The Fifth Party Congress of the Communist Party (April 29 to May 9, 1927) decides that the united front is better without Chiang Kai-shek.
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927
C. Martin Wilbur, The Nationalist Revolution in China, 1923-1928
Some names from this episode:
M. N. Roy, Indian Comintern agent
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Wang Jingwei, Leader of the Guomindang Left
Peng Pai, Communist peasant organizer
Li Lisan, Communist labor organizer
Welcome to episode 50 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed Chiang Kai-shek’s April 12, 1927 coup, in which he ended the right-wing of the Guomindang’s collaboration with the Communist Party by carrying out a surprise attack and massacre of the Communists and progressive unionists in Shanghai. That massacre was a turning point in the course of the Chinese Revolution. Even though the united front with the left-wing of the Guomindang would continue for a short time longer, the road to a civil war was now set, and over the course of many twists and turns, that civil war would eventually be turned by Mao Zedong into the beginnings of something that would come to be called a protracted people’s war: a long-term period of peasant warfare which in China would culminate in the victory of the Communists in 1949, and which would be theorized as a revolutionary strategy which could be adopted by Communists in other countries with large peasant populations, and which was, with varying degrees of success. So, with hindsight, historians see Chiang Kai-shek’s April 12 coup as a major turning point. But, as is so often the case in history, this was not clear at all to many of the major players in the Chinese revolutionary movement at the time.
The Fifth Party Congress
Last episode, we discussed some of the initial discussions among Communists in Shanghai about how to understand what had happened during the days following the April 12 coup, but the first really major effort to come to terms with understanding what the coup meant and how Communists should adjust (or not adjust) their revolutionary strategy took place during the quickly called Fifth Congress of the Communist Party, which began on April 29 in Wuhan and lasted until May 9. Eighty delegates attended, representing an official count of 57,967 party members. Someone of particular note at this Congress was a new Comintern agent who had recently arrived in China, the Indian Communist M. N. Roy. Roy had previously collaborated with Mikhail Borodin in Mexico, where both of them were involved in the early days of the Mexican Communist Party, so his arrival in China was something of a reunification of old comrades. Roy’s stay in China would be brief, but fateful, as he’s going to make one of the most outstanding blunders in the entire history of international communism, which is really saying something. But I’ll save that for when we get to it.
At the beginning of the Congress, Chen Duxiu, the general secretary of the party, presented Chiang’s massacre of the Communists as representing the departure of the bourgeoisie from the united front of the classes fighting in the Chinese revolution. This is how Chen put it:
“The roles of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are identical in each country. The bourgeoisie betrays the revolution at all times and in all places in the process of the struggle. After March 20 we saw that the bourgeoisie had deserted the revolution.” Here, Chen is referring to Chiang Kai-shek’s first coup, on March 20, 1926, which we discussed in episode 36, also known as the Zhongshan Gunboat Incident, when the Chiang first moved to diminish the role of the Communists in the nationalist revolutionary movement. “When Chiang Kai-shek staged the reactionary military coup in Shanghai, all the bourgeoisie was overjoyed. We cannot say for certain whether the entire bourgeoisie has deserted the revolution, but one thing is certain: since April 12 most of the bourgeoisie has betrayed the revolution.”
So, here Chen is basically saying that, look, we began things with a united front that included four classes in the nationalist revolution: the working class, the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie, or rather, the section of the bourgeoisie that isn’t linked to foreign capital, which is known as the national bourgeoisie, in contrast to the capitalists who represent foreign interests in China, which were known as the comprador bourgeoisie. But, we saw, back when Chiang Kai-shek moved against us back on March 20, 1926, that the bourgeoisie, or at least the large section of the national bourgeoisie that Chiang Kai-shek represented politically, was betraying the interests of the revolution, and this reached its culmination in the recent massacre in Shanghai where the bourgeoisie linked with Chiang turned on and massacred the workers (and, also, we can see, as we talked about a couple episodes ago, although Chen doesn’t specify it here, that Chiang sought out new ties with foreign capital as he came to power, and so even to what degree he continued to represent the national bourgeoisie as opposed to the comprador bourgeoisie, and to what degree he represented a section of the national bourgeoisie getting cut in on some of the action of the comprador bourgeoisie, is a whole other question.)
And in representing the split with Chiang Kai-shek as the departure of the bourgeoisie from the revolutionary united front, Chen Duxiu represented the events in Shanghai as, in the end, maybe not even necessarily such a bad thing. The way he put it was that “[T]he bourgeoisie has withdrawn from the revolutionary front. Although the number of revolutionary forces has decreased, the quality of the revolutionary masses has increased. The united front of workers, peasants, and the petty bourgeoisie has been greatly consolidated.”
The reasoning here was that, without the burden of trying to unite with the half-hearted revolutionaries of the national bourgeoisie, this would free up those who were left in the united front to pursue a more determined and effective revolutionary politics. Chen was conceptually leaning on a concept drawn from Lenin’s theories about the building and functioning of a revolutionary party. One of the repeated themes of Lenin’s in his works on the revolutionary vanguard party is the importance of emphasizing higher quality of revolutionary cadres and unification around a truly revolutionary political line, even if the insistence on quality and unity results in ultimately having a smaller number of people in the party. It’s a sort of quality over quantity argument.
And, just as an aside here, it’s interesting that a shorthand that often gets used from this line of thinking in Lenin’s theory is the title of his last important work, Better Fewer but Better. The title of that work obviously gets at the quality over quantity point that Lenin had made repeatedly in his life. But the ironic thing is that the work itself, Better Fewer but Better, is really not where he makes this case like he does in his earlier works. Here’s some flavor of what Lenin says in Better Fewer but Better:
“We have been bustling for five years trying to improve our state apparatus, but it has been mere bustle, which has proved useless in these five years, or even futile, or even harmful. This bustle created the impression that we were doing something, but in effect it was only clogging up our institutions and our brains.
“It is high time things were changed.
“We must follow the rule: Better fewer but better. We must follow the rule: Better get good human material in two or even three years than work in haste without hope of getting any at all.”
So, Better Fewer but Better, is really not a very complicated work, and its message is nowhere near as theoretical or profound as Lenin’s more substantial writings on party building, such as What Is to Be Done? or One Step Forward, Two Steps Back or any number of other works. In fact, it’s not about party building at all. It’s a criticism of how the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate had been run, and the purpose of the work, the purpose of criticizing the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, was to say, “hey, would it really be such a good idea for us to make the guy who had messed up the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, which everyone reading the article in Pravda knew was Stalin, is it such a good idea that we put this guy in charge of the party?” Which just goes to show that all this Communist literature needs to be read in historical context, because if you read it as so-called pure and universal theory and didn’t know the context, you wouldn’t understand the point of the article at all. But anyways, I just bring this up because I think it’s ironic that the shorthand term, “Better Fewer but Better,” for a very common practice of rationalizing or even encouraging paring down the numbers within and purging Communist parties, is drawn from a work that didn’t deal with Lenin’s ideas on the topic at all. And, this is something we’ll get to in future episodes I’m sure, Mao’s emphasis later on on the importance of “uniting and not splitting” (and related ideas such as “cure the disease to save the patient” and “unity-struggle-unity”) was meant precisely to counteract the tendency very common among people implementing Lenin’s ideas on party organization, including sometimes Mao himself, to emphasize the need to purge and get a “fewer but better” organization. The history of international communism, after all, is full of groups that got to be so few that they couldn’t actually be very good at all.
OK, this was a very long tangent that I took from Chen Duxiu saying that the revolutionary united front in China would be better off without the bourgeoisie in it. But, I hope that this short tangent helps at least to explain some about what sorts of things were going on in the mental space of the people at the Fifth Party Congress when he made a statement like that, that there was as a result of this sort of “better fewer but better” thinking a kind of predisposition to accept the idea that the revolutionary united front could now be stronger now that the national bourgeoisie had left the united front. (And, it is also interesting that, as we will see in future episodes, even in the midst of vicious civil war, when Mao Zedong comes back to reformulate the idea of what classes comprise the united front, in the process of reconceptualizing what function the united front plays in the revolutionary process, he goes back to including the national bourgeoisie within that united front.)
The Comintern insisted that the new strategic orientation of the Communist Party should be to work within the government of the Guomindang left-wing based in Wuhan, and which controlled a large territory, mainly comprised of Hunan, Hubei, and Jiangxi provinces. The territory had about 80 million people and was larger than France, although government control at actual ground level of the region was tenuous in many places. The idea was that the Communists could work to convert this regime to become a revolutionary democratic government, and as we have seen in previous episodes, this regime had instituted some major democratic reforms, including unleashing a major peasant upsurge in the countryside. But as we have also seen, there had been major resistance as well within the Guomindang Left to carrying out some of these reforms.
This policy of working within the Wuhan government to push it in a more revolutionary direction really wasn’t a major departure from prior policy. Up until about this point, Mikhail Borodin had already been a major figure in the Wuhan government. In fact, much of the historical literature portrays Borodin as the main power in Wuhan. However, about a month before the Congress, Wang Jingwei, the leader of the Guomindang Left, had returned from Europe. Now that Wang was on the ground leading the Guomindang Left in Wuhan, while Borodin remained highly influential, Wang Jingwei was the real center of power there.
Interestingly, Chen Duxiu, in his report to the Congress, was highly critical of this strategic orientation. This is was Chen said:
“Yesterday a representative of the Executive Committee of the Communist International said: … where the Guomindang regime exists, there we will stay and strengthen our work. This is wrong. The result is that we have no guiding principle on this question. The result is that we have almost become the Guomindang’s tail. The representative thinks that the revolution is the Guomindang’s revolution, and not ours. The Chinese revolution is now our revolution. At least we should work jointly with the Guomindang. This view [of the representative] is incorrect.”
Now, all the real debate on this question had apparently happened behind the scenes before the Congress. Reports people who attended the Congress mainly characterize it as lacking debate and discussion about the direction that policy would go, and that it was more the venue where decisions were reported which had already been decided beforehand. And as always, the decisions of the Comintern sharply circumscribed the actual decisions that the Chinese Communists made. So this criticism by Chen Duxiu is pretty striking, and it seems that he was very worried that the same mistake that had been committed with Chiang Kai-shek would be repeated with the Guomindang Left. He did want to continue working with the progressive elements of the Guomindang, but as a more independent force with a stronger base of support outside the Guomindang’s own structures (which, as we saw in our series of episodes on the armed uprisings in Shanghai and the Communist efforts to organize its own independent workers’ armed forces there, had been the policy that he had been following in practice (to the extent that he could get away with it) in Shanghai until the April 12 Coup, even though this policy actually ran counter to Comintern directives).
The problem with Chen’s criticism of the Comintern’s directive that the Chinese Communists continue working within the Guomindang Left was that he didn’t really have much of an alternative strategy to propose. Chen continued to feel that Shanghai was important because it was where the proletariat was most concentrated in China. But, as Borodin countered, it was also where the imperialists and the capitalists were most concentrated, and for the time being they would have to reconcile themselves to that fact. While Shanghai couldn’t be ignored, it also couldn’t be the focus of further efforts at urban insurrection in the foreseeable future. Another strategic orientation that was discussed involved trying to gain control of part of the northwestern China, where imperialist influence was weaker and which was closer to the Soviet Union. But, while there were warlord forces there which had been allied with and received aid from the Soviet Union, the Communists themselves lack their own forces which could plausibly move out and take over a part of the northwest, and any alliance with the Soviet-allied warlord in the region ran the same risks as the alliance with the Guomindang. So at the end of the day, as critical as Chen Duxiu was of the way in which the continued alliance with the Guomindang Left was conceived (and, it should be remembered, Chen had been critical of working inside the Guomindang since the beginning of the united front in 1923, and had always preferred the idea of an alliance between two separate organizations, with no Communists actually joining the Guomindang), so, as critical as Chen was of continuing the united front from within policy, he really did not have any feasible counter-proposals to offer.
The Peasant Question
The decision to prioritize working within the Guomindang Left set the parameters for the important discussion at the Congress about how to relate to the ongoing peasant movement in the countryside, which had been spurred into action during the Northern Expedition and which now had escaped the control of any political organization as the peasants in many localities were seizing land from local landlords, and the rural gentry were attempting to repress the rural movement, sometimes with the support of the army of the Guomindang Left, whose officer corps was largely drawn from the rural gentry. One sign of how far the rural revolution had escaped the control of the Communists was the execution of the father of the prominent Communist labor organizer, Li Lisan, who we met back in episode 24. His father was part of the gentry in his hometown in Hunan, and Li had sent a letter to the local peasant committee which guaranteed that his father would not oppose the peasant movement. Despite this, the local peasant committee executed Li Lisan’s father as part of carrying out a broad and indiscriminate assault on the landlord class.
There was an overall consensus at the Congress that the peasantry formed a key part of the revolutionary united front, and that the peasants formed a necessary part of the mass base for a revolutionary democratic regime. But there were major differences among the Communists about how to resolve the conflict between addressing the needs of the peasantry, and the opposition of much of the Guomindang Left to the more radical reforms, such as land redistribution, which the peasants were demanding. In practice, the question boiled down to one of ‘whose interests to prioritize?’ Mao Zedong, the head of the Party peasant department, was at this time also participating in a series of high level meetings on this problem as part of the Guomindang’s Land Committee. Mao, Peng Pai and some other comrades who were focused on the peasant question advocated for a radical program which would basically meet all the demands of the peasants and envisioned transforming the armed peasantry into the basis of the Wuhan regime, so that there would not be a need to rely on an army which was led and controlled by officers with roots in the rural landholding gentry. This policy basically would have involved fully unleashing and resolving the sporadic warfare going on in the countryside in favor of the peasant committees, and would have definitely entailed some sort of move against those sections of the armed forces of the Guomindang Left which had been working to suppress the peasant movement.
The policy which won out, however, was one which prioritized trying to win over leaders and officer corps of the Guomindang Left, which amounted more or less to the same united front policy which had been carried out for some time now, and which had ultimately resulted in not being prepared for the purge carried out by Chiang Kai-shek. The Comintern and those Chinese Communists who didn’t agree with Mao and Peng Pai either thought that it was unrealistic to think the peasants could become the new armed force backing up the Wuhan regime, ultimately either supplanting or transforming the armed forces of the Wuhan government, or felt that the progressive gentry in the Wuhan regime could be kept in the revolutionary united front in a way which had turned out not to be feasible with Chiang Kai-shek and the forces that Chiang represented. The policy which was adopted by the Congress attempted both to meet some of the demands of the peasants, but also to accommodate the interests of the progressive gentry attached to the Wuhan regime. Because peasant policy and all its vicissitudes is going to be so important as we move into the beginnings of peasant-based warfare for the next 22 years that this podcast is going to be covering, let me read out the seven-point peasant program adopted by the Congress:
Now, this program might seem to be quite radical. There is still a lot of land being confiscated according to this program, and many peasants who were renting land would be given the land that they had been renting with no compensation to the former owners. In a lot of contexts in world history, this would be a very radical land reform. The thing is, in this context, this program actually amounted to rolling back some of the gains of the peasant movement in areas where it had been most successful and militant.
Mao and others who were working in the peasant movement knew that, while the peasants would feel that they had been abandoned by the Communists, these reforms were still going too far for the rural gentry, and ultimately this program sought to reconcile fundamentally antagonistic interests. When it became clear that Mao’s ideas were not going to prevail over those of the Comintern and Chen Duxiu on the peasant question, Mao criticized Chen Duxiu for his “compromising attitude” toward the bourgeoisie and stopped attending Congress sessions in frustration. Despite being the head of the Party’s department on peasant work, Mao was not among the 31 full members of the new Central Committee elected at the Congress, and was only one of 14 alternate Central Committee members. Given the clear importance of the peasant movement, this was not a good sign that the party was really grappling with the errors that had led to being unprepared for Chiang Kai-shek’s April 12 coup. In fact, when we look at the policies adopted at the Fifth Congress, it seems like there was a lot of hopeful thinking about the bourgeois forces that the Communist Party was still aligned with in the Wuhan regime. Fundamentally, the policies adopted at the Fifth Congress, which had been hastily convened in order to sum up Chiang Kai-shek’s betrayal, continued the same basic line of thinking that had preceded the Congress and which, as Chen Duxiu himself put it at the Congress, had almost resulted in the Communists becoming the Guomindang’s tail.
Alright, we’ll continue our inexorable slide into peasant-based civil war next episode. And, if you enjoyed this episode or learned something from it, please do consider leaving a rating or review, as ratings and reviews can help others to find this podcast.