The tension between maintaining the united front and mobilizing the peasants for revolution finds expression in a crucial debate over strategy at the end of 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
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927
Some names from this episode:
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Gregory Voitinsky, Chairman of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Wang Jingwei, Main leader of the Guomindang left
Welcome to episode 43 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we began a discussion of how the mass movements which erupted in Hunan and Hubei in the aftermath of the victories of the Northern Expedition sparked a debate within the Communist Party and the Communist International about what sort of strategy was appropriate in the changing revolutionary situation. Mikhail Borodin and the Guangdong party branch of the Communist Party elaborated one assessment of the situation which claimed that there was no real Guomindang left-wing, and thus it was the duty of the Communist Party to assume the role of the left-wing of the Guomindang and to push the mass movements as far to the left as possible, based on a sense that the inevitable backlash from Chiang Kai-shek and the rest of the Guomindang right-wing could either be managed or successfully fought back. We discussed the thinking that went behind this position last episode.
Both the Communist Party central committee, with Chen Duxiu as general secretary, and the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern, chaired by Gregory Voitinsky, had sharp differences with the assessment of the current political situation and consequent strategy articulated by Borodin and the Guangdong party branch. Both the Communist Party Central Executive Committee (which in 1927 would drop the ‘executive’ from its name and just become the Central Committee) and the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern were based in Shanghai, so this conflict can seem like a debate between the Guangzhou and Shanghai Communist organizations. We dealt with some of Voitinksy’s immediate objections last episode. Right now, I want to move on to how Chen Duxiu articulated his response to the Guangdong party branch, and to talk about how policy ultimately was worked out about how to proceed.
In a meeting of the Politburo of the Communist Party on November 4, Chen Duxiu issued a report on the “Question of the Guomindang,” which had the aim of refuting the position of Borodin and the Guangdong party branch.
Maybe, though, I should explain what a Politburo is, though, for listeners who are unfamiliar with the term. Basically, and there has historically been some variance, the standard structure for a Communist Party is that its leadership body is something called the Central Committee. However, Central Committees can be quite large sometimes, and might have a bunch of members spread out over a large geographical region, so getting them all together for a meeting isn’t necessarily going to be a very regular or common thing. The central committee typically will have a leading body which is a smaller subset of the central committee (keep in mind, for example, that the central committee in China today has a little over 200 members, and a little under 200 alternate members, although in 1926 it had far fewer members, just nine full members and five alternate members), which is called a political bureau or politburo for short, following the original Russian abbreviation. In some cases, these politburos are also either large or spread out geographically as well, and so then a smaller committee, called the standing committee of the politburo, serves as a permanent, day-to-day leading body for the whole party organization. There was no standing committee of the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee in 1926, just a five-person politburo. This, by the way, is how Mao, and other historical figures like Abimael Guzmán, got the title of chairman. It comes from being the chairman of the standing committee of the political bureau of the central committee of the Communist Party. This is a kind of standard form of party organizational hierarchy, but, as I mentioned, there’s quite a bit of variety in the experience of the international communist movement, so it’s not universally applicable to every party at every time.
And, by the way, the way in which this term is rendered is one of the tests to see if a historian knows anything about the history of international communism. For example, the Shining Path had a three-person standing committee of the politburo for most of the civil war in Peru. In Spanish, the term is rendered ‘comité permanente,’ and so one of the first signs that someone writing about the Shining Path in English knows very little about the broader history of international communism that it’s necessary to know about in order to really begin to understand the Shining Path as a movement, is if they render this term as ‘permanent committee,’ which would be the natural English translation if you didn’t know that there already exists a term in the English language for what is called a ‘comité permanente’ in Spanish, which is of course the term ‘standing committee.’ There are a bunch of terms like this one that are tells for whether a historian has the necessary broader contextual knowledge of international communism to really understand Sendero or not.
So, anyways, let’s get back to Chen Duxiu, and his report on November 4, 1926 to the politburo meeting on the ‘question of the Guomindang.’
Here’s how Chen began his report:
“On the question of the Guomindang, the first point to be made is whether the Chinese national revolution is passé. Some foreign comrades think this is so.” Here, Chen is clearly referring to Borodin, who wasn’t present at the meeting, and we can see already that this report is taking a polemical tone. Continuing with Chen’s report: “Some Chinese comrades also believe that the Chinese national revolution has succeeded or is about to succeed and that the proletarian revolution is now on the way. These views are obviously wrong, because two-thirds of China are still under the rule of the Zhili and Fengtian warlords.” The Zhili and Fengtian warlords were the names of two different coalitions of warlord forces, or warlord cliques, as they were sometimes called. “In terms of international relations, [China] is still a semicolonial country; politically even the Guangdong national government has certain aspects of compromise of a semicolonial nature. Economically, national finances, financial administration, customs, transportation, and major industries (particularly coal and iron) are controlled by the imperialists. Therefore, it is wrong to say that the Chinese national revolution is passé or near its end. We can only say that it has just begun. If our observations are correct, China still needs a national revolution.”
So, what Chen is doing here, is he is starting off the report by saying, look, ok, some of you guys are getting pretty excited about the success that the revolution is having and want to take things very far very fast, so let’s just slow down a second and look at the situation. Most of the country hasn’t been touched by the revolution yet, and even where the revolution is in power, there is still a lot of economic might being wielded by the foreign powers, so we even have a lot to do to knock them down in the areas that we control. So then Chen uses this assessment of the objective situation to make an argument about what stage the Chinese revolution is in. He subscribed to the view that the Chinese Revolution had to proceed in two stages. First a national or democratic revolution, and then, after some form of national democratic revolution had triumphed, then you could go over to the socialist revolution. And what this meant, and here he was following what was definitely the dominant view at the time and was the orthodox position being promoted out of Moscow, was that at the national democratic stage the Communists had to be in a coalition with political forces who were the natural leaders of the various other classes, such as the capitalists who weren’t connected with foreign capital, the students, the merchants, and the peasants. It therefore followed, according to Chen’s thinking, and here, again, he was just following the dominant thinking in the international communist movement at the time, that at this stage of the revolution the Communists had to be in a coalition with whatever political force represented these other classes. Here, he explains this in his own words in the second paragraph of his report:
“However, then the second question arises: do we need a national revolutionary party? Some comrades think that the national revolution can be carried out by the Communist Party; a national revolutionary party is not necessary. On the surface, people who say such things appear very leftist; but in fact they have aided the imperialists and warlords. This is because first, without a national revolutionary party, we cannot directly command the petty bourgeoisie in the cities and, second, communist regimes cannot survive under the present international circumstances (recently a Japanese viscount asked the Guomindang commissar in Beijing whether Guangdong had a communist government). This is why we still need a national revolutionary party at the present time.”
So, of course, as we know today, the Chinese national revolution did end up being led by the Communist Party, and one of the theoretical innovations of Mao Zedong is how he developed an overall strategic orientation which involved the Communist Party leading all the various classes in Chinese society which could be won to support the revolution, beginning with his ideas about working with the peasantry and sort of expanding conceptually from there. And, I would argue that in doing this, Mao was drawing on ideas that were present in Lenin’s work and that Mao further developed through extended revolutionary practice. But, there’s a big learning curve for the Communist Party here, because of course that victory is 23 years off from when Chen Duxiu was giving this report to the politburo meeting, and Mao definitely had not developed his ideas fully at this time at all.
So, the politburo meeting that Chen gave this report at did not resolve the issue of strategy and how to relate to the different Guomindang factions. This had to wait for an expanded Central Committee meeting which was held in December in Wuhan, and at this meeting members of the Party Center from Shanghai, along with Voitinsky, sat down with comrades from Guangdong, along with Borodin, to work out policy.
Here’s the main tack that Chen Duxiu took when he argued his position at this meeting, and here I’m going to quote from the “Resolution on the Question of the Guomindang Left” that was adopted by the Central Committee at the meeting:
“Why do we want to recognize the left? Not only because the left’s existence is a fact, but also because it is the key to our cooperation with the Guomindang. Of course, we should not superstitiously believe that there is already a strong and responsible left. However, even if there are only some leftists who are different from the rightists and cannot cooperate with the right, thus becoming a buffer zone between us and the right, they will have a great role to play. The consequence of denying the existence of the left will leave us only two courses of action. One is to cooperate with the right and follow the right in their oppression of the masses of workers and peasants. The second is to lead the masses ourselves to confront the right directly. If there is no difference between the left and the right, when we come into conflict with the right, it manifests itself as a conflict between the Communist Party and the entire Guomindang. The imperialists and all domestic reactionaries are eager that we follow this route. The comrades in the Guangdong area are now following along this road.”
So, the argument here is basically, look, if we take the position that there is no Guomindang left and decide to play the role of the left within the Guomindang ourselves and just keep pushing things as far as we can to the left and unleashing these mass mobilizations, we will inevitably just end up in an open confrontation with the Guomindang right. And, even though we saw that the Guangdong Party Branch had foreseen this as a possibility, they also were still working with the orientation that such a break would not be desirable. This gave Chen Duxiu a certain advantage in making his argument. While the strategy being put forward by the Guangdong branch and Borodin hinged on a variety of possibilities depending on how well Chiang Kai-shek could be managed or not, and whether enough masses could be mobilized to fend off a rightist counter-revolution, Chen’s strategic vision was much more cut-and-dry. Importantly, it also coincided with Soviet directives not to break off the united front, and no one could deny that the policy being put forward by the Guangdong branch and Borodin did seriously risk breaking up the united front. Now, which policy best reflected the actual reality of the situation is a different question. And history will end up showing that the Guomindang left could not play the role that the Party Centers in both Shanghai and Moscow hoped it could play. But that sort of clarity would only come later.
The immediate consequence of the victory of this position was a new strategy that had two main features. First, the Communist Party committed itself to trying to build up and strengthen the organized force of the left within the Guomindang that was independent of the Communist Party. Whereas the Communists had been the most active and energetic force on the left in the Guomindang, and really been the backbone of the Guomindang left-wing, now they decided they needed to make an effort to strengthen or prop up a left that was independent of themselves. Key to this was an effort which was made to call for Wang Jingwei to return to China and come and play a leading role in the Guomindang again (you might recall that he had fled China in the aftermath of Chiang Kai-shek’s March 20 coup).
The second main policy would be to try to reign in the mass movements that had been unleashed in Hunan and Hubei so as not to provoke a split with the Guomindang right. In particular, there was concern that the issue of land reform not be raised. In this Central Committee “Resolution on the Question of the Guomindang Left” the problem of keeping the peasantry’s demands away from the question of land reform was posed in this way:
“At present, we cannot use support for the solution of the land problem as a criterion for being genuine left because land has not yet become a problem. At present, the problems for the peasantry are their urgent demands for rent- and interest-reduction, freedom of association, armed self-defense, resistance to local tyrants and the evil gentry, and resistance to harsh levies and numerous taxes. If we guide the peasantry from the practical struggles for these demands to the land problem that exists in the research office, this will stop their struggles. If we hope for the immediate emergence of a left that supports the solution of the land problem, this will be more naïve than hoping that the current left can really support the current peasant struggles.”
There is a little bit to unpack here. First, it’s clear that the priority here is uniting with the Guomindang left-wing, rather than advancing the peasant struggles. And it’s implied, as was indeed the case, in the last line of the quote I just read that the limited demands of peasant associations for rent reduction and less onerous taxes had caused enough nervousness on the Guomindang left, and so clearly a full scale land reform program would not be feasible for their support.
But there is an assumption in the resolution that a neat and clear line could be drawn in the Chinese countryside between limited demands like rent reduction and a more throughgoing land reform effort. As we saw in our episodes on the development of peasant organizing in Guangdong and on Mao’s tour of Hunan in early 1927, which would be episodes 37, 38, 39, and 41, even limited demands by peasant associations quickly led to armed conflict with landlords and their militias, which directly raised issues of who controlled local governance, and ultimately the land, in the countryside. This was indeed one of the main reasons that Mao gave for why the peasant struggle was the path for revolution in China, as we discussed in episode 39 and which is a point we will be coming back to as Mao’s peasant war gets underway.
There was just no way to draw, in practice, a hard and fast line between moderate demands in the countryside and more radical demands, when even moderate demands led directly to armed confrontation with landlord forces. Unless the Guomindang government could exercise greater control over local landlords, which it couldn’t, or Communist peasant organizers could exercise greater control over peasants who had been unleashed to struggle for their livelihoods, which they also couldn’t do, the forces unleashed by this reform process in China’s countryside would spiral into a confrontation in which either the landlords or the peasants would triumph.
In April 1927 Mao, who supported a more thorough land reform policy, captured the unrealistic nature of the policy adopted at the December 1926 Central Committee meeting during a meeting of the Guomindang land committee:
“What we call land confiscation consists in not paying rent; there is no need for any other method. At the present time, there is already a high tide of the peasant movement in Hunan and Hubei, and on their own initiative the peasants have refused to pay rent and have seized political power. In solving the land question in China, we must first have the reality, and it will be alright if legal recognition of this reality comes only later.”
Mao was describing how disputes over rent had led to rent strikes and to conflicts in which landlords had been run off. A de facto land reform had occurred in that peasants who once rented land now controlled that land themselves. There was, in practice, no real way to both engage in peasant organizing and to limit that organizing in the way that was envisioned in the Central Committee resolution. Despite the fact that the Central Committee resolution declared that “land has not yet become a problem,” and that the problem only existed in “research offices,” the reality was exactly the opposite.
In Mao’s “Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” which was written in February 1927, there is a famous passage that reads:
“[A]ll criticisms directed against the peasant movement must be speedily set right, and the various erroneous measures adopted by the revolutionary authorities concerning the peasant movement must be speedily changed. Only thus can the future of the revolution be benefited. For the present upsurge of the peasant movement is a colossal event. In a very short time, several hundred million peasants in China’s central, southern, and northern provinces will rise like a fierce wind or tempest, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to suppress it. They will break through all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will, in the end, send all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local bullies, and bad gentry to their graves. All revolutionary parties and all revolutionary comrades will stand before them to be tested, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. To march at their head and lead them? To stand behind them, gesticulating and criticizing them? Or to stand opposite them and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose among the three, but by the force of circumstances you are fated to make the choice quickly.”
The policy adopted by the Communist Party at the December 1926 Central Committee meeting was exactly what Mao criticized here as “standing behind them, gesticulating and criticizing.”
Alright, that’s it for now. See you next episode. 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.