Mao takes a critical position on the military line pursued by the Comintern and the Politburo. Also, the issue of scapegoating individuals as a way of dealing with repudiated party policies.
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
Zhou Enlai, Selected Works of Zhou Enlai, vol. 1
Some names from this episode:
Qu Qiubai, Named head of new provisional politburo at August 7, 1927 Emergency Conference
Besso Lominadze, New Comintern head in China starting in July 1927
Tang Shengzhi, Leader of Guomindang Left military forces
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Tan Pingshan, Communist representative in Wuhan government
Chen Duxiu, Former General Secretary of the Communist Party
Zhou Enlai, Member of temporary standing committee of Communist Politburo appointed in July 1927
Welcome to episode 57 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode we began our discussion of the August 7, 1927 Emergency Conference of the Chinese Communist Party, where the decisive policy-shift took place toward trying to organize armed uprisings to overthrow the Guomindang regimes, such as they were, in both Wuhan (where the Guomindang Left regime was in a process of collapse) and in Nanjing (where the Guomindang Right regime was in the process of consolidating itself and absorbing elements of the Wuhan regime that could be reconciled to it, while also preparing the bring those parts of China still under warlord rule under the rule of Nanjing, a process that would extend into 1928 and which would be largely successful, at least on paper).
We discussed some of Mao’s comments at the August 7 conference last episode, and focused in on the way in which he discussed the erroneous nature of the political policies that had been followed during 1927, and how this stood out from the way in which other people at the Conference discussed the now discarded united front policies. Mao’s comments stood out because of the emphasis that he put on the way in which learning from or being influenced by the masses would lead to more correct policies.
This episode I want to begin with some other comments that Mao made at the August 7 Conference, having to do more with the practical military side of the revolutionary process, and which, at first glance, appear to be in agreement with the position being put forward by Qu Qiubai and Besso Lominadze for how to go about the Autumn Harvest Uprisings, but which upon a little closer analysis reveal some important differences, which will very quickly involve Mao in a major dispute with the new Communist Party leadership over how to proceed with the mass uprisings that were being planned.
So let’s look at what Mao said:
“As regards military affairs, we used to censure Sun Yatsen for engaging only in a military movement, and we did just the opposite, not undertaking a military movement, but exclusively a mass movement.” Here, Mao is referring to how Sun Yatsen, before his alliance with the Soviet Union, would rely sometimes on winning over warlords and their armies to advance the Nationalist cause, rather than mass political mobilization. This was a major criticism that the Communists had of him before they allied with him. Ok, back to the statement by Mao: “Both Chiang Kaishek and Tang Shengzhi rose by grasping the gun; we alone did not concern ourselves with this. At present, although we have paid some attention to it, we still have no firm concept about it. The Autumn Harvest Uprising, for example, is simply impossible without military force. Our conference should attach great importance to this issue. The members of the Standing Committee of the new Politburo should take a firmer stand and pay attention to this issue. The failure in Hunan this time can be said to have resulted entirely from pedantic and subjective mistakes. From now on, we should pay the greatest attention to military affairs. We must know that political power is obtained from the barrel of the gun.”
So, before getting to the substance of this statement by Mao, it is worth noting that this is the first recorded example of Mao using something like his famous statement that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The quote that is usually used for that catchy saying of Mao’s which was taken up around the world during the 1960s was from a speech that Mao gave to a Central Committee meeting in 1938, when he said that “Every Communist must grasp the truth, ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.” Part of this speech was reproduced as a work titled “Problems of War and Strategy,” and was among the most widely read of Mao’s works by people who were trying to understand Mao’s military genius, including people who wanted to reproduce the success of the Chinese Revolution’s protracted people’s war elsewhere, and by the theorists of counter-insurgency who also studied Mao’s works very avidly in order to counter the wave of people’s liberation struggles. That’s why this ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ thing is maybe Mao’s best known quote, and there are a bunch of people who know this quote who don’t know much of anything else about Mao.
Anyways, it is very interesting to see Mao saying something very similar in 1927 already at this August 7 Emergency Conference, when he says “We must know that political power is obtained from the barrel of the gun.”
OK, as a sort of history nerd for Mao, I find that very interesting, and I hope that some of you do too. But the real substance of what Mao said here is the seed of a major disagreement which is going to lead in the weeks ahead to Mao being censured by the Party leadership for what the leadership labeled as a militarist deviation. So let’s look at the substance of what Mao said, and how it differs from what was being proposed by the Party leadership and the Comintern for the Autumn Harvest Uprising.
At first glance, it might appear that there is no real difference. After all, the uprising plan involves calling for a peasant revolt, and Mao is saying that military affairs are important. So, where’s the difference?
So, to be precise, when Mao says that “The Autumn Harvest Uprising, for example, is simply impossible without military force” in the statement that we just quoted, he isn’t just saying that the Communists should get some guns to some peasants and then “let’s go.” Rather, what Mao is saying is that for the peasant uprising to succeed, it is going to have to be heavily supported by, perhaps spearheaded by, an organized military force, a people’s army if you will, that has been organized and trained like a serious, professional fighting force. However, the proposal from Party leadership and the Comintern for the Autumn Harvest Uprising is very clear that the main force, and perhaps even the only force, should be the armed peasants themselves, organized through the peasant associations. And so, what you have going head to head here are two very different summations of what had happened during 1926 and 1927 with all of the peasant movements in Hunan and adjacent provinces in the wake of the Northern Expedition (and also the repression of the workers in Shanghai and elsewhere). Let me go over the thinking behind each of these summations.
First, let’s take the thinking that informed Qu Qiubai and the Comintern. Their understanding of the past few years of the Chinese revolutionary movement was that, back when the Soviet Union began its alliance with the Guomindang at the end of 1923, Sun Yatsen had a revolutionary strategy which basically relied on allying with warlords who could win power for him, but then that didn’t work because the warlords were always turning on Sun Yatsen and were totally unreliable. So, when the Soviet Union allied with Sun Yatsen, they sent Mikhail Borodin to Guangzhou in January 1924 to reorganize the party structure of the Guomindang, and also sent military advisors to start training and arming an army which would be controlled by the Guomindang itself, and which would be solidly based on revolutionary nationalist principles and could then beat all the opportunistic warlords, and to this end the National Revolutionary Army was created. The idea was that a political and military struggle would be waged to have a nationalist revolution, and that the National Revolutionary Army would be a major force in this struggle. And this process culminated in the Northern Expedition, and the massive outbreak of worker and especially peasant organizing and uprising that was inspired by the Northern Expedition. This is basically the story that we told from episode 20 through 48.
What happened next, though, was that we saw the National Revolutionary Army used, first by the Guomindang Right and then by the Guomindang Left, to crush the movements of the workers and peasants. This we covered in episode 49 through 54. And so the Party leadership and the Comintern, when they were drawing up plans for the Autumn Harvest Uprising, basically took a position that having an organized military force that was something different than an armed version of a peasant association or a workers’ union was fundamentally something that would be turned against the masses. They also articulated the idea that it was necessary for the masses to be organized and grow in organization through their own actions, and not through the substitution of a military force for what needed to be done through mass action. In their words, if it wasn’t mainly the masses themselves, organized as workers and peasants in unions and peasant associations, then you were having a ‘military adventure’ and the masses were not liberating themselves, and there really was no revolution going on. So, their negative summation of the way in which the National Revolutionary Army had been built up and then turned against the masses led Qu Qiubai and the Comintern to insist on this theoretical point about what forms of organization a revolution had to take, and violating this theoretical point, about the workers and peasants fighting for liberation qua workers and peasants, in their unions and associations, meant that you really weren’t having a revolution.
Now, Mao summed things up differently. The main takeaway that Mao had from the repression of the peasant associations in Hunan in 1927 was that the peasants could not usually stand up to a trained military force. To Mao, this meant that the Communists needed their own well-trained force of people whose main task was to function as an armed fighting force. This was kind of an extension of the thinking that had led to the creation of the National Revolutionary Army. Right? If Sun Yatsen couldn’t count on the warlords, then the Soviets helped to create the National Revolutionary Army. But then the National Revolutionary Army was under the control of the Guomindang, and in 1927 the Guomindang turned against the Communists and so now the Communists needed to create a new army of their own. There were still a few units of the National Revolutionary Army commanded by Communists, and some of these were made available to Mao and the others who were organizing the Autumn Harvest Uprising on the ground. Mao wanted to make full use of these forces, as well as roping in some organized forces from bandits and secret societies, to the degree possible, to strengthen the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan. In Mao’s thinking, the line being taken by the Party leadership that everything had to be done by the peasants and workers themselves was just setting the peasants and workers up to be slaughtered by the enemy’s military forces, in a replay of scenes that had already played out across Hunan earlier in the year.
We will get more into the details of how this played out, and how this disagreement between Mao and the Party leadership escalated during the build-up to the Autumn Harvest Uprising, when we look at the unfolding of the Uprising itself. But I do want to note that this debate on the nature of what sort of armed force is appropriate for carrying off a revolution is one that has echoes around the world.
To put things in really general terms, the debate is usually posed as whether a militia or an army is the best form of armed organization for carrying off a revolution. The arguments for a militia usually run along similar lines to those laid out by Qu Qiubai and Besso Lominadze, essentially arguing that an organized and armed body set apart from the masses has tremendous potential to be turned against the people, and carried the tremendous risk of having a revolution just to lose the revolution when militarists turn against it. And the argument for having a revolutionary army usually runs along very similar lines to what Mao was saying, which is essentially that you can’t win with just a militia, and so while you need to recognize and mitigate the risk of the army being turned against the people, the reality of what is needed in order to win dictates a higher level of military organization and expertise than can be accommodated by a militia form of organization.
Certainly, when you look at all the big revolutions of the 20th century, they were all won by armies. When you look at the Russian Revolution, which some people might say is an exception, if you just look at 1917, you could say there wasn’t one at the beginning, but certainly there was one by the end of the civil war. On the other hand, the danger of armies just taking over and becoming the tools of militarists is a huge phenomenon during 20th century revolutions as well, particularly with so many of the anti-colonial struggles. Right, the Bob Marley song “Zimbabwe” comes to mind here:
If you didn’t catch the lyrics, the song goes:
“So soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionaries
“And I don’t want my people to be tricked by mercenaries”
And we’re going to see Mao, over the course of the Chinese Revolution, constantly taking measures to try to prevent the militaristic degeneration of the armed forces that he leads, and we’ll deal with some of that as it comes up, which should be pretty soon when he sets up the first rural base area later on after the defeat of the Autumn Harvest Uprising. This is one of the reasons why that Mao quote from 1938 is so important, where he says “‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.” The sensational part of the quote is that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” But for Mao, that second part was at least as important, if not more important, that “the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”
So, this debate between “militia vs. army” is one of the big debates among revolutionaries in the 20th century, but of course those are just the general terms. In every specific case, the particular context is very important. It’s very rare, for example, to see the Comintern and Communist Party leadership arguing for a militia, instead of an army, as we see here in the August 7 Emergency Conference. Almost always, around the world during the 20th century, the Communists are known for taking the totally opposite position. But it’s important to keep in mind that there are different ways in which armies can be organized, and so even among advocates of the ‘revolutionary army’ position, there are some pretty different conceptions of what that armed force should look like, both as universal arguments that get made, and as arguments that are contingent on particular circumstances. So, while we’re not going to develop this discussion much further right now, I just wanted to raise that point, so as not to create any misunderstandings about the “militia vs. army” debate being the be-all and end-all of the discussion of theories of revolutionary military organization, rather than just a starting place for what is really a pretty involved topic.
Even people who think there is nothing special about Mao Zedong’s political ideas all pretty much agree that he was a military genius (and he was also surrounded by a few other military masterminds as well, as the revolution gets going), so looking at the development of Mao’s military thinking over the course of the revolution is something that I want to take seriously as this podcast continues.
Alright, so, before we wrap up our discussion of the August 7 Emergency Conference, there is one other issue that I want to discuss. In the process of putting forward the new policy of armed uprisings that the Communist Party would pursue, beginning with the Autumn Harvest Uprising (or, one could say that the policy might retroactively include the Nanchang Uprising as well), in the process of putting forward the new policy, a lot of attention was paid to criticizing the old policy. And one of the main aspects of criticizing the old policy was assigning blame. And, one of the main aspects of assigning blame, was making sure that the Comintern did not get blamed at all.
Here’s how the issue of responsibility, or blame, was dealt with in a circular letter sent out to the party membership on the basis of the discussions at the August 7 Conference, and which is dated August 7:
“The relationship between the party and the Comintern was […] not in accordance with accepted organizational procedure. There has never been a case in the history of the Comintern where the instructions and resolutions were actually rejected in such a critical situation. This was no longer a simple breach of discipline, but a criminal act against the Chinese and the international communist movement. The Chinese revolution does not merely have a national significance, but also forms a major element of the world revolution. The fate of the world revolution will be decided by the fate of the Chinese revolution. The Chinese Communist Party not only carried out an erroneous policy, a policy that brought the revolution to defeat, that voluntarily liquidated the revolution and capitulated to the enemy, but also would not admit its errors or obey the instructions of the Comintern. Not only that, but it also deliberately ignored its obligations to and the discipline of the Comintern…”
So, if the Comintern wasn’t going to bear any responsibility for the errors of the recent past, who would? Two figures were singled out as responsible: Tan Pingshan, who had been a Communist representative in the Guomindang government, and Chen Duxiu, the former General Secretary of the Party. Neither of these figures were able to defend themselves against the charges made against them. Tan was on the Southern Expedition, and Chen was prohibited from attending the meeting.
In 1944, Zhou Enlai delivered a long report at the Central Party School in the Yan’an base area over the course of two days which dealt with this period of party history. Here is how Zhou Enlai summed up how blame was assigned at the August 7 Conference:
“[B]ad precedents were created in inner-Party struggle. Chen Duxiu was not allowed to attend the meeting, and opposition to opportunism was seen as a personal attack on those responsible for opportunist mistakes. Later, things reached the point where in any struggle against opportunism, one or two persons in responsible positions had to be singled out and attacked as if they were opportunism itself. Once they had been removed or transferred, it was believed that opportunism had been eliminated and everything was just fine. Thus the Party made the mistake of being vindictive.”
So what happened at this Conference was that Chen and Tan were singled out and scapegoated for a policy that they often pursed quite reluctantly under Comintern pressure. Listeners might recall from past episodes that Chen Duxiu had sometimes proposed that the united front should be ended so that the Communists would not have to go along with the sorts of compromises that he was now being scapegoated for. It is true that Chen was quite inconsistent, swinging between his own preference to end the united front and his efforts at carrying out the united front policy with the discipline and enthusiasm that the Comintern demanded of him. He was strongly influenced by the theory of the productive forces, as many others were, but he also badly wanted to see a revolution by China’s workers, and we see this in his political swings between hoping that the national bourgeoisie will step up and lead the revolution and his promotion of workers’ armed uprisings in Shanghai, like we saw in episodes 44 to 48. Definitely, Chen did not see China’s peasants as the major force for revolution that they would become.
So, undoubtedly, from the perspective of an advocate for the new line adopted by the Communist Party at the August 7 Conference, Chen had committed major mistakes. But his worst errors, those with the most tragic consequences, had undoubtedly happened when he was doing his best to follow the discipline of the Comintern, often against what he would have done had top authority in the party resided with him, and not in Moscow. But, because a decision had been made to maintain the prestige and unquestionable authority of the Comintern, all blame had to be shifted onto Chen’s shoulders, along with those of Tan Pingshan, whose position as part of the Wuhan government made him vulnerable, even if in his case too his worst errors stemmed from carrying out the function assigned to him by the Party organization.
Now, everyone at this August 7 Conference, the 22 Chinese Communists and three Comintern representatives, knew that the Comintern was ultimately to blame for these policies. So what was the function and consequence, then, of having Lominadze and Qu give speeches which vehemently exonerated the Comintern and scapegoated Chen Duxiu? I think that the function within this group was a way of saying “this is what we believe now, this is what we are saying, this is how you better explain this when this comes up in inner-Party discussions.” And it must have introduced a level of cynicism into inner party political discussions that I think wasn’t there before, or that hadn’t reached this level yet. Ultimately, we know, Mao Zedong is going to have to stamp underfoot the prestige of the Comintern in order to guide the Chinese Revolution to its victory. But that is a few long years off still. But I think that if 17 years later Zhou Enlai was saying, hey, this August 7 Conference really introduced some bad practices into the way the Party deals with political errors, than this must really have been a turning point.
Ok, that’s it for the August 7 Emergency Conference for us.
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