Mao as acting head of propaganda for the Guomindang.
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927
Some names from this episode:
Wang Jingwei, Leader of Guomindang government in Guangdong in late 1925 and early 1926
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Gregory Voitinsky, Comintern representative in China at various points
Dai Jitao, Right-wing Guomindang ideologue
Welcome to episode 32 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
To recap where we are in our story, we spent the last three episode talking about the Soviet military alliance with the Guomindang and the consolidation of the left-wing Guomindang government and the development of the National Revolutionary Army in Guangdong province. And before those three episodes, back in episode 28, we discussed how Mao Zedong took a break from his work with the Communist Party in Shanghai and went back to his home province of Hunan, and how he kind of discovered the peasantry as a revolutionary force there, and then, in October 1925, he had to flee Hunan one step ahead of the law. So this episode we will pick up with Mao’s story in Guangzhou, where he fled to from Hunan.
Pretty much directly upon arrival in Guangzhou, Mao took up work as acting head of propaganda for the Guomindang government. Wang Jingwei, who was leading the Guomindang government, had worked with Mao quite a bit when Mao was exercising his functions as a Communist whose main task for a time was to liaise between the Communist and Nationalist parties, particularly in his role as a member of the Shanghai executive bureau of the Guomindang, and as an alternate member of the Guomindang’s Central Executive Committee. (And, just a reminder to listeners who may have forgotten, the Nationalist Party is just the English translation of Guomindang.) So when Mao arrived in Guangzhou, Wang put him to work. Wang was formally head of propaganda for the Guomindang, in addition to being head of the government. But in practice, this meant that the propaganda work just didn’t get done, because there was no time to do both jobs.
Mao’s arrival in Guangzhou kind of put him in a unique situation as far as the tasks that he might have taken up. Mao had been on leave from working with the Communist Party in Shanghai, and had taken up peasant organizing in Hunan on his own initiative. Now, when he arrived in Guangzhou, he did not check in with relevant party organizations to terminate his leave and see how the party could best make use of him. Rather, he exercised his own judgment and found a role in the left-wing-dominated Guomindang government.
It doesn’t seem that Mao himself came in for any particular criticism for this action. In fact, the position that he took up was one that the Communist Party was very happy to have him in. Since the beginning of the United Front, the Communists had aimed at getting whatever control they could over the Guomindang propaganda organs, so that they would be able to control the political messaging and win more people over to their point of view. So, having Mao in the position that he took over was a real gain for the Communists, and very in line with the overall strategy they were trying to carry out with the United Front with the Guomindang. So, even though Mao had not been specifically tasked with trying to get himself put into that position, his taking up of the position as head of propaganda was definitely welcomed by Communist Party leadership.
However, right at the time that Mao took up his position as acting head of propaganda for the Guomindang, a conflict did take place within the Communist Party over just how to act within the united front. As we have shown over our past episodes, the conditions in Shanghai and Guangdong were very different. In Shanghai, the Guomindang right-wing was quite strong, and the cooperation between it and the Communist Party was limited. This meant that, when the May 30th Movement broke out, the Communists ended up playing a leading role in the revolutionary nationalist upsurge without much help, indeed with some obstruction, from local Nationalist Party forces. In Guangdong, on the other hand, there was very close collaboration between the Guomindang Left, the Soviet advisors who had essentially built up the National Revolutionary Army for the Guomindang, and the Communist Party. And while the Communist Party headquarters was in Shanghai, the leadership of the Soviet mission was in Guangdong, which meant that essentially there were two separate Communist headquarters in the country. So, in addition to the differences in local conditions, there were different strategic visions as well. Mikhail Borodin, who led the Soviet mission in Guangdong, very much saw the Communists as working through the Guomindang, while the Shanghai Communist leadership, in particular the party secretary, Chen Duxiu, but not only Chen, felt it was much more important for the Communists to play a more independent role.
At the plenary session in Beijing the Communists in Guangdong were criticized for not building up the Communist Party during the mass upsurge which had been taking place. At the plenum, the leadership of the party, which had seen the Communist Party through impressive growth in Shanghai over the course of the May 30th Movement, criticized the Guangdong comrades for not building the party during the Hong Kong strike and the huge nationalist upsurge following the Shamian massacre, despite the fact that the Communists had been playing leading roles in the strike and the broader nationalist movement. Rather, the party leadership felt that only the Guomindang had been built up, and that the Communists who participated in the mass movements in Guangdong tended more to represent those mass movements within the Communist Party, rather than the other way around, which would have been more appropriate. This is how the criticism was phrased in a “Resolution on the Question of Organization” which came out of that plenary session:
“During the high tide of the revolutionary movement, when the Hong Kong workers’ struggle was at its peak, the Guangdong area even failed to use the opportunity to consolidate and expand our party. Although the Guangdong area was able to influence the thinking of the masses of workers and peasants, it was unable to consolidate these forces in organizational terms by recruiting workers and peasants into our party and organizing our party groups among the various social groups. This was a mistake. Our comrades in Guangdong only worked individually inside the labor unions, peasant associations, and troops under the Guomindang. They did not resemble a powerful political party with its own interests and properly organized so as to lead the proletariat in the national revolutionary movement.
“Our comrades and committee members at all levels (central and local) have always worked individually inside labor unions, the Guomindang, and the student masses, and limit themselves to certain specific tasks. Then, toward the party, they behave as if they represented that particular movement while failing completely to pursue the party’s overall tasks. This is a bad habit and should be corrected immediately.”
The resolution identified a couple of reasons for these shortcomings in Guangdong, both of which I’m sure have some truth to them, but neither of which I find completely convincing. The first reason given was that “At present, most leading comrades in all localities have the mistaken view that every Communist Party member should understand Marxism and possess a great capacity for work. They think that if party membership improves only in quantity and not in terms of quality, there will be no benefit and the party’s organization would be weakened further. Thus, many such leaders propose that the quantitative development of the party is to be limited by the party’s capacity for educating its members.”
So, most local leaders of the Communist Party, but especially those in Guangdong, were criticized for not thinking that workers could be recruited to the party until they had been educated to become Marxists, essentially dooming the party to never become a mass party. A second criticism was also leveled, which was related to the first criticism, which was that these party leaders also had a small group mentality, and needed to realize that the party was ready to make the leap to becoming a mass party, which necessarily meant recruiting more broadly than before, and would entail unspecified organizational changes, which would accommodate more members who didn’t understand as much Marxism, and who might have other commitments that kept them from working all their waking hours for the cause.
While these may well have been accurate criticisms of some weaknesses that leading Communists had in the various localities, and even specifically in Guangdong, I can’t help but think that the very different conditions at play between Guangdong and Shanghai were the most important reason why in Shanghai the Communists had played a leading role and grown, while in Guangdong, where the Guomindang was heavily dependent on both Soviet aid and Communist activists and the left-wing of the Guomindang predominated, it was more or less inevitable that the Guomindang would be built up and the Communist Party would remain a small organization of activists rather than of masses. After all, what would it have looked like for the Communist Party to insist on building itself up at the expense of, and thus implicitly in partial opposition to, the Guomindang in Guangdong? Would that have entailed a split with the left of the Guomindang as well? How would the Communist commissars have operated within the National Revolutionary Army? If the Communist activists leading the Hong Kong strike had insisted on building the Communist Party and explicitly not building the Guomindang during the strike, would the Guomindang government still have given the backing which was necessary to continue the strike? Perhaps Chen Duxiu, in making these criticisms of the Guangdong comrades, had a vision in mind that I just can’t picture. During the course of the plenum, he did put forward the proposal (again) that the Communists stop working inside the Guomindang and only work with it from the outside. But, given all the accomplishments that had been made in Guangdong and the Soviet investment in the alliance with the Guomindang, he met with overwhelming opposition both from Chinese comrades present and from Voitinsky, who was at the meeting representing the Comintern.
So, to bring things back around to Mao in Guangzhou, I do think that this criticism by the Shanghai-based leadership of the party of the Guangdong branch of the party is an interesting lens through which to look at Mao’s arrival in Guangzhou and his decision to take up the position as acting head of propaganda.
So, what sort of things was Mao doing as propaganda chief?
Mao’s overall task was to expand the Guomindang’s ability to project its message through publications, particularly newspapers, to unify the messaging in the publications, and to coordinate and expand internal party education. This was clearly a very chaotic terrain, as the propaganda capacity of the organization was highly dependent on the initiative of local party members in different parts of the country. As a ‘big tent’ Nationalist Party, the Guomindang encompassed a wide range of perspectives, so attempts to impose a particular type of anti-imperialist nationalism from the party center in Guangzhou were doomed to failure, despite the formally democratic centralist organizational structure that had been created for the party at the First Guomindang Congress in January 1924, and which we discussed in episode 22.
If we look at some of the interventions that Mao made as propaganda chief during the Second Guomindang Congress in January 1926, we can see that Mao was clearly frustrated by the lack of discipline. In the “Resolution Concerning Party Newspapers” that Mao put forward during the Congress, Mao included the following points:
“Party members should hold the interests of the national revolution higher than their own interests and also as compared to the interests of their families, relatives, or other organizations”
“Our party’s discipline is a weapon to defeat imperialism and warlordism and to win unification for China. Those who violate party discipline are tantamount to soldiers in retreat from the battlefield.
“Talking revolution but failing to obey directives from above in the organization and failing to carry out orders received both constitute violations of discipline. Only by doing one’s best to proclaim revolutionary ideas and engage in revolutionary work can the national revolution be facilitated.
“It is inevitable that some party members, sacrificing themselves and out of love for their compatriots, will need to deal severely with some minority elements. If we cannot gain unification for the 400 million people by peaceful means, violence is necessary. By violence is meant organization and discipline. Each party member is ruled by the party, and his personal welfare is contained within that of the party. Therefore, a party member’s welfare should be sacrificed for the welfare of the party.”
This is not the sort of language that one expects to see in resolutions on party newspapers, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to draw the conclusion that these points that Mao put forward in his resolution expressed a lot of frustration with trying to coordinate the promulgation of a unified revolutionary nationalist line within the context of a national organization whose local chapters exercised a large amount of de facto autonomy and contained many elements whose politics were considerably to the right of the politics emanating from the party center in Guangzhou.
Of course, there was also a lot of indiscipline in Guangzhou itself. Mao’s emphasis on discipline and sacrifice stands in stark contrast to reports that the Soviets in Guangzhou made about the actual functioning of the Guomindang government. In September 1925, the Soviet military advisers had begun working with the Communist Party to begin the creation of a future Chinese GPU (the GPU was the acronym at the time for the Soviet Secret Police, and the acronym stood for something like State Political Directorate or State Political Administration, this was one of the forerunner organizations for the better known KGB). In October 1925, a Soviet GPU agent arrived in Guangzhou and ran a training course for 24 Chinese Communists.
In addition to developing an espionage capacity in China, and especially in Hong Kong, for the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, one of the tasks that was envisioned for a future Chinese GPU was that it could exercise an oversight function on corruption in the revolutionary government. According to a report written in December by the Soviet GPU agent who had given the training course to the Chinese Communists, “95 percent of officials here are guilty of embezzlement of government funds.” This high level of corruption would remain a mainstay of all future Guomindang governments.
I bring this up to illustrate the contrast between the discipline and self-sacrifice that Mao and the Chinese Communists aspired to get the Guomindang to adopt, and the reality of the situation which was so extremely far from that aspirational goal. Eventually, in 1949 and during the 1950s, when many American policy-makers and other writers who reflexively took the side of the US government were trying to make sense of the Communist victory in China, or, as they put it at the time, “how they lost China,” one of the recurring explanations was to contrast the self-sacrifice and discipline of the Communists with the extreme corruption of the Nationalists. In fact, even some American military advisors to the Nationalists during World War II, who were disgusted at seeing the military aid given to the Guomindang disappearing into the coffers of Guomindang leaders while Chinese Nationalist troops literally starved to death, advocated giving aid to the Communists after seeing the way the Communists operated.
The one thing that Mao could control was the newspaper that he started as acting head of propaganda, which was called Political Weekly. The main task of Political Weekly under Mao’s editorship was to promote the interpretation of Sun Yatsen’s Three People’s Principle, the basis of Guomindang official ideology, as adopted at the first Guomindang Congress in 1924. As we discussed in episode 22, this was a recast version of Sun’s Three Principles which was explicitly anti-imperialist and socialistic, which was more or less drafted in the Soviet Union and which Sun accepted with little protest, in exchange for Soviet aid.
After Sun Yatsen’s death in early 1925, a new ideological offensive was launched by the right-wing of the Guomindang which explicitly sought to roll back the socialistic recasting of the Three People’s Principles. The main force behind this ideological offensive was a Nationalist intellectual named Dai Jitao. He published a book titled The Philosophical Foundations of Sunyatsen-ism which was enormously influential and which called for kicking out the Communists from the Guomindang and returning to a purer form of Sun Yatsen’s ideology which had not been compromised in order to get Soviet aid. He also cast the alliance with the Soviet Union as a betrayal of China’s sovereignty, as a form of ‘Red imperialism.’ Dai’s ideas became a rallying point for the Right within the Guomindang, and something called the Society for the Study of Sunyatsen-ism was formed which promoted this interpretation of Sun’s Three People’s Principles. So, Dai Jitao provided a coherent ideology that the Guomindang Right could rally around, and which was the target of criticism by the organs of the Guomindang Left, such as Political Weekly, under Mao’s editorship and overall leadership of official Guomindang propaganda work.
Now, here is where things get kind of murky. As you might recall from past episodes, Chiang Kai-shek was very much identified with the Guomindang Left and with the alliance with the Soviet Union at this time. You might recall us quoting him in the last couple episodes as saying some things like “Although counter-revolutionary forces are very powerful, the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party are cooperating and we have the support of the people of the whole country. The Leader is dead [referring to Sun Yatsen], but there still is Adviser Borodin to lead us.” (from episode 30) and the speech we cited last episode, where he praised the Russian Revolution and led slogans of support for the World Revolution during a rally in late 1925 in Shantou.
The thing is, Chiang Kai-shek was very close with Dai Jitao. Dai had had a child from an extramarital affair, and Chiang was raising him as his second son. When historians in China analyze Chiang Kai-shek’s statements of support for the Soviet Union and his friendliness toward the Communists from this time period, they view Chiang’s actions as a politically astute form of double-dealing and craftiness, not as genuine statements of his beliefs. So, while Chiang was maneuvering himself into a leading role in the Guomindang, we can see Dai Jitao articulating a coherent right-wing Nationalist ideology which is much more in line with Chiang’s thinking, and I think one can infer that the two were working in concert.
Even the die-hard of the Guomindang Right were somewhat suspicious of this, I think. Because of Dai’s closeness with Chiang, who was, as I’ve said, perceived as a leftist, when Dai Jitao went to attend a meeting of the Guomindang Right in Beijing in late 1925 called the Western Hills Conference, where the right-wing was organizing itself against the Left, some right-wing hooligans took him to a local Guomindang club and beat him up, calling him a communist sympathizer.
At the time, however, the Guomindang Left and the Communist Party were not really as astute as the Guomindang Right in perceiving the connection between Dai and Chiang, and what it might mean for them in the near future.
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