The new policy of mass uprisings against the Guomindang is decided upon, and Mao’s comments at the meeting stand out for their epistemology.
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
C. Martin Wilbur, The Nationalist Revolution in China, 1923-1928
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Some names from this episode:
Chen Duxiu, Communist general secretary until July 12, 1927
Zhou Enlai, Member of temporary standing committee of Communist Politburo appointed in July 1927
Zhang Guotao, Member of temporary standing committee of Communist Politburo appointed in July 1927
Li Lisan, Member of temporary standing committee of Communist Politburo appointed in July 1927
Qu Qiubai, Named head of new provisional politburo at August 7, 1927 Emergency Conference
Xia Xi, Named to the South Hunan special committee responsible for the Autumn Harvest Uprising
Guo Liang, Named to the South Hunan special committee responsible for the Autumn Harvest Uprising
Ren Zuoxuan, Named to the South Hunan special committee responsible for the Autumn Harvest Uprising
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Besso Lominadze, New Comintern head in China starting in July 1927
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party
Wang Jingwei, Leader of the Guomindang Left
Welcome to Episode 56 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, the civil war between the Communists and the Guomindang finally broke out when the Communists organized a rebellion among the troops of the National Revolutionary Army in Nanchang and began to march their forces toward Guangdong in the Southern Expedition. Today’s People’s Liberation Army in China traces its origin to the Nanchang Uprising, so we will catch up with the people who were on the Southern Expedition in a later episode. Today, I want to go back to the party center, now working clandestinely in Wuhan, and examine their first major effort to chart a new path forward under the conditions of open warfare against the Guomindang.
An emergency party leadership conference took place on August 7 in the hot and cramped second floor apartment of a Soviet agricultural advisor who was still in Wuhan. The hope had been to have a full scale Party Congress, which would have been a much more authoritative decision making body than this quickly called emergency leadership conference. Because a major new direction was being taken in Party policy, it was thought that a Congress was definitely in order. But the recent repression and sudden adoption of a clandestine life by the Communists made it hard to call a full-scale Congress on short notice. The transition to clandestine operations and taking the entire party organization underground was initially only semi-organized and in most cases is just a fancy way of saying that Communists who were formerly operating out in the open now had to go into hiding, with many of them running for their lives, which obviously makes it hard to maintain organizational communications and travel around the country for meetings.
And on top of this difficulty, some of the most important leaders, such as Zhou Enlai, Li Lisan and Zhang Guotao, in other words, three of the five members of the temporary Politburo standing committee which had been formed in July when Chen Duxiu was deposed as party leader, were all marching south on the Southern Expedition which followed the Nanchang Uprising, which we discussed last episode. So, only 22 Communists managed to attend this emergency meeting, and almost all of them were already in Wuhan, with just one leader coming up from Shanghai and some of the Hunan leadership also making it to the meeting. On August 7, 1927, these 22 Chinese Communists, along with three Comintern representatives, crowded into this hot apartment which they weren’t allowed to leave because of security concerns, to have an all-day meeting and set the new course for waging revolutionary war against the Guomindang.
The main significance of the August 7 Emergency Conference was that it decisively marked the shift to a new policy of insurrection. And to say it did this ‘decisively’ is a bit of an understatement. Qu Qiubai, who was named the head of the new provisional politburo which was set up at this conference, later on referred to the period between this Conference and the end of 1927 as a period of “blind actionism.” So the new policy which the Communists embarked on after August 7 was to promote insurrection everywhere possible, with the hope of defeating the Guomindang, which was now going through a chaotic process of reunification as the Wuhan regime collapsed and the various Guomindang leaders jockeyed to find the best position that they could in relationship to the regime that was being consolidated in Nanjing.
Now, you might be wondering, who is this new leader of the Communist Party, Qu Qiubai, and why haven’t we talked about him before? Well, he’s a pretty interesting guy, and I want to tell some of his story leading up to his assumption of the leading role in the Party in an episode soon, so we’ll get to that in another episode, but we’ll leave it aside for right now.
This period from August to December of 1927 is going to be a time when the Communists thought that there was a real possibility of stimulating mass uprisings against the Guomindang across large parts of China, although what they are going to find is both that the Nanjing regime consolidated its strength fairly quickly, and that the peasants and workers were no longer as receptive to efforts at mass armed mobilization as they had been in the immediate wake of the Northern Expedition in 1926 and early 1927 (and which we discussed in episodes 39 through 48), mainly as a result of the major repression which both the right and left wings of the Guomindang had exercised on these mass movements during 1927.
But the Communists were going to find out the hard way that the conditions for outright mass insurrection were not quite there any more in late 1927. And, it’s worth noting, that despite these newly unfavorable conditions, that the seeds of the future victory (which, let’s remember, is a very difficult 22 years off still), do get sown during this time, so out of the experience of this ‘blind actionism,’ as Qu Qiubai called it, will come the beginning of the development of the strategy which will lead to victory, and it was in this upcoming period that we see the formation of the first Communist base areas in the Chinese countryside, in direct response to the defeats that are going to be suffered in the upcoming attempts at mass insurrection, which I want to discuss over the course of a few podcast episodes in some detail, so we can get a more concrete understanding of what happened.
So, the August 7 Emergency Conference was the beginning of this turn toward vigorous promotion of armed revolution against the Guomindang. And the spearhead of this effort was to be something called the Autumn Harvest Uprising. In preparation for the August 7 Conference, on August 3 the Central Committee had drawn up an outline of their vision of the Autumn Harvest Uprising. I’d like to share the bulk of this document here, and then dissect it a little bit, particularly in relationship to Mao Zedong’s reaction to the plan.
This document pretty clearly repudiates the policy that had recently been pursued by the Communist Party, which sacrificed the interests of the peasantry for the goal of finding unity with the Guomindang Left government, and which we discussed in some detail in episodes 50 through 53. During that time, one of the main advocates for the interests of the peasantry, and for not abandoning the peasants but rather championing their efforts, had been Mao Zedong, who was now assigned to play a leading role in the Autumn Harvest uprising in Hunan.
Some of Mao’s comments from the August 7 Conference have been recorded, so let’s see how he reacted to these new plans, which seem to vindicate a position of siding with the militant peasant associations that he had been advocating since he returned to Wuhan in February 1927 from spending time in the Hunan countryside, which we discussed back in episode 41.
“The peasants want a revolution. Party members close to the peasants also want a revolution, but the upper level of the Party is a different story. Before I arrived in Changsha” (here, Mao is referring to when he got to Changsha to begin his investigation of the movement in Hunan in December 1926), “Before I arrived in Changsha, I had no reason to oppose the Party’s decision, which sided entirely with the landlords. Even after arriving in Changsha, I was still unable to answer this question. It was not until I had stayed in Hunan for more than 30 days that I completely changed my attitude. I made a report in Hunan expressing my opinion, and simultaneously also sent a report to the Center.” (Again, I want to refer listeners to episode 41 for our discussion of these reports that Mao made from Hunan and his experience there.) “This report had its impact in Hunan, but it had no influence whatever on the Center. The broad masses inside and outside the Party want revolution, yet the Party’s guidance is not revolutionary; there really is a hint of something counterrevolutionary about it. I have established these views under the guidance of the peasants. Formerly, I thought the opinion of the leading comrades was right, so I didn’t really insist on my own views. Thus my opinions, which they said were unreasonable, did not prevail… In sum, the influence of the masses over the Party leadership was far too small in the past.”
This part of Mao’s comments from the Conference show Mao’s response to having the position that he had been advocating being vindicated. First of all, as we’ve seen, in episodes 50 and 51 for example, Mao did not in fact think that the opinion of the leading comrades (specifically Mikhail Borodin and Chen Duxiu) was right, and he kept pushing his own views to the extent that he had been able to, so clearly Mao is taking some rhetorical liberties in his comments at this meeting, in portraying himself as having deferred to the ideas of mistaken leaders.
More interesting, though, is the fact that in response to the new Party leadership coming around to seeing the peasants as central revolutionary actors whose interests the Party should uphold and fight for, is that Mao attributes his own previous insights into this issue to his having learned from the peasants during his time in Hunan, and also presents the previous mistaken Party policy as having been due to “the influence of the masses over the Party leadership” as having been “far too small in the past.” There is a very notable difference here in tone, rhetorical style and, most importantly, epistemology, from the statements of other Party leaders at this time, and it really stands out to read what Mao says at this meeting and compare it, for example, to the reports by the Comintern representative Lominadze or the new Party leader Qu Qiubai.
Epistemology, if that’s a term you’re not familiar with, is the branch of philosophy that has to do with the problem of “how do we know things;” or how do we know if something is true or not; or what is the way that we come up with what we believe in. So, the dominant practice in Chinese Communism in 1927, and prior to 1927, was to make claims for what revolutionary strategy to pursue, based on deductions drawn from what was understood to be the body of theory understood to comprise Marxism, which largely consisted of writings by Marx, Engels and Lenin, combined with summations drawn from the experience of revolution in Russia. So essentially, you started with a body of theory, and then looked at Chinese society and said, well, how does this apply here, what should we do?
Right, this was in fact pretty explicitly what the founders of the Chinese Communist Party were looking for, as you might recall from way back in episodes 13 through 18. You had all these Chinese progressives who were like, man, we need to somehow do something that is going to work to change Chinese society, we like what they are doing in Russia, let’s adopt their theory and apply it here. That is explicitly what the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, had done. And then, when the Comintern sent agents to help out and guide the Chinese Party, their authority rested on their association with a successful socialist revolution, and an understanding that this meant that these Comintern agents had access to a superior knowledge of Marxism, which was either embodied in themselves, or represented by them through a chain of command which stretched back to Moscow, which was understood to be the command center of the world revolution.
Naturally, all of this is completely understandable. So it makes sense that, in meetings about revolutionary strategy, that claims about what strategy should be followed, tended to have an epistemological foundation that was based on an interpretation of what Marxism, or what the experience of the Russian Revolution, said should be done in any particular situation. Makes sense, right? Almost doesn’t even merit comment, right? And that is why it is so noticeable that this is not what Mao does, it stands out in contrast to everyone else. What Mao does is he says that the Party had been messing up, had been even carrying out a counterrevolutionary policy, because “the influence of the masses over the Party leadership was far too small in the past.” So Mao is saying that correct revolutionary strategy can’t only be deduced from using the theory that they had, he is saying that somehow there had to be some kind of influence, or oversight, or something coming from the masses, or else you’re going to have an incorrect revolutionary strategy. No one else is saying this at this meeting, so it really stands out.
So what is going on here? Now, there used to be historians who would look at statements like this and said that Mao wasn’t really a Marxist, he was just some peasant nationalist or populist or something. But we know too much about Mao these days to say Mao wasn’t a Marxist. He clearly was very committed to Marxist ideology. No one who seriously studies Chinese history would say that Mao wasn’t a serious Marxist today, however unorthodox he might seem, depending on what you think constitutes Marxist orthodoxy, which would be a whole other digression which we’ll avoid right now.
Well, and I’ll make this quick, because we’ve covered this history in some detail in past episodes of this podcast, what had been the experience so far of the Chinese Revolution with the dominant epistemology of just deducing what needed to be done from a preexisting body of theory? A bunch of very smart people decided that, based on an analysis of Chinese society, that a policy of uniting with the progressive section of the Chinese national bourgeoisie was necessary to move China toward socialism, because it had to go through a stage of democratic revolution and there was a necessary role to be played by the national bourgeoisie in that process. OK, fair enough. Now, as events evolved, questions were posed about what sort of sacrifices of the interests of the peasants and workers would need to be made to successfully pursue this strategy of uniting with the national bourgeoisie, embodied in the Guomindang Left which was led by Wang Jingwei. Mikhail Borodin and Chen Duxiu made difficult decisions, decisions that we know that they agonized over, that in the long term interests of the peasants and workers themselves, the Communist Party would have to acquiesce in the suppression of the peasant associations in Hunan by the militarists associated with the Guomindang Left. We’re talking serious massacres here. Borodin and Chen didn’t like to do this, but, they felt that this was the sort of hard headed decision making that had to be done in the overall interests of oppressed people. Eventually, they thought, their way of approaching the United Front would lead to liberation, and presumably when you added up the body count of dead peasants and workers at the end of the day, less would die through the strategy they were advocating than if they had taken a different course which ultimately wouldn’t lead to liberation.
Right, that’s the thinking there. That’s the thinking that Mao was characterizing as counter-revolutionary. And of course, Qu Qiubai and Besso Lominadze, the Comintern representative, also characterized this policy as seriously mistaken at the August 7 Emergency Conference. But, Qu and Lominadze argued that it was a mistaken application of Marxism, while Mao argues that it was due to “the influence of the masses over the Party leadership was far too small in the past.” Now, what did this mean? What was Mao saying here? Mao was a Marxist, so he thought that applying Marxist theory was necessary to come up with correct revolutionary strategy. But he also seems to be saying that, look, if the strategy that you come up with leads you down a path where you are acquiescing in the massacre of peasants, the suppression of workers’ unions, in the name of your revolutionary strategy, then you’ve gone off the rails somewhere. So, there needs to be some check on the Party and whether it is really revolutionary or not, and this comes, in some form or another, in the form of the masses having some important influence on the party. On some fundamental level, there is an element in the epistemology of revolutionary strategy and policy that relies on being in touch with and influenced by the masses.
And this is going to be a recurring theme in Mao, and is made more explicit in many of his widely read works, and I think is an important part of his appeal worldwide later on as the years go by. This sense of the inadequacy of revolutionary theory which is not checked or supervised by the masses, and which we see become disconnected from and, contrary to the initial intents of revolutionary organizations around the world, turned against the masses of people in so many instances over the course of the 20th century. Certainly, we see this thinking informing the Cultural Revolution. And really, I don’t think Mao always lives up to this ideal throughout his entire life, but you can judge that for yourself as we go on studying the history of global Maoism.
OK, I’m going to wrap it up here for today. We actually still have a bit more to cover from the August 7th Conference, including more things that Mao said there, before moving on to look at the background on Qu Qiubai and on how the Autumn Harvest Uprising played out, and then the creation of the first rural base areas of the Chinese Communists. But, it has been a couple months since I released an episode, so I’m going to get this out today.
I’ve had a bunch of messages of support and concern since I took a little unannounced break here from releasing episodes. All I can say is, you know, I know it’s a cliché, but life happens. I really do want to thank everyone for their messages, and even donations, while I was taking a little break. It was really heart-warming, and, you know, it is very easy to feel socially disconnected after a year of all this social distancing, so, again, thanks to everyone for their messages, and also for the kind reviews that have come out, across a variety of platforms and in a few countries, during the past few months.