Mao’s first major statement on the need for a strategic reorientation toward mobilizing the peasantry.
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927
Philip C. C. Huang, “Mao Tse-Tung and the Middle Peasants, 1925-1928”
Some names from this episode:
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of Communist Party
Welcome to episode 33 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
To recap where we are at in our story, we spent the last episode discussing Mao’s role as acting head of propaganda within the Guomindang government based in Guangzhou, a post which he took up in early October 1925 and held through the end of May 1926. Before that, Mao had spent the summer of 1925 in his home province of Hunan, where he discovered the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. As we discussed in episode 28, while in Hunan Mao began to think about how the peasants had the potential to become the main force for revolution in China.
Which brings us to what we’re going to be talking about in this episode. While working as head of propaganda, Mao published his first major work where he began to lay out his new strategic thinking on how the Chinese Revolution should be based on the peasantry. This was an article titled “Analysis of All the Classes in Chinese Society,” and was published on December 1, 1925 in Revolution, which was the semi-monthly journal of the National Revolutionary Army. Here’s how Mao posed the problem he was tackling in the first paragraph of the article:
“Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? He who cannot distinguish between enemies and friends is certainly not a revolutionary, yet to distinguish between them is not easy. If the Chinese Revolution, although it has been going on for thirty years, has achieved so little, this is not because its goal was wrong, but entirely because its strategy has been wrong. The strategic error has consisted precisely in the failure to unite with real friends in order to attack real enemies. The reason for this failure is the inability to distinguish clearly enemies from friends. A revolutionary party is the guide of the masses. No army has ever been known to achieve victory when its chiefs have led it in a false direction, and no revolutionary movement has ever been known to succeed when the revolutionary party has led it in a false direction. We are all members of the revolutionary party, all leaders of the masses, all guides of the masses. We cannot but ask ourselves, however: Do we have this capacity? Will we not end up by leading the masses onto an erroneous road? Will we definitely achieve success? To ensure that we will ‘not lead the masses astray’ and will ‘definitely achieve success,’ we must pay careful attention to the very important question of strategy. In order to determine this strategy, we must first distinguish clearly friends from enemies. The Manifesto of the First National Congress of the Guomindang proclaimed this strategy and traced the boundary between our enemies and our friends. But this declaration was very concise. If we want to understand this important strategy and to distinguish our real enemies from our real friends, we must make a general analysis of the economic status, the class character, and the numerical strength of the various classes of Chinese society, as well as of their respective attitudes toward the revolution.”
So, in this introductory paragraph, what Mao does is he basically says, look, we’re not following the right strategy. What if we were to take a step back, analyze all the classes in Chinese society from the standpoint of what their attitude is toward the revolution, and then craft a new strategy based on what that analysis of classes in China tells us? Which, then is, what Mao proceeds to do with the rest of the article. Then, at the end of the article, he provides a handy chart with three columns, in which he lists the various classes, their numerical strengths (as he estimated them), and their attitudes toward the revolution. In just a minute here, I’m going to read off this chart to you, because it does such a concise job summing up what Mao says in the rest of the article.
But, before I do, I want to mention that some of the terminology that Mao uses in this article is different than what Mao will use later to discuss the same social classes. For example, in this article, Mao uses the term ‘big bourgeoisie’ to refer to people who fall into two separate classes, which he would later distinguish from each other: the landlord class and the comprador class (comprador being the term used for the Chinese capitalists who were very closely tied to foreign capitalists and who managed foreign capitalist interests in China). And, to muddy matters a little more, in the version of this article that was re-published in the Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung as “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” after the victory of the revolution, the article was edited to be more consistent with the terminology which came to predominate later in the revolution. The main reason for this editing was because this article, and some other important early works of Mao’s, were later used primarily for ongoing ideological education.
What that meant was that it made more sense, in the minds of the people in China guiding this ideological education, to replace Mao’s earlier language with language which was more correct according to the understanding which they wanted to impart. So, rather than ‘big bourgeoisie,’ the more precise (and, from a Marxist perspective, more accurate) terms comprador and landlord were used. But, because we’re studying the historical development of Mao’s thinking in this podcast episode, it makes much more sense for us to use the terms that Mao used at the time, and not those which appear in Mao’s Selected Works. (Listeners who have Mao’s Selected Works at hand may notice that the chart that I am about to read from does not even appear in the version published there, and that a different date of publication is given for the article. It was only in the 1980s that Chinese historians discovered that the article was originally published in December 1925, not in March 1926, as had been thought when the Selected Works were published.)
So, with that historiographical bit of housekeeping taken care of, let’s see what Mao had to say about the different classes in Chinese society and their attitudes toward the revolution:
OK, let’s let Mao conclude this piece in his own words:
“Who is our enemy? Who is our friend? We can now answer these questions. All those in league with imperialism—the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big landlords, and the reactionary intellectual class, that is, the so-called big bourgeoisie in China—are our enemies, our true enemies. All the petty bourgeoisie, the semiproletariat, and the proletariat are our friends, our true friends. As for the vacillating middle bourgeoisie, its right wing must be considered our enemy; even if it is not yet our enemy, it will soon become so. Its left wing may be considered as our friend—but not as our true friend, and we must be constantly on our guard against it. We must not allow it to create confusion within our ranks! How many are our true friends? There are 395 million of them. How many are our true enemies? There are 1 million of them. How many are there of these people in the middle who may be either our friends or our enemies? There are 4 million of them. Even if we consider these 4 million as enemies, this only adds up to a bloc of barely 5 million, and a sneeze from 395 million would certainly suffice to blow them down.
“Three hundred and ninety-five million, unite!”
So, just to clarify what is meant by the middle bourgeoisie here, these were basically the Chinese capitalists who weren’t representatives of foreign capital in China. And here we can see Mao drawing on the experience of the May 30th Movement in Shanghai. If you go back to episode 26, you’ll recall that we saw over the course of the May 30th Movement a whole process where the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, representing Chinese capitalists in Shanghai, supported the strike against Japanese and British capital initially, but later, once the movement was over, it moved against the leaders of the strike and supported cracking down on the Communist Party and other working class activists. This was a hard-won lesson for the Communist Party, because there had been an influence of the idea that maybe the Chinese capitalists could lead a bourgeois revolution in China, as we saw in Episode 20 when the Communists appealed to the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce to take a leading revolutionary role during its brief declaration of independence from Beijing back in 1923, and in Episode 23, when we talked about the increasing influence of the Theory of the Productive forces on Chen Duxiu, the general secretary of the Communist Party. So there was this whole experience of the middle bourgeoisie, which would later be called more commonly the national bourgeoisie, sometimes playing a progressive role in the nationalist movement but then also stabbing its working class allies in the back. And Mao predicted that this would happen again when he wrote that “we must be constantly on our guard against” the middle or national bourgeoisie, which is of course what is going to happen in the near future. But we’ll talk about that when we get there.
But the overall takeaway from this article was that, of the number of allies of the revolution who Mao enumerated in this article, the overwhelming majority were peasants or rural proletarians. The numbers of poor peasants, sharecroppers (who, in later editions of this article, were subsumed under the category of poor peasant), and rural laborers (essentially, landless peasants), come out at 140,000,000. When you add in semiowner peasants, essentially you get 190,000,000. Another 100,000,000 owner-peasants are included in Mao’s petty bourgeois category here, which brings the total to 290,000,000 peasants. So, if Mao was saying the main problem of revolutionary strategy which the Chinese revolutionaries had failed at was figuring our who their friends were, it’s not hard to see that what he really meant was that the Chinese revolutionaries needed to go out and work with this reserve force of almost 300,000,000 which it really had not tapped.
But, the idea that the Communist Party should mobilize the peasantry was not a new idea. As we saw back in episode 13, and again in episode 23, Li Dazhao had always felt that the peasants were important. And, formally at least, the idea that the Communist Party should mobilize the peasantry was widely accepted. At the October 1925 Central Committee meeting in Beijing, a peasant commission had been created as a way to organize Communist peasant organizing work, although the commission remained unstaffed until Mao took up the work of the commission in November 1926. What this shows is that, while there was a Communist commitment to peasant organizing, it was not prioritized.
Now, some Communists had been involved in peasant organizing under the auspices of the Guomindang. You also might have noticed that our discussions of the role of the commissars in the two Eastern Expeditions in Guangdong province in 1925, for instance, did involve some mobilization of peasants. In the near future, when we get to talking about Mao’s work as he dives into peasant organizing, we’ll talk about how that work had already been developing before Mao got into it.
So, while the idea that Communists should organize and mobilize peasants was not new, what was new in Mao’s “Analysis of All the Classes in Chinese Society” was that Mao was saying that the strategy for revolution should be based on mobilizing the peasantry. Now, Mao implied this strongly but did not say it explicitly in this work. What Mao said was that a) our strategy has been wrong; and b) the largest number of people, by a huge margin, who will support the revolution are the peasants. It wasn’t hard to draw out the implications of what Mao was saying.
And Mao quickly did become more explicit in saying that the Chinese Revolution would be a peasant revolution. In Mao’s “Resolution Concerning the Peasant Movement” which he put forward at the Second Guomindang Congress in January 1926 (we talked about Mao’s “Resolution Concerning Party Newspapers” from the same congress in our last episode), Mao said in a very straightforward manner that “China’s national revolution is, to put it plainly, a peasant revolution.”
Now, how was Mao’s new strategic proposition for the Chinese Revolution received?
As I’ve already mentioned, Mao is going to transition into mainly doing peasant organizing. But we should not take that as an endorsement of his overall strategic vision. Rather, we should read it more as a willingness by party leadership to take advantage of Mao’s enthusiasm for peasant organizing by allowing him to head up that branch of work. We’ll talk about the specifics in a later episode.
But party leadership definitely did not endorse a peasant-based strategy. In the interview that Edgar Snow did with Mao for Red Star Over China in 1936, Mao stated that Chen Duxiu had not allowed Mao’s article to be published in any of the Communist Party organs. Now, a historian who has written biographies of both Mao and Chen reports that he couldn’t find any evidence that Chen denied publication to Mao, and casts some doubt on whether this is the case. But clearly, Chen did disagree with Mao.
Back in 1923, Chen had actually written an article on class relations in the Chinese countryside which was quite similar in its analysis of the differences between classes to Mao’s “Analysis.” Chen distinguished between big, middle, and small landlords, owner-cultivators, owner-tenants, pure tenants, and hired laborers in a way similar to how Mao does. But, despite these similarities in understanding the divisions between the classes in China’s countryside, Chen drew different conclusions.
To illustrate Chen’s views, this is a quote from a response that Chen gave to a reader of a Communist newspaper who suggested that the Communists should develop a mass movement in the countryside:
“The rural communist movement that you call for seems to me a bit romantic. This is because the communist movement must rely on factory workers as its main force. In petty-agricultural China, the owner-cultivators constitute more than one-half of the population. These petty-bourgeoisie, they have an extremely fixed concept of the right to private property—how can they carry on the communist movement? How can the communist movement become a mass movement in the owner-cultivator dominated Chinese countryside?”
So, Chen’s evaluation of the Chinese peasantry took as its starting point the assumption that small property owners are attached to the idea of property ownership and would not be amenable to Communism. Whereas Mao’s starting point was that most of these small property-owners were poor and oppressed, and were thus amenable to revolt, as he had observed first-hand in Hunan, despite the fact that many of them owned small pieces of land. Chen had made a formal Marxist analysis of the countryside and then drawn what he felt were conclusions about probable attitudes toward communism. Mao made a similar class analysis, but instead focused on how rural poverty had created a rebellious attitude which could serve the national revolution. If one of Lenin’s greatest insights had been about the possibility and importance of diverting movements which arose spontaneously so that they would serve the larger goal of Communist revolution, Mao appears to have been a much better student of Lenin’s than Chen was.
Chen’s evaluation was shared by the Soviet advisors in Guangzhou. They translated the article into Russian and published it in the journal that they circulated among themselves, and which was also read in Moscow. The Soviet advisors were critical of Mao for deviating from Marxist orthodoxy. They felt that Mao was evaluating the classes based more on their potential for rebellion than on their relationship to the means of production. To me, this criticism seems to miss the point, to almost treat as invalid an analysis whose avowed purpose is to analyze revolutionary possibilities instead of just making a formal, basically academic, analysis of the classes in society, and then, I suppose, coldly drawing conclusions from that starting place. It is, frankly, an odd criticism to be made by people who had been sent to China to make a revolution, and demonstrates the continuing, or perhaps growing, influence of the non-revolutionary use of Marxism as a method of analysis divorced from revolutionary initiative which characterized the Second International (for more on that, see Episode 15).
One aspect of this criticism of Mao was that Mao connected levels of poverty with potential for rebellion. Funnily enough, if we go back to our discussion in Episode 15 of how Marx and Engels, and then Lenin, defined the labor aristocracy, we can see that they modified their sense of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat based on the possibility that sections of the proletariat could essentially be bought off. So, we can see that for Marx, Engels and Lenin, one’s position in relation to the productive forces was definitely not enough to classify any group of people as revolutionary, but rather political considerations come into play as well, some of which are in fact contingent upon a sense of relative privilege or poverty.
And, it’s probably not a coincidence that when we ran into these ideas in the Episode 15, it involved Lenin using Marx and Engels to polemicize against the non-revolutionary use of Marxism by the Second International. Similar ideas were clearly influencing Chen Duxiu and the Soviet advisors (and, for more on the specifics of how Chen Duxiu was influenced by the Theory of the Productive Forces, see episode 23).
In fact, Mao’s ideas would run up against deterministic and non-revolutionary articulations of Marxism all the way up until Mao’s death in 1976 and beyond, so it’s fitting that Mao’s first major work on revolutionary strategy, a work which can be considered the beginning of Maoism in a certain sense, was already being criticized in terms which relied on an interpretation of Marxism which removed the revolutionary heart from the theory.