Where we continue to follow the insurrectionary journey of the Shanghai Communists.
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Some names from this episode:
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Sun Chuanfang, Leader of warlord coalition in China’s southeast
Zhang Zongchang, Shandong warlord
Li Baozhang, the commander of the garrison of warlord troops in Shanghai
Zhou Enlai, Communist commissar who left Whampoa to aid the Shanghai military commission
Niu Yongjian, Veteran Nationalist operative who came to Shanghai in 1926
Welcome to episode 45 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the October 24, 1926 armed uprising in Shanghai, which is known as Shanghai’s First Armed Uprising, and the whole difficult process that the Communist Party there went through in trying to develop a capacity to deploy organized violence for political aims. Where we left off, the party’s capacity had remained at a fairly low level, despite surprising numbers of comrades having been sent to the Soviet Union for military training. And the First Armed Uprising had been something of an unmitigated disaster. After the uprising’s failure, the general secretary of the Communist Party, Chen Duxiu, had essentially ruled all uprisings off the table and that the city had to wait for the National Revolutionary Army to reach Shanghai in order to be liberated.
But this position of just waiting for the revolutionary army to come and take Shanghai is going to change pretty quickly. One aspect of the intense political maneuvering that was happening in China in 1926 and 1927 that I have tried to capture in this podcast, although I’m not sure that I have succeeded very well, is that all of the different important actors were more or less constantly modifying their outlook on the appropriate tactics and strategy for the situation that they were in, and this went for just about everyone across the board: the various Chinese Communist leaders, the various Comintern representatives and Soviet military aids, the leaders of the different factions of the Guomindang, and even the supreme Communist leadership in Moscow, which made decisions with the additional handicap of an unclear picture of events on the ground and a time lag on the information at its disposal. This was a very chaotic situation, and the problem of translating political principles into practical policies and tactics to pursue was a challenge for everyone involved, which often included major missteps and reversals which then had to be adjusted for.
In early November 1926, really just days after the failure of the First Armed Uprising, a new shift in the overall situation occurred which caused the Shanghai Communists to respond with a shift in tactics. After putting up some stiff initial resistance to the National Revolutionary Army, the warlord Sun Chuanfang’s forces began to face defeat after defeat, with major losses in Jiangxi and Fujian provinces. When the city of Jiujiang, a major Jiangxi city on the Yangzi River, fell in early November, it looked once again like a march by the National Revolutionary Army on Shanghai might be imminent.
In response to the potentially imminent arrival of the National Revolutionary Army, the Communists once again began conducting propaganda in support of an armed uprising in order to prepare public opinion and facilitate organization of the uprising. Despite Chen Duxiu’s comments not a couple weeks earlier that no uprising in the city could succeed, the premise was that an uprising could both aid the approaching revolutionary army, and, perhaps more importantly, that a mass movement mobilization would give a more radical character to the liberation of the city, thus facilitating the implementation of more radical policies as had happened in Hunan and Hubei. Another powerful motivation for an armed uprising within the city based on a mobilization of the working class was the idea that such a movement would blunt Chiang Kai-shek’s ability to implement reactionary policies or to suppress the Communists. As I mentioned last episode, the Central Committee of the Communist Party believed that Chiang would “drown in the mass movement” of the city.
Simultaneously with these preparations for an armed uprising, the Communist Party also supported a new, multi-class mass movement which had developed in the city. What had happened was that when Sun Chuanfang started getting seriously beaten by the National Revolutionary Army, he reached out for support to other warlord forces, in particular the Shandong warlord Zhang Zongchang. Sun’s outreach to Zhang was particularly worrisome to Shanghai’s merchant class, because Zhang had tried to fund himself by flooding the areas he controlled with unsecured currency that he printed, causing runaway inflation and wrecking his economy. The merchants were also concerned that war be avoided in the immediate Shanghai environs in order to minimize the disruptions to the economy. To that end, a coalition came together involving the student organizations, the Guomindang, the Chamber of Commerce and the General Labor Union (which was the Communist union) in order to campaign for Shanghai autonomy, and the government of Shanghai by elected representatives of workers, students and merchants.
The main motivation for the Communists in pursuing this democratic mass movement while also campaigning for another armed uprising was to achieve legality and civil rights for their union activities. It can be hard to keep remembering from the comfortable environs of a 21st century first world country like I am in right now, but Shanghai Communist unionists faced a lot of physical danger, including sometimes execution as a consequence for being caught carrying out basic organizing tasks, as I’ll elaborate on in a minute here. And having the mass movement in motion was seen as advantageous for the goal of having a politicized, revolutionary mass movement which could lend its strength either to an eventual mass uprising, or to giving a more radical character to an eventual takeover of the city by the National Revolutionary Army. On November 28 a huge mass meeting took place which denounced Sun Chuanfang and on December 6 a citizens’ assembly was formed. This citizens’ assembly was essentially an attempt to create in embryo a new people’s government representing the mass movement and which would form an alternative source of authority, or dual power, against the current rule by Sun Chuanfang in the Chinese city and by foreign powers in the French Concession and International Settlement parts of the city. Five out of the ten members of the executive of the citizens’ assembly were Communists.
The new mass movement saw a quick rise in the growth of union activity, and many newly organized workers affiliated with the General Labor Union, including groups that had previously not been major focuses of the union movement, such as shop employees, handicraft workers, and public utility employees. On November 30, the General Labor Union tried to take advantage of the upsurge by reopening public offices, but they were shut down on December 8. Three days later 300 workers staged a demonstration where they reopened the offices, breaking the seal that the authorities had placed over the door. But the offices were shut down again shortly thereafter. Despite the upsurge, the General Labor Union remained an illegal organization.
Meanwhile, as the National Revolutionary Army moved inexorably down the Yangzi Basin, approaching Shanghai, the foreign powers in Shanghai became nervous. As I mentioned briefly back in episode 41, in early 1927 a demonstration in Wuhan had pushed into and taken back the foreign concession area from the British. And the next day the British enclave in Jiujiang was taken back for China during a demonstration. And while the British decided neither to offer military resistance in either city and that it would not be worthwhile to declare war and take back the areas they had controlled in Wuhan and Jiujiang, Shanghai would be a different story entirely. The events in Wuhan had made all of the foreign powers in Shanghai nervous about what would happen when the National Revolutionary Army finally arrived.
Between January and March, Shanghai took on the appearance of an armed camp as the foreign powers demonstrated their preparations to defend their interests in the city. Britain dispatched a division of troops to China, the largest force ever sent abroad by England in peacetime. There were 22,400 foreign troops in the city total, including 16,000 British, 3,000 Americans, 2,000 Japanese, and 1,000 French. And 42 warships sat offshore, 14 Japanese, 13 American, eight British, and three French, along with four others. The borders of the International Settlement and French Concession were heavily fortified. The foreign powers were not taking any chances, they intended to defend their interests in Shanghai, which is where foreign capital was centered in China.
Li Baozhang, the commander of the garrison of Sun Chuanfang’s warlord troops in Shanghai, began carrying out a white terror in January. What Li did was he sent out a judge onto the streets of Shanghai. In front of the judge went a man carrying a shield which had the martial law directive written on it, and behind the judge went two executioners carrying broadswords. Students or workers who were caught leafletting would be seized and beheaded on the spot. Their heads would then be displayed on bamboo pikes, or piled on platters, or put in little cages and hung above busy crossroads. One street vendor who was shouting “Buy my cakes” (mǎi dà bǐng) was run through by a soldier who thought that he was saying “Defeat the army” (dǎ bài bīng).
With the growing mass movement and increasing repression going on all around them, the Shanghai Communists decided that if they were going to try for a second armed uprising, then they needed to improve their capacity for organized insurrectionary activity from what they had managed during the catastrophic first armed uprising. Zhou Enlai was moved from his position at the Whampoa Academy in Guangdong to Shanghai so that he could join the Central Committee’s military commission. The main energy of the military commission now went into trying to raise the level of competence of the armed forces at its disposal. It was decided that the disorganized and somewhat autonomous and unruly workers’ pickets should be replaced by a more elite armed militia, which would be based on more disciplined and politically reliable workers, who would in turn be given more solid military and ideological training.
This was easier said than done, however. The first problem that the military commission’s plan ran into was the lack of arms. For the 2,000 workers in the pickets which at the time constituted the Party’s armed force, there were just 100 guns. And, lacking funds, the main plan that the commission devised for getting more guns was for domestic servants who sympathized with the Communist Party to steal guns from their foreign employers, which was a clearly ridiculous plan for gathering at the least the several hundred, if not thousand, weapons envisioned.
And there was a further political obstacle as well. The workers’ pickets, as unreliable as they might have been, were under the control of the General Labor Union, one step removed from the direct control of the military commission. One of the reasons that the military commission wanted to reorganize and tamp down the workers’ armed pickets is because they had arrogated powers to themselves to do things like collect union dues by force, shut down workplaces somewhat arbitrarily and even to arrest people who violated union rules or who tried to scab on strikes. While the independent exercise of these sorts of powers made the armed workers’ pickets a thorn in the side of the Central Committee, the General Labor Union cadres themselves found having this sort of force at their disposal to be helpful at times, even if there were sometimes some thuggish excesses. So the union cadres opposed the reorganization of their armed force by the military commission.
And, despite the shortcomings that the armed pickets had displayed during the First Armed Uprising, it has to be admitted that the main weakness was in the overall planning and conception of the uprising, not in the particular forces that were brought to bear on the side on the revolution. Indeed, one British diplomat in Shanghai at this time even compared the worker’s armed pickets to regular Chinese soldiers in the following terms: “Despite the monstrous illegalities they practice, they compare most favourably in demeanour and appearance with any Chinese soldiers and, though usually armed only with long staves, seem to be the only authority, civilian or military, capable of controlling labour mobs.” So, back-handed compliment that the British diplomat’s report may have been, clearly, these armed worker’s pickets or workers’ self-defense corps had some real utility and capacity. In any case, the military commission’s plans for revamping the Communist armed forces in Shanghai could not be carried out, and so when the time came for the Second Armed Uprising, these were the forces that the Communists had at their disposal.
The signal that the time might have arrived to attempt a second insurrection in Shanghai came on February 17, 1927, when the National Revolutionary Army captured the city of Hangzhou, about 200 kilometers to the Southwest of Shanghai. Today, it’s about a 45 minute train ride, and even back in 1927, this was a pretty close 200 kilometers. This is one of the most prosperous regions of China, and so there were well-developed means of transportation between Shanghai and Hangzhou. The next night, the General Labor Union held a secret meeting with hundreds of delegates to discuss what they should do. While the meeting was going on, news came in that during the day the National Revolutionary Army had advanced to Jiaxing, even closer to Shanghai. If you remember from episode 17, when we discussed the founding of the Communist Party in 1921, that first party congress began in Shanghai, but then moved to Jiaxing in order to avoid a police raid. So, that’s how close Jiaxing is to Shanghai, it’s close enough that the founding congress had been relocated there pretty easily.
This nearness of the National Revolutionary Army gave a big impetus to the General Labor Union delegates, and they declared a general strike to begin the next day. This had not been planned by the party leadership, and because of the martial law curfew and the late meeting time, party leadership could not be informed until the next morning of what had been decided by the union. The Communist Party Central Committee members first found out that a general strike had been called when there were no buses or trolley cars running the next day. Over 400,000 workers went out on strike, representing about 70% of workers in regular employment. It was the largest strike in Shanghai’s history so far.
Zhou Enlai summed up that the main motivation of most participants in the strike, the explanation for the resounding support of the strike, was to welcome the National Revolutionary Army, which had become extremely popular and whose victorious advance captured the public imagination. One distinguishing feature of this strike compared to the earlier strike movements in Shanghai was that workers at Chinese-owned enterprises went out on strike, whereas earlier strike movements had been directed at foreign-owned companies and had only a limited bleed-over effect on Chinese businesses. Perhaps related to this fact was the lack of support for the strike by Chinese merchants, who had supported the strike wave during the May 30th Movement, even if they also undermined the workers’ efforts during the final phase of the movement.
So, the strike had begun on February 19, and with the strike in motion, the Central Committee of the Communist Party met to decide whether to turn the general strike into an insurrection or not. They were firm in not trying to rely this time on Niu Yongjian, the Guomindang leader who still hoped to win the butcher Li Baozhang to defect to the National Revolutionary Army, despite all the heads he was having chopped off right on the streets on Shanghai. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and they were having trouble coming to a conclusion. On February 20 it became clear that the National Revolutionary Army was not immediately going to advance on Shanghai. Despite this, on the morning of February 21 the Central Committee finally made up its mind to go ahead with the insurrection, and set the start time for 6 pm that evening.
Although there are some conflicting accounts of exactly what went down, apparently, the plan was that a navy officer who had joined the Communist Party and who was on one of the gunboats in Huangpu River which goes through Shanghai, would order the two gunboats under his command to bombard an arsenal controlled by Li Baozhang’s troops. Once the bombardment started, about 100 members of the workers’ pickets from the General Labor Union would get in a motorboat, go out to the gunboats, be given about 70 guns, and then go storm the arsenal and get more weapons, thus solving the problem of arming the workers’ pickets that we talked about earlier. Apparently, the pickets were all in place by 4 pm, but the signal never came and eventually they all went home. What happened was that the Communist navy men could not find the keys to the room where the shells for the gunboats were kept. So, no bombardment, no signal to go ahead with the insurrection.
The next morning, February 22, the Central Committee met again, and decided to give it a go at 6 pm once again. However, at this point the general strike had started to lose some of its strength with some workers going back to work. Also, sensing vulnerability in the city, Sun Chuanfang sent some of his troops back to Shanghai from the field where they had been positioned to fight the National Revolutionary Army. So the situation in the city was markedly more unfavorable than it was the day before. Still, on the 22nd at 6 pm the gunboats did begin firing on the arsenal and on Li Baozhang’s headquarters. However, the motorboat which went to pick up the workers’ pickets who were to occupy the arsenal arrived an hour late. This meant that, despite the fact that the arsenal had run up a white flag under the bombardment, it was not seized. And when the gunboats bombarding Li Baozhang accidentally landed some shells in the French Concession part of Shanghai, French warships compelled them to retreat. So, while workers’ pickets had occupied a few police stations, the insurrection stalled out, and, having been given no guidance on how to proceed, the workers’ pickets retreated into the night after some hours.
There was some sporadic fighting on February 23, and a major pitched battle took place between the workers’ pickets and the police on the morning of February 24. Apparently this attack on the police went ahead due to some sort of major miscommunication, because the Central Committee had decided to call off the strike and insurrection on the evening of February 23. All in all, the Second Armed Uprising was an improvement on the disastrous First Armed Uprising, but the learning curve was still very steep. We’ll talk about the aftermath of the Second Uprising in our next episode.
But before we go, it’s worth looking at some words from Frederick Engels that the Shanghai Communists would probably have had in mind when planning their insurrections. This is Engels’s famous overall guidance for Communist insurrectionists, given in his work on the German Revolution of 1848-49, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany:
“Now, insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them. Those rules, logical deductions from the nature of the parties and the circumstances one has to deal with in such a case, are so plain and simple that the short experience of 1848 had made the Germans pretty well acquainted with them. Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority: unless you bring strong odds against them, you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendant which the first successful rising has given to you; rally thus those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known, daring, daring, more daring!”
Those last few words from the French Revolution’s Danton are usually given in French, but since my French pronunciation is even worse than my Mandarin, I used the English.
I bring up the famous quote from Engels, which stands in stark contrast with the experience of the first two Shanghai armed uprisings, not as some weird way of criticizing the Chinese Communists. Rather, I think it’s very illustrative of the difficulty of implementing this policy. The Chinese Communists in Shanghai were very smart and capable people, and they were undoubtedly very familiar with Engels’s guidance on insurrections. But, the gap between theory and practice can’t be wished away, and there is clearly a steep learning curve involved in learning how to put Engels’s words into actual practice.
OK, see you next time. And please remember, if you enjoyed this episode or learned something from it, ratings and reviews can help other people to discover this podcast.