Debate breaks out within the Communist Party and the Comintern over how to assess the balance of forces and relate to the developing revolutionary situation engendered by the mass movements in Hunan and Hubei in late 1926.
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Arif Dirlik, “Mass Movements and the Left Kuomintang”
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
Daniel Kwan, Marxist Intellectuals and the Chinese Labor Movement: A Study of Deng Zhongxia, 1894-1933
Some names from this episode:
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Wang Jingwei, Main leader of the Guomindang left
Chen Gongbo, Close follower of Wang Jingwei
Sun Chuanfang, leader of warlord coalition which held east China before being defeated during the Northern Expedition
Vasily Blyukher, Soviet general purported to be de facto commander-in-chief of Northern Expedition
Tang Shengzhi, Hunan warlord who sided with the National Revolutionary Army and contested leadership with Chiang Kai-shek
Gregory Voitinsky, Chairman of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern
Welcome to episode 42 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the massive upsurge in peasant and worker mobilizations in Hunan and Hubei provinces after the Northern Expedition chased off the warlords in the second half of 1926. A revolutionary government was set up in both provinces which explicitly supported the demands of the workers and peasants, and millions of poor and oppressed people were unleashed. This had been exactly what the Communist Party had hoped would happen when the Northern Expedition triumphed, but the question was, what would happen now? Could the demands of the workers and peasants be pushed even further? Should the demands of the workers and peasants be reconceptualized as a form of socialism, or should they be kept at the level of a democratic revolution? And, in the context of the state apparatus formally taking the side of the peasants in a massive upsurge of violence between peasant associations and landlord-backed militias, what would it mean concretely to try to limit the peasant movement to demands and actions which fit neatly within the abstract theoretical conception of democratic revolution, or to push the movement beyond those bounds? And where, concretely, could those boundary lines be drawn? If peasant demands for rent reduction, a solidly democratic and not socialist demand, led to massive violence and the death or dislocation of landlords and their extended families and hangers on, what should be done with the land that the landlords left behind? Could a new order in the countryside which was, in practice, premised on the elimination of the gentry really be sustained without moving society overall beyond the bounds of purely democratic reforms? And finally, what constraints were placed on this whole process by the fact that Chiang Kai-shek and the rest of the Guomindang right-wing was horrified by what was happening, and while they were occupied with fighting against warlords at this time in order to complete the Northern Expedition, presumably once Chiang and his forces were victorious, they might move to reverse or rein in the movement that had been unleashed. Could enough masses be mobilized to make that sort of counter-revolution impossible? Could Chiang be won to acquiesce in social reforms beyond what he was comfortable with by virtue of a fait accompli and a revulsion at the level of bloody repression that would be necessary to reverse what had been won? Could a major figure of the Guomindang left, like Wang Jingwei, marshal the forces to stand up against Chiang and counter-balance him? Could the Communists themselves take more of an overtly leading role, and muster enough armed forces of their own to counter-balance or even defeat Chiang?
These were the major strategic questions that posed themselves immediately to the Communist Party in the context of the mass movement of late 1926 in the areas controlled by the revolutionary democratic united front. And there were profoundly different assessments of what the situation actually was in terms of the balance of forces at play and what possibilities were really on the table. This episode, I want to begin to explore the internal debate within the Communist Party in relation to this major strategic dilemma.
The debate began with a report sent by the Guangzhou party branch to the party center in Shanghai in October which was titled “Discussion on the Question of the Left by the Guangdong Area.” What is meant here by “the question of the left” is the issue of how to define and relate to the left-wing of the Guomindang. Here’s how the report began:
“The party group had two discussions on the question of the left; Comrade Borodin made two reports.” Remember, Mikhail Borodin was the Soviet representative delegated to manage the military alliance between the Soviet Union and the Guomindang, a task which also included an active role in managing the way in which the united front between the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang was implemented. “The party group decided unanimously: ‘Comrade Borodin said that only the ordinary oppressed workers, peasants, shopkeepers, students, and people in other walks of life are the real left. They will become the genuine leftist forces in the everyday struggle for the interests of the people. At the present time, one person or another at the top is referred to as leftist; this is laughable and unreliable.’” Now, just as an aside before continuing to read from the document, the main people who are being referred to here as people at the top who are referred to as leftists mainly means Wang Jingwei and the people around him, such as Chen Gongbo. We talked a bit about the nature of the Guomindang left-wing back in Episode 22, and if you will recall, Wang and Chen are precisely the people who ended up becoming the leaders of the Japanese puppet state in occupied China during World War II. So, from a longer historical perspective, it’s really hard to fault the Guangzhou party branch for their assessment of these people. And yet, as we’ll see, the nature of these people wasn’t exactly clear to everyone in the Communist Party at the time, and indeed these people probably did undergo some sort of transformation between playing a relatively progressive role in the Guomindang in 1926, and ultimately betraying the people in about the most complete way possible a decade later. Ok, continuing with the document: “These words of Comrade Borodin are fundamentally correct. However, the tone downgrades the role of the present left in the top leadership and creates many difficulties for practical work. At the last meeting of the party group, all the comrades drew up the following views for the Party Center concerning the question of the left. We hope that the Party Center will make a final decision after deliberation and instruct all areas to use [the following] as criteria for their work in the Guomindang.
“1) The current left at the top (this is referred to as the quasi-left below so as to distinguish it from the genuine left) comprises the people inside the Guomindang who cannot cooperate with the center and right and is an organization that defends itself against the attacks of the right in order to protect the position of [its members]. They are not supporters of the leftists’ political program, so its members are constantly wavering and unable to make a firm leftist stand. In addition, they are weak and not brave enough to step forward and fight for the views of the left. Internally, they cannot reach a common viewpoint. However, one cannot say that we grudgingly patch up this kind of left. For reasons of sentiment and self-interest, they cannot cooperate with the right. Since they act differently from the right on certain issues or at a certain time, we regard them as left.”
The rest of the report builds on this idea that the Guomindang, as currently constituted, really does not have a coherent left, just a quasi-left, made up mainly of people who for one reason or another cannot get along with Chiang Kai-shek and other members of what were being called the Guomindang center and right-wings. Now, what I really want to focus on here are the conclusions for revolutionary strategy that the Guangzhou comrades drew from this conclusion, but before we get to that, I do want to call out something very interesting in what was put forward by Borodin as the theoretical premise for the argument that followed.
At the very beginning of the report, as I just read out above, there was some interesting language, and I’ll read it again to highlight it. It goes: “Comrade Borodin said that only the ordinary oppressed workers, peasants, shopkeepers, students, and people in other walks of life are the real left. They will become the genuine leftist forces in the everyday struggle for the interests of the people.” Now, what is going on here, with Borodin saying that these particular classes, or social groups, are the real left, is that Borodin, and the Guangzhou comrades who agreed with him, are conflating social position with political position. This is a very common thing that happens with Marxist revolutionaries, particularly at this time, where a Marxist analysis of the overall situation is conducted, and then the ideal position that certain social groups should hold in the given social and political situation is arrived at. This can be a very powerful tool in mobilizing social groups, and has sometimes allowed Marxist groups to come up with particular political campaigns and political slogans which have mobilized people successfully. On the other hand, we also see historically, a certain tendency to assume that people from certain social strata should or will arrive at a certain political position or political consciousness, more or less spontaneously, without the mediation of a leading political force and just because of the effect that objective conditions are having on people.
But, history has demonstrated that people from all walks of life can adopt a wide range of political positions, and when Marxist groups base themselves on a very mechanical understanding of the relationship between social conditions and the ideas or consciousness that those social conditions should cause people to have, they usually fail miserably. This is one of the key differences between the theory of the productive forces which was so prevalent in the Second International, and Lenin’s ideas about the limits to spontaneous consciousness of any group of people and the need for Communist leadership. And as we have discussed a few times now on this podcast, the theory of the productive forces continued to be very influential, and we see its continuing influence here, in Borodin’s statement, and in other things happening with the Chinese Communist Party at this time.
For example, and we’ll talk about this in more detail in a future episode, there were three armed uprisings in Shanghai that took place between fall 1926 and spring 1927. And the first armed uprising, which took place right around the time that the Guangzhou party branch wrote this report to the Party Center that we have been discussing, the first armed uprising was just a complete disaster. And, when you read the Communist Party leadership’s summation of why it failed, they say things like, and this is a direct quote, “We shall not reproach other sections of the masses, only the workers, since workers ought to be specialists in insurrection. On this occasion the workers revealed very many deficiencies.” Which, I don’t know, I’ve met a lot of workers and I don’t think any of them have been specialists in insurrection. But when theory doesn’t match reality and you really believe in the theory, you can do some pretty dumb things that get a bunch of people killed, and that’s part of what happened with the first armed uprising in Shanghai. There was clearly an expectation that workers would spontaneously have a much higher level of consciousness and readiness to act in an insurrection than was actually the case. And as we will see, it will take some work on the part of the Communists to bridge the gap between the spontaneous consciousness of the Shanghai workers and the level of consciousness and organization that they will need in order to launch a successful armed uprising.
Anyways, more on Shanghai coming soon, and I just sort of wanted to highlight the continuing influence of very mechanical thinking about the relationship between classes and ideas, which we had an example of in the theoretical premise that Borodin articulated for the position that the Guangzhou party branch was taking, because it’s very important and very influential and is one of the main recurring themes in the whole process of the Chinese Revolution and in particular, as Mao’s ideas develop, it’s going to be an important issue. But, let’s get back to this issue at hand, which is the strategic conclusions which the Guangzhou comrades drew from this premise that there was no real left-wing, only a quasi-left, in the Guomindang which was made up of careerists who just couldn’t get along with Chiang Kai-shek.
This report that the Guangzhou branch sent to the Party Center continued on explaining the conclusions which could be drawn from this. Basically, the idea was that if there was no real left in the Guomindang, then it was the role of the Communist Party itself to constitute the left within the Guomindang. This meant, in concrete practice, that the Communist Party should push the Guomindang’s politics as far to the left as possible, and that there was really no problem with the fact that the peasant-organizing work was monopolized by the Communists. We saw this policy play out in practice during the October Guomindang meeting in Guangzhou that we discussed last episode, during which the Guomindang government adopted policies strongly favoring the workers and peasants, essentially forming a revolutionary government on the side of workers and peasants in the newly liberated provinces of Hunan and Hubei, with little regard for a potential backlash from the Guomindang right.
In the past, these sorts of aggressive policies by the Guangzhou Communists had been heavily criticized by the Party Center in Shanghai and by the Soviet military advisers who worked with the National Revolutionary Army. You may recall from episode 36 that part of the official Communist summation for why Chiang Kai-shek carried out his March 20 coup was that it was a reaction to overreaching by the Guangzhou Communists in pushing the Guomindang to the left. Of course, the fact that the leader of the Soviet military mission was probably trying to engineer the removal of Chiang Kai-shek by kidnapping him and shipping him to Vladivostok also played a role, but the summation was that things had only gotten to that point because of deteriorating relations caused by over-aggressive behavior by the Communists.
Now, was there any reason why the Guangzhou comrades might have thought that the situation with Chiang Kai-shek had changed, and that he would not be able to strike back against their moves to push the Guomindang way past Chiang’s pain threshold in terms of leftist policy making? Maybe, maybe not. Chiang was, on the one hand, on campaign with the National Revolutionary Army, so for the time being, he was tied up, but on the other hand, should Chiang prove victorious as the Northern Expedition continued, he would be even more powerful than before as the head of the Nationalist armed forces. But, there had been some events that happened on the Northern Expedition which may have made Borodin and the Guangzhou Communists think that Chiang could now be managed.
At the beginning of the Northern Expedition, while Chiang Kai-shek still relied on the expertise of the Soviet military advisers, he gave them a much more limited scope than they had had prior to his March 20 coup. However, after the first phase of the Northern Expedition was over, and as Chiang moved to confront the warlord coalition led by Sun Chuanfang, who controlled much of east China, there was very heavy fighting in Jiangxi province and initially the National Revolutionary Army faced some serious setbacks. At one point, at least according to alleged testimony by General Blyukher, the Russian military prodigy who led the Soviet military mission, in the darkness of a railway car Chiang Kai-shek whispered to him that all was lost and asked him to take charge. In any case, Blyukher was widely rumored to be the real commander-in-chief, and Chiang was constantly in the company of Soviet advisers. The Soviet military advisers generally did not have a high regard for Chiang, and did not think he was really prepared to be in command.
The Chinese warlord who had come over to the side of the Guomindang at the beginning of the Northern Expedition, Tang Shengzhi (who we first met in episode 39), also had a low opinion of Chiang Kai-shek and thought he could displace him at the head of the National Revolutionary Army. He correctly identified Soviet military support as being the key to accomplish this, and tried to win over the Soviets to support him by taking positions in support of the left-wing policies being promulgated by the heavily Communist influenced Guomindang left. However, the Soviet advisers, almost certainly correctly, felt that Tang was insincere in his leftism as was just trying to win them over, and so they kept on supporting Chiang Kai-shek. Clearly, the Soviets thought that Chiang was the devil that they knew, and that, given his dependence on them, that they could manage him.
The extent of this Soviet involvement in the Northern Expedition, in supplying it and then in exercising a good part of the overall military leadership, is something you are not really going to get a good sense of from Chinese sources, but which is very clear in the Soviet documents. One telling example of the overall trend is how the Guomindang air force was reported on. Basically, the only air power brought to bear on this campaign was two airplanes provided by the Soviet Union and piloted by Soviet pilots. In a military landscape in which the warlord forces never had an air force, the ability of the Guomindang to utilize even two airplanes had a tremendous effect, mainly on the morale of the troops. The planes were tangible proof of the superiority of the Nationalist forces, and struck great terror in many warlord troops. Chinese accounts celebrated the acts of the Nationalist air force, but not a single one mentioned that the planes and pilots were of Soviet origin.
Now, bringing all this back to the strategic calculations being made by Borodin and the Guangzhou Communists, Borodin was in relatively close contact with the Soviet military advisers, and so it’s quite possible that he, and by extension the Communist Party branch which he had daily contact with in Guangzhou, felt that Chiang was manageable now in a way in which he might not have been back in March when he launched his coup. If so, this has to go down as one of the greatest political miscalculations in the history of Chinese communism. And yet it’s a mistake that I think is understandable, based on my own recent intense reading in the documents and secondary sources on the events that we’re talking about. It’s ironic that the Guangzhou Communists could be so right about the character of Guomindang leftists like Wang Jingwei, but so wrong about the danger posed by Chiang Kai-shek.
Now, in Shanghai, there were some people who had a very different assessment of the dangers involved in alienating Chiang Kai-shek. Gregory Voitinsky had been made chairman of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Executive Committee of the Communist International which was set up in Shanghai earlier in 1926, and which consisted of Voitinsky, three other Comintern representatives, and a member each from the Chinese, Korean and Japanese Communist Parties. Voitinsky was very concerned already in September that Borodin was antagonizing Chiang Kai-shek with his aggressive support for the mass movements that had been unleashed by the Northern Expedition. Voitinsky got the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern to resolve “in no case to give Chiang Kai-shek grounds for decisive action against the left Guomindang nor to leave the front.” This resolution was followed up by a petition by the Far Eastern Bureau to remove Borodin from China, but the Soviet politburo denied the request, and in the process clarified Borodin’s position as the highest level representative of the Soviet Union in China, outranking Voitinsky.
But, this was far from the last word in the debate among the Communists, both Chinese and foreign, on how to relate to the mass movements which had arisen in the wake of the Northern Expedition, as we will see next episode. The political line of pushing as hard and aggressively as possible with the mass movements of the peasants and workers was based on an assessment of the Communists in Guangzhou that there was really no genuine left-wing within the Guomindang, and that therefore the role of the Communists was to play the role of the left within the united front. Some even began to think that the time was coming when the national revolution would pass over to the socialist revolution, and it would no longer be necessary or even possible to work through the Guomindang and they would work openly and only as the Communist Party. If Chiang Kai-shek could not be managed, then he would be fought. And they began even to prepare plans for a possible insurrection in Guangzhou in case the polarization caused by the mass movements in Hunan and Hubei made it necessary.
One final thing that I think helps to put the pessimism about the Guomindang of the Guangzhou Communists in context is that the armed conflict between Communist unionists and unions controlled by Guomindang activists continued in the city throughout the summer of 1926, even as the Northern Expedition went from victory to victory and the mass movements broke out along its path. We discussed in episode 40 an incident in which 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. This conflict raged throughout the summer. Later on, during World War 2, we see the Communists and the Guomindang come together again in a united front against the Japanese, even while they also keep killing each other from time to time off to the side. When you look at Guangzhou in 1926, you can see that this actually wasn’t a totally new thing.
Anyways, sometimes I think it might be impossible to convey just how confused and complicated the united front politics between the Communists and Guomindang actually were in a short, digestible form like this podcast, so if things are confusing or you want something clarified or expanded on, please do feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll see about including clarifications or more expansive explanations in future episodes.
In the meanwhile, we’ll return next episode to considering this internal debate in the Communist Party. And please remember, if you enjoyed this episode or learned something from it, that ratings and reviews can help other people to discover this podcast.