The Comintern’s guidance falls short in response to the ongoing massacre of peasants.
C. Martin Wilbur, The Nationalist Revolution in China, 1923-1928
Donald Jordan, The Northern Expedition: China’s National Revolution of 1926-1928
Alexander Pantsov, The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution, 1919-1927
Some names from this episode:
Tang Shengzhi, Hunan warlord who sided with the National Revolutionary Army and contested leadership with Chiang Kai-shek
Ye Ting, Communist general and garrison commander who defended Wuhan against a right-wing mutiny
M. N. Roy, Indian Comintern agent
Wang Jingwei, Leader of the Guomindang Left
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Chen Duxiu, General secretary of the Communist Party
Zhang Guotao, General secretary of Hubei branch of Communist Party
Welcome to episode 53 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
In episodes 50 and 51, we discussed the central problem of the left-wing Nationalist government based in Wuhan, and which controlled a large area including the bulk of Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi provinces. This was how to balance the demands of the peasant movement in the countryside with the desire the maintain the support of the land-owning rural gentry. In episode 50 we discussed how the Fifth Congress of the Communist Party sought to resolve this problem, and in episode 51 we discussed how the Wuhan government’s Land Commission, which Mao Zedong was a member of, discussed the issue and ultimately came up with a compromise solution which, while it almost certainly wouldn’t have worked anyways, was put aside by the Wuhan government for being too radical.
This episode, we’ll see how events ultimately played out. Because as both the Communist Party and the Wuhan government took prevaricating stances that could satisfy neither the rural landlords nor the peasantry, another force decided to mount the stage and force all the others to respond to it. This force was comprised of right-wing generals in the ranks of the National Revolutionary Army, and as you can imagine, there was no prevarication on their part in the stand they took on behalf of the rural gentry. So, now that the time had expired for the Communist and Nationalist leaders to discuss what they should do about the land problem, let’s see what ended up actually happening.
Now, one of the big things that was happening, was that in May the Wuhan regime had resumed the Northern Expedition, with its troops under the overall command of Tang Shengzhi, the former Hunanese warlord whose defection to the Guomindang back in May 1926 was the catalyst for the early fighting in southern Hunan which made for the beginning of the Northern Expedition, as we saw back in episode 40. And as we saw in episodes following that, Tang had contested the leadership of the Guomindang with Chiang Kai-shek and courted Soviet aid in the process, only to be rebuffed by Soviet military advisors who saw Chiang as the better option at the time. Of course, by the time the Soviets saw that Tang was in fact preferable to Chiang, it was too late. And so, one very eventful year later, in May 1927, we see the Northern Expedition being continued by both the Wuhan-based government of the Guomindang Left, and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nanjing-based government of the Guomindang Right.
So, in May 1927, each of the Guomindang factions had concentrated the bulk of their good troops in parallel Northern Expeditions which both fought the warlords, and also had to deploy troops to defend against possible attacks by each other, with the Wuhan forces fighting their war north quite a bit to the west of Chiang Kai-shek’s forces. Tang Shengzhi’s army went up through Henan, while Chiang Kai-shek’s army fought through northern Anhui and Jiangsu provinces. Now, one of the characteristics of the Northern Expedition up to this point had been a certain degradation of the quality of the troops involved. At the outset of the Northern Expedition, there was a solid core of troops who had been trained both militarily and politically under the overall guidance of the Soviet military advisors. But during the course of the Northern Expedition there had been both considerable attrition of these troops and the absorption of many warlord forces who either defected or were taken over from defeated warlords. These forces were much less disciplined and lacked the political motivation and code of conduct of the troops that began the Northern Expedition.
Chiang Kai-shek had a much smaller problem with these forces than the Wuhan regime did, because these forces tended to vibe much better with Chiang’s rightist politics and, as Chiang abandoned the progressive agenda that he had been associated with before his split with the Communists, he more and more came to resemble a warlord himself in how he operated. In fact, it’s very common for historians of this period to see Chiang Kai-shek not so much as the eliminator of warlordism from China, but rather as representing a lot of continuity with the warlord regimes that had preceded him.
But things were different for the Wuhan regime, which tried, however feebly at times, to implement a progressive agenda. We’ve already seen in recent episodes that there was a major problem in the countryside controlled by the Wuhan regime, where the army units of the government would sometimes side with landlords and repress the peasant movement in the countryside, even though this went against their formal orders from the government. Now, with the best and most disciplined forces being diverted to go fight in Henan on the continuing Northern Expedition, we’re going to see a recurrence of some of the sorts of events which had initially given strong impetus to the reorganization of the National Revolutionary Army by the Soviet military advisors in Guangdong province back in 1925.
If we look back at the experience of the first Eastern Expedition in Guangdong Province back in episode 30, what happened when all the best military forces of the Guomindang went to the eastern part of the province to root out the warlord forces there? The warlord-led forces that they were allied with and which had been left behind near their capital in Guangzhou decided to take over the city. Well, with the degeneration of the quality of the forces making up the National Revolutionary Army, when all the best troops get sent north in May 1927 to fight in Henan, what do you think is going to happen back in Wuhan? You guessed it, we’re going to see something very similar happen.
In mid-May, several commanders in the rear areas of the Wuhan government who had been conspiring with Chiang Kai-shek revolted, declaring their opposition to communism. General Ye Ting, a Communist who commanded the garrison forces of the Wuchang section of the city and had been one of the vanguard leaders of the Northern Expedition during its early phase, managed to fight back the assault on Wuhan. During the fighting, there was a lot of fear that some of the garrison forces in Wuhan, many of whom sympathized with Chiang Kai-shek apparently, would revolt. In a panic, the Comintern representative M. N. Roy issued a declaration from the Communist Party which was meant to assuage the anti-Communist militarists aligned with the Wuhan regime. In it Roy disclaimed the ‘excesses’ of the peasant movement, and, in the name of the party of the proletariat, reassured its partners, the petty bourgeoisie, that it had no intention of overthrowing them. The declaration must have seemed very strange to the rightist militarists that it was addressed to, who didn’t tend to think of themselves or the Communists in the class terms that Roy used in the declaration.
This declaration, sadly, was not the furthest that the Communists would sink that month in selling out the peasants in the name of the maintaining an alliance with the Nationalists. The fighting in Wuhan had cut off communications with Changsha, the capital of Hunan province and the city with the greatest concentration of mobilized revolutionary masses. The tensions between the workers and peasants on the one hand, and the reactionary propertied classes and the right-wing elements in the armed forces who had been left behind were most palpable in Changsha. Troops had clashed with peasants in the Hunan countryside, and in Changsha itself the garrison forces had increasing friction with the armed workers pickets of the General Labor Union, which had pursued a policy of independently arming the workers in Changsha just as it had in Shanghai.
When the fighting broke out around Wuhan, rumors circulated in Changsha that the leader of the Wuhan government, Wang Jingwei, had fled and Mikhail Borodin, the Soviet representative to the Guomindang, had been executed. On the night of May 21, the leader of the local garrison launched a coup which dissolved the provincial government and crushed the local mass organizations of the workers and peasants, arresting and executing many activists. For several days afterwards, a bloodbath followed across Hunan and southern and western Hubei, as elements of the army moved against the peasants’ organizations. There are no totally reliable numbers on the amount of people killed, but all sources agree that the numbers run into the thousands. The May 21 coup in Changsha is known as the Horse Day Massacre.
Unable to discipline the troops in Changsha, the Wuhan government appointed a special commission to go and investigate what had happened. The commission set out on May 25, and notably it included Mikhail Borodin. But when the committee got to the border with Hunan it received an order from the garrison commander in Changsha ordering it to turn around or face execution. So the special commission beat a hasty retreat back to Wuhan. On May 26, the Communist Party issued a resolution saying that at the current moment “the land problem first had to pass through a propaganda stage; for the time being soldiers were to be exposed to propaganda,” and so eventually the idea was that these soldiers who had been killing peasants could be won over to see the need for land reform. On the same day, a telegram was sent out in the name of the All-China General Labor Union and the National Peasants’ Association to the Hunan Provincial Peasants’ Association and labor unions asking them “to be patient in order to avoid further friction.”
Meanwhile, in Moscow, events were happening which basically precluded any change in policy on the part of the Comintern which might allow the Chinese Communists to shift to a policy more focused on supporting the peasantry. The Eighth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International took place from May 18 to 30, and so the events in China became a major subject of discussion as they were ongoing. Leon Trotsky was bitterly attacking Stalin for his policy of alliance with the Guomindang Left. Trotsky argued that the Guomindang Left would turn on the Communists just as Chiang Kai-shek had, and called for the immediate creation of Soviets, by which he meant a system of worker’s self-government, in the cities and to give full support to the peasants’ struggle. The idea was that the creation of workers’ soviets, modeled more or less precisely on the experience in Russia, would create a situation where there was a dual power crisis, meaning that both the workers soviets and the Wuhan government would both be claiming to represent the legitimate state authority, not unlike the situation in the Russian Revolution when you had both the workers’ soviets and the provisional government, and inevitably this sort of situation is unstable and one side would have to overthrow and repress the other.
Stalin argued that, as had been shown now in Shanghai and in Changsha, that however well-organized the workers were in some Chinese cities, the balance of armed force lay not with the workers but with the National Revolutionary Army, which in both these instances had sided with the reactionaries, and so workers’ soviets would not be a realistic policy. Stalin argued that the options were to either fight or to maneuver politically. Because, according to Stalin, to fight meant certain defeat, there was only the option to maneuver politically to buy time to become stronger and fight later when victory would become possible. Thus, the only real policy was to reaffirm the already existing policy and the Executive Committee of the Comintern adopted a resolution that “the Communist Party of China must exert all its efforts directly in alliance with the left Guomindang.”
Now, while we will never know for sure, I tend to think that Stalin was correct about the fact that workers in China’s cities would have been defeated had they formed Soviets and tried to form their own government. I think that our series on the events in Shanghai from episode 44 to 49 show why I think that. But on the other hand, reaffirming the policy that already existed in the face of the ongoing suppression of the peasant movement seems to not really be adequately addressing the problem at hand. The thing is, the larger context of this debate at the Eighth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Comintern meant that really there could not be a change in China policy.
That larger context was that, however important the events going on in China, this debate in Moscow got caught up in the power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky over who was going to lead the Soviet Union. When Trotsky attacked Stalin over his policy in China, that sadly meant that Stalin was going to double down on the correctness of that policy, regardless of how many lives that might cost in China. Even for people at that Comintern executive plenum who cared deeply about China, I think almost none of them cared more about China than they did about the direction that the Soviet Union was going to go in, and that meant that the fight between Stalin and Trotsky was more important to them than any particulars of China policy. So, when the Horse Day massacre took place, there was basically no possibility that Stalin and his supporters would be able to change their China policy to adapt to what was happening until the big Comintern meeting was over and Trotsky had been defeated there.
Meanwhile, in Hunan, the Provincial Committee of the Communist Party had mobilized a strong force from the peasant self-defense corps to strike at Changsha and take it back. May 31 had been appointed as the day of the attack, but just beforehand they received orders from Wuhan to call of the attack. In fact, the orders came so last minute that one of the contingents had already marched on Changsha and couldn’t be recalled, and ended up being totally wiped out since it didn’t have any support.
Then, on June 1, a bombshell arrived in the form of a telegram from Stalin. Now that the meeting of the Executive Committee of the Comintern was over and Trotsky’s criticisms of the Comintern’s China policy had been fought off, the old policy, which days before had been defended as totally correct, could now be changed. In this new telegram, Stalin called for the seizure of land by the masses “from below.” Vacillating and compromising leaders of the Guomindang Central Committee were ordered to be replaced by peasant and working-class leaders. Dependence upon unreliable generals had to cease, and several new army corps were to be created by mobilizing 20,000 communists and about 50,000 revolutionary workers and peasants from Hunan and Hubei. A revolutionary tribunal headed by a prominent non-communist Guomindang leader had to be organized to punish officers who maintained contact with Chiang Kai-shek or who set soldiers on the people. “Persuasion is not enough,” Stalin exhorted. “It is time to act. The scoundrels must be punished.”
Suddenly, the overall policy of the Comintern shifted away from maintaining an alliance with the Guomindang Left at all costs, to relying on the peasantry and trying to use the organized masses to transform the character of the Guomindang Left by carrying out a purge of the reactionary elements in the armed forces and government. While this policy would have been difficult to carry out as ordered before the massacres of the peasants’ armed forces in Hunan and Hubei, it would be nearly impossible to carry out now.
Chen Duxiu compared Stalin’s orders to being told to “take a bath in a toilet.” And Zhang Guotao said that those present when the telegram arrived did not know whether to laugh or cry at the orders. The Communist leadership unanimously realized that the orders could not be carried out, and sent a telegram back to Moscow accepting the instructions in principle, but explaining that they could not immediately be realized. But despite the unrealistic specifics of the order from Moscow, they did signal a change in the character of what the Comintern expected from the Chinese Communists. Now, Chinese Communist policy was supposed to be weighted toward relying on the masses, and there should not be much compromise of the demands of the masses in order to try to satisfy the Guomindang Left.
Facing ongoing repression and massacres in the countryside of Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi provinces, and having already followed earlier Comintern orders which meant in practice politically demobilizing and demoralizing those forces which they could still have relied on, the most that the Communists could now muster was a pair of demonstrations in Wuhan which called on the government to halt the ongoing slaughter of peasants and to punish the army officers committing the massacres. Ultimately, this meant relying on one portion of the Guomindang Left’s armed forces, those which were fighting in Henan province in the continuing Northern Expedition, to take responsibility for disciplining the troops which had been left behind and were occupying themselves by killing peasants.
The army officer who had carried out the Horse Day Massacre in Changsha, however, had been in continual contact by telegram with the overall commander of the armed forces, Tang Shengzhi. And there is some speculation among historians that he was operating at Tang’s behest all along. In any case, Tang did send a military commission of inquiry to Changsha to investigate the events there, which was led by a general who was now given command of all troops in Hunan and had orders to discipline anyone who had acted out of line and the bring the army in the rear back under centralized control. However, when this general arrived in Changsha, he quickly determined that the problems there were entirely the fault of the peasant associations, and telegraphed the central government asking for more troops which could be used to exterminate the peasant associations.
And there were at least some parts of Hunan where the fighting between the army and the peasants was two-sided. In one area, peasants managed to seize a railway line, cutting off communications with some important coal mines. In the process of the fighting, some soldiers’ homes had been damaged. If you’ll recall our earlier discussions of the proposed land reforms, the land and homes of soldiers with the National Revolutionary Army were supposed to be sacrosanct. So for the Wuhan government, the fact that the homes of soldiers who had been off fighting in the Northern Expedition had been damaged was a very big deal, although one suspects that peasants who were being attacked by the National Revolutionary Army might not have drawn major distinctions between elements of the army that had gone north and those that had stayed behind in Hunan and which were now killing peasants.
Toward the end of June, Tang Shengzhi returned from the front in Henan, and was dispatched to Hunan to try and put an end both to the peasant disorder and to bring his troops back into line. Repressing the peasantry was still not official policy of the Wuhan government, even though no effective action had yet been taken to stop the actions of the armed forces in the countryside. If anyone could bring them into line, it should have been their commander. Although Tang determined that the peasant associations were the main ones to blame for bringing repression down on themselves, he did decide that the army had overreacted when they murdered thousands of people. However, when he gave a demerit to the officer who had led the Horse Day Massacre in Changsha, and moved to expel two others involved in the Massacre from the Guomindang, that officer just took his troops to South Hunan and defected to Chiang Kai-shek, who immediately gave him a commission.
And this underscored a major problem for the Wuhan regime in trying to discipline its army. What would keep them from defecting to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nanjing-based government in response to any attempt at discipline? In effect, it made it impossible for the Wuhan government to discipline its troops, and meant that de facto the government acquiesced in the repression of the peasant movement and the Communist mass organizations outside of Wuhan, even though this ran counter to official policy.
In the face of this difficulty, what could be done? The Wuhan Communist leadership was divided, as it seemed there was no clear response. The truth was, they were now in a very weak position, and they still hoped to maintain a role in the Wuhan government. The idea of a general strike was put forward, but Borodin vetoed it. In fact, by late June the Guomindang Left leadership had already decided to end their cooperation with the Communists, it was just taking its time in putting its policy into effect. Probably their main motivation in taking their time with this, and not just carrying out a sudden purge, was their desire to maintain Soviet aid for as long as possible, and to see if they could find a way to end the united front with the Communists and keep on getting Soviet aid.
While the split between the Communists and the Guomindang Left was probably inevitable, the catalyst which pushed Wang Jingwei and his colleagues over the edge in deciding that the Communists had to go was one of the most colossal blunders in the history of international communism. On June 5, M. N. Roy, the Comintern representative who had only been in China a couple months, decided that he could intimidate Wang Jingwei into taking action which would bring the army into line and end the repression of the peasants’ and workers’ mass organizations by showing him Stalin’s June 1 telegram. One can only imagine what Wang thought when he read Stalin’s instructions to replace the vacillating and compromising leaders of the Guomindang Central Committee with peasant and working-class leaders and to form a new, independent army of workers and peasants while unleashing a new mass movement of land seizures in the countryside. But we know what Wang Jingwei decided. Rather than be cowed by threats made from a position of extreme weakness, Wang decided that he was done with the Communists. It was just a matter of when and how to end the alliance.
So, next episode, we will finally see the united front come undone.
Alright. That’s it for now. Before we end, though, I want to thank everyone for their reviews and ratings. People have had some very kind words to say, and I am grateful for them, and the ratings and reviews do help people to find the podcast. I also want to thank some of you for your donations to the podcast. I added a link to donate in the show notes and on the podcast website, peopleshistoryofideas.com, a little while ago, and I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has contributed to the podcast. Donations do help to buy academic history books, which are not cheap. I had been sending out individual thank-you notes, but now that some of you have been donating multiple times, I thought those might be socially awkward to keep on sending, so I just wanted to add a note here and let you know that it’s definitely appreciated.
OK, see you guys next episode.