Mao’s experience on the Wuhan Guomindang Left government’s Land Commission, with some comparative remarks on land reform in Communist thought.
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
Lynne Viola, The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization
Lenin, “Pages from a Diary” and “On Co-operation”
Some names from this episode:
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Wang Jingwei, Leader of the Guomindang Left
Welcome to episode 51 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the decision of the Fifth Congress of the Communist Party, held in Wuhan at the end of April and beginning of May in 1927, to work within the government of the Guomindang’s left-wing in Wuhan, and which controlled a territory a little larger than France and with a population of around 80 million people, mainly in the provinces of Hubei, Hunan, and Jiangxi. The Communists hoped to transform the Wuhan government into what they called a ‘revolutionary democratic’ regime, which would have meant a continual transformation of the social relations in the area to give more and more rights and control to the workers and peasants. While the Wuhan regime was quite progressive compared to the warlord rule which it had replaced, there was an ongoing tension in the countryside between the peasant movement that had been unleashed in the wake of the Northern Expedition and the landlords who resisted the demands of the peasants for land reform. We discussed the emergence of this peasant movement back in episodes 37 to 42.
Faced with a balancing act between the mobilized peasantry and resistance to anything beyond mild land reform within the Wuhan government, and in particular within the Wuhan government’s army, the Communist Party decided on a policy which would please no one. On the one hand, it adopted an agrarian reform program which fell far short of the demands of the peasants, and which even would have involved rolling back the gains that some peasants had already got for themselves by seizing the land of local landlords and rich peasants. On the other hand, the Communists supported a much greater land reform than was going to be tolerable for the gentry, which was the social class that much of the officer corps and leadership of the Guomindang Left came from.
Now, while the Communist Party was debating these issues, there was an ongoing effort by the Guomindang Left government to address the conflict in the countryside as well. And because Mao Zedong played an important role in these efforts, they merit some consideration. The main forum for working out a solution to the problems in the countryside was something called the Central Land Commission, a five person committee which included Mao and one other Communist. The main purpose of the Commission was to figure out how to regularize the land confiscations that had been ongoing (so that the government could assert control of the process) and in the process bring some order to the countryside. This would involve an element of restricting what sort of landowners would be a legitimate target of land confiscation (there was consensus in targeting the largest landowners and the political opponents of the regime, for example), and would legalize, and thus make taxable, those land confiscations which had already occurred.
This question of taxation, by the way, is not a minor question here. Land tax had been a primary source of government revenue in China for a long time, and for the government in Wuhan to function, it desperately needed to get its finances in order, and one key problem to resolve in order to do that was to bring some order to the countryside, to establish who owned what land in the wake of the peasant movement, and then to start effectively taxing the landowners. And, related to this question of finances, it should be noted that one concern of both the Communists and the Nationalists in carrying out an agrarian reform was the modernization of the economy. Everywhere in the world, breaking up inefficient large feudal landholdings and bringing the land under more effective cultivation has been a cornerstone of modernizing the economy, and so any modernizer in China wanted some form of agrarian reform to happen, even though the Communists and Nationalists disagreed on how radical that reform should be.
Mao Zedong’s “Remarks at the First Enlarged Meeting of the Land Committee,” from April 19, are instructive in how he wove together the imperatives of human liberation with the need for economic modernization, and also the more immediate need to build both political and economic support for the Wuhan regime. These enlarged meetings were sessions of the land commission which brought in experts and many of the powerful figures who were interested in weighing in on the very important land question. For example, Soviet experts who worked on land reform in the USSR and who were working on land surveys in China testified about the Soviet land reform, and powerful political figures like Wang Jingwei and Mikhail Borodin attended some of the enlarged sessions of the Land Commission.
Here are Mao’s comments from that meeting on April 19:
[sections II and III, MRP2 487-488]
So, of the six reasons that Mao listed here about the significance of the land reform, really the only point of disagreement between the Nationalists and the Communists would have been Mao’s first point, having to do with the liberation of the peasant. Of course, as Mao said, this was for him the main reason out of the six for land reform, whereas it was not really of much concern for most of the Nationalists.
A consensus was easily reached within the Wuhan regime that land confiscation of political opponents of the regime was fine, but there were major disagreements about confiscation based on the size of a land holding.
At the third meeting of the Land Commission, on April 22, Mao pushed for economic considerations as well as political considerations in land redistribution in the following way:
“The land of owner-peasants and middle peasants is not subject to confiscation; the land of rich peasants is. For example, if five out of ten households are rich peasants, we must redistribute the land of the rich peasants to the other five households. The peasants in Hunan are now redistributing the land themselves. They have meetings to redistribute the land. Therefore, with special reference to the situation in Hunan, it is not enough to rely on the mode of political confiscation.”
Wang Jingwei objected to Mao’s comments, saying that this was economic confiscation, not political confiscation. And these sorts of proposals were very worrisome for the landlords and the moderate elements within the Wuhan government.
I think that we last talked about what made someone a ‘rich peasant’ as opposed to a landlord back in episode 12, when we talked about Mao’s youth, since Mao himself came from a rich peasant family. So let’s review real quick what was meant by that term, since we have picked up a lot of listeners since then, and maybe not everyone has listened to all the back episodes. This is how Mao defined rich peasants in 1933 in something he wrote called “How to Differentiate Class Status in Rural Areas”:
“The rich peasant as a rule owns land. But some rich peasants own only part of their land and rent the remainder. Others have no land of their own at all and rent all their land. The rich peasant generally has rather more and better instruments of production and more liquid capital than the average and engages in labor himself, but always relies on exploitation for part or even the major part of his income. His main form of exploitation is the hiring of labor (long-term laborers). In addition, he may let part of his land and practice exploitation through land rent, or may lend money or engage in industry and commerce. Most rich peasants also engage in the administration of communal land. A person who owns a fair amount of good land, farms some of it himself without hiring labor, but exploits other peasants by means of land rent, loan interest or in other ways, shall also be treated as a rich peasant. Rich peasants regularly practice exploitation and many derive most of their income from this source.”
It is important to remember, when you hear the term ‘rich peasant,’ that the adjective rich is only relative to other peasants. For someone listening to this podcast in a city in the industrialized world and trying to imagine how rich peasant families lived in early 20th century China, the key word here is ‘peasant,’ not ‘rich.’ Let’s use Mao Zedong’s family an example: they owned about three and a half to four acres of land. Mao himself began doing some work in the fields when he was about six years old, and when he got older one of his main tasks was to haul heavy baskets of manure out to the fields. So this isn’t exactly a pampered lifestyle. One of the best ways to measure standard of living is diet. According to Mao’s account of his childhood he ate eggs once a month and meat only three or four times a year. So, again, the key word here to keep in mind when we hear the term ‘rich peasant’ is ‘peasant,’ not ‘rich.’
Now, even though these were not super rich people, by comparison with the poor and middle peasants, the rich peasants were very well off, and in particular enjoyed a certain stability and security which allowed them to weather bad years which could be devastating for poor peasants, and might force the poor to do terrible things like having to sell their children to get food to eat. In order to give you a more concrete sense of what life was like for a more typical peasant, I’ve recorded another episode which I released at the same time as this one, which consists of Mao’s article from March of 1927 which Mao wrote based on an interview that he did with a tenant-peasant in Hunan. So, to return to our discussion of Mao’s ideas about land confiscation, it’s clear that, despite the fact that these rich peasants were not really very rich at all, except in comparison with their neighbors, that Mao and the other peasant activists felt that dividing up the rich peasants’ land would raise the standard of living, and give greater economic security and protection from catastrophe, to the peasant community as a whole.
One other idea that Mao brought up during the course of these meetings of the Land Commission that I think is worth bringing up here comes from some comments that Mao made at the Fourth Enlarged Meeting, on April 24. Here, Mao brought up the question of the relationship between the land reform that the Wuhan regime was carrying out, and an ultimate goal related to the total public ownership of land. This is interesting because, at the time, there really was no model, either practical or even theoretical, for what this would look like or how it would come about.
Marx and Engels, for example, when they wrote about the productive forces of society coming under the common ownership of all the people, understood land to be part of the productive forces. But their assumption was that this would take place in the context of highly developed productive forces, which in the case of agriculture would have meant that much of the land had been converted into large-scale capitalist enterprises, very much like the modern agribusinesses that dominate the United States today. Now, I should add a caveat here that I am condensing the dominant strain in Marx and Engels in just a sentence here, and that if you read all their writings over the course of their long careers, you can find some complexity in their treatment of the subject in particular contexts. One of the great joys in reading all the short writings and letters of Marx and Engels is in watching how their thought processes work as they get into the particular details of the different social phenomena that they consider. And it’s not unusual for their flexibility and interest in concrete details in considering any particular issue to sometimes seem in contradiction to, or at least have no clear relationship with, the grander overarching theories that they put forward, especially as those theories have been codified over the years. But, despite this caveat, I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that the vision of Marx and Engels was that the passage to socialism in the field of agriculture would take place in the context of highly developed capitalist relations in agriculture. And certainly this was the understanding of their vision as codified in the Marxism of 1927.
And the Soviet experience didn’t really add much to that vision at this point. Of course, in only a few years the Soviet Union would undergo a large-scale transformation of agriculture with collectivization. But in the first half of 1927, Soviet agriculture looked very much like the agriculture of Czarist Russia. During the economic recovery from civil war and the world war that preceded it, the Soviet Union largely left the countryside to its own devices to recover, and it was only in 1926 that agricultural production reached the 1913 level that it had been at on the eve of World War I. Now, the Communists in Russia certainly did not intend to leave agriculture alone forever, but they certainly were not united on how or when Soviet agriculture would be transformed.
The main programs which had been implemented by 1927 were an agricultural cooperative movement and something called the patronage movement, in which working class organizations in the cities assumed patronage over rural organizations or areas. The patronage movement had been conceived as a way for the workers to take the leading role in the worker-peasant alliance that was conceived of as the class basis of Soviet society, and the idea was that the worker patrons would raise the material and cultural level of the countryside. However, in the absence of material resources being channeled into developing the countryside, the worker patrons really did not have a lot to offer. The workers could offer speeches and stage plays, but they did not have anything like economic aid, agricultural implements, agronomic assistance or even medicine to offer the villages. As one Soviet peasant put it in 1924: “We are sick of hearing about the international situation.” And, while I personally never get sick of hearing about the international situation, I can understand his point.
The Soviet agricultural cooperatives were the only concrete economic institutions, and they brought some basic capitalist modernizing reforms to the countryside. In the cooperatives, peasants could sell their produce at fixed rates of exchange for consumer goods, receive credit to purchase tools, and obtain agronomic aid. By 1927, about half the Soviet peasants belonged to cooperatives. The main state functionaries coordinating the cooperative movement were agricultural specialists who had begun organizing this movement under the Stolypin reforms, so there was in fact a lot of continuity here with the agricultural reforms that had been going on in the last decade before the World War, so this hardly represented any sort of special vision of socialist agricultural reform or the transformation of relations in the countryside that was different than what one might find in a capitalist context. (And, since I mentioned the Stolypin reforms, I know that a lot of listeners to this show also listen to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, and he just released an episode on Stolypin a few days ago in his series on the Russian Revolution, so maybe this ties in to something you just listened to.) And in fact, the cooperatives tended to be dominated by the wealthiest peasants in the villages, so they in some ways consolidated already existing class divisions in the countryside.
And there was no consensus on how or when to change this situation. Lenin, in 1923, saw this situation as likely to persist for another decade or two. So, this is all to explain why I think that it is significant that, during this meeting on April 24, Mao put forward his thoughts on the ongoing transformation of agriculture in the Chinese countryside in a socialist direction. Now, these weren’t particularly detailed ideas. Basically, what he said was that “land nationalization” would not be an appropriate slogan to use, but that the idea of moving toward the “public ownership of land” was appropriate. Now, I wish I could have seen the overall conditions in the room in which he floated these ideas, because with all the resistance going on to much more mild notions of land reform than “public ownership of land” on the part of the non-Communist elements in the Guomindang, it’s impossible to imagine a situation in which Mao actually thought these ideas would have been adopted as policy. It’s almost like, was Mao raising this idea as a way of indicating to the Nationalists that the other ideas that he was proposing were a compromise on his part, and that they should compromise as well? Was he trying to be humorous and shocking, something that he became known for, especially once he was in power? I don’t know his exact intent here or the exact context in the discussion in which he said this, but I would love to find out. Apparently there is a complete translation of the proceedings of the meeting in the Wilbur Papers in the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, so maybe next time I’m in New York I’ll go have a look and let you know.
In any case, whatever the exact context within the particular meeting, Mao was already seriously thinking about what the transition to the socialist transformation of agriculture would look like, and given the lack of precedent or consolidated thinking in the international communist movement at the time, this was pretty significant. One thing he said as part of putting forward these ideas was that “Distribution is a continuous process of change, not a matter of one distribution which then lasts forever.” Indeed, ultimately that is how land reform in China did take place, as an ongoing process and not just a one-time thing, and this is something (among other things) that differentiates the land reform in China during the Mao years (1949 to 1976) from some other land reforms carried out by socialist, or socialist-adjacent, governments, such as Nicaragua or Vietnam or the government of the Indian state of Kerala, which helped to bring about more capitalist and modern relations in the countryside, but did not move on to try to develop socialist relations in the countryside. Even in the Soviet Union, where the idea was not to just jump from peasant agriculture to state farms overnight, the process was in fact very rapid and imposed from above in a way that involved little in the way of peasant activism, or moves toward higher levels of collective ownership coinciding with the transformation of political and social consciousness of the peasants themselves, which was very different than how this process was conceptualized in China, where after all it was at this time the peasant movement in Hunan that was taking the lead, and Mao was hoping that the Wuhan government could catch up with a process that was already being led by the peasants themselves on the ground.
And we know that the peasant movement activists really liked this idea of land reform as a continuous process, as an open-ended transformation of the countryside. And this vision, of moving constantly to the next possible phase but keeping the end goal of a communist countryside in mind, is something that we’re going to see characterizing the development of the Communist movement in China, from this point forward. On the one hand, it is kind of a simple concept, and can even seem obvious once it is pointed out. But on the other hand, when one looks around the world, this basic orientation in approaching socialist transformation of the countryside is not something that you see developing anywhere else, and so it really seems to have been just a totally different basic standpoint adopted by the Chinese Communist peasant activists from a very early stage in their development, and this is really where we see Mao expressing it for the first time, even though of course in the case of the Wuhan government’s land reform it’s not going to go anywhere. In fact, the enthusiasm of the Communist peasant activists was matched by the horror of their Nationalist counterparts at the ideas that Mao was putting forward.
So how did the work of the Land Commission wind up? Well, as it turns out, a compromise resolution “Program for Solving the Land Problem” was adopted which was issued with the final report of the Land Commission on May 9. This Program called for “the redistribution of the land of large landlords, government land, public land, and abandoned land to landless peasants and peasants with not enough land to make a living.” And, in addition, called for the government to actively support the local peasant self-defense forces, including by providing arms to them, so that they could protect themselves from what were called local bullies and bad gentry.
However, when this proposed program for solving the land problem came before the Guomindang Political Council on May 12, the Council voted eight to three to set it aside ‘temporarily.’ Which really meant they were setting it aside permanently, but that since they knew it was the right and just thing to do, they wanted to act like it was just being set aside for the time being. The truth was, even this compromise resolution was too radical. And we can see that, at the end of the day, the efforts to legislate the revolution did not resolve anything. Remember, the peasants were already confiscating land for themselves, and the reactionaries were already trying to repress the peasants. The initial idea behind the land commission had been to come up with some sort of legislative process that could calm down the countryside and satisfy all sides. As it turned out, there was just no possibility of reconciling the interests of the peasants and the rural gentry, and when the Wuhan Guomindang government ultimately decided not to adopt the compromise resolution of the Land Commission, it tipped its hand that it would favor the gentry over the peasants.
Alright, that’s it for the Land Commission. I’ve posted an appendix to this episode as episode 52, which should help you to get a more concrete picture of the living conditions of the Hunan peasantry in the 1920s. I will add one caveat though, most of episode 52 is just Mao running down the income and expenditures of a tenant-peasant, and just the last few minutes of the episode are Mao giving his conclusions. So, I think if you’re good at hearing lists of expenses and income and extrapolating in your mind what that meant for someone’s life concretely, then episode 52 will help you. If that’s not you, it might get pretty dry pretty fast. Feel free to skip it if that doesn’t work for you.
One last thing, if you enjoyed this episode or learned something from it, please do consider leaving a rating or review, because ratings and reviews can help others to find this podcast.