The question of what sort of revolution the Nationalist revolution will be creates a fundamental division within the Guomindang.
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
C. Martin Wilbur, The Nationalist Revolution in China, 1923-1928
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927
Alexander Pantsov, The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution, 1919-1927
Jack Gray, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000
Some names from this episode:
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Tang Shengzhi, Hunan warlord who sided with the National Revolutionary Army and contested leadership with Chiang Kai-shek
Peng Pai, Communist peasant organizer
Karl Radek, provost of Sun Yatsen University in Moscow
Welcome to episode 47 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the aftermath and different summations of Shanghai’s Second Armed Uprising, which had taken place in late February 1927. Now, the signal that it was a good time to launch the Second Armed Uprising had been the approach of the National Revolutionary Army, which had gotten really close to Shanghai (basically, about 100 kilometers to the southwest, in Jiaxing). And so the idea was that taking the city with an insurrection by the mass movement would set much more revolutionary terms for the political direction of the city after the National Revolutionary Army arrived, while also giving a certain military advantage to the insurrectionists, because of the closeness of the revolutionary army.
So, it’s noteworthy that, despite being so close to Shanghai, the National Revolutionary Army, which had arrived at Jiaxing on February 18, delayed its advance on Shanghai for some time, only moving on to take the city on March 22, directly following the success of the Third Armed Uprising. There were good military reasons for the delay, but there were even more compelling political reasons.
One of the main political features of the first few months of 1927 was the rapid deterioration of relations between the left and right wings of the Guomindang. In December 1926, the division of the Guomindang found geographical expression, when what had been the Guangzhou-based government moved north. Many leading Guomindang members from Guangzhou made their way north in two different groups in December. The first group, which included the Soviet emissary Mikhail Borodin, was more left-wing in composition. On the way to its destination in Wuhan, the group met up with Chiang Kai-shek at the headquarters which he had established in Jiangxi province. They held a meeting which seems to have been the last real effort between the two sides to come to some sort of compromise. And on paper, it looks like a compromise was reached.
The meeting between Chiang Kai-shek and this left-wing Guomindang leadership faction led by Borodin formally reached a set of decisions in which each side gave ground on considerable points. Borodin agreed to moderate the labor and peasant movements which had erupted all along the route taken by the Northern Expedition, and which we talked about at some length before the recent series of episodes on Shanghai. For his part, Chiang Kai-shek assented to the abolition of the position of chairman of the Guomindang, effectively eliminating his position as the formal leader of the organization, and Chiang also agreed to the call for Wang Jingwei to return from exile and to assume a leading role again in the Guomindang.
So on paper, it looks like a compromise was reached between the two factions. However, we know that in fact neither side was very happy with the meeting, and each side seems to have concluded that the other one would have to go, and merely put the compromises on paper in order to preserve appearances since an open split would be detrimental to everyone’s interests for the time being. Borodin’s group arrived in Wuhan on December 10, and on December 13 they set up the Provisional Joint Council in Wuhan, a body which constituted itself as the new Guomindang government. While this body contained some members of the Guomindang Central Executive Committee and some members of the government that had been functioning in Guangzhou, it really didn’t have the authority to set itself up as the new government, but it did so anyways. After all, in a revolution the act of establishing governmental authority is often a matter of declaring that authority and getting others to recognize it, rather than a matter of following established procedures and rules.
The problem was, of course, that a good many members of the Guomindang would not recognize the authority of the Wuhan government. The second group of former members of the Guangzhou government to head north left a little while later than the first group and was more conservative. When this group stopped to meet with Chiang Kai-shek at his headquarters in Nanchang, most of them ended up staying there. And so by the end of 1926 there were two separate Guomindang headquarters. There was the left-wing government in Wuhan, and there was the conservative headquarters in Nanchang, centered on the military headquarters of Chiang Kai-shek, who remained the commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army, despite having given up his position as chairman of the Guomindang. To be clear, the organization as a whole didn’t split, rather there were two rival leading centers which claimed to be in overall command of the whole organization and, by extension, the emerging state which the Guomindang would lead. So it wasn’t a case of a new civil war within the Guomindang, so much as a massive leadership struggle which was breaking out.
With the emergence of two rival Guomindang capitals, one last effort was made by each faction to get the other to capitulate. Chiang called on Borodin to come to Nanchang to settle the issue of where the capital would be. But Borodin, deeming that he would lose prestige if he went to Chiang, refused to go, forcing Chiang to go to Wuhan if he wanted to meet with Borodin. This episode epitomized Borodin’s tendency to make the antagonism with Chiang Kai-shek personal as well as political, which, if you will recall from our earlier episodes dealing with the differences between the Communists in Shanghai and those in Guangzhou (such as episode 42), was the sort of needless antagonizing of Chiang Kai-shek that both Chinese and Russian comrades in Shanghai had criticized Borodin for. And things only got worse when Chiang arrived in Wuhan.
Chiang arrived in Wuhan on January 11, and appealed to the left-wing Guomindang members there to relocate to a unified headquarters in Nanchang. But not only did he not convince anyone to join him, Borodin publicly denounced him as a right-wing militarist, which led to Chiang also denouncing Borodin in public. Essentially, the rift had now become irreconcilable, at least as long as Borodin and Chiang headed up their respective political factions. But, Borodin’s actions had not been impetuous, they were calculated. Borodin had determined that a break with Chiang was inevitable, and he thought that he now had enough power concentrated in Wuhan to push things toward an open split and to openly pursue the power struggle.
Under Borodin’s leadership, the Communists and Guomindang Left in Wuhan spent the first couple months of 1927 trying to consolidate a new revolutionary government there, while also escalating polemics against Chiang Kai-shek. Over the course of February, the denunciations of Chiang Kai-shek became more explicit and vehement in public meetings and in publications, with the slogan “Down with the old, confused, mediocre, and rotten elements!” being adopted in relation to Chiang’s conservative faction. And in early March, a Central Executive Committee meeting of the Guomindang was held in Wuhan, which was a bit of a triumph because five out of the eight Central Executive Committee members who were based in Nanchang had traveled to attend it, thus giving the meeting a certain amount of legitimacy. However, the meeting was overwhelmingly dominated by the left, and it escalated the split with Chiang by formally depriving him of much of the authority associated with his position as the commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army.
Meanwhile, Borodin and the Left had been working to try to undermine Chiang’s influence on the military. If you will recall from episodes 39 and 42, we’ve talked before about a Hunanese warlord who joined the Nationalists on the Northern Expedition named Tang Shengzhi who had tried to get Soviet support to supplant Chiang Kai-shek as the leader of the National Revolutionary Army. At the time, the Soviets sided with Chiang. But now, Borodin moved to sponsor Tang’s efforts to win influence within the revolutionary armed forces away from Chiang. This proved to be one of the biggest miscalculations that the Communists made in the power struggle against Chiang.
It’s interesting to see the Communist evaluation of how these efforts to win the army away from loyalty to Chiang were proceeding. I want to quote from a report written on March 5, 1927, probably by a Soviet military advisor by possibly by a Chinese Communist who worked closely with the Soviet military advisors:
“Chiang Kai-shek has betrayed his dictatorial conspiracy in opposition to the Guomindang Left Wing. His attitude was particularly clarified in connection with the recall of Wang Jingwei to the National Government. Chiang at first expressed a great desire for Wang’s return, but, as soon as Wang had left Paris on his way back to China, Chiang cabled him and hinted that there was no need for him to return. Chiang’s cable was delivered to Wang in Berlin; thereupon Wang returned to Paris.
“Chiang’s conduct eventually became known. Consequently, many wavering elements and a portion of the Guomindang Right Wing in the National Government have become alienated from him.
“Aside from the split among government and Party members, Chiang has also lost the greater part of his influence in the army.”
The report goes on to discuss some details of efforts to win away parts of the army from loyalty to Chiang Kai-shek and then wraps up the discussion like this:
“In short, the best elements of the National Revolutionary Army are no longer with Chiang Kai-shek. It would be premature to state, however, that Chiang has been completely defeated and can no longer figure in the internal struggle.”
This is one of those historical documents that, when read with hindsight, one is reminded how easy it is to totally misread the situation one finds oneself in during the moment. In fact, the report is almost totally mistaken about the military figures that it discusses, and it’s amazing to see the Communists seeing themselves as gaining the upper hand when we know that history actually has them on the verge of a major catastrophe.
In fact, the ability of the Soviet military advisors who were stationed at Chiang’s Nanchang headquarters had become very difficult beginning in January. They were put to work planning a military offensive in the Yangzi basin which they opposed on political grounds because they knew that it would strengthen Chiang’s position in the factional struggle with their own party. Yet they were duty bound to continue serving, even as they complained of being surveilled and followed by agents of the Guomindang Right and found themselves suddenly much more socially isolated than they had been prior to the intensification of the split in the Guomindang.
As the split developed in China, on March 3, the politburo of the Soviet Communist Party, back in Moscow, formally adopted new strategic guidance for the movement in China. They decided that it was necessary to:
“Energetically create a peasant, petit bourgeois, and worker base under the left Guomindang… to aim at ousting Guomindang rightists, to discredit them politically, and systematically strip them of their leading posts… pursue a policy of seizing the most important positions in the army… strengthen the work of Guomindang and Communist cells in the army… look toward the arming of workers and peasants, and convert the local peasant committees into actual organs of power with self-defense capacity.”
This was more or less the policy which had been followed by Borodin and the Communists in the areas controlled by the Guomindang. However, the articulation of the policy by the Soviet politburo elevated the strategy to the level of official guidance. And, it came with certain caveats which made it a difficult policy to pursue. The policy came with the accompanying guidance that pursuing an outright peasant revolution which would include land confiscation would alienate the propertied elements which formed the base of the Guomindang Left leadership. Therefore, the policy amounted to, on the one hand, pursuing the establishment of government by armed peasant self-defense organizations in the countryside, but somehow these millions of peasants were to be convinced not to confiscate the land of the gentry who they had overthrown. Likewise, in the cities, somehow workers’ unions should be fully empowered, but measures should stop short of alienating merchants and patriotic nationalist capitalists whose interests rested on keeping workers disempowered. It was an essentially impossible policy to follow, and its contradictions were manifested in the instability of the revolution in Guangdong, Hunan and Hubei, the areas where revolutionary reforms were being enacted.
For example, in Hunan province, some subordinates of Tang Shengzhi, who had been made governor of the province as well as being the military leader who the Communists now hoped would serve as an alternative leader to Chiang Kai-shek, some subordinates of Tang had gone ahead and disarmed the peasant militias in the areas they controlled. Tang ordered his subordinates to give the weapons back to the peasants who they had disarmed, but they protested and, in order to maintain control, Tang relented. This demonstrated the fundamental problem of relying on an army, most of whose officer corps came from the propertied classes and which was linked closely with the rural gentry. There was just no way that these people were going to go for a policy of local self-government by armed peasant militias.
Of course, there were Communists who grasped the contradictions in the policy as well. Back in episode 43, we quoted Mao from a meeting of the Guomindang land committee in early April, where he said:
“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.”
What he was saying, as it relates to our current discussion of Communist strategy, amounted to saying, look, we may not be making land confiscation our official policy, but when the peasants form their self-defense militias and take control, they basically are taking the land for themselves, whatever we call it legally or formally. Mao, and Peng Pai and others working with the peasantry, saw that whatever the policy was on paper, it was not going to be feasible in practice.
Meanwhile, as Stalin got cold feet about alienating Chiang Kai-shek, toward the end of March orders came down from Moscow backpedaling on the sort of criticism that would be permitted of the Guomindang Right, even as Chiang and other Guomindang Rightists took measures to shut down trade unions and peasant associations in the areas that they controlled. Now, the actual effect this had in China, I can’t fully say. It seems like the genie had really been let out of the bottle as far as antagonism between Chiang and the Communists by late March. On the other hand, the united front was still intact at least on paper, and Chiang had at that point just marched the National Revolutionary Army into Shanghai, which is something we’ll talk about in another episode, so there was clearly concern on Stalin’s part to prevent a full split with Chiang.
Now, there were other voices in the Soviet Union which saw efforts to maintain unity with Chiang as amounting to setting up the Chinese Communists to be slaughtered by him. At the time, maybe it seemed realistic to think that some accord could be reached with Chiang, and I think Stalin’s decision to try to pull back from criticizing him at the end of March should be seen in that light, as sort of one of a repeated series of policy zig-zags in response to a complicated situation. But, as would soon be shown, the critics of Stalin had the right of it, at least in March 1927.
This is what Karl Radek said at the time. (Radek at this time was the provost of Sun Yatsen University in Moscow, a university that had been set up for training Chinese revolutionaries.):
“Chiang Kai-shek allows his troops to shoot workers. The shootings are being conducted under the Guomindang banner but at the same time the Communists do not speak out before the broad masses as an independent Communist party.” Here Radek is referring to the policy of the Communists working through the Guomindang and mainly publicly identifying themselves as Guomindang leftists. “The time has come to strengthen the independent Communist party, to make it speak out openly before the masses. It is absolutely out of the question. If we ignore the shootings… Chinese generals will believe that we do not want to put pressure on them and they will have our help even when executing workers. In his theses to the Second Comintern Congress, Lenin states ‘We shall support a national-bourgeois movement only when it will not hinder our organization of workers and peasants.’ But when one smashes peasants’ organizations, when one shoots workers, does it hinder our organization of workers and peasants? It seems to me that it does a little.”
Now, this is something that Radek said before the mass slaughter of Communists that we’re going to see Chiang Kai-shek carry out soon. The main relevance of this quote from Radek, I think, is that it shows that, both in the Soviet Union and in China, there were clearly people who saw the possibility of a giant slaughter of progressives being carried out by Chiang Kai-shek as the split with within the united front grew, and so it makes the failure to really prepare for what is going to end up happening just a real glaring error.
And, just as an aside, it’s worth noting that Radek’s quote of Lenin is wrong. What Lenin actually wrote in his “Report of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions” at the Second Comintern Congress was: “We, as Communists, should and will support bourgeois-liberation movements in the colonies only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of education and organizing in a revolutionary spirit the peasantry and the masses of the exploited.” You can decide for yourself if the quote still works to make Radek’s point or not.
So, at the beginning of this episode, I noted that the National Revolutionary Army had arrived at Jiaxing on February 18, and delayed its advance on Shanghai until March 22, directly following the success of the Third Armed Uprising. While there were military reasons to delay, there was also political reasons on Chiang Kai-shek’s part, and really I think these political reasons were the most compelling. As we can see, there had been this whole split developing between Chiang and the Guomindang Left.
Basically, Chiang spent this last month before advancing on Shanghai preparing for what he would do once he got to Shanghai. As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, the various foreign powers in Shanghai were very nervous about losing their concession areas and having their interests damaged by the Nationalist revolution. They had put many troops on the ground and warships off the coast in order to protect their interests. Having decided to break decisively with the Guomindang Left, Chiang now undertook the task of making himself acceptable to the foreign powers. Chiang and people close to him held meetings with representatives of Japanese and British capital and worked to assuage doubts about his intentions once he occupied Shanghai. While it was only after he occupied Shanghai that the foreign powers would truly discover that they could work very well with Chiang, he had to spend some effort before moving on Shanghai to get them to give him a chance and not to fight him when he got there.
And in addition to taking time to begin to make arrangements with the foreign powers occupying China, Chiang also made deals with Shanghai’s Chinese capitalists. In particular, the Second Armed Uprising in Shanghai had made Shanghai’s capitalists very nervous about the possibility of a Communist takeover of the city. Chiang met with representatives of these capitalists and arranged for their support, both political and financial, in exchange for his promise of dealing with the threat of the Communists once he occupied the city. It was only once these political arrangements had been made, with the foreign powers and with Shanghai’s capitalists, that Chiang was ready to advance on Shanghai.
And I think that will probably be our next episode.
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