How the Communist Party took the formula of “Haifeng + armed self-defense” and set out to organize the peasants of Guangdong, and beyond.
Pang Yong-pil, “Peng Pai: From Landlord to Revolutionary”
Yuan Gao, “Revolutionary Rural Politics: The Peasant Movement in Guangdong and Its Social-Historical Background, 1922–1926”
Robert Marks, Rural Revolution in South China: Peasants and the Making of History in Haifeng County, 1570-1930
Roy Hofheinz, The Broken Wave: The Chinese Communist Peasant Movement, 1922-1928
Fernando Galbiati, P’eng P’ai and the Hai-Lu-Feng Soviet
Gerald Berkley, “The Canton Peasant Movement Training Institute”
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Elizabeth Perry, Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945
Some names from this episode:
Peng Pai, Communist peasant organizer
Chen Jiongming, Warlord dominant in Haifeng region until 1925
Li Zhongkai, Leader of Guomindang left, assassinated in 1925
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of the Communist Party
Welcome to episode 38 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
We spent last episode taking a bit of a step back in time to look at the background on the Communist peasant organizer Peng Pai, and seeing how the peasant organizing work done by Peng got underway in Haifeng County in Guangdong Province in 1922 and 1923. Now, we’re going to continue the story of this early Communist peasant organizing, and how things developed over the course of the next couple of years. Where we left off, Peng Pai had just been driven out of Haifeng and the peasant association that he led had been shut down by the local gentry with the aid of the warlord Chen Jiongming. But Peng Pai had escaped the raid on the peasant association headquarters, and made his way to Guangzhou, where the beginnings of the Soviet-Guomindang alliance were just shaping up.
Of course, we’ve discussed the development of the Soviet-Guomindang alliance at some length in past episodes, along with some of the ins and outs of the united front between the Communist Party and the Guomindang which went along with the Soviet-Guomindang alliance. Now, as we’ve talked about, when the Guomindang went through its Soviet-sponsored reorganization in early 1924, one of the big things that took place was that the Whampoa military academy was set up and the military forces allied to the Guomindang underwent a gradual reorganization, that both brought those military forces more fully under a centralized command and which facilitated the conquest of Guangdong Province by Guomindang forces.
But there were other major initiatives as well, which were meant to organize various social forces under the banner of the Guomindang. And one of the most significant of these initiatives was something called the Guangzhou Peasant Movement Training Institute, which began operations in summer of 1924. Basically, what had happened was that when Peng Pai arrived in Guangzhou, he wrote a very detailed report on all the peasant organizing that he had been doing, and presented his work to the Communist youth organization, which at the time was called the Socialist Youth League although it would soon change its name to the Communist Youth League.
When the Guomindang was reorganized in January 1924, it included something called the Central Peasant Department, which would be a section of the Guomindang dedicated to peasant organizing. The thing is, no one in the Guomindang itself who was not also a Communist was interested in organizing the peasants, so from the very beginning this section of the Guomindang organization was entirely dominated by the Communist Party. A decision was reached that basically, the experience that Peng Pai had in Haifeng was something that should be more or less universally attempted throughout Guangdong Province, but with one major caveat.
Peng Pai’s peasant organization had been a basically peaceful and nonviolent organization. But for several reasons, it was decided that going forward, the peasant associations that the Communists would be organizing in Guangdong province would have to be prepared for armed self-defense. The first, and perhaps most obvious, reason for this was because in Haifeng the peasants had been fairly easily repressed, despite being a large organization. The summation was that, had they been prepared to defend themselves, they might not have been suppressed. The second reason for forming peasant associations with a capacity for armed self-defense was that in many regions of Guangdong, the tensions between local gentry and the peasants were actually much more acute than they had been in Haifeng, and those gentry were already in charge of local militias which would be certain to repress any peasant movement. Because despite the fact that the peasant association in Haifeng had been suppressed, it had actually operated openly for a relatively long time, and was only suppressed when it had already become quite large and influential. There were other areas where the peasants would not be given as much breathing room to get organized as they had enjoyed in Haifeng, and so if peasants were going to form associations in those parts of the province, they were going to have to be ready to defend themselves pretty much right away. And the final reason for the promotion of peasant associations capable of armed self-defense was because the seizure of power by the Guomindang across Guangdong Province and beyond was on the agenda in the relatively near term, and the idea was that armed peasants could both contribute to that process, and make the process more of a social revolution combining elements of an agrarian revolution with the taking over of territory by the Guomindang government based in Guangzhou.
In order to develop peasant movement activists who could fan out across Guangdong and beyond and apply the Haifeng organizing model with armed self-defense tacked on, the Peasant Movement Training Institute was put together, and between July 1924 and September 1926 about 800 peasant activists were trained here in six different cycles of classes. Most went to different parts of Guangdong, but graduates of later classes went to other provinces as well. Peng Pai served as director of the Institute during the first session (July to August 1924) and the fifth session (September to December 1925).
That first session of the training institute was the smallest, with Peng Pai teaching all of the classes (except for military drill, which was conducted during the mornings for one month) and there being only 38 students. That session lasted from July 3 to August 21, 1924, so about seven weeks or so. The emphasis was mainly on imparting the practical lessons in political organizing that Peng had used in Haifeng. The Peasant Movement Training Institute grew progressively with each session, until the final and sixth session, which lasted from May 3 to September 11, 1926, under the direction of Mao Zedong. This sixth session included much more political and military training than in the earliest sessions. Ten weeks were spent on military drill, and a major effort was spent on educating the organizers in Marxist theory. This was not so that the peasant organizers could impart Marxism to the peasants, which was thought to be impractical, but rather so that the peasant organizers could become Communists themselves, or, if they were already Communists, so that they would become better Communists.
With the defeat of Chen Jiongming during the Eastern Expeditions which we discussed in episodes 30 and 31, Peng Pai had gone back to Haifeng and reconstituted the Haifeng Peasant Association, and of course the radicalized peasants had aided in the overthrow of Chen Jiongming. During the sixth session of the Peasant Movement Training Institute, the one under Mao’s direction, the class of peasant organizers took a field trip to visit Haifeng, and this is an account left by one of the participants:
“We landed at Swabue and throughout the night we waded along the coast, flanked on the other side by rice fields. All along our route the organized peasants (those who had attained political awakening and economic improvement) greeted us throughout our one night’s march with lion dances and lantern shows. It was in Haifeng, therefore, that we came first into contact with a class of peasants who had gone through a fierce class struggle and achieved considerable success. The moment greatly educated us, and we felt ourselves drawn into the ranks of the peasants themselves. [We felt] that it would be glorious to be able to shed our blood in their cause.”
As the peasant organizers fanned out across Guangdong Province attempting to reproduce the experience of organizing in Haifeng, they generally encountered situations which polarized quickly and which did not allow for the patient organizing which had happened in Haifeng. Let’s take the example of Guangning County, which was not very far from Guangzhou to the northwest, and which was under the control of the Guomindang government in early 1924 when the first peasant organizers arrived and tried to reproduce the Haifeng experience.
In Guangning, the peasant organizers quickly encountered fierce opposition from the local gentry, despite the fact that the organizers had the backing of the government in Guangzhou. First the local magistrate refused to register the peasant association as a legal organization with the county government, and then, when the new peasant association decided to launch a rent reduction campaign, the local gentry mobilized their militia to try to crush the peasants. Between June and October 1924 more than 30 members of the peasant association were killed in sporadic fighting with the local gentry’s militia forces, until finally Li Zhongkai, the leader of the Guomindang left whose assassination we discussed back in episode 31, sent the National Revolutionary Army in to aid the peasants. Essentially, the peasant association in Guangning had been organized from the very beginning under very difficult conditions, and was forced to simultaneously engage in armed self-defense even while doing the basic work of initially building up the organization. These were very different conditions than had obtained in Haifeng.
In summing up the experience in Guangning and elsewhere in 1926, the Communist Party made the decision that “Many peasant associations have been driven by the motive to take over control of the village government, … and quickly got involved in conflicts with local militia, disregarding the fact that their foundation had not yet been consolidated. If this continues to be the case, our sacrifice will be large… According to the current situation the peasant associations should focus on constructive work that can further the peasants’ interests.” Essentially, the party leadership wanted the peasant associations to be able to have the time to develop peacefully like Peng Pai’s initial experience in Haifeng had gone. It’s not clear, though, that in Guangning or in many other places that any sort of peaceful peasant organizing would have been allowed by the local gentry. After all, the peasant association there had only launched a rent reduction campaign when gentry militias began killing peasant organizers. Under those conditions, a situation of armed self-defense quickly escalates the situation to one where either the armed force of the peasants or the gentry is going to prevail, and thus the question not mainly of a reform like rent reduction, but one of who really holds power in the countryside comes to the fore. This understanding had been present when the Communist Party initially decided, in the wake of Peng Pai having to flee Haifeng, that the Haifeng experience could only be reproduced with the modification of making the peasant associations capable of armed self-defense. But after seeing so many peasant organizers killed in the conflicts which were involved in setting up more peasant associations across Guangdong Province, in 1926 the Central Committee backed away from its earlier understanding. In the near future, the Communist Party would be gaining a lot of experience with organizing local government in the context of ongoing peasant warfare, but at the time we are looking at in 1924 to 1926 we can see that there were fits and starts in the learning process.
Now, you might be wondering, if all these peasant associations were formally part of the Guomindang, why didn’t the government in Guangzhou intervene more aggressively to support the peasant associations. And the truth is, that these peasant associations and the whole issue of land reform was one of the major points of dispute in the Communist-Guomindang united front. The Guomindang right was adamantly opposed to this sort of peasant organizing, and in general the Guomindang left was not too fond of it either, especially after Li Zhongkai was no longer on the scene. So the peasant organizing that the Communists undertook under the banner of the Guomindang was definitely one of the major things that opponents of the Communists within the Guomindang pointed to and said: “look what these guys are doing in our name, this is why we need to kick them out of the Guomindang.” In fact, the Guomindang right much more wanted to rely on local gentry and not on peasants. Yet, the utility of mobilized peasant masses in the course of warfare could also not be totally discounted, as had been seen during the Eastern Expedition, so for figures like Chiang Kai-shek, who fundamentally opposed peasant organizing, there was also a pragmatic angle that could be taken where some amount of peasant organizing was tolerable as long as it could be leveraged in support of the Nationalist war effort at times.
Now, when we began talking about the peasant associations that the Communists had organized last episode, we began by looking at how as the Northern Expedition was beginning, the Central Committee of the Communist Party was meeting in Shanghai and talking about how to make the Northern Expedition a social revolution in addition to being a military conquest, and in the process was reviewing its peasant work and had summed up that it had 981,442 peasants organized in associations, which is an incredibly large number for an organization that had not really been prioritizing peasant work. It’s also a ridiculously precise number, which right there should make it somewhat suspect.
Now, of these 981,442 peasants, 647,766 were in Guangdong Province. We have talked about how they had been organized, but where were the rest of them come from? The vast majority of the rest of the peasants included in the count were 270,000 in Henan Province, which is in north China and is nowhere near the Guangzhou Peasant Movement Training Institute. And this 270,000 peasants, or rather, this alleged 270,000 peasants, has an interesting story.
In Henan province and nearby areas of the North China Plain, peasants had begun to band together to protect themselves from the depredations of various bandits and warlords, and founded something called the Red Spear Society. They were called this because their signature weapon was a spear with a red tassel at the end. As order had broken down in the region, bandits had begun to run rampant, and so the Red Spear Society constituted something of a self-defense network of peasant communities in the region.
The idea of incorporating the Red Spears into Communist peasant organizing seems to have originated with a Soviet military advisor. If you will recall from back in episode 29, there was this warlord alliance called the Guominjun, or People’s Army, which the Soviet Union was allied with in opposition to other warlords who it had conflicts with along the border between China, the Soviet Union and Mongolia. Now, for a time, the Guominjun had taken over Beijing, and in episode 29 we talked about how Sun Yatsen had gone to Beijing and been disappointed that the Guominjun talked a good game, but were really not much better than the other warlords. Well, because of their military alliance, the Soviets had advisors who went around with the Guominjun forces sometimes, and when the Guominjun was campaigning into Henan province, they got soundly beaten by the Red Spears, who had graduated from fighting off bandits to fighting off warlords.
The Soviet advisor with the Guominjun was very impressed at these peasant forces who had beaten off the Guominjun, part of a series of military defeats which resulted in the Guominjun being driven back out of Beijing by their warlord rivals, and passed along word that, hey, maybe the Communists should go see if they could ally with these Red Spears. Now, the idea may have occurred independently to some Chinese Communist leaders as well, but the historical record has definitely taken note of this Soviet military advisor who was very impressed with the peasants beating his allies, and whose sympathies seem to have been much more with the peasants than the warlords he was advising.
Communist peasant organizers began working in Henan in August 1925 and by April 1926 they reported a spectacular success in organizing peasant association in more than 200 villages, with the total membership that we have mentioned of 270,000 peasants. 100,000 were supposed to be part of organized self-defense corps. What appears to have happened is that the Communist organizers did have some success in one region, and then, by virtue of the networks among Red Spears which tied different villages together in a large self-defense network, they achieved some sort of nominal allegiance of other Red Spears groups more broadly. In reality, one locale of about 3,000 peasants was organized by the Communists in Henan. And this was exposed when an inspection tour came through the area during 1927. So, this number of 270,000 was more or less entirely false.
But, one might say, if these were peasants who were organized to defend their land, what difference did it really make whether they were directly organized by the Communist peasant activists or not? This may well be what went through the minds of the Communist organizers who reported the figure of 270,000 peasants organized in peasant associations. After all, even in Guangdong, the peasant associations were fairly loose and involved peasants banding together to protect their land and defend their rights, and, to some degree, support a vague revolutionary project. They did not require any great ideological litmus test. The peasants weren’t communists, for the most part, in these associations. So, why not just count the Red Spears among the numbers of the peasant associations that had been organized?
While there might be something to that argument, the facts on the ground spoke for themselves. The Red Spears had been founded to defend the peasants’ land and property. They had no anti-landlord or rent reduction agenda. They wanted to keep outsiders out of their business, and at times this included the Communist organizers, some of whom were killed when they tried to agitate in Red Spear villages that were hostile to the Communist message. Some Red Spears also took a dim view of Communist ideas on women’s liberation.
The Communists continued trying to work among the Red Spears for some time beyond 1926, and here what I think is a telling testimony from an activist who arrived in Henan Province in 1927:
[Perry p. 217]