had pursued, beginning in 1924, to maintain contact and influence among the working class in Shanghai was based on setting up something called common people’s schools. Common people’s schools were a phenomenon that emerged out of the May 4th Movement in 1919, and were free or nearly free schools aimed at regular working people and their families, and often sponsored by labor unions. The labor organizer Deng Zhongxia was put in charge of the effort of creating Communist-sponsored schools in Shanghai. Deng was a Hunan native who had worked with Mao in the New People’s Study Society before going to Beijing, where he got involved in the common people’s education movement in 1919. He had been an organizer with the railway union when it was crushed in 1923, and had to flee north China to Shanghai, where Li Dazhao used his connections to get Deng an administrative job at Shanghai University.
By the end of 1924 there were eight people’s schools functioning in Shanghai, largely staffed by volunteer teachers drawn from the universities. Classes were divided between children, men and women, and sometimes between the literate and illiterate in each category, and covered a range of topics, including Chinese, mathematics, geography, history, English, public speaking, and choir. The schools were all funded by the Guomindang and, because of the public association with the Nationalist Party, they attracted patriotic Chinese workers. However, this was one of those cases where Communists were operating under the name of the Guomindang, so we can see that even in this early effort to rehabilitate their labor organizing, which they intended to take up under their own banner, the Communists drew on the strength that they gained through the united front with the Guomindang.
In fall of 1924, the Communist Party began to form workers’ clubs out of the people’s schools. These were recreational centers where workers paid some dues and came to do things like play chess or ping-pong or just to hang out. The clubs had explicit rules which required adherence to collective decision-making and putting the group’s interests over anyone’s individual interests. These clubs were then the basis for forming cells for embryonic labor unions in factories that club members worked at.
After the Fourth Party Congress, the Communist Party was looking for an opportunity to take the offensive in the labor movement, and an opportunity quickly presented itself. On February 2, a 12-year-old girl working the night shift was caught asleep at her workstation in a Naigai Cotton Company mill. The Japanese supervisor kicked the girl, and when an older woman complained about the beating she got slapped. About 50 men who worked in the mill expressed their indignation at the treatment of the girl and woman. This was an especially noteworthy act of solidarity, because the men were in the process of being replaced by young girls like the one who had been kicked, in a real-life illustration of the process described by Marx in Capital of how, where legal, companies will use advances in machinery to fire more expensive adult labor for cheaper child labor if adult strength and skill is no longer necessary to do the job.
When the men spoke up, they were all summarily fired. Now, Naigai Cotton made workers make deposits on the materials they were working, as a form of labor control. Naturally, the workers who were fired wanted their deposits back. But when six of the men came back a couple days later to get back the money they had deposited with the company, they were accused to trying to stir up a strike and arrested, with one of them kept in jail for three weeks.
Some of the men who were fired were connected to the West Shanghai Workers’ Club, and a strike was called for February 9. The reason for the delay of a few days was so that workers’ would get their pay right before the strike. On the morning of the ninth, 9,000 workers stopped work at five Naigai Cotton mills. Delegates from each mill formed a strike committee, which drafted the following six demands:
1) An end to beatings
2) A 10% raise and no wage deductions without cause
3) Reinstatement of fired workers and release of the detained workers (10 more workers had been arrested during the morning strike rally)
4) Prompt payment of wages every two weeks
5) Payment for the period of the strike
6) No dismissals without cause.
Workers at the other five Naigai mills were forced by the striking workers to join the strike, and soon workers at other Japanese-owned factories came out on strike. By February 18, almost 31,000 workers from 22 mills belonging to six different Japanese companies were on strike.
As we can see, even though the actual demands raised by the strikers contained no nationalist demands, the fact that the strike was aimed at only Japanese companies demonstrated a clear nationalist motivation and political content. We can see here in action the ideas that the Communist Party had recently formulated for the labor movement: independent working class demands, related to workers’ issues, were being raised, but in the context of the workers leading a struggle which was objectively nationalist in content, in that the strike was directed against Japanese companies which exploited Chinese workers in Shanghai.
Working behind the scenes were Deng Zhongxia and another Hunanese Communist and former New People’s Study Society member, Li Lisan. Li had gone to France in 1919 as part of a work-study program called the Diligent Work-Frugal Study Movement. He got involved in communist activities in France, and was expelled in 1921 after Chinese students held a raucous protest in Lyons in protest against the conditions of their poorly managed work-study program. He was known for his short temper, and once, when he was losing a chess game on the long sea voyage back to China from France, he picked up the chess board and threw it overboard. When he got back to China, he went was sent by Mao to help set up a school at the Anyuan Coal Mine in Hunan, which became the seed from which Communist organization at the mine grew. By the end of 1924, there were about 300 party members at Anyuan, which was about 1/3 of the total party membership.
So, Li Lisan and Deng Zhongxia were the day-to-day leaders of the strike, and formed a central strike committee with the leaders of the West Shanghai Workers’ Club and with Yang Zhihua, a Communist woman who had divorced her husband to join the Communist Party and whose rebellious nature thrilled the women workers from the cotton mills. And for all important matters Li and Deng also consulted with Chen Duxiu and Gregory Voitinsky, who was back in China as a Comintern advisor to the Chinese Communist Party. In all, it was only about 15 Communists, ten of whom were members of the youth league, who actively led the strike of thousands of workers.
At the intermediate levels of strike organization, we can identify three main groups. The first were student volunteers. The North China Herald described the role of students in the strike in these words: “In the riots of last Tuesday and again on Sunday, students were seen among the ranters and flag-waggers, one or two of them even being girls… And although the boy or girl who runs out to shout for the strikers, in a spasm of deluded self-righteousness, may be an object more pathetic than blameable, at the back of them is often a teacher of vituperous malignity.” This passage also gives you some sense what sort of attitude the mainstream press took toward the strike.
Another group that played an important role in the strikes were foremen and interpreters from the cotton mills. This may sound surprising, but if you remember from episode 19, the way traditional Chinese labor organization worked was that secret societies controlled worker hiring at factories by having secret society members in foreman positions, and then workers had to join the secret society and pay off the foreman to get hired. While this was exploitative, it also meant that the secret society provided a ready-made organization of workers if the foreman supported the strike, since all the workers who owed him loyalty would go out on strike with him.
The third group that played an important role in organizing the strike were a newly emerging layer of worker activists who had been cultivated by the West Shanghai Workers’ Club. This was the most important group for the Communists, and these workers would go on to become important activists as Communist labor organizing moved forward.
The strike ended up lasting three weeks, and was settled on March 1 with the help of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce (an organization which you might remember from Episode 20). The terms on which the strike ended certainly look like a defeat. Basically, none of the demands of the strikers were met except that they be paid on time every two weeks. Companies promised to investigate cases of abuse that were reported to them, and did not rehire the workers who were fired or grant any raise in wages. Even though the cotton market was doing well, the Japanese mill owners did not want to be seen as caving in to demands made by an overtly anti-Japanese strike.
The pressure to end the strike had become pretty severe by March 1. There had been no strike fund when the strike began, so fund-raising had been a major effort during the strike. The Red International of Trade Unions, based in Moscow, had sent 30,000 rubles to aid the strike, but these were the days before instant money transfers, and the money didn’t arrive until after the strike was over. Also, police repression and jailing of striking workers had become a major thing, and was taking its toll.
So, the strike doesn’t seem like a victory. Yet, in histories produced in China it is considered a victory, and if we look at how the workers themselves behaved when the strike ended, we can also see that they considered it a victory. When the workers went back to their jobs, at least when those who still had jobs went back to them, they went singing and had banners and set off firecrackers, like it was a big celebration. Even though the workers’ demands weren’t met, the act of having sustained the strike for three weeks was seen a major achievement, and the boost both the worker morale and to worker organization had been considerable. For the Communist Party, likewise, the feeling was that they had quickly been able to put into action their policy of creating a worker-led anti-imperialist movement centered on the demands of the working class.
One of the main results of the strike was the formation of a cotton workers’ union led by the Communist Party. Although the Japanese mills took quick action to fire worker militants, the union quickly grew to around 10,000 members, about 50 of whom joined the Communist Party.
Clearly, it was only a matter of time before another showdown would take place, and the Japanese cotton mill owners couldn’t resist deliberately provoking their workers. On May 7, the anniversary of when the Japanese government had given its “21 Demands ultimatum” to China in 1915, in which it demanded all sorts of special rights to exploit China and which was commemorated as National Humiliation Day, the Japanese mill owners announced that they were imposing a ban on unions at their plants and that any further worker unrest would be met with lockouts.
It took another week for a precipitating incident to take place. On May 14, two workers were fired for ‘unreliability’ at one mill, which led to a scuffle in which five workers beat up a Chinese foreman. Those workers were arrested and fired, and the night shift at that mill responded by staging a work slowdown. In accordance with the new policy of the Japanese mill owners, the mill closed up and announced a lockout. The effect of the lockout at the one mill also affected another mill, which depended on the yarn produced at the mill where the lockout had been declared. When the night shift at that mill showed up and found themselves locked out, they smashed down the gate and broke into the factory and started tearing things up. Japanese guards opened fire on the workers, and one of them died from his wounds.
The next day an Association to Wipe Out the Disgrace of the Japanese Atrocity was founded and on May 24th a memorial meeting of about 10,000 people, 90% of whom were workers, was held for the martyred worker. The events had been set in motion for what was going to become known as the May 30th Movement, which we’ll move on to in a future episode.
Between the Fourth Congress in January and the end of May, the Communist Party’s membership in Shanghai had almost tripled, from around 110 to 300. These numbers might seem small, but party members were not just people who liked the idea of communism, they were people who had dedicated their lives to the cause, and under the right conditions, when the party organization was functioning effectively and the masses were responsive, a single Communist could have a huge impact. Keep in mind that only four or five actual party members were involved in organizing the February strike at the Japanese mills.
This story is actually just the prologue to something even bigger which is coming on May 30, 1925, and we’ll come back to that soon. Next episode, in response to listener request, we’ll use history to explore a question that a lot of people have on their minds these days, “what constitutes a revolutionary situation?”