Examining the role of both organized and unorganized mass support for the Northern Expedition in its first phase, the offensive from Guangdong to Wuhan from May to October 1926.
Donald Jordan, The Northern Expedition: China’s National Revolution of 1926-1928
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Some names from this episode:
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yatsen, Founding leader of the Guomindang
Wu Peifu, Northern warlord
Gregory Voitinsky, Comintern representative in China at various points
Welcome to episode 40 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Over the past few episodes of this podcast, I’ve alluded to something called the Northern Expedition, which is the name for the military campaign which was waged by the Guomindang’s National Revolutionary Army to defeat the warlords who ruled in different parts of China and unify China under the rule of the Guomindang. And, I’ve mentioned several times that both the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party had hoped that the Northern Expedition would be delayed for about a year. The Northern Expedition was formally launched in July 1926 and had really informally gotten underway already in May 1926, when the Guomindang sent forces north into Hunan to support a warlord who had allied himself with the Nationalist cause. The main reason given by the Communists for wanting to delay the Northern Expedition was that they needed time to do political organizing in the rear of the warlord forces. This way, when the Northern Expedition was launched, the Communists could try to merge a social revolution of mobilized workers and peasants with the regular military campaign waged by the National Revolutionary Army in order so that, not only would a political revolution take place where the Guomindang replaced the warlords as the political rulers of China, but also a social revolution would take place, entailing major changes for the workers and peasants of China, with unions being formed and major social reforms being enacted and defended by mobilized mass organizations.
So, there was a bit of awkwardness at the very beginning of the Northern Expedition, where the Expedition had basically started, but the Comintern and the Chinese Communist Party had not really moved itself to fully support the Expedition yet, despite the fact that the Soviet military advisors who were working with the National Revolutionary Army were already fully at work on the mobilization and even out in the field fighting with the army against Wu Peifu’s forces in Hunan.
One problem was a huge information lag between the Soviet advisors and the people setting overall policy for them and the Comintern in Moscow. Back in March 1926, Stalin had felt that he had vetoed the idea of a Northern Expedition for the time being when he wrote that “The Guangzhou government must at present decisively reject the idea of military expeditions of an offensive character and, in general, such actions that could impel the imperialists onto the path of military intervention.” Stalin was mainly concerned here with the fact that the extent of Soviet aid to the Guomindang could embroil the Soviet Union into a war which got out of hand, perhaps leading to fighting along the Soviet border with Chinese warlord forces and even Japanese or British forces who supported the warlords.
However, as we saw in Episode 36, the agreement that Borodin reached with Chiang Kai-shek in late April included Borodin acceding to Chiang’s demand that the Northern Expedition begin very soon, and indeed Chiang took advantage of the fighting in Hunan to move up the timetable and get the vanguard of the expedition going in Hunan already in May. But, apparently both the policy makers in Moscow and the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party managed to fool themselves into thinking that this operation would be limited to Hunan and would not entail other further moves beyond Hunan, despite the fact that the Soviet advisors on the ground definitely knew better. The Soviet Commission for Chinese Affairs in Moscow continued to refer to the “so-called Northern Expedition” in their communications, and as late as August 4 called for the National Revolutionary Army to stop moving troops out of Guangdong. Meanwhile, despite these objections, indeed despite not really understanding at all what was happening on the ground, the Soviet Union was sending a steady supply of military equipment from Vladivostok to Guangzhou for the operations of the Northern Expedition.
Meanwhile, in the spring and early summer of 1926 Chen Duxiu, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, polemicized against beginning the Northern Expedition in the Communist press. Chen argued that the National Revolutionary Army lacked the strength, fighting capabilities, and revolutionary understanding to carry out a revolutionary northern expedition. When the Central Committee held its enlarged plenary session in Shanghai in July 1926, exactly at the time (or rather just a few days after) the formal launch of the Northern Expedition was announced, the official assessment of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in its Political Report from the meeting was that “in the south, the dispatch of the forces of the National Government signifies nothing more than a defensive war against the anti-Red army’s penetration into Hunan and Guangdong. It does not signify a real revolutionary northern expedition.”
There was substantial minority opposition to this position at the meeting, including much of the Guangzhou party branch. There was substantial popular enthusiasm for the Northern Expedition, especially in Guangdong, and soon after making this pessimistic assessment of the prospects of the expedition the Communist Party had to reverse itself and give wholehearted support to the effort. However, given that the Communists already felt that they needed more time to politically prepare for a Northern Expedition, I think that the delay in accepting the reality that Chiang Kai-shek was going to go ahead regardless of the policy adopted by the Communists meant that even more time was lost.
In fact, there was one very important section of the Communist organization in Guangzhou which took some time in accepting that the military side of the revolution needed priority now. And this was the Guangzhou-Hong Kong Strike Committee. The strike had been going on for over a year now, and the ongoing strike was a constant drain both on the economy of Guangzhou and on the finances of the Guomindang government, which was continuing to pay out money to some strikers who had not moved on. The Guomindang and the Communist Party Central Committee all felt that the strike should be wound down, but the strike committee remained fairly intransigent, although they were certainly helped by the British who basically refused all reasonable demands which would allow the strike to be ended with some dignity on the party of the strikers. In spring 1926, Chen Duxiu and a Comintern representative, probably Voitinsky, criticized the strike committee, saying that it was “devoid of even half an intention to end the strike.” Really, the strike committee constituted something of an independent fiefdom within Guangzhou, with its own armed forces and justice system, as we’ve discussed before.
The strike committee continued to prioritize its own workers organizing activities over everything else, even while fighting was taking place in Hunan, and took a number of actions which directly impeded the Northern Expedition. For example, in early July it agitated for strikes among workers at an arsenal making munitions for the National Revolutionary Army, and among postal workers whose work was vital to the communications of the government. And even as 2,000 strikers boarded trains to go work as carriers for the army, a strike on the railroads disrupted troop movements for two weeks. A clash on July 9 between rival Communist and Guomindang unionists resulted in the kidnapping of the Guomindang union president and the killing of six members of the union and 26 railway workers. Finally, in mid-July, the Guomindang authorities ruled that further strike activity would be considered an act of counterrevolution and treason against the revolution.
So, as we can see, there was a bit of an initial disconnect between the forward movement of the Northern Expedition and the Communist Party. There was an initial assessment by the party that it wasn’t ready for the Northern Expedition, and then when the Expedition went ahead anyways, the Party took some time in recognizing that it had to adapt to the situation. And yet, despite this unfavorable beginning we do see some significant mass participation in the Northern Expedition. So, what I want to do with the rest of this episode is to analyze what this mass participation looked like, at least as far as the initial phase of the Expedition, which was the march up through Hunan province and culminating in the taking of Wuhan in Hubei province after a siege of a little over a month in October 1926.
A good place to start in discussing mass support for the Northern Expedition is to talk about the principle that guided the National Revolutionary Army in its interactions with the general populace. The principle way that they talked about the army’s relationship with the regular people was called “joining the army and the people,” and was drawn from something that Sun Yatsen had said about how the Guomindang must differ from its opponents by “joining the army and the people.”
What this meant was captured in a song that the National Revolutionary Army would sing, and which was part of the Army’s political indoctrination. The song was titled “Song of Love for the People,” and its lyrics went like this (I’m not going to even try and sing it):
[Song from Jordan, starting p. 294]
This song, by the way, began with Zeng Guofan and the units that he organized to combat the Taiping Revolution, who we met back in episodes three and four. Remember, the new armed forces that Zeng Guofan had created back in the 19th century were based on people drawn from the local population, rather than being from other parts of China as had been the tradition. So relations with the local populace, and in particular not preying on the local people, was important to them and was a break with how things had been done. So it didn’t originate with the National Revolutionary Army, but it was adopted by it, and it captured an overall orientation which we earlier described in our episodes on the two Eastern Expeditions in Guangdong province in 1925 in episodes 30 and 31. And the experience of cultivating a supportive relationship between the masses and the revolutionary army was very important in Mao Zedong’s development, informing the ideas that he later articulated on a much deeper level, based on his continuing experience, about the relationship between a revolutionary army and the people more broadly, which is captured in many of his writings on guerrilla warfare.
So, the forms of mass political support for the Northern Expedition can be usefully divided into two categories: organized support, such as that provided by an organized union or peasant association, and more spontaneous, unorganized support by the people in the areas that the National Revolutionary Army was passing through. Now, what I’m most interested in talking about is the organized support, because that is where we would be looking at, ok, how is the Communist Party actually managing to plan things out and bring masses that it has influence on to bear on the whole overall war effort. Right, that’s how we can evaluate how they did with their goal of bringing non-traditional politicized mass forces to bear on the outcome of the war. But, while organized mass support is I think the more interesting thing to look at, it has to be said that, overwhelmingly, in terms of the success of the Northern Expedition, it was the spontaneous, unorganized mass support which was most important.
Now, it’s worth mentioning, that all armies in China at this time required help of one sort or another from the areas where they were operating. They relied on local populations to carry burdens and to provide food and sometimes lodging. But the question was, how did they get that help? The standard way in which warlord armies recruited help was to send patrols out into the countryside, round up all the healthy men they could find, and then shackle them together and march them off to do the work the warlord army needed them to do. They were usually given barely enough food to keep from starving, typically one large communal rice pot for all the laborers to fight over once a day, with the stronger laborers getting more and the weaker gradually dying of starvation, overwork and exposure to the elements. Ten of these coerced laborers would haul a field cannon for warlord troops, with more following behind to take up when those doing the hauling collapsed. When they died, they were left on the side of the trail as the army moved on. So, when warlord armies came through an area, the local peasants quickly learned how to make themselves scarce.
So, just by adhering to its motto of “don’t seize laborers,” the National Revolutionary Army did a lot to win over peasants. Instead, the Guomindang forces paid what was considered a good daily wage and a good food ration to the laborers working for the National Revolutionary Army. Instead of scattering as they did from oncoming warlord troops, local peasants would interact with the revolutionaries. Many peasants were suffering from drought in southern Hunan and flooding in the north, and welcomed the chance to make good wages hauling things for the army. Peasants who did have food to sell welcomed the chance to sell it to the revolutionary army instead of having it seized by warlord forces. And as you can imagine, the local people were glad to have a non-predatory force replace warlord rule. This led to important examples of local support at key moments.
For example, as the revolutionary army fought its way into southern Hubei in late August, it came upon a bridge along the railway which went from Guangzhou to Wuhan which was heavily defended. They spent a day trying to break through the well-defended bridge, but had no luck. Then, the local peasants who knew the terrain well showed them how to move quickly and at night so that they could outflank the warlord forces defending the bridge. Then, soon after the bridge was taken and the National Revolutionary Army marched into town, the people set up a night market to welcome and sell food to the revolutionaries. In contrast, soldiers from the warlord Wu Peifu’s forces who lagged behind in their retreat were beaten by the locals and called ‘thieves.’
So this sort of widespread support was achieved basically just by treating the local population decently, and was very effective because of the contrast with how the warlords operated. Now, let’s look at some of the instances where more organized forces were brought to bear on the Northern Expedition. Let’s keep in mind that this is really what the Communists had in mind when they spoke about trying to have a social revolution accompany the military effort. They certainly didn’t discount the spontaneous support of the local people, but these organized forces represented an attempt to bring a higher level of organization and consciousness to bear on the overall revolutionary process.
Now, here’s the problem. The official literature from the People’s Republic of China on the Northern Expedition for a long time emphasized the role of peasant associations and workers’ unions in the success of the Expedition. However, if we look at the reports from the time, the non-Communist press mentions none of this, and Communist sources only mention ten specific incidents along this first portion of the Northern Expedition, which culminated in the taking of Wuhan. Nine of these occurred in proximity to a portion of the National Revolutionary Army that had a particular concentration of Communist forces in it. So, this raises the question of how do we explain this? But first, let’s look at some of the specific examples of organized mass support for the Expedition, and then return to the question of why the specific incidents that we know of are concentrated in areas where the Communist-dense portion of the revolutionary army was operating.
For these specific examples, I am combining quoting and paraphrasing from Donald Jordan’s book on the Northern Expedition:
The examples of peasant and worker support are not particularly large in scale; support is counted in terms of a few hundred workers or peasants. In one case, workers led by students spread across approximately ten miles of countryside on July 11 to harass selected enemy points from the rear by firing bird guns and throwing daggers, and then joined a National Revolutionary Army regiment to attack the front. At the same time on the Guangzhou-Wuhan Railroad in Hunan, workers sabotaged the rails and electrical power lines of the enemy and gathered intelligence along a branch railroad and along another stretch of railroad peasants reportedly damaged Wu Peifu’s rail supply line back to Wuhan in early July.
Another example for which the Communist Party recorded organized civilian support was during the retreat of warlord forces toward the Miluo River in northern Hunan, where Wu Peifu’s forces were making their last stand in Hunan. A local Guomindang headquarters led the area’s peasants in harassing the bands of stragglers. It was just such bands that usually strayed to loot small villages. According to the report, the organized peasants killed two enemy soldiers and captured, along with eight rifles, ten others who were executed the following day. Nearby, peasants reportedly attacked and killed numbers of stragglers with their hoes. Later, during the fourth day of the Miluo offensive, a group of peasants are recorded as having guided an attack up a steep hill, thereby flanking the enemy. These peasants were organized by a peasants’ association, which claimed to have lost 20 of its men in the battle while killing 300 of the enemy. Its contributions included providing intelligence about the enemy’s defenses, carrying supplies, guiding units of the revolutionary army across the Miluo River, and collaborating with the propaganda units of the Political Department.
The one example of the ten incidents of organized mass support along the drive to Wuhan from Guangdong that was not along the route taken by the portion of the National Revolutionary Army which was very Communist-dense was in the city of Changsha itself, the capital of Hunan province. Within Changsha there existed the nucleus of a workers’ association, the Union of Labor Associations. As the battlefront neared Changsha, the underground leadership of the union gathered 1,000 workers and planned to spearhead a general strike to harass the enemy’s rear. However, when the workers began their strike on July 8, 1926, warlord troops in the city far outnumbered the unarmed workers and their leaders and quickly suppressed the strike. Thus frustrated, on July 9, the union formed a ‘peace-maintenance corps’ to protect the Changsha burghers from looting by the troops who might retreat back through the city en route north. By July 11, warlord troops were straggling through Changsha out of formation so that the units of the ‘peace-maintenance corps’ were able to isolate and disarm batches of soldiers—some of whom were probably bent on looting.
So, let’s deal with this question, why are the incidents of support by organized mass organizations, unions and peasant associations, overwhelmingly concentrated where the Communist-dense portion of the National Revolutionary Army was operating? There are a couple possible explanations, both of which seem quite plausible. First, it’s possible that this sort of cooperation, which after all was not on a massive scale, escaped the notion of those writing about the Northern Expedition as it was happening who were not actively looking for it. The Communist Party had a policy of trying to promote a merging of the efforts of mass organizations with the regular war effort waged by the National Revolutionary Army. So, it stands to reason that when the Communists observed their policy playing out in action, it was noteworthy and they recorded it. Meanwhile, in general these efforts were on a small enough scale where they passed by the notice of non-Communist journalists and other observers.
Another potential explanation is that, because of the Communist policy, these sections of the revolutionary army took some initiative in connecting with and eliciting the support of mass organizations in the areas it was operating in, whereas this might not have been the case in sections of the army which did not have many Communists.
In any case, as we can see, these efforts by organized masses to aid the Northern Expedition were nowhere near as important as the general popular support which was elicited overall, and I don’t think you can say that without these efforts the Northern Expedition would have failed. This is not how the history of the Northern Expedition has usually been written in the People’s Republic of China since 1949. What we do see happen, after the victory of the Northern Expedition, is that in all these places that had been liberated, there is a massive blossoming of mass organizations. All of a sudden, there is a huge freedom for the peasants in particular to organize and they take advantage of it immediately. Where they had previously been repressed, now there was a moment where the peasants felt they could rise up and make demands, and this was promoted by lots of Communist organizers who, although they really did not manage to get ahead of the lines of the Northern Expedition and prepare uprisings to pave the way for the revolution as they had hoped, they did now have a lot of freedom to come into areas that had newly been liberated and start forming peasant associations and unions. And when you look at the massive upsurge of activity after the victory of the Expedition in these areas in Hunan in particular, it’s hard to imagine that these organized peasant forces played little role in the actual victory itself, so it seems to me that there was a certain amount of wishful reading back into history a role for the peasant associations in the victory of the Northern Expedition that they didn’t really play, even though the policy of the Communist Party had been that it had wanted to get in there and prepare the ground. As we saw at the beginning of this episode, they simply didn’t have the time beforehand to do what they had hoped. But afterwards, they did begin making up for lost time in a big way.