Mass upheaval in Hunan and elsewhere after people are liberated from warlord rule.
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Yokoyama Suguru, “The Peasant Movement in Hunan”
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927
A name from this episode:
Wu Peifu, Northern warlord
Welcome to episode 41 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the role that the mass movements among workers and peasants played in the first phase of the National Revolutionary Army’s Northern Expedition, which was the push beginning in May 1926 from Guangdong through Hunan and into Hubei, culminating in the capture of Wuhan in Hubei Province in September and October of 1926 (with the portion of the city on the west bank of the Yangzi River falling a month before the portion on the east bank of the river was captured). As we saw, there was tremendous spontaneous mass support for the Northern Expedition, and some support by organized workers and peasant associations, although there had not been a lot of time to get the workers and peasants organized.
What we see after the Northern Expedition passed through these areas, is a tremendous upsurge in the creation of unions among the workers and peasants. In Wuhan, unions had been outlawed and forced underground back in 1923 after the February 7th Incident, which we discussed back in Episode 19. To refresh your memory, that was when the railway workers’ strike was crushed with a big massacre by the warlord Wu Peifu and his allies’ troops, and had the effect of demonstrating to the Communist Party how its hopes of concentrating just on organizing workers was not going to work, because they did not have the strength to fight back against the repression of the warlord forces. As a result, many Communists were convinced of the correctness of the Comintern’s directives to form a united front with the Guomindang, which has been the overall strategic context for the Communist Party’s work that we have been discussing for the past 22 episodes or so. So, now, three and a half years later, with Wuhan liberated from the warlords, and with Hubei province being a center of heavy industry, there was a massive surge in unionization. By November 1926, so just after one or two months from Wu Peifu being run out of town, depending on which side of the Yangzi River you were on, 93,000 workers were in unions, almost all of which had been formed since September, and by the end of the year, 200,000 workers had been organized. And the speed with which the unions were organized reflected the readiness of the Communists to jump into action right when the city was liberated, which had the effect of all these unions being essentially dominated by the Left, and so you didn’t have a situation in Wuhan like you had in Shanghai and Guangzhou, where there were right-wing unions competing with the left-wing ones. One of the immediate results of the rapid unionization, combined with the dominance of the unions and the Left in the city, was a general rise in wages, despite the way in which the warfare had disrupted local industry, which had led to a rise in unemployment, which would normally have led to a depression in wages, not a rise.
The unions also tended to take strong positions against foreign domination of China. Already on October 6, labor demonstrators tried to enter the British concession area of Wuhan, but were repulsed by British troops. But early in 1927 they did succeed, and the British effectively lost control of the concession, although the legal niceties weren’t completed for another couple years.
In the countryside, the organization of peasant associations was even more dramatic. According to one source, in Hubei there were 287,000 peasants organized in associations by the end of 1926, whereas there had only been 7,200 organized peasants in July. In Hunan, the growth of the peasant movement was even more tremendous, with 1,200,000 peasants organized by December 1, compared to 37,000 six months earlier. By July 1927, over 4,500,000 peasants in Hunan had been organized into associations. Now, these numbers should be taken more as rough estimates than as precise numbers, but even so, they give a good qualitative sense of the scale of the increase in organized peasant activity that was quickly taking place in areas that had been cleared of warlord rule by the Northern Expedition.
The historian Yokoyama Suguru gives a good, concise account of the on the ground activities of the peasant associations in Hunan at this time in her article “The Peasant Movement in Hunan,” which I’ve linked to in the show notes, and for the next few paragraphs I’m drawing very closely on her work, including combining some quoting and paraphrasing. I just note this because it’s hard to give a proper citation in a podcast like this, but when I draw on someone else’s work to this extent, I want to give some credit beyond just listing their work in the show notes.
The actual demands of the peasant associations varied according to the needs of the different villages. According to a report from Changsha, Hunan’s capital, dated November 30, 1926, the peasants in one county mounted a rent-reduction drive under the slogan “Back to pre-1916 rents!” About 70,000 peasants, organized and unorganized, participated in the movement. The movement succeeded in reducing rents to less than 50% of the harvest. But this particular campaign did not spread widely because the period of rent collection had already passed at that time in other areas. The rent problem was therefore expected to be solved the following year. The demand for a reduction of interest on loans predominated in some counties. For example, in one county the interest rates on loans were reduced from the earlier rate of 7 to 8% per month to 4 to 5%. It was reported that the peasants were satisfied with this achievement. In another county, the peasants won a reduction of the rent deposit. Tax-reduction struggles occurred in other areas.
Nearly all the peasant associations demanded a reduction in the price of rice and restrictions on rice exports. Because the serious natural calamities of this year, drought or flooding, depending on where you were, resulted in a poor harvest, the most important concern of the poor peasants was to ensure an adequate local supply of rice at prices they could afford. The peasants used various approaches: they asked the villagers’ assembly or Peasant Association to regulate the official price of rice; they proposed to block the exportation of rice to other areas, generally or partly. This was a struggle against the big landlords who had charged excessive rents on the one hand, and on the other hand, it was a struggle to protect the interests of workers, handicraftsmen, and small merchants as well as poor peasants in the rural districts.
In regard to political activities, the peasants gained participation in rural government in ways they hadn’t had before. In some villages political power was taken over by the Peasant Association, and in a few others rural governments were formed by the united organization of the peasants’ association, the teachers’ association, the merchants’ association, and the workers’ union. In many districts, the local Guomindang held political power and gave support to the peasant movement, and villagers’ assemblies were organized as the highest legislative organ. In a few places the chairmen of the self-defense headquarters or the village committee members were elected by the villagers.
Supporting the peasant movement had become a major plank in the official Guomindang program. There was a major Guomindang conference in Guangzhou in the second half of October, and one of the major themes that emerged at it was official support for the peasant movement. Mao Zedong in particular played a major role in pushing forward a pro-peasant agenda at this conference, which was dominated by the left-wing of the Guomindang. With Chiang Kai-shek out on campaign with the Northern Expedition, this conference was another example of official Guomindang policy being set well to the left of the actual politics of most Guomindang members. But the inevitable backlash was yet to come. For the time being, the party policy was very encouraging of mass peasant upheaval.
The program adopted at the conference contained twenty articles advancing the interests of peasants. Article 1 called for a 25% reduction in land rent. Article 17 provided for a village council to carry out village self-government. Article 18 authorized the formation of peasant associations, while Article 20 authorized them to organize local self-defense units. The program also called for labor laws to ensure freedom of organization and the right to strike and provided for a maximum work week of fifty-four hours.
So essentially, what we saw being promoted by the Guomindang in Hunan and elsewhere was a combination of the model of peasant organizing which we examined in recent podcast episodes, which combined the Haifeng model of fighting for reforms such as rent reduction, combined with making sure that the peasants had a capacity for armed self-defense against the inevitable backlash from the local gentry. After all, the warlord troops may have been pushed out of Hunan, but the local gentry and landlords were, by definition, rooted in the location and still had their power base in the land and wealth they owned and the militias that they controlled. But now, in addition to promoting the formation of armed self-defense corps for the peasant associations, the Guomindang government also formally took the position of taking the side of the peasants much more aggressively than it had previously. The October conference passed a specific resolution which called for taking the side of the peasant associations against landlord militias, and of course now the peasant associations themselves were taking a hand in controlling local institutions of political power.
It was after this conference that Mao took up a new position as secretary of the Communist Party’s commission on the peasant movement. This position had been created a year earlier as a nod to the need for the Party to pay more attention to the peasant movement, but had remained vacant until Mao now took up the position. This meant that he left Guangzhou for Shanghai at the beginning of November. Now, if you read some of the early biographies of Mao which rely on Mao’s autobiographical testimony from Red Star Over China, you would think that Mao had gone to Shanghai a few months earlier. Red Star Over China was written in the 1930s by an American journalist, Edgar Snow, and interviews that Snow conducted with Mao form the basis of a large part of the book. For whatever reason, in that book Mao says that after Chiang Kai-shek’s March 1926 coup, that he went to Shanghai to take up running the peasant department of the Communist Party. It’s not clear to me why Mao would get this wrong and whether the error is deliberate or not (in which case, of course, it would be a lie, not an error), and perhaps there was some miscommunication with Snow (which is doubtful, because Snow’s manuscript was vetted multiple times before Snow left the Communist base area of Yan’an, where he conducted the interviews). But the historical record is pretty clear about Mao being based in Guangzhou with the peasant training institute, then participating in the October Guomindang conference, and only then moving on to Shanghai and taking up the Communist Party’s peasant movement commission. I just bring this up in case there are listeners who are reading any of the Mao biographies that are more than 30 or 40 years old, and might be wondering at discrepancies between what is in this podcast and what you are reading.
But as you can imagine, with all that was going on with the peasant movement in Hunan, how could the leader of the Communist Party peasant commission stay a long time in China’s biggest city, working underground, reading reports and writing directives, when he could instead be out among one of the biggest mass movements of the 20th century? By December, Mao was in Hunan, his home province after all, and engaged in the fieldwork for one of his most famous works, his “Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan.”
In late December, Mao attended the first Peasant Congress of Hunan, which was an unprecedented event in Changsha when 170 delegates representing well over a million organized peasants met to coordinate policy for the movement. While land reform was still not part of either the Communist or Guomindang program, the Congress did pass a “Resolution on the Problem of Confiscation of the Reactionaries’ Property.” The actual confiscation of property was now on the table, even though it was conceived of as a way to attack the power of the reactionaries, and not as part of a thoroughgoing transformation of the agricultural basis of the national economy.
Here’s how the landmark resolution read:
“In the past, all the warlords and survivors of feudalism—corrupt officials, local tyrants and oppressive gentry—had enriched themselves by exploiting the people and embezzling public funds. Regardless of the fact that revolutionary power is extensive in Hunan at present, such enemies of the people still plan to recover their authority by using their abundant property and great economic power. When we try to overthrow the reactionary forces we must first confiscate their property, destroy their economic foundation, and make them lose everything on which they depend. Because their property has been accumulated by exploitation and embezzlement, it is only natural to make them return it to the people. So we insist on confiscation of the reactionaries’ property.
“(1) Ask the Committee for Investigation of Reactionaries’ Property to confiscate all the property of the warlords and their subordinates—corrupt officials, local tyrants and exploitive gentry.
“(2) In each district, the peasant association is to take charge of investigation of the reactionaries’ property and to report to the Committee.
“(3) The confiscated reactionaries’ property is to be used as a relief fund for old people, babies, and wounded soldiers, as well as for famine.”
So this move to confiscate land as a way of attacking the gentry who opposed the peasant movement was a new escalation of the fight, and of course as we have seen in some recent episodes, the landlords did not accede to the organization of the peasantry without a fight. But now the peasants had legal backing to fight back against the landlords and their forces, and the struggle spread ferociously. In one major incident in Guangdong province, three days of fighting between a peasant corps and a landlord militia resulted in 150 people being killed and 5,000 made homeless, the landlords and their families who lost the battle. And across Hunan, violence broke out as the peasants moved to assert their new rights.
As the fighting between landlord militias and peasant associations escalated, the Hunan Provincial Government set up a Special Court for Trying Local Tyrants and Evil Gentry on January 1, 1927, and at the same time formed the County Special Court. The Judging Committee of the County-level Special Court consisted of representatives of the Peasant Association, trade unions, the Guomindang, and the county magistrate. The Judging Committee of the Province-level Special Court was composed of two persons from the Provincial Government Committee, two persons from the provincial Guomindang, and one person elected from among the provincial Peasant Association, trade union, student association, school staff association, and merchant association. Thereafter, on January 19, the “Provincial Regulations for Punishment of the Local Tyrants and Evil Gentry” were proclaimed. The regulations were very strict; for instance, “those who resisted or checked the revolution, or propagandized anti-revolution” were to be sentenced to death, penal servitude for life, or deprivation of civil rights for life. Suppression of the old ruling class spread all over the province from the middle of January 1927. According to one report, a total of 133 local tyrants, gentry, and other reactionaries were sentenced to death. In addition to legal punishment, illegal punishment was also meted out by peasant masses in many places.
So, by early 1927, there was a tremendous revolutionary upsurge going on in Hunan and in the countryside of some neighboring provinces, all with the support of the revolutionary government which had been set up in the wake of the victory of the Northern Expedition.
After spending 32 days in the countryside of Hunan, Mao arrived in Wuhan in February 1927 full of enthusiasm for the peasant movement, convinced that he had been correct in seeing that China’s revolution lay principally in the hands of the peasants. Perhaps the best way to wrap up this episode’s discussion of the surging revolutionary peasant movement in Hunan would be to take a few minutes and read Mao’s “Report to the Central Committee on Observations Regarding the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” which dates from February 16, 1927:
[Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2, 425-428]
So, ok, that was a little long, but I think the content is very rich, and hopefully gives a bit more of a vivid sense both of what was going on in the countryside, and how Mao was thinking about how to bring revolutionary organization to bear on the massive upsurge among the peasantry. There are a bunch of things that jump out at me from this document. Definitely, his comments on working as the Guomindang and not as the Communist Party I think really demonstrates the way in which the Communists were using the Guomindang for their peasant organizing work, which is of course one of the major points of contention in the ongoing conflict about Communist participation in the Guomindang. Another thing is the relatively small numbers of organized revolutionaries who could be brought to bear to influence a movement in which more than a million peasants were participating. And the sense of chaos overall in the countryside that accompanied the revolutionary upsurge. Anyways, this isn’t a report that you can find in the widely available Selected Works of Mao that you can find on the internet, so I think it was worthwhile to read the whole thing out.
Of course, the detailed report that Mao promised to write up at the end of this document turned out to be his famous “Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” which is easy to find on the internet, and I recommend that you read it if you really want to flesh out this discussion of the peasant movement in Hunan. The version you will find online is the version that was published in the Selected Works, and while that isn’t exactly the same as what Mao wrote at the time and which ended up being serialized in four issues of the Hunan District Committee of the Communist Party’s weekly newspaper, it’s not that different.
As you can imagine, Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang Right are not thrilled about any of this, and so the situation is going to get much more complicated, and bloody, very soon now.
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