Summations of the Second Uprising on several different levels; the continuing inability of the Shanghai Regional Committee of the Communist Party to control the ‘dog-beating’ squads; and some thoughts on the problem of the inevitability of errors being made in revolutionary armed struggle and Mao’s thinking on that problem.
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
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927
Allyn and Adele Rickett, Prisoners of Liberation
Some names from this episode:
Qu Qiubai, Communist Central Committee member and head of propaganda
Zhou Enlai, Head of the military commission of the Communist Central Committee
Li Baozhang, the commander of the garrison of warlord troops in Shanghai
Welcome to episode 46 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode we talked about the second armed uprising in Shanghai, which took place from February 21 to 23 or 24, 1927, depending on whether you end the uprising with when the Communist Party Central Committee called off the uprising, or when the last clash between Communist workers’ armed pickets and the police took place. The uprising had been preceded by a massive general strike, and while the uprising itself demonstrated continuing difficulties in organizing and coordination on the part of the Communist forces, it was definitely an improvement on the disastrous first armed uprising of a few months earlier.
So, there was some question about how to evaluate the second armed uprising. It definitely showed that some learning had occurred, and also that there was a considerable ways to go if the Party was going to really be able to pull off a successful insurrection, although of course that would also depend on the development of events outside the city as well. I’d like to take a little time here and examine the various levels on which the second armed uprising was evaluated. First, let’s look at the level of the different municipal branches of the Communist Party in Shanghai. The secretaries of the various district committees of the Party held meetings on February 24 and 26 to sum up the uprising. The historian Steve Smith, in the book A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927, makes a concise, two-paragraph summary of the various reports from the different district branches, so I am going to quote him here. And, by the way, this book, A Road Is Made, has been an invaluable source for me in putting together this podcast when dealing with anything having to do with Shanghai, and I really recommend it as further reading for listeners who want to get deeper into this topic. So here’s how Smith sums it up in his book:
“In Yangshupu district the secretary reported that one communications worker had been arrested, another man killed and several wounded. He said that a rumour had circulated that all labour union leaders had gone underground, so the workers had seen no point in continuing the strike. But although unions at the new Ewo and Hengfeng mills had been raided by military police, they were still functioning. In Yinxianggang district the secretary reported that only nine people had turned up to a party meeting on the 25th, and that there was an atmosphere of panic, since twenty-one party members had been arrested and nine of them shot. In Wusong district the secretary said that the raids on the union and party headquarters had thrown the masses into panic. On the 23rd most had returned to work. Ten women had been arrested after smashing up a factory. Twenty-seven comrades had been fired. There was said to be widespread loss of confidence in the party.
“In the west of the city, the secretary of the Xiaoshadu district committee reported that the local organization was in reasonably good shape, despite police raids on the factories. The pickets on the docks remained well organized. In retaliation for the shooting of nine workers, local party activists were carrying out a Red Terror. In Caojiadu the secretary reported that one comrade had been arrested and that many had confessed. Forty workers had been sacked. At Shenxin mill strike leaders dared not go back to work. Five speakers from the people’s school had been arrested, and two killed. The secretary of the French Concession branch said that seventeen tramworkers had been arrested, along with three picketers, two members of the district party committee, two students and two members of the union of foreign employees. The repression made communication between branches difficult. In Nanshi the workers were said to be fearful, and there was general dissatisfaction with the leadership’s handling of the uprising.”
That’s the end of the quote from A Road Is Made.
What stands out in these reports is that, there is kind of an assessment of ‘where we stand now,’ and ‘what damage was done.’ There is no real sense of any advance made by participating in the insurrection and, if historians who have worked with the primary sources that Smith’s summary of the reports are based on can be believed, it seems there was quite a bit of confusion even at the level of these district leadership figures in the Party about exactly what the particular aims of the Second Armed Uprising were. This matches up well with what we saw of the uprising in our last episode. There was some coordination in launching it, but then there was difficulty in communicating further aims after some initial objectives were achieved. It was almost like the idea was, ok, we’ve got this big, city-wide organization and some armed forces attached to it, and a huge strike going on that we called and which is in motion. If we add on top of this a coordinated attack on the enemy headquarters by our armed forces and just sort of unleash our much-larger numbers of party members and supporters to sort of create unrest or do what they think best in the rest of the city, maybe that will be enough to take over the city?
That’s my own personal summation of what I’m seeing in these reports, which express a certain disgruntlement with the higher level leadership and a sense that the Party had faced some significant losses in both the forces at its disposal and in the confidence of the membership and the masses more broadly. And yet, it seems like an understandable next step from the first armed uprising in learning how to carry out an uprising in a city like Shanghai with the sort of forces and means of communication which the Communist Party had at its disposal.
But let’s move on the look at how the uprising was summed up by other people in the city.
There was a meeting of union militants on February 26, and here the summation of the uprising was decidedly mixed. Some unions were upset, and had suffered serious losses during the strikes, either of workers fired or unionists killed or arrested. It was claimed that the silk workers union had collapsed. But some other unions were still in fine shape. The seamen and postal workers congratulated the General Labor Union on the strike and uprising. While clearly the strike and uprising had not achieved any particular concrete goal, they had, in the view of some workers and union militants, struck a blow or sent a message of militant opposition to warlord rule and support for the advance of the nationalist revolution, and these workers and unionists were happy to have sent this message.
In public statements, the Central Committee of the Communist Party put a positive spin on events, claiming that the uprising had been an educational experience for the masses and served as a dress rehearsal for the final battle. In private, they were much more self-critical (or, perhaps, self-critical in a collective sense, although this often took the form of different individuals within the collective criticizing each other). Qu Qiubai, who headed the Party’s department of propaganda, was very critical of the ad hoc nature of the call for a general strike and then the long delay in calling for an armed uprising. The party had not been clear about the aims of the strike and in fact many workers who went out on strike felt that the whole point had been to celebrate the seizure of Hangzhou by the National Revolutionary Army.
This celebratory character of many strikers actually gave the strike a much more peaceful character than previous Shanghai strikes had had, which is ironic since this was the strike which was taken as the opportunity to launch the armed uprising. In the words of the North China Herald, a major English-language newspaper in Shanghai at the time, “The strikers have shown little inclination to cause trouble. Indeed their general attitude as displayed by crowds around the streets—‘mooning’ alone describes their behaviour—is one of apathetic listlessness.” So, despite the massive size of the strike, in some ways the attitude of the masses was not militant in a way which would have justified launching the insurrection.
Finally, Zhou Enlai, head of the Central Committee’s military commission, was very critical of the inadequate preparation of the worker’s armed pickets. Only 600 out of a force of about 2,000 had been drawn into the organized assault which spearheaded the insurrection, and the military commission had not been strong enough to exercise continuing command in a timely manner. This has to be read as a self-criticism, although perhaps Zhou was also criticizing the rest of the Central Committee for deciding on the insurrection when not enough time had been allowed for raising the level of the workers’ armed pickets, whose deficiencies we’ve discussed over the last two episodes.
Despite the end of the armed uprising, the Shanghai Regional Committee decided to continue with small scale armed actions, and to institute what it called a red terror to combat the ongoing white terror in the city, which involved the warlord Li Baozhang sending out soldiers with broadswords to execute activists who were caught handing out fliers and other progressive people, as we discussed last episode. You probably caught a brief mention of this red terror in the summary of reports from district secretaries that I read out. While the main idea with the red terror was to have some sort of response to the ongoing white terror, a part of the idea with instituting this red terror was to elevate the level of the attacks which were being carried out by the ‘dog-beating squads.’ The ‘dog-beating squads’ put together by the General Labor Union and the workers’ armed pickets had continued carrying out attacks on fairly low level ‘running dogs’ of the warlords and capitalists, and the political significance of these actions was not always very clear and often resembled thuggery or gang warfare to many people. This is a problem we discussed a couple episodes ago.
So, the idea was that with this new red terror, two types of violence would be permissible: retaliatory attacks on Li Baozhang’s brutal enforcers, and attacks which would boost popular morale because they were directed against ‘running dogs’ who were widely understood to have been behind the arrest or murder of unionists or party members. But, despite this order to limit the targets of the ‘dog-beating squads,’ they continued to be hard to control. The General Labor Union resisted fully ceding command of the squads over to the regional party committee, and the ‘dog-beating squads’ failed to elevate the level of the attacks that they carried out. Particular union aims could be met by violence which fell short of the larger political aims of the regional committee, and it was a lot easier to attack small time ‘running dogs,’ instead of better known enemies of the people and well-armed warlord enforcers. And inevitably, some people were beaten up or killed for mistaken or clearly petty reasons.
On March 19, the Shanghai Regional Committee of the Communist Party made the following announcement:
“From today all attacks on running dogs of whatever stripe must cease. Too many comrades have made too many mistakes. There have even been public acknowledgements that unions have been killing running dogs. This should only be the secret political work of the party, and cannot be the work of the labor unions… If there are any attacks to be made, the decision must be that of the regional committee alone and not of the labor unions.”
So this problem of maintaining and disciplining an armed force in a large urban area under the control of warlord forces enforcing martial law was clearly one of those things that might seem simple on paper, but which in reality is quite difficult. Questions of responsibility for crimes and errors which take place during the course of a war of liberation are often treated in facile treatments of the subject in a way which assumes that all the forces on the ground are simply carrying out orders which come from the higher levels of command in insurgent organizations. Clearly, the central and regional committees of the Communist Party wished that was the case. But in practice, it clearly wasn’t. And while, of course, in a larger sense, the leadership of any movement bears some kind of ultimate responsibility for the forces which it unleashes, even when it can’t fully control them, I do think that when we look at the details of a movement like this one in Shanghai, questions of responsibility for crimes and errors become murky and not so simple.
There is a more recent event that comes to my mind immediately when I read or talk about these events in Shanghai having to do with the indiscipline of the dog-beating squads, because I’ve spent a lot of time closely following events in Peru. Back in 1992, the Shining Path in Peru set off a couple big bombs at the intersection of a nice residential and shopping area in Lima. The bombing is known after the residential street the bombs were left on, Tarata. Anyways, one of the big issues in the trials of Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Shining Path, has been his responsibility or lack thereof for this bombing, which killed 25 people, wounded 155 more, and did just a ton of damage. This was clearly not a military target in any sense. It’s known that the commander of the Shining Path’s 12th Lima detachment, Carlos Mora La Madrid, ordered the attack and his squad are the ones who carried it out.
Guzmán has been clear that he considered the attack a major error, not just because of (and perhaps not mainly because of) the loss of life of innocent people, but also because it sabotaged the Shining Path’s efforts to win over the national bourgeoisie at a time when it considered itself to be near being able to think about launching an insurrection to take over Lima and in which, politically, it would want the sympathy or at least neutrality of a large section of Peru’s middle classes. (And if you speak Spanish, it’s very easy to find video footage on the internet from a relatively recent court hearing where Guzmán articulates this thinking himself.) The Tarata bombing had a very negative effect on Sendero’s ability to elicit support or passive neutrality from Lima’s middle classes. Now, whether Guzmán’s assertion that Sendero was on the verge of being able to launch a potentially successful insurrection in Lima is an accurate assessment of the Shining Path’s actual strength in 1992 is a whole other question. I think they were in fact much weaker than they are often portrayed by either themselves or the media at the time, but that’s a really involved discussion which I hope we can get into at some point in the future of this podcast. But this question of the ultimate responsibility of Guzmán for a terrorist act that he didn’t personally order and which he considered a real political mistake, but which was definitely conducted by people who considered him their leader and were part of a command structure that he headed, is, we can see, a constantly recurring question in cases of revolutionary violence carried out by political parties with significant mass followings, from Shanghai in the 1920s to Peru in the 1990s. And I’m sure we could find some more recent examples as well.
And it’s a question which Mao Zedong addressed in a very famous passage in his “Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” from February 1927, which began being published in installments in the Hunan District Committee of the Communist Party’s weekly newspaper right around when these events in Shanghai were taking place. Mao wrote: “a revolution is not like inviting people to dinner, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so ‘benign, upright, courteous, temperate and complaisant.’” (Benign, upright, courteous, temperate and complaisant is a reference to a line that is right near the beginning of the Confucian Analects.) “A revolution is an uprising, an act of violence whereby one class overthrows the power of another.” And a little later in the same paragraph Mao adds: “To right a wrong it is necessary to exceed the proper limits; the wrong cannot be righted without doing so.”
Now, the wrongs and excesses that Mao was referring to here were not trivial things. In the course of the peasant movement in Hunan in 1926 and 1927 there were entire families of landlords killed or made refugees. And many of these people were not particularly wealthy by any standard that someone in a first world country today would recognize as such, and inevitably there were people who were innocent or not particularly cruel or bad who were caught up in and victims of the violence. Of course, this was also in the context of landlord militias massacring peasants as well, just as in Shanghai the violence of the dog-beating squads or assassination squads as they were also sometimes known as was in the context of much greater violence being exercised against the progressive workers and students.
So, how do we read this Mao quote. Is Mao unequivocally saying that these excesses are inevitable in any revolution? Yes. Is he saying that they are OK, or should even be celebrated, because they are inevitable? There is clearly a line of thought which interprets Mao in this way. But it’s not the only line of thought that develops on this question. As we see Maoism become a set of ideas based on what Mao wrote and did during his lifetime, there is a whole body of work dealing with the possibilities for transforming people which serves as a counterweight to Mao’s recognition of the inevitability of violent excesses. Not a counterargument, by any means, but a counterweight, a balance, a means by which this recognition of the inevitability of violent excesses can be tempered.
Aside from Mao’s work on the necessity of unleashing mass mobilization, and the inevitability of excesses and wrongly targeted violence as a lesser evil to the greater good served by the mass mobilization which Mao calls for, and this is something we see not just in Hunan in the 1920s but later on in the revolution and in the mass campaigns after liberation in 1949 as well, with the land reform and in the Cultural Revolution, for example. There is a whole other set of writings by Mao which uses phrases like ‘cure the disease to save the patient,’ and in formulations about carrying out political arguments with a conscious process of ‘unity-struggle-unity,’ or ‘unity-struggle-transformation-unity,’ and in which Mao emphasizes the possibility of personal transformation and reform, and which sees the potential for change and transformation in just about everyone. I expect that many listeners are not yet familiar with these terms from Mao that I have just used here, but don’t worry, we’ll get to them as Mao begins to formulate his thoughts on these questions as the Chinese Revolution develops.
I bring this up to say that there are different readings that have been given to Mao’s ideas about the inevitability of violent excesses in a revolutionary process. And we will see these different readings at play as Maoism develops into an international political trend, beginning in the 1960s. There are those who embrace and celebrate the inevitability of revolutionary excesses, the sort of “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” kind of people. And then there are those who counter-balance a recognition of this inevitability as part of the revolutionary process with some sort of effort to limit it, to temper the inevitable tide of mass violence and inevitable mistakes.
So, this Mao quote from the “Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” and the different readings of it that end up developing in the international communist movement decades later, maybe adds more food for thought than it gives a clear answer about ultimate responsibility for serious errors that, in the context of revolutionary warfare or, in the case of Shanghai, an attempt to respond to white terror with red terror, more or less inevitably means loss of life for people who in no way made sense as targets of violence from a revolutionary liberatory perspective. But as we can see with these Shanghai ‘dog-beating squads,’ it can often be easier to recognize serious errors and issue orders to correct them, than to actually correct the problem in practice. And, this whole question of the loss of life due to unfortunate decisions and errors, this is a question that is going to be with us for some time as we explore this history, so we may as well start talking about it now.
For people who want to get a head start and read about this ‘transformative’ side of Maoism before we get to that subject matter in this podcast, there’s a book I recommend called Prisoners of Liberation, which was written by a couple, Allyn and Adele Rickett, who were arrested in China as American spies in 1951. It’s a good place to start and very readable, for beginning to think about that whole side of Mao’s ideas if it’s a new subject for you, and even if it isn’t, it’s essential reading for people who are seriously interested in this topic.
OK, where were we, we kind of went on a tangent here, from the summing up of the Second Armed Uprising, to the institution of the red terror, which was ultimately a very frustrating experience for the Shanghai Regional Committee and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, because of their continuing difficulty in effectively controlling the armed force at their disposal in the city of Shanghai. But, events will continue to proceed apace, and when the Third uprising comes, the Communists will once again go into battle with the forces they have at their disposal, which will not necessarily be developed or controlled to the point they would have liked.
That’s it for this episode. Please remember, if you enjoyed this episode or learned something from it, ratings and reviews can help other people to discover this podcast.