The bumpy road that the Communist Party took in Shanghai as it developed its capacity to deploy organized violence as a political tactic.
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
Some names from this episode:
Wang Shouhua, Leading Communist labor organizer in Shanghai
Yu Xiaqing, Leader of a nationalist faction of Shanghai’s merchant class
Niu Yongjian, Veteran Nationalist operative who came to Shanghai in 1926
Sun Chuanfang, Leader of warlord coalition in China’s southeast
Tao Jingxuan, Communist union organizer executed after First Armed Uprising
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Welcome to episode 44 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, I want to shift geographically over to Shanghai. We left off our discussion of events in Shanghai with episode 26, when we talked about the May 30th Movement there. And after that episode, we kind of followed Mao Zedong out of Shanghai and down to Guangdong, and we stayed focused on events in Guangdong and followed those through the development of the Northern Expedition and the growing peasant movement. Now, let’s circle back to Shanghai, which was very important, as China’s largest and richest city, the real center of foreign capital in China, and the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the seat of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern.
Beginning in spring 1926, about when the Northern Expedition was getting underway, the Communist Party in Shanghai began making moves toward developing its capacity to support workers’ struggles with armed force, with the idea of eventually being able to launch a popular uprising in the city. On the one hand, this initiative was a response to the extreme repression facing the labor movement after the May 30th Movement was put down in late 1925. But as the Northern Expedition advanced and the idea of a Nationalist march on Shanghai became a more realistic prospect, there was also the prospect that a popular insurrection in Shanghai might accomplish any of several political goals.
First, if the National Revolutionary Army was relatively far off, as occurred at the time of the First Armed Uprising, which we will discuss in a little while here, then a popular insurrection might serve to take Shanghai in such a way that a costly military campaign was avoided, and serve as a way of outflanking the local warlord armies as the nationalist forces advanced in the region.
Second, there was the hope that a popular uprising would lend the Nationalist revolution a social revolutionary character, just as was happening with the developing workers’ and peasants’ movements in Hunan and Hubei, which we have been discussing for several episodes now. This way, a Nationalist military victory would not just be replacing one government with another, but would also entail workers having long-standing demands met. There was no illusion that without popular mobilization these demands would just be granted by a triumphant Nationalist government.
And Third, as tensions developed between Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party in late 1926 and early 1927, there was a hope that a popular uprising in Shanghai would limit Chiang Kai-shek’s ability to enact reactionary policies or violence. In the exact words of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Chiang would “drown in the mass movement” of the city. That, at least, was the idea. We’ll see how this works out soon.
So, let’s look at how this capacity for armed struggle in Shanghai was developed by the Communist Party.
From ‘Dog-Beating Squads’ to the ‘Standing Army’ of Workers
Communist efforts to develop some capacity for organized violence, in either a self-defense or revenge capacity, began in 1922 during the Shanghai Seamen’s strike. After one of the Communist workers who was leading the strike was beaten up, he and some of his fellow workers formed what was called a ‘dog-beating squad’ to get revenge on the ‘running dogs.’ Perhaps the most noteworthy achievement of this little group was to cut the ear off of a member of the retinue of the director of the Chinese Bank of Commerce. Which tells you something about the activities of this and other ‘dog-beating squads’ that were formed over the next few years. These were essentially loosely organized bands generated by the unions that the Communist Party controlled and which served as sort of outlets for things like beating up scabs and retaliating for the violence meted out against union activists, which definitely occurred on a much greater and more vicious scale than the reprisals which the ‘dog-beating squads’ were able to carry out.
So, this term ‘running dog’ is one that you might have encountered before if you’ve read some stuff by Mao. He likes to talk about ‘imperialism and its running dogs,’ and I think you can tell from the context that a ‘running dog’ is a pejorative term for a lackey or a minion who helps a superior to do something nasty. It’s a Chinese term that predates the Communist Party, so the Communists didn’t coin the term by any means. And as you can see from the Shanghai ‘dog-beating squads,’ the term was common within the Communist movement in China, and wasn’t only used by Mao.
While the original formation of these ‘dog-beating squads’ really was sort of a natural result of the violence going on in the union struggles of the early 1920s, the Communist Party took a more official interest in guiding their work in the aftermath of the May 30th Movement, when hundreds of union activists were killed during the repression of the movement. Apparently, this more conscious endorsement of the ‘dog-beating squads’ was a kind of interim measure as better organized and more disciplined options for developing the Party’s capacity for organized violence were being worked out. But, by their very nature, these small gangs were very limited in what they could accomplish, hard to control, and their targets tended to be pretty low level figures, which meant that the political significance of the violence was often not particularly clear to the workers more broadly. For example, in one noteworthy action an interpreter for the management at a Japanese textile mill was killed with an axe. But, just killing the odd minion of the imperialists here and there was not a particularly clear act, and could easily be interpreted more as some sort of interpersonal beef than as a righteous act of retribution by the working class.
Maybe the politically most clear act of violence that the ‘dog-beating squads’ carried out was in the summer of 1926 in support of a strike that was going on. That summer there was a big strike against Japanese textile mills which was carried on under very difficult conditions, with massive repression against the strikers and total intransigence on the part of the Japanese mill owners. On one day, the ‘dog-beating squads’ carried out a coordinated attack in which they shot two foremen from a mill and a group of five or six of them busted into the house of a sub-foreman and attacked him and his wife with axes. As you can see from this example, if the best the ‘dog-beating squads’ could accomplish was to kill a few underlings, or ‘running dogs,’ of the Japanese capitalists, the Communist Party really needed to start thinking bigger.
By August 1926, the regional committee of the Party had launched a campaign to reign in the activities of the ‘dog-beating squads,’ as efforts to create a more developed armed force had made some progress. In March 1926 the Communist Party had begun exploring options for creating what it called a “standing army” of 1500 workers which would be at the disposal of the General Labor Union in Shanghai and which could be used either for the self-defense of strikes, including from the armed force of employers, the state, secret societies, rival unions or some combination of these forces, or also for exacting armed retribution on scabs or others who had done some harm to the labor movement. In April 30 comrades who had completed military training in the Soviet Union returned to Shanghai, and during the early summer more workers were sent down to Guangzhou to receive military training. It seems that the terms “workers’ self-defense corps” and “standing army of pickets” were used interchangeably to refer to this developing force at this time. There’s a functional difference in these terms, with one more focused on the idea of maintaining order in demonstrations, and the other more like a group being trained for insurrection, which would make you think that the documents using different terms are referring to different groups. But we know that the organization of these armed forces was much looser than would have been ideal, and there were very limited weapons to go around, so it seems most likely that these two terms referred to the same armed force.
By June 1,000 workers had been organized into this workers’ self-defense corps, and 2,000 had been enrolled by October. It should be noted, however, that this force had very few weapons at its disposal, and very few of the workers had any idea how to use them. And, as with the ‘dog-beating squads,’ there were major issues of discipline. Their main task was to act as marshals to preserve order at demonstrations and to protect public meetings and rallies. However, they didn’t do a very good job. They often showed up late and proved totally unable to control crowds. Rather than being a help, the strike committee leading the strike against the Japanese mill owners in the summer of 1926 felt that the workers’ self-defense corps was just another headache they had to deal with.
The self-defense corps began to complain during the strike that they were only being paid 16 cents a day, while the workers who had gone on strike were getting 20 cents a day in strike support. A leader of the General Labor Union explained to the self-defense corps that this was because the workers who had gone on strike had left their jobs and were not being paid and were likely to loose their jobs permanently if the strike was lost, whereas the self-defense corps were there out of political commitment and had not put their jobs at risk. But, to make the headache go away, the pay of the workers’ self-defense corps was raised to 20 cents a day. At a meeting soon afterwards of the regional committee of the Communist Party, the workers’ self-defense corps were described as a bunch of “scroungers.”
The First Armed Uprising
It was around this time, in late summer and early fall of 1926, that the Communist Party began to think about the imminent possibility of an armed uprising in Shanghai. In preparation for an armed uprising, the Party sought once again to join forces with Shanghai’s nationalist merchant class. Wang Shouhua, a leading Communist labor organizer, met with Yu Xiaqing, a former leader of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, about joining forces for an armed uprising. If you will recall, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce under Yu’s leadership repeatedly undermined the workers’ movement during the May 30th Movement (back in episode 26). But now, Yu’s faction had been ousted by a pro-Japanese faction within the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, and so Yu was toying with the idea of an armed uprising to take control of Shanghai.
A representative of the Guomindang government from Guangzhou arrived at this time. This was Niu Yongjian, an old veteran of the 1911 revolution, and his main task was to negotiate with the local warlord commander about defecting to the National Revolutionary Army. There had been a lot of success in getting warlord forces to defect. The main warlord in the southeastern region of China was Sun Chuanfang, and after the fall of Wuhan, as the Northern Expedition pushed east into Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, the coalition of warlord forces led by Sun was the main target. Just as a few warlords had been won to defect to the National Revolutionary Army along the push to Wuhan, it was hoped that some of Sun’s generals would also come over to the Nationalist Revolution along with their troops.
As it happened, Niu did convince the governor of Zhejiang, the province to the south of Shanghai, to defect. And in order to support the defection, Niu pulled together a coalition of forces including the Communists, the Guomindang Rightists and Yu Xiaqing’s merchant forces to stage an armed uprising in Shanghai against the local garrison of Sun Chuanfang’s troops. The Communists were able to commit a militia of 350 workers to the uprising, so apparently this was the more reliable subset of the worker’s self-defense corps that had been put together. However, they only had 22 revolvers, so they got Niu to give them $10,000 from the $100,000 he had been given by the Guangzhou government for his operation so they could buy 130 more revolvers. In addition to these Communist forces, Yu Xiaqing committed the 500-man merchant militia and Niu worked with the chief of detectives of the French Concession to get 3600 secret society members committed to the uprising. Yes, you heard right, the participation of the gangs was organized by the Chinese head of detectives of the French Concession part of Shanghai. Also, of the two gunboats that patrolled the Huangpu River, which goes through Shanghai’s center, one pledged itself to the uprising. These forces would face off against a garrison of 1,000 warlord troops, and a police force of 2,000 in the Chinese part of the city.
The exact political goal of the uprising was a subject of debate. Yu Xiaqing wanted the uprising to establish local self-rule of some form for Shanghai and to establish a ‘peace committee’ that would hold power, while Niu wanted the uprising to be in the name of the Guomindang. The Communists put forward the slogan of ‘popular local government’ as a compromise, but the Guomindang Rightists reflexively rejected the idea. In the end, everyone agreed to Yu’s proposal, so long as everyone got representation on the ‘peace committee.’ The Communist Party, based on both the influence of the theory of the productive forces which saw the Chinese Revolution as being, essentially, a bourgeois nationalist revolution at this stage, and based on strategic considerations, thought that Yu and the merchants should play the leading role in the uprising.
At a meeting of the regional party committee on October 9, a member said that ‘the merchants must play the main part… the proletariat must avoid taking a leadership role, for if it is eager to lead the revolution, this will alarm the imperialists and cause them to attack or even massacre us… Leadership must therefore pass to Yu Xiaqing.” The difficulty of relying on the Chinese capitalists for leadership, however, was captured in a statement six days later by a member of the Comintern’s Far Eastern Bureau: “the initiative in the planned Shanghai uprising must belong to the bourgeoisie, it must be carried out under the slogan of independence, peace, and agreement with Guangzhou… I already feel, however, that the bourgeoisie is indecisive and is detaching itself from the uprising.”
In order to give the working class a distinct voice in the uprising while ceding leadership to the merchants, a decision was made to try to carry out a limited strike among transportation workers and at the power station in support of the uprising. However, this was very difficult to carry out because the workers were demoralized from the strikes which had been defeated over the previous summer. This attempt at a strike was termed ‘an independent action of the proletariat’ which would take place at the same time as, but was conceived as being different from, the uprising itself. In practice, I don’t see how it could properly be distinguished from being a part of the uprising, but these sorts of mental gymnastics were important ideologically to the people who formulated this plan. What it reminds me of is, when you go to a demonstration, and then some other people show up at the same demonstration and say that they are doing their own independent thing, but just happen to be doing it at the same time and in the same place where everyone else is doing their other thing. Anyways, sometimes it works out well I guess and sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, the strike would certainly have been a great aid to the uprising.
When the National Revolutionary Army captured Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, from Sun Chuanfang’s forces on October 13, the governor of Zhejiang province went ahead with his defection to the Guomindang. The fighting at the beginning of the campaign against Sun Chuanfang was very rough, though, and the Nationalist forces had to withdraw from Nanchang and regroup just three days later. This gave Sun the breathing room to turn his attention to Zhejiang province and the governor there who had defected. The governor only had 10,000 troops, so he was badly outmatched. But he did send one of his regiments to Shanghai, and they got within five kilometers of the city on October 17th. Had the armed uprising gone ahead on October 17th, it’s quite possible that Sun’s garrison would have been defeated. On October 18th the Communists pushed for the uprising to begin, but Niu decided to delay. Niu rested his main strategy on trying to win the garrison commander to defect, rather than launching the uprising at the point where it would have supported the troops advancing on Shanghai. By October 21, the forces of the Zhejiang governor who had defected to the Nationalists had been totally defeated and the governor shot.
Then, on October 23, having finally figured out that he wouldn’t be able to get the Shanghai garrison commander to defect, Niu decided to call for the armed uprising. After some initial debate over whether this was still a good idea, the order went out for the workers’ militia forces to mobilize during the small hours of October 24. Workers gathered at prearranged locations in small groups. At 3 am Niu set off a flare from his headquarters in the French Concession, and the idea was for the gunboat which was on the side of uprising to fire off a volley which would be the signal to groups in different parts of town to revolt. However, the flare wasn’t visible from the location of the gunboat, so no starting signal went off. Some of the workers who gathered around eventually got discouraged and went home. Others, however, went ahead with their plans.
But, the police were ready for them. The dock workers who were supposed to start a strike informed on the uprising, leading to a police raid of some of the union organizers. Likewise, the garrison of Sun’s troops was on alert after having been informed in advance of the uprising, and the secret society toughs who had gone to attack the garrison backed off and retreated. One group of Communist workers did attack a police station but were repulsed. And this was basically what has gone down in history under the very generous name of Shanghai’s First Armed Uprising.
About 100 arrests took place, and about ten executions, including some leading Communist organizers among the workers, one of who had studied military science in Moscow. The regional party leadership summed up that there had been inadequate preparation, and that the military side of the uprising had been badly handled. They had been “too gullible” in following Niu Yongjian’s lead, because he had “no real strength at his disposal.” The betrayal by the dock workers particularly stung the regional Communist leadership. The dock workers had been paid a paltry sum for informing on the strike, and this led to the arrest and execution of the Communist union leader Tao Jingxuan and other union comrades. After this betrayal, one leader wrote, as I already mentioned in another episode: “We shall not reproach the 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.”
Despite this, the Shanghai Communists once again summed up the problems that happened when they tried to follow the lead of the local capitalists in organizing the revolution. As one leader stated at a district party meeting right after the failed uprising: “We overestimated the significance of the Shanghai capitalists… We now know that the capitalists have no real strength, and so we will not again exaggerate this. In the next Shanghai movement we must resolutely affirm that only the working class can be the driving force, there is no one else.” And, in a statement which attempted to unify lessons learned with the requirements of their understanding of the ideology that they adhered to, the meeting resolved in the future “to strive ourselves to play the leading role, although formally the bourgeoisie must be counted the leader.” The Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern was immediately critical of this stance, and told the Shanghai Communists that they had lost faith in the masses. Chen Duxiu shot back with the comment that “China is a semicolonial country in which the military factor plays the paramount role. Without military forces there cannot be an uprising either here on in Hunan.”
But, as you can infer from the fact that this was the First Armed Uprising, there are more to come. So, stay tuned for those in future episodes.