Mao gets sick of all the BS in Shanghai and returns to his hometown of Shaoshan, where he discovers a militant peasantry.
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927
Yokoyama Suguru, “The Peasant Movement in Hunan”
Some names from this episode:
Li Lisan, Communist leader of the Shanghai General Labor Union
Liu Shaoqi, Communist leader just below Li Lisan in the Shanghai General Labor Union
Liu Hua, Union activist executed for leading role in May 30 Movement
Liu Bolun, Stood in for Mao at a meeting of the Committee for Common People’s Education
Wang Xianzong, Hunanese Communist murdered by a local warlord for organizing peasants
Wang Jingwei, Head of Guomindang government in Guangzhou in late 1925 when Mao arrived from Hunan
Han Suyin, early biographer of Mao for a western audience
Liu Shaoqi, Leading Communist labor organizer in the 1920s, later targeted as a capitalist roader in the Cultural Revolution
Deng Xiaoping, Chinese leader targeted as a capitalist roader in the Cultural Revolution
Welcome to episode 28 of the Peoples History of Ideas Podcast.
You may have noticed that our recent couple of episodes discussing the May 30th Movement and the tumultuous events of 1925 in Shanghai did not mention Mao Zedong. You may have been wondering, what was Mao getting up to during these major events? We’re hearing about Li Lisan and Liu Shaoqi, but what about Mao? Well, this episode we’re going to answer those questions, and catch up with what was going on with Mao Zedong.
If we recall from Episode 22, Mao Zedong had been very involved with the Soviet-sponsored reorganization of the Guomindang, which culminated in the Guomindang’s first congress in January 1924. As we discussed in that episode, that Congress gave the Guomindang a formally leftist coloring and paved the way for the Communist Party to work very actively within the Guomindang and to undertake mass initiatives under the banner of the Guomindang, even while many non-Communist members of the Guomindang held political positions considerably to the right of the politics formally endorsed by that Congress.
Mao was elected as an alternate member of the Guomindang’s Central Executive Committee, and in early February of 1924 he left Guangzhou for Shanghai to take up a position with the Shanghai Executive Bureau of the Guomindang, where he became secretary of the organization department of the local Guomindang. Meanwhile, he retained his position on the Central Committee of the Communist Party and head of the Communist Party’s organization department, so he had a very great number of organizational tasks which he had to carry out for both the Guomindang and the Communist Party. And while one might suppose that these tasks involved organizational leadership and guidance, particularly in the case of Mao’s role in the Communist Party, it appears that his tasks in fact tended more toward organizational drudgery, such as taking minutes at meetings and dealing with organizational details which, while necessary, were more what one might describe as organizational paperwork rather than involving contact with the masses.
Additionally, as someone interfacing between the Guomindang and the Communist Party, Mao was constantly facing the need to attempt to smooth over differences between the many fundamentally anti-Communist Guomindang members in Shanghai and the Communists who were trying to carry out mass work under the banner of the Guomindang. The work was taxing and unforgiving, and involved constantly dealing with unhappy people who raised issues that Mao fundamentally could not resolve, as Mao was constantly diplomatically trying to placate people who were at their core opposed to the ideas that he stood for.
The pressure of overwork caused a lot of mental strain and exhaustion. Physical and mental exhaustion as a result of overwork within the movement is actually something that we see a lot of among movement activists, and it could have serious repercussions. If you will recall from episode 26, the reason that Liu Hua had entered the hospital, where he was arrested and later handed over for execution, was because of exhaustion from overwork in the May 30th Movement. Liu Shaoqi’s retreat from Shanghai after the May 30th Movement was also delayed because of his exhaustion from overwork. What we can see happening with Mao in 1924, even before the high tide of social movement broke out in Shanghai the next year, was that he was feeling the strain from all the tasks that he had on his plate.
Already in May 1924, Mao resigned from one of his positions of responsibility, which involved serving on the Shanghai Guomindang’s Committee for Common People’s Education. As you might recall, the common people’s schools were the main vehicle for maintaining and reinvigorating the Communist Party’s labor organizing work after the repression of 1923. We have a copy of Mao’s letter of resignation from May 26, 1924, and I’ll read it out:
“Comrades of the Committee for Common People’s Education:
“Because my mental ailment has been daily growing worse, and because of the burden of work in the Organization Department and the Secretariat, it is truly difficult for me to acquit myself of my duties as a member of the Standing Committee of the Committee for Common People’s Education. I beg you to accept my resignation, and to appoint another person in my place. I have asked Comrade Liu Bolun to deputize for me at the meeting of the Standing Committee to be held today.
Historians understand Mao’s reference to his ‘mental ailment’ to refer to the mental exhaustion that he was suffering from the burden of overwork, which we also know to have been exacerbated by Mao’s tendency to suffer from insomnia. The way in which he refers to his ailment in the letter indicates that this issue was known already to the comrades who served on the committee with him, and there doesn’t seem to have been a stigma attached to the use of the term mental ailment, or I suspect that Mao would have found another way to discuss his need to resign from the committee. I also strongly suspect that the nature of his work, largely divorced from the masses, pushing paper and constantly dealing with problems caused by Guomindang rightists, contributed in large part to Mao’s sense of exhaustion and frustration.
I say frustration in addition to exhaustion, because what happened in December of 1924 is that Mao asked for a leave of absence from the Communist Party and went back to his native Hunan province, first to the capital of Changsha but soon thereafter to his home village of Shaoshan. Formally, the reason that Mao gave was because he needed to recuperate from exhaustion. But I don’t think that this was the entire truth of the situation. I think that, if we look at Mao’s actions following his recuperation, there is a major implicit critique of the sort of political work that he had been involved in, and this critique starts Mao down the road of developing the path that the Chinese Revolution would follow. Even though it would be another decade before Mao assumed leadership of the Communist Party, never again would Mao be in a position where his main function was to carry out organizational tasks delegated to him by others who were setting the revolution’s course. He would at different points be stripped of his position and even, ominously, have his obituary appear in a Comintern newspaper. But he would never be taking minutes for Guomindang rightists again.
Mao convalesced in Shaoshan until June 1925. No writings from this period have survived, and it is unclear just what he was contemplating for his political future. But when the May 30th Movement broke out, Mao was reanimated by events. In Mao’s own words, “Formerly I had not fully realized the degree of class struggle among the peasantry, but after the May 30th Incident, and during the great wave of political activity which followed it, the Hunanese peasantry became very militant. I left my home, where I had been resting, and began a rural organizational campaign. In a few months we had formed more than twenty peasant unions, and had aroused the wrath of the landlords, who demanded my arrest. Zhao Hengti [the warlord who ruled Hunan] sent troops after me, and I fled to Guangzhou.”
One historian has described the conditions of the Hunan peasantry at the time that Mao was organizing them in the following terms: “Ownership of the land was concentrated in the hands of a few rich families, who appropriated the major portion of the crops. Rents in Hunan commonly exceeded half the harvest… They were collected in kind, the peasants sometimes having to pay 60-70% of a normal harvest. In a year of poor harvest, they had to pay 70-90% of the crop. In addition to the regular rents, the tenant peasants ordinarily had to give landowners a series of customary or seasonal gifts such as ducks, hens, grain, or cash, and had to fulfill corveé (labor) obligations. There was also a kind of ‘rent deposit,’ which usually amounted to double the annual rent and was paid in currency. Such deposits did not accrue interest, and tenants who could not fulfill their obligations lost their deposits. One report estimated that the real income of the tenant peasants might be about 20% of the harvest after expenses for fertilizer and farm implements were taken into account.
“Excessive taxation was another source of distress to the peasants. The regular amount of land tax was not much, but the surtaxes, which were extracted by the warlords or rural authorities in the name of improving education, self-defense forces, railway construction, and so on were very heavy, amounting to more than double the regular land tax. Both of these taxes had to be paid in currency. A survey taken in 1934 reported that 52% of the peasants in Hunan were in debt and that 49% had borrowed grain, for which the interest rate was very high (20 to 40% a year). According to a 1937 income survey involving 288,830 families living in Hunan, 35% of these families could not cover expenses. They had to make ends meet by borrowing cash or grain from the rich families… The ordinary rate of interest on debts was 10% per month, but in some districts it was as high as 30% per month. As a result, many of the poor peasants were unable to escape economic bondage.”
On top of these oppressive regular conditions for the peasants of Hunan, there had been three consecutive years of major flooding in 1922-1924, followed by a year of drought in 1925. The food shortage this caused was exacerbated by the presence of a large number of warlord troops, who demanded to be fed at the expense of the peasants. This caused the price of rice in June 1925 to hover between three to five times what it cost during normal years. In late May and early June, some peasants began to attack rice granaries and to force local rich families to give them food. It was under these conditions that Mao began to organize peasants in his home province.
Clearly, the conditions for a peasant rebellion already existed, regardless of the May 30th Movement. So it is interesting that Mao credits the May 30th Movement as giving rise to the peasant movement in Hunan. For people like Mao who became the leaders of this movement, it was very important for them to connect the peasant movement to the larger national revolution, and so while I think one might have a hard time making the case that most of the poor peasants were sparked into action by events in Shanghai, the same cannot be said for many of the leaders of the peasants, like Mao, whose leadership was crucial to forming peasant organizations.
While the peasant hunger riots of the spring of 1925 were quite militant, the demands of the Hunan Peasant Association led by Mao were not very radical, in keeping with the overall united front policy of the Communist Party. The Association demanded that the cost of rice be reduced, in part by taking measures to prevent rice being exported from the region; that rents be reduced; and that wages for hired laborers be increased. All these demands could be directly related to addressing the hunger caused by the famine, and fell far short of the land seizures that might be expected from a full program of Communist-led land reform. But, the prospect of an organized and mobilized peasantry was in and of itself a threatening prospect for the landlords and their political representative, the warlord Zhao Hengti, and so Mao was chased out of Hunan, and another Hunanese Communist, Wang Xianzong, who had returned home during the summer to his village near Mao’s and who also worked on building up the peasant association, was murdered.
Mao’s decision to go to Guangzhou rather than to Shanghai is interesting. It seems very likely that Mao hoped to exercise more independence in Guangzhou than he had in Shanghai, or at least to avoid the falling back into the political situation in which he had found himself in Shanghai. The Communist Party center was in Shanghai, while the Guomindang government was headquartered in Guangzhou. Soviet advisors were also concentrated in Guangzhou. Because of this, the organizational alliance between the Communists and the Nationalists was much more effective in practice in Guangzhou than in Shanghai. Mao had, in any case, missed the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party because of his leave of absence, and so he had been replaced on the Party’s Central Committee. He was, in effect, able to set his own tasks as a Communist Party member, both when he began organizing peasants in Hunan, and then when he arrived in Guangzhou and worked out what work he would take up there.
If we consider Mao’s behavior in light of Leninist norms, you could say that his behavior was highly suspect. If part of the power of a Communist Party is supposed to derive from its discipline as an organization and its unified approach to carrying out the party’s policies, then Mao’s sort of ‘free agent,’ behavior was a violation of party rules. To use a term that was later taken out of Chinese folklore after the victory of the revolution and was used to refer to party members who sort of did their own thing and saw themselves as being above party discipline, Mao was acting as something of a ‘heavenly horse.’ But, as we will see here in a minute, Mao was in the process of developing a critique of how the Communist Party had been thinking about how the revolution would develop. And while Communist Parties can, when they are functioning well, be incredible vehicles for bringing to bear the focused energy of the party members on the tasks that the party has taken up, the unified purpose and will of Communist Parties has also historically made them not very good at processing new and dissident ideas that are percolating up from below the top leadership of the party. So for Mao to have the space to develop and articulate the ideas which would eventually mature into a winning revolutionary strategy, it was almost certainly necessary for him to play fast and loose with the norms for disciplined cadre behavior in a Leninist party.
In Guangzhou, Mao quickly got himself appointed as the Guomindang’s acting head of propaganda. This was a post that Wang Jingwei formally held, but Wang was also head of the Guomindang government and was happy to give the propaganda work to someone else, and Mao was well-known to Wang. In fact, they had worked together in Shanghai as part of the Shanghai executive committee of the Guomindang. Sun Yatsen had died earlier in the year, and we will come back to both the power struggles and intrigues in the Guomindang which followed Sun’s death, and Mao’s role as Guomindang propaganda minister, and then his work with the peasant organizing training institute in Guangzhou, in upcoming episodes.
I want to take a moment here to reflect on Mao’s transformation during 1924 and 1925, and how this has been dealt with in previous work that was sympathetic to the aims of the Chinese Revolution. In this episode, we’ve talked about Mao becoming exhausted, frustrated, probably quite a bit disillusioned with the work he had been doing in Shanghai, and then, while back home in Shaoshan, rediscovering the Chinese peasantry. He saw peasants rising up around him, and at the same time an important nationalist upsurge broke out in Shanghai, the Pearl River Delta and elsewhere in China which had major spontaneous elements to it, but also was heavily influenced and led by the Communist Party, the May 30th Movement. He found himself reinspired and reenergized to recommit himself to the movement. But he also learned new things from the peasant mobilization going on around him. Mao was from the peasantry, but he had not been a political organizer of peasants before. Now, in the activity of the peasants around him, he gained insight into the possibility of basing the Chinese Revolution on the peasants as the main force. After all, they were the overwhelming majority of the population.
Personally, I find this story of Mao’s transformation to be very humanizing of him, and it resonates with the other things that we know about the twists and turns of how people actually change and develop; how people grow as human beings and also, more narrowly, how people develop politically. This is not, however, how the story of this time in Mao’s life has always been told.
One of the first major biographies written about Mao Zedong is a book titled The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution, 1893-1954. It was published in 1972, and was written by Han Suyin, a journalist who was culturally both Chinese and Western European, and who wrote a number of books which explained events in China to a western audience. Han Suyin was sympathetic to the aims of the Chinese Revolution, and traveled broadly in China, and her books, especially The Morning Deluge, were very popular among people who supported the Chinese Revolution.
In The Morning Deluge, and I’m using this book as a representative example of how this story was told by authors sympathetic to China at the time, not just to pick on this book, Han Suyin claims that Mao had remained in Shanghai for the 4th Congress of the Communist Party in early 1925 rather than going to Hunan before the Congress. She claims that Mao warned the party against relying only on the working class, and that the party should take up peasant organizing across the country, but that he was a lone voice in the wilderness. Then she claims he went to Hunan and immediately got started with organizing the peasantry.
This portrayal casts Mao as someone who essentially always knew what the correct strategy for revolution was in China. Here, the priority is to show Mao not in his actual historical development, but as someone who more or less always knew what needed to be done. It’s the Mao as infallible leader, an image of him that was particularly strong in Chinese society at the time that Han Suyin was writing The Morning Deluge. That was the time of the Cultural Revolution, which was an immensely complicated and chaotic process. One of the central themes of the Cultural Revolution, especially as it was cast ideologically by Mao and his close supporters, was that there was a struggle between socialist and capitalist roads within the Chinese Communist Party. I say this was one of the central themes, because everyday people had different types of experiences of the Cultural Revolution, and the ideologically motivated actions of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party often looked very different than what was intended at the top when we look at what happened at different lower levels of Chinese society. When we get to the Cultural Revolution, we’ll talk about that, and probably take a long time doing it, because the amount that happened and the different experiences among the regular people were just incredibly mixed and contradictory. But in any case, when we do look at the Cultural Revolution as a struggle between socialist and essentially capitalist ideas for how China would develop, Mao was sort of the standard-bearer for the socialist road, against first Liu Shaoqi and then Deng Xiaoping as the big representatives of the capitalist road. One of the ways in which the large masses were won to take Mao’s side in the Cultural Revolution was to promote a cult of personality around Mao which saw Mao as a godlike and essentially infallible figure. The root of this was, I think, an assumption that millions and millions of regular Chinese people could not be won to understand the difficult-to-understand arguments about how to develop Chinese society along a socialist vs. a capitalist path. Millions and millions of people could be won to see Mao as the hero of a revolution which had won China’s liberation from foreign oppression and which gave land to the peasantry, however, and so there was this cult of hero worship which was promoted on a massive scale. The result, was the portrayal of a Mao who had not gone through difficult days, but rather had always known what needed to be done. A Mao who could be trusted to do what was best for you, even if you didn’t understand the issues involved. So, this is the Mao that we got in The Morning Deluge. The Mao who was the lone voice in the wilderness at the January 1925 4th Party Congress calling for a peasant revolution.
The problem here is that there is no evidence for this account, and plenty against it. Simply put, Mao was not at that Congress. And by Mao’s own account, he did not get involved with peasant organizing in Hunan until the May 30th Movement broke out. Now, Han Suyin may not have been consciously lying. She did not have access to all the materials that have made modern scholarship on China possible, and she relied heavily on interviews with people in China. So it is quite possible that she was told this by a party historian or leading party cadre who wanted to paint the history of the Chinese Revolution in this light.
This is an example, one of many, I’m afraid, where the political imperatives of the moment, as understandable as they may be, even in retrospect, have left the history of communism as written by those sympathetic to socialism as sort of cartoonish (in the portrayal of revolutionary leaders as infallible heroes) and, in some essential points, basically false or untrue. I personally think the world would be a better place today had capitalism not been restored in China, and I do think that whoever at the leading levels of the Maoist wing of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1960s decided that it would not be possible to quickly educate tens of millions of people about the economics of socialist construction and their relationship to a larger project of human emancipation, that person was basically correct. However, their answer to that problem, the amplification of Mao’s cult of personality, has in itself been a factor which has been used to discredit the project of socialism globally.
So, an unintended consequence of the imperatives of the moment, in this case during the Cultural Revolution in China, but there are other examples which can be cited as well in the history of communism as written by those sympathetic to socialist aims, an unintended consequence is that much of the history written with momentary imperatives in mind contain easily demonstrable falsehoods and unrealistic pictures of leaders and the revolutionary process in general. In the longer term, this has made it much easier for the opponents of equality and freedom to discredit the work of supporters of socialism. After all, when one can point to one demonstrably false claim in a book, it serves to undermine the credibility of everything else that person has written. And we can see that in the long run, that lack of credibility has made it more difficult for humanity to get back on track with finding a path for ending capitalism.
So, I don’t plan on doing that in this podcast.
Alright, this has been a bit of a historiographical aside, but it’s an important point of orientation for anyone working on these historical topics.
See you next time!