On March 21-22, 1927, Shanghai fell to a combination of general strike, armed uprising, and the advance of the National Revolutionary Army.
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
Some names from this episode:
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Li Qiushi, Delegate to the Fifth Communist Party Congress known for being very handsome
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Henk Sneevliet, alias Maring, Dutch Communist and Comintern leader in China from 1921-1923
Zhou Enlai, Head of the military commission of the Communist Central Committee
Bai Chongxi, NRA commander whose forces occupied Shanghai
Welcome to episode 48 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we looked at the political developments of the first three months of 1927, and how the split between the Left and Right wings of the Guomindang had become very serious in the run-up to the fall of Shanghai to the Third Armed Uprising and the advance of the National Revolutionary Army at the end of March 1927. This episode, I want to take a bit of a closer look at the fall of Shanghai to the Nationalist Revolution, which we’ve sort of been building up to since episode 44.
The Growth of the Communist Party in Shanghai
We’ve talked about the first two armed uprisings in Shanghai, and the continuing Communist preparations to try and seize the city through an insurrection. It’s interesting to note that, despite the failures of these uprisings, the Communist movement in Shanghai grew at a very rapid pace at the beginning of 1927. On January 10, there were just over 3,000 members of the Communist party in the city of Shanghai, and 4,500 in the larger region overall. By March 10, there were about 4,400 members in the city. By April 4, the membership reached 8,374 (a number which is misleadingly precise, but does reflect massive and rapid growth). So there had been a big growth in the lead-up to the Third Armed Uprising, which happened on March 21, and then there was just a massive membership surge after the fall of the city on March 22. At the Fifth Congress of the Communist Party, which began in late April, Chen Duxiu claimed that there were 13,000 party members total in the Shanghai region.
So, who were these people who were joining the Communist Party in Shanghai, and who presumably made up a good part of the most active support that the party drew on in carrying out the Third Armed Uprising? We know that many of them were workers. Nationally, the Communist Party broke down its membership as being about 51% worker, 19% intellectual, 19% peasants, 3% soldiers, ½% middle and small merchants, and 8% miscellaneous. We don’t have a precise breakdown for Shanghai, but the percentage who were workers would have been higher than it was nationally. We know that a bit over 10% of the membership were students, and that much of the rest of the membership in the city were workers, with especially strong concentrations in the Japanese-owned cotton mills.
Because of the political repression that had reigned in the city since the May 30th Movement had been put down in autumn of 1925, it was in some ways easier to form a clandestine party branch in many workplaces than it was to form a union which would have to operate somewhat openly, so many of the party branches which were formed in the city are best conceived as sort of clandestine unions in embryo, with the most active workers joining a party organization because that was what was most appropriate to the repressive conditions.
Despite the many women workers at the textile mills, the Party was only a bit over 10% women in Shanghai. Overwhelmingly, the surge in new recruits were young and male. There continued to exist a Communist Youth League, but it seems that most young workers went right into the Communist Party itself, with the Youth League being the most active segment of the city’s student movement. The youthfulness and newness of the surge in recruits during the first few months of 1927 meant that the Communist organization in Shanghai was very far from the ideal of a crack Leninist organization of the hardcore, and there were more or less constant issues with new party members not having very developed ideological or organizational training. A memoir written later by a party activist from this period described many of the new recruits as being little more than children, and recounts an episode where members of the Youth League were passing notes around during the Fifth Party Congress, with messages written on them commenting, for example, on how “such-and-such a woman delegate was staring at the handsome Li Qiushi without blinking.”
Preparing for the Third Armed Uprising
Directly after the failure of the Second Armed Uprising in Shanghai in late February, a Special Committee was formed to prepare the Third Armed Uprising. This special committee became the new, temporary leading body for the Communist Party in the region, and included three members of the Central Executive Committee and five members of the Shanghai Regional Committee. From one perspective, this appears to have elevated responsibility for the armed uprising out of the hands of the Shanghai Regional leadership, but viewed another way, the participation of the Central Committee members in the Special Committee represented a break with party discipline.
This is because, in the middle of January, the Central Committee members in Shanghai had been ordered by the Executive Committee of the Communist International to relocate to Wuhan. In particular, the general secretary, Chen Duxiu, was reluctant to move. In Shanghai, Chen was the absolute leader of the Communist Party, but in Wuhan he would have to deal with Mikhail Borodin, who carried the authority of the Soviet Union and the Comintern with him. As we have noted in previous episodes, like in episode 42, there were ongoing disagreements that had developed between the Shanghai party center and Borodin. Chen Duxiu had never co-existed well with domineering Soviet agents, going back to his relationship with Henk Sneevliet, the Dutch Comintern agent whose difficult relationship with Chen we discussed back in episode 17, and he could not have relished being in Borodin’s shadow in Wuhan. It was much more attractive for Chen to stay in Shanghai and prepare the armed uprising, than to go off to Wuhan.
The presence of Zhou Enlai, one of the other Central Committee members in Shanghai, was much more understandable, since he had been moved from Guangdong to Shanghai earlier in order to help prepare the armed uprising in the city. And it was Zhou who was in overall charge of the military aspects of the insurrection.
And, having learned from their previous mistakes, a great deal more preparation went into the Third Armed Uprising. The organization of the workers’ armed pickets was overhauled, with the workers involved expected to leave their normal jobs and to dedicate themselves full time to their military duties, for which they were paid a daily wage in order to be able to support themselves. Eight battalions of workers’ armed pickets were formed out of 2,160 workers. An overall general staff was formed for the city as a whole, and each district also had its own command staff. Lists of specific tasks to be accomplished during the uprising were drawn up. This way, when the insurrection broke out, the workers’ pickets wouldn’t be left wondering what to do and cut off from their command structure, as had happened during the Second Armed Uprising, as we discussed in episode 45. A shortage of arms remained a major problem though, and most of the workers’ armed forces lacked firearms.
But the biggest handicap that the armed uprising faced was the opposition of the local Guomindang leadership, which was dominated by right-wing forces close to Chiang Kai-shek. The Communist Party wanted to carry off the insurrection under the banner of the United Front, but as the National Revolutionary Army was going to march into Shanghai in any case, the forces close to Chiang did not see any reason for an insurrection or strike. After all, the whole point of taking the city through insurrection was to give the organized people’s forces more of a say in what the revolutionary reorganization of Shanghai would look like. If the National Revolutionary Army marched into the city and took it without the aid of organized workers and students, then Chiang Kai-shek would have a much stronger hand to impose a conservative agenda than if he had to contend with workers’ unions and other progressive forces.
But, despite these objections to an insurrection or even a strike, the local leadership of the Guomindang did participate in talks with the Communists about how to constitute the municipal government that would take over Shanghai after the fall of the warlord forces. The Communists had originally had a debate among themselves about to what degree a new Shanghai government should more resemble a worker’s soviet, and to what degree other social forces should be represented in a post-revolutionary Shanghai. It’s kind of interesting that this debate within the Communist Party itself was very vigorous, with the party settling on advocating some form of popular election according to social class. The Communist Party ended up advocating for a citizens’ assembly to be formed which would be two-thirds workers, and the remaining third divided between merchants, students, liberal professionals and a miscellaneous category.
Among themselves, the Communists had debated a range of other proposals, including not having students included, and having half instead of two-thirds of the representatives be workers. The main theoretical bases of the debate among the Communists revolved around whether the government should be seen as a people’s government, representing all the classes in society apart from the big capitalists and people who served the interests of the imperialist powers, or whether it should be seen as basically a workers’ soviet, representing basically just the interests of the working class. The amount of energy that actually went into this debate is kind of odd, considering that the Communists needed to reach some kind of agreement with the Guomindang right-wing leaders in the city about what the new city government should look like.
As it happened, the Communists took their proposal to the Guomindang, which immediately rejected the idea of popular elections and having such a large majority of the government be workers. One of Sun Yatsen’s ideas about what a post-revolutionary government would look like was that China would have to go through a period of ‘political tutelage’ before it could have democracy based on universal suffrage. Now, Sun Yatsen said a lot of things at a lot of different times, so to say that this was the essence of what Sun Yatsen thought about democracy would be an exaggeration. But this idea of a period of ‘political tutelage’ was very attractive to the right-wing of the Guomindang, and so to keep with the idea of ‘political tutelage,’ the Communist Party and the Guomindang compromised on a post-revolutionary city government which would be selected from existing organizations, such as unions and associations of people from particular professions, as well as from the Communist and Nationalist political parties and their youth groups. The Guomindang also insisted that the new government accept ‘leadership and supervision’ by the Guomindang.
In order to maintain the united front, the Communists agreed to all of this. In retrospect, it seems very likely that at least some of the local Guomindang leadership who were negotiating with the Communist Party at this time must have already been planning the massacre of Communists which would follow not long after the National Revolutionary Army occupied the city, so it’s striking to think about, on the one hand, the Communists earnestly trying to maintain the united front and giving ground on all sorts of issues that they had spent a bunch of time debating among themselves, meanwhile the people they were negotiating with were just biding their time until they could just kill off the very Communists who were making all kinds of compromises with them.
Strike and Uprising
Despite the objections of the Guomindang Rightists in Shanghai, the Communists did decide to go ahead and launch a coordinated strike and armed uprising as soon as the National Revolutionary Army seemed poised to strike at Shanghai. Actually figuring out when this would be, though, was more of a challenge than you might think. As we discussed last episode, the revolutionary army delayed moving on Shanghai for quite some time. But it did undertake a variety of military maneuvers in the region which were designed to keep warlord forces from regrouping as they retreated, and these maneuvers sometimes made it appear that a move on Shanghai might be imminent.
But finally, on March 20, the General Labor Union made a call for a strike and uprising to take place the following day at noon, and by the afternoon of March 21 Shanghai had been brought to a standstill. The provisional citizens’ assembly also approved a general strike, although not the armed uprising which went with it, despite the Guomindang Right’s insistence that the assembly accept its ‘leadership and supervision.’ It is not totally clear how many workers came out on strike, but it was definitely massive. The International Settlement police gave a low-ball estimate of strikers at 150,000, while a sympathetic newspaper estimated 800,000, including not only workers who went on strike, but students who left school and merchants who shut down their businesses.
The strike and impending approach of the National Revolutionary Army created a state of high tension and fear in the foreign concession areas. An American in Shanghai at the time wrote later on that “The foreigners were nervous, tense, irritable. A fear psychology possessed us. We were all to be murdered by our own servants.” Large spiked gates were put up on the roads leading into the International Settlement, and foreigners who were living in the Chinese-administered section of the city were advised to come inside the gates.
Having learned their lesson from the second armed uprising, the workers’ armed pickets went into action just an hour after the beginning of the strike, at 1 pm on March 21. In some parts of the city, the workers fought against police and secret society gangsters, while in other districts, the secret societies fought on the side of the workers. This reflected the contradictory nature of the gangs and the sometime friend, sometime enemy way in which the Communist Party had been working with the gangs ever since it began its organizing efforts in the city, as we saw back in episode 19.
Most warlord troops, knowing that their forces faced certain defeat with the advance of the National Revolutionary Army, either fled outright, or put up only token shows of resistance before surrendering. In many cases, the warlord troops were much better armed than the workers who took their surrender, and they probably could have prevailed against the workers, but they didn’t see much point in it, since they had essentially lost already in any case.
One trick that women strikers at a tobacco plant invented, and which was picked up and spread by members of the Communist Youth League, was to put firecrackers in kerosene cans. The sound it made apparently imitated machine gun fire, and this trick was used to scare off the Shanghai police.
There was particularly fierce fighting at the headquarters of the warlord forces in the city, which included a brigade of anti-Communist Russian mercenaries in an armored train. This is where the workers’ armed pickets concentrated their best forces, and where the Communist military leadership, with Zhou Enlai at their head, set up the staff headquarters for the insurrection. Here, the fighting went on all night, and three times the Guomindang Rightists persuaded the commander of the National Revolutionary Army to delay its entrance into the city, in the hopes that the warlord forces and gusano Russians would defeat the workers. However, in tough street-by-street fighting the workers did eventually get the upper hand.
Finally, at 3 pm on March 22, the day after the strike and uprising began, the National Revolutionary Army entered the city. Some warlord forces panicked and tried to make their way into the International Settlement, but the British troops at the border of the concession area thought they were Nationalists attempting to rush their lines and opened fire on them before they realized their mistake. By the end of the day on March 22, red flags were flying across the Chinese portion of the city of Shanghai.
A half million people poured out onto Shanghai’s Public Recreation Ground to welcome the National Revolutionary Army when it entered the city. The commander of the force which entered Shanghai, Bai Chongxi, was very straightforward in declaring that his priority was to restore order, including ending the general strike and disarming the workers’ pickets. In an interview with foreign journalists, he said that “China does not want communism. It needs production.” Bai made sure to reassure the British and French that their concession areas were safe, and the British consul approvingly described Bai as “moderate and reasonable” in the report he drew up for the Foreign Office on March 23.
Now that the National Revolutionary Army had occupied the city and the Guomindang Right was strongly showing its determination to restore order on a capitalist basis and to accommodate the foreign powers occupying Shanghai, the Communists began strategizing a way to drive a rift between the Guomindang and the imperialist powers, and to push the revolution back in a more progressive direction. On the morning of March 24, when the National Revolutionary Army took Nanjing, it did enter the foreign concession area there and began to reclaim the land, and some of the property that foreigners had accumulated at China’s expense. American and British warships in the Yangzi River responded by bombarding the city. While fighting in Nanjing ended within a couple of days, as the Guomindang leadership restrained the revolutionary soldiers, the Shanghai Communists saw this as an opportunity to escalate the conflict and to embroil Chiang Kai-shek in a conflict with the imperialist powers that he was determined to conciliate with.
The Communist Party in Shanghai began making plans to launch a general strike in the foreign concession areas, with hopes that it might turn into a popular uprising which would force the Nationalists into a conflict with the British and prevent the disarming of the Communist forces, which would of course be needed in any fight to recover the International Settlement and the French Concession. The local Comintern representatives in Shanghai, however, strongly urged the Shanghai Communists to consult with both Moscow and with Borodin in Wuhan about this. The Soviet politburo quickly replied that “We consider that at the present stage a prolonged general strike to demand the return of the concessions is harmful, since it may isolate Shanghai workers and lead to new violence against the workers.” It also sent another telegram the next day stating that “We order you to avoid at all costs any clash with the NRA in Shanghai,” recognizing that one possible outcome of the strike might be suppression of the strike by the Nationalist army, rather than drawing the National Revolutionary Army into conflict with the imperialist forces.
And this is where things stood at the end of March in Shanghai. The National Revolutionary Army had now unified much of the southern half of China under the rule of the Guomindang, with the Lower Yangzi region controlled by the right-wing headquarters of Chiang Kai-shek. In Shanghai, with the victory of the Third Armed Uprising, the General Labor Union was able to come out into the open, and Communist forces had grown in Shanghai during the first three months of the year to the largest and most influential they had ever been. But the Guomindang forces which had just taken over the city were overtly hostile to continued Communist activity, even while remaining in a formal alliance together.
In retrospect, it seems clear, though, that the United Front could not be maintained for much longer under these conditions.