Mao’s political activity and intellectual development during the first nine months of 1926.
Gerald Berkley, “The Canton Peasant Movement Training Institute”
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”
Philip C. C. Huang, “Mao Tse-Tung and the Middle Peasants, 1925-1928”
Angus McDonald, “The Hunan Peasant Movement Its Urban Origins”
Some names from this episode:
Shen Yanbing (Mao Dun), Communist writer and later Culture Minister, in 1926 worked with Mao Zedong in Guomindang propaganda department
Zhao Hengti, Dominant warlord in Hunan
Tang Shengzhi, Subordinate of Zhao who allied with the Guomindang and displaced Zhao
Wu Peifu, Northern warlord
Nikolay Kuibyshev, Soviet general and head of military mission in Guangdong in late 1925 and early 1926
Andrei Bubnov, Headed Soviet military inspection mission to China in early 1926
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Peng Pai, Communist peasant organizer
Welcome to episode 39 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, I mentioned in passing that during the sixth and final session of the Guangzhou Peasant Movement Training Institute, that Mao Zedong was in charge of the institute. Some listeners may have wondered if we were not going to fill in what had been happening with Mao since we last talked in detail about Mao’s activities and the development of his thinking back in episodes 32 and 33. Fear not, this episode, we’ll be returning to take a closer look at Mao Zedong’s life and work in 1926, picking up where we left off, in early 1926, when Mao was working as acting head of propaganda for the Guomindang while also developing and advocating for his ideas about the central nature of peasant mobilization to any revolution in China.
As we saw in episode 33, despite the fact that Mao had left peasant organizing behind for the time being when he had to flee Hunan for Guangzhou in early October 1925, he didn’t give up his commitment to peasant work. In episode 33, we examined Mao’s “Analysis of All the Classes in Chinese Society,” which put forward the idea that peasants were at the center of any Chinese Revolution. What I didn’t mention, was that in addition to his work in the Guomindang propaganda bureau, Mao also got involved in the work of the Guomindang Peasant Department, including by teaching a class during the fifth session of the Peasant Movement Training Institute, which had already got underway when Mao arrived in Guangzhou and which lasted until December 8, 1925.
In fact, even though the propaganda work took up the bulk of Mao’s time during the end of 1925 and early 1926, there is some evidence that Mao was more interested in moving on to focus more on peasant organizing work. For example, during the second half of February 1926, Mao took a fake sick leave from the propaganda work for two weeks in order to inspect the peasant movement at the Guangdong-Hunan border. Here’s the short letter that Mao wrote on February 14 to the Secretariat of the Guomindang Central Executive Committee explaining his absence:
“Comrades of the Standing Committee of the Central Secretariat:
“Because my mental ailment has increased in severity, I am obliged to request a two-week leave in order to go to Shaozhou to recuperate. I have handed over all the affairs of the Propaganda Department to Comrade Shen Yanbing for him to deal with. I hereby inform you respectfully of this, and I shall be grateful if you take note of it.
We saw earlier, in episode 28, that when Mao left Shanghai to go back to Hunan province in December 1924 he used the reason of his mental ailment, by which he is understood by historians today to have meant the stresses of overwork, compounded by his tendency to suffer from insomnia. While suffering from health issues related to overwork in the revolutionary movement was a real problem for Mao and other revolutionaries, we also saw back in episode 28 that Mao probably left Shanghai more due to disagreements and disillusionment with the political work that he was doing than because of the health issues that he was suffering from. Still, the health issues were real and worked as a great pretext for taking off without precipitating an open political break with his comrades.
In this case, Mao was definitely using his illness as a pretext to get away from Guangzhou and to go and inspect the peasant movement in the Hunan-Guangdong border region. Now, the precise motivation for leaving on this trip at this time is not exactly clear, aside from Mao’s continuing sense of the importance of the peasant organizing work that was being done, and his concomitant sense that he needed to keep abreast of the work in his capacity as a leading advocate for the centrality of the peasantry to the Chinese revolutionary process. However, a certain amount of speculation is, I think, warranted by events which soon followed.
I mentioned at the beginning of episode 37 that, although the Guomindang’s Northern Expedition to end warlord rule in China was officially launched in early July 1926, the fighting of the Expedition had really already begun in Hunan province before then. What had happened, was that the warlord who ruled Hunan, Zhao Hengti, had a number of powerful subordinates who fought among themselves and who, ultimately had designs on displacing Zhao. One of these subordinates, Tang Shengzhi, who controlled southern Hunan, began sending emissaries to Hunanese who were working in the Guomindang government in order to try to strike up an alliance with the Guomindang to run Zhao Hengti out of Hunan, and through that alliance bring Hunan into the area controlled by the Guomindang. One of the Hunanese in the Guomindang who Tang send emissaries to talk with was Mao Zedong.
And so, it seems a little more than coincidence that Mao was in southern Hunan inspecting peasant organizing work there right before Tang Shengzhi began his campaign to oust Zhao Hengti. Tang began his campaign against Zhao on March 8, 1926, under the slogan that “the price of rice in the South is too high.” One important component of Tang Shengzhi’s military campaign involved support by peasants who were organized into something called the Dare to Die Corps. Many of these peasants came from Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan, although that is further north from where Mao was during this particular trip back to Hunan. So, to what extent Mao’s trip to Hunan in late February 1926 was coordinated to aid Tang Shengzhi’s offensive is somewhat unclear, but to my mind the coincidence is very great.
Now, Tang succeeded pretty quickly in his campaign against Zhao. However, when Tang took over Hunan, the northern warlords grouped around Wu Peifu got anxious about Tang’s alliance with the Guomindang, and decided to attack, driving him back out of northern Hunan in May 1926. And so, it’s when Chiang Kai-shek moves to go to the aid of Tang against the forces of Wu Peifu that the Northern Expedition can be thought of as really beginning, a couple months before its formal launch in July. As I mentioned at the beginning of episode 37, most Soviet military advisors, the China policy setters in Moscow, and the Chinese Communist Party had all favored holding off on launching the Northern Expedition so that they could further develop political work in the areas where the fighting would be, to prepare the ground for a social revolution and not just a military conquest. But Chiang Kai-shek, who really didn’t want a social revolution and who wanted to just get the conquest of the rest of China over with, was able to use this fighting in Hunan as a reason to not delay launching the Northern Expedition.
One side note to add about this interlude in February 1926 is that the person who filled in for Mao while he was on sick leave, Shen Yanbing, is someone we’ve met before in another context on this podcast. He is better known by the pen name he used most often, which was Mao Dun. He became the Minister of Culture for the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1965 and was a very prolific writer. Anyways, we met him in the episode we did on Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Peruvian Shining Path, and the time he spent in China (episode 27). In an interview that the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission did with Guzmán in 2002, the first concrete thing that Guzmán mentioned about his second trip to China, the trip that took place during the Cultural Revolution, was that he went to what he called a “book purification” that included the works of Mao Dun.
So, when Mao returned from his trip to the Hunan-Guangdong border region at the very end of February, he went back to mainly working at his propaganda duties. Then, on March 20, there was the Zhongshan gunboat incident and Chiang Kai-shek’s coup, which we discussed in episode 36. The Guangzhou Communist Party organization was largely in favor of launching an insurrection in response to Chiang’s coup, and to fully take over the Guomindang organization and government for themselves. As we know from episode 36, the central Party apparatus, with Chen Duxiu at the head, saw withdrawing Communists from participation in the Guomindang as the more appropriate response, reflecting the ongoing critique that the party center had of the Guangzhou comrades that they were too aggressive in trying to take over the Guomindang and the summation that Chiang’s coup represented a backfiring of this tendency. And as we also saw in episode 36, the Soviet military advisors in Guangzhou vetoed both the Guangzhou Communist Party branch and the Shanghai-based Central Committee in determining that the alliance with the Guomindang should be preserved. Despite the fact that the leader of the Soviet military advisors up to the point of Chiang’s coup, Kuibyshev, had apparently just tried to depose Chiang Kai-shek, the consensus among the Soviet military advisors, as well as the Soviet military honcho, Andrei Bubnov, who happened to be on an inspection tour when all this went down, was that the best option was to reach a new arrangement with Chiang.
In the words of Mikhail Borodin, the head of the Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang, who was out of town when all this happened, but who became very well-informed about events upon his return to Guangzhou in late April when he negotiated the agreement which would be the new basis for the Soviet-Guomindang alliance, “We could have seized power in Guangzhou, but we could not have held it. We should have gone down in a sea of blood.”
Now, we talked about all this in some detail in episode 36, so why am I bringing this up now? Well, because we’re tracing Mao’s trajectory during 1926, this was a very relevant event for Mao. In the first place, it appears that Mao was probably one of the Communists in Guangzhou who was in favor of fighting back against Chiang Kai-shek at this juncture and trying to take over the Guomindang entirely. So that’s a significant thing in and of itself. But also, these events would have major repercussions for Mao. As a result of the agreement reached between Borodin and Chiang Kai-shek at the end of April 1926, Communists would no longer be allowed to run departments of the Guomindang. This meant that, as soon as a special plenary session of the Guomindang Central Executive Committee could be pulled together in mid-May and a replacement named, Mao would be out of the propaganda position.
But, Mao already had a new main task lined up as he moved on from heading up the Guomindang’s propaganda work. He took over as the head of the Peasant Movement Training Institute with the session which began on May 3 and ran until September 11, and which we talked about a little bit in our last episode. The ban on Communists running sections of the Guomindang did not apply to the Peasant Movement Training Institute, and Mao was particularly concerned that as the Northern Expedition got underway, that peasants could be mobilized both in advance of the regular forces of the National Revolutionary Army in order to contribute to the victory from behind the lines of the enemy, and that peasants be organized into peasant associations in the areas newly taken over by the Guomindang.
We’re going to talk about the participation of masses in the Northern Expedition and what role political mobilization played in the Expedition in an episode in the near future. And we will definitely be talking later about the wave of peasant unrest and rebellion which followed in the wake of the Northern Expedition, that’s going to be a huge topic and very important. But what I want to discuss right now is how Mao’s thinking about revolution and the peasantry was developing at this time.
Mao made one major ideological statement while he was the head of the Peasant Movement Training Institute, and it’s a great one for seeing how his thinking was developing. While he was running the Institute, Mao put together a compilation of works titled Collected Writings on the Peasant Problem. This was a series of works dealing with various issues related to peasant organizing and was initially used just within the Institute, although it came to be circulated more broadly. It was heavy on the experience of peasant organizing in Guangdong Province, with Peng Pai’s report from Haifeng being one of the main pieces in the series. It also included summations of other peasant struggles in Guangdong, including the experience from Guangning County that we discussed last episode. It also included a little on international experience, particularly in Russia.
In any case, Mao wrote an introduction to the series titled “The National Revolution and the Peasant Movement.” This introduction that Mao wrote illustrates two important moments in the development of Mao’s thinking, and so I want to take a couple of quotes from the piece and then talk about why I think these quotes are important.
Here’s the first quote:
[From Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2, p. 389]
So, prior to this piece that we just quoted, Mao’s main argument for the peasant-centered nature of the Chinese Revolution had been in the work “Analysis of All the Classes in Chinese Society,” which we discussed in episode 33 and which had been published nine months earlier. In that piece, Mao’s argument mainly relied on the overwhelming numbers of the peasantry and the sense among the peasantry that they were being exploited and oppressed. Here, we can see Mao for the first time adding to his earlier argument by discussing the landlord class which was exploiting the peasantry. And Mao does this in a very polemical way. Here Mao is, in the midst of a nationalist revolution which had largely been centered in cities and which saw foreign oppression of China as the main enemy. In addition, as a leading member of the Communist Party, he was part of a political organization which had prioritized workers’ organizing in major cities, especially Shanghai, along with working within the Guomindang for the nationalist revolutionary cause, as the main thing it was doing, and of course the Communist Party saw itself as based on the working class and as representing its voice and consciousness.
And, in this context, Mao is saying, look, the imperialists are a problem in the cities, so it’s cool for you to focus on fighting back against them if you’re in the cities, by all means, it’s the right thing to do. But… if we want to have a revolution, the real problem is in the countryside. Those imperialists and their Chinese lackeys are really just there as the retainers of the warlords, and the warlords are the real political representatives of the landlord class. So, really, we ought to be focusing on peasant organizing. It’s an amazingly polemical statement, and one which Mao is going to alter somewhat in the future, when we get to what would become his more canonical statements about the relationship between foreign oppressors, the comprador capitalists and the landlord class. So, this isn’t the end point of Mao’s thinking on this question by any means, it’s a stage in the development of Mao’s thinking which is crystallized here.
And this polemical approach to advocating for a focus on peasant organizing is even more apparent in this next quote which I’m going to read from the piece:
[From Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2, pp. 391-392]
This statement here is about as extreme of a statement about the revolutionary nature and strategic efficacy of Chinese peasants as Mao is ever going to make, especially in comparison to the working class. It’s a very one-sided statement, and it’s not something we’re really going to see Mao say so explicitly again. Let me break down what Mao does here a little bit.
First, there is some important context for this quote which will not be obvious to people who haven’t studied Lenin’s ideas about revolutionary consciousness. Mao is referring here to something that his Communist readers at the time would immediately understand that he was referring to, but that I think a lot of people today would miss. One of the cardinal ideas of Lenin’s about how people become not just fighters for their own interests, but fighters for a larger vision of a world without classes or other oppressive relations between people, was that people don’t come up with that consciousness on their own, they need to be introduced to those ideas by an organized revolutionary party.
This applied to everyone, even if, as in the case of the working class, the material interests of the workers lay with having a communist revolution. Lenin said that, without an organized forced, a Communist Party, to develop the consciousness of the working class, most workers would only perceive their interests as lying with fighting for better working conditions, not with doing away with capitalism altogether. So, Mao is drawing on this understanding of what the spontaneous struggle of the working class looks like when he says that, look, the urban workers’ struggle right now isn’t to do away with the rule of the Chinese capitalists and the foreign imperialists, it’s just to have the legal right to form unions so they can fight for better working conditions and pay. But, look at the peasants, whenever they start fighting for their rights, as indeed we have seen in our last couple episodes of this podcasts, the landlords crack down on them and it turns into a whole struggle for who is going to have political power in the countryside.
Now, Mao isn’t saying outright that the peasantry has greater revolutionary consciousness than the workers, just that the objective conditions of their struggle lead to an outright contest for power in a way which was not happening in the cities with the workers’ struggles. As we’ve seen in the past couple episodes, the demands of the peasants which led them into what became struggles for power in the countryside with the landlords were fairly limited. They were basic economic demands or demands for the most basic political freedoms, revolving around issues like rent reduction or the freedom to form peasant unions. So in no way were the peasants demonstrating a higher level of consciousness than the workers who were fighting for better wages or to form unions.
But, because of the way in which Mao’s audience would have been very familiar with Lenin’s ideas, and the way in which Mao silently invokes Lenin’s ideas on the development of revolutionary consciousness, Mao does seem also to silently be saying that the peasants might also be more likely to develop revolutionary consciousness, even though he does not explicitly say it. One way of reading this, one that I think many of his readers at the time would have walked away with, was that Mao was making a statement that, in some essential way, peasants were more revolutionary than workers. In the future, we’ll see Mao get more careful about statements like this, and again this is a reason why, I think, this important piece from Mao’s development did not make it into what later became the canonical collections of Mao’s writings. But it’s a very important and revealing piece in the development of Mao’s thinking on this question. And this question of the essential nature of different classes (and the essential goodness or badness of individuals from different classes) is one that will recur time and again during the course of the Chinese Revolution, and in particular after the victory of the Revolution in 1949.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the importance of these questions later on, I’m not sure it would have occurred to me while reading this early work of Mao’s that this might be the sort of understanding that people reading this at the time in China would have walked away from the piece with. Because if we just stick to looking at exactly the words that Mao used, today, in the 21st century, especially those of us reading this in a different cultural context, like for example I’m in the United States, I think there’s something here that people got at the time that Mao didn’t say overtly but that I think people probably would have read into it.
OK, so let’s leave off our ongoing narrative of the development of Mao’s ideas here for now, at the end of his time running the Peasant Movement Training Institute in September 1926. That would be the last class of peasant organizers trained by the Institute, and in November Mao would be moving on the run the Communist Party Peasant bureau in Shanghai. But we’ll talk about that in an episode coming soon.
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