Mao doesn’t budge on his military line in the face of pressure from the Party Center, and then gets arrested.
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Roy Hofheinz, “The Autumn Harvest Insurrection”
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Elizabeth Perry, Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition
C. Martin Wilbur, The Nationalist Revolution in China, 1923-1928
Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China
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
Peng Gongda, Leading Communist in Hunan
Yang Kaihui, Mao’s wife
Tang Shengzhi, Leader of Guomindang Left military forces
Mao Anlong, Mao’s youngest son
Mao Anqing, Mao’s three-year-old son
Mao Anying, Mao’s four-year-old son
Welcome to episode 60 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed how the Autumn Harvest Uprising was planned and executed in Hubei Province. This episode, we’re moving on south to Hunan, the other main theater for the Autumn Harvest Uprising, and ultimately the more consequential one. That’s because this is where Mao Zedong got his start in leading armed struggle, and as we will see, even people who are naturally talented at this sort of thing need some time in order to learn how to do it. So this episode is the very beginning of Mao’s 22 years of leading the protracted people’s war that ended in the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949.
Where we last left Mao, back in episode 57, he was disagreeing with Qu Qiubai, Besso Lominadze and the rest of the Communist central leadership over how to actually carry out the Autumn Harvest Uprising, with the central leadership saying that the uprising had to be carried out by peasant associations, without any significant reliance on any organized military force outside the peasant associations. And Mao said, no, the peasants can’t win without the participation of more organized and well-trained military forces than what the peasants can put together in their associations. We considered the substance of the arguments on each side in episode 57, so I won’t repeat them here. But I do want to say that last episode, we kind of saw a case for both sides of the argument in how the Autumn Harvest Uprising played out in Hubei. On the one hand, clearly the peasant associations that came together for the uprising in Hubei were nowhere near strong enough to carry off the uprising. But on the other hand, in the one case where the Communist rebels in Hubei did ally with an outside military force, specifically the hybrid bandit force and peasant self-defense force called the People’s Self-Defense Army, the Communists were in fact betrayed and hurt. So if you were looking at a scorecard for who was right, Mao or the Central Committee, on this point based on how the uprising played out in Hubei, I would have to say that the score was tied.
But as for Hunan, this conflict over how to carry out the uprising is going to continue all the way through the planning and execution of the uprising. In fact, it seems that both sides saw that this disagreement was going to be an issue going forward pretty much right away, because the original plan was to send Mao Zedong along with Peng Gongda to organize the uprising in Hunan, but right after the meeting on August 7 where this decision was taken, Qu Qiubai approached Mao and asked him if he wouldn’t like to go to Shanghai to work on the Party’s central party publication. Well, we know from back in episode 28 that Mao had no desire to return to working in the party apparatus in Shanghai, and so his answer won’t surprise us. He told Qu that he would rather go to the mountains to join the fellowship of the green-wood than stay with the Party leadership in a tall building.
Before Mao returned to Changsha secretly on August 12, he participated in the first meeting of the new Provisional Politburo of the Communist Party on August 9 (it was just a provisional politburo because it had been created by an emergency conference, rather than by a party congress). Mao had previously put forward a proposal that he should organize an army division out of forces loyal to the Communist Party in southern Hunan, and in response to a proposal that this force (if formed) might be sent out to join up with the Southern Expedition that had been proceeding toward Guangdong Province after the Nanchang Uprising (which we talked about in Episode 55), he made the following comments:
“To organize a division to go to Guangdong is wrong. All of us should not look only at Guangdong; Hunan is also very important. The organization of the popular masses in Hunan is even more extensive than that in Guangdong. What is lacking is military force, and now that the time for an uprising is at hand, military force is even more necessary. Not long ago, I drafted a plan, which has been approved by the Standing Committee,” (it had been approved on August 1) “for establishing a military force of one division in southern Hunan, to occupy five or six counties, and create a political base, in order to develop the agrarian revolution in the whole province. Even if it should be defeated, this force ought not to move to Guangdong, but should go up to the mountains.”
This statement by Mao at the Politburo meeting on August 9 is significant for the following reasons:
1) It shows that, on the eve of leaving for Hunan to organize the Autumn Harvest Uprising, that Mao was fairly optimistic about the possibilities of a widespread peasant uprising. In hindsight, we know that as things are going to turn out, that the repression that had been meted out to the peasants of Hunan over the course of 1927 had already broken the spirit for rebellion. But clearly the mass upsurge of 1926 and early 1927 was fresh in the minds of Mao and other organizers, and there was still some level of optimism that the peasants maintained their earlier revolutionary energy and might rise up to support the Uprising.
2) Mao shows that he is not going to drop his insistence on the need for a dedicated, organized military force to spearhead the uprising.
and 3) Mao does already have firmly in mind a contingency plan in case the Autumn Harvest Uprising is defeated, which is to go up to the mountains and continue the struggle from there.
Ok, so having established this mindset that Mao had before leaving for Hunan, what does he discover when he gets there?
The first thing that Mao did was to engage in some social investigation to see what the attitude of the people was toward the government and the idea of a new revolutionary uprising. Mao’s wife, Yang Kaihui, was from the nearby village of Bancang, and so Mao met up with his family and went to their home. Mao’s family had been mainly staying in Bancang since November 1926, and included his new four-month old son Mao Anlong, as well as his three- and four-year-old sons Mao Anqing and Mao Anying, as well as his mother-in-law. While staying at the family home, Mao invited five peasants, a bamboo craftsman and a primary school teacher to his home over the course of two days and talked with them about social conditions and the attitudes and feelings of the people. He then returned to Changsha and there met with five more peasants.
These discussions led Mao to argue for two changes to the planned uprising during a meeting of the Hunan Provincial Committee on August 18-19, which took place at a house in the Changsha suburbs.
The first issue was that of land confiscation. The plan as decided upon on August 7 for carrying out the land revolution during the uprising was for only the land of larger landlords to be confiscated. Now, Mao argued that “In China, there are just a few big landlords, but many small ones. If only the land of the former is going to be confiscated, there will not be much to go around. Since the land demand is a big one, the land to be confiscated from big landlords alone would not be sufficient to meet the demand and needs of the peasants. In order to win the total support of the peasants, the land of all landlords must be confiscated and handed over to them.”
Now, this question of the relationship between how broadly land confiscation programs are carried out, or whether a rent reduction program is carried out instead of a land expropriation program, and how much popular support the Communists will win or lose by however they calibrate their land reform program, is something that is going to keep changing throughout the revolution. It’s going to fluctuate based on specific local situations as well as based on the overall political situation in the country. At this early stage, we can see that Mao is taking a decision to just confiscate all the land held by landlords, even small ones. One of the interesting underlying stories of the Chinese Revolution lies in watching how this policy changes over time, and with those changes we can observe Mao’s development as a leader of the peasant movement. So, I just wanted to point this out as an important point to ‘stay tuned’ on.
The second point from the August 7 plan that Mao changed based on his conversations with the 12 people he consulted with was how or whether the local levels of the Guomindang Left in Hunan would be appealed to. The assumption made at the August 7 meeting was that in Hunan the local levels of the Guomindang Left were about as progressive as the remnants of the Guomindang Left could be, and that there would be some propaganda value in presenting the Uprising as representing the true spirit of the Nationalist Revolution and the Guomindang. What Mao discovered, as he wrote in a letter to the Communist Central Committee on August 20, following the end of the Provincial Committee Meeting, was that:
“The standard of the Guomindang has now become the banner of the warlords, and only the standard of the Communist Party is the banner of the people. I was not so aware of this while in Hubei Province; however, in the last few days I have seen here in Hunan the behavior of the Guomindang provincial headquarters controlled by Tang Shengzhi, and the people’s reaction to it. I can now come to the conclusion that the banner of the Guomindang must no longer be the one to raise.”
So here we see the last petering out of the last remnant of the recently expired policy of operating under the Guomindang banner. What was implied here as well was that there was no real hope that any base level institutions of the Guomindang would come over to support the uprising.
In addition to these two changes to the August 7 plans that were based on Mao’s discussions with peasants, Mao also won the Hunan Provincial Committee to two other major changes during the meeting of August 18-19.
First, Mao kept hammering away at the need for organized military support for the peasants. At the meeting, Mao said that “Given one or two regiments, an uprising can be successful; otherwise it is bound to fail. The development of the uprising must lead to the seizure of political power. If you want to seize political power, to try to do it without the support of military forces would be sheer self-deception. Our Party’s mistake in the past has been that it neglected military affairs. Now we should concentrate 60 percent of our energies on the military movement. We must carry out the principle of seizing and establishing political power on the barrel of a gun.”
OK, so we can see that Mao is actually quite optimistic for the success of the uprising if only a little bit of organized force can be put at its disposal. He says it can succeed just with the support of one or two regiments. At this meeting, the Provincial Committee already identified two regiments that could be used in the uprising, and as things are going to turn out, despite the opposition of the Party Center, the Hunan Communists are going to have a few regiments to help them. But, the uprising is going to be pretty far from successful. Although maybe the regiments that Mao got were far from the quality of what he was hoping for. In any case, we’ll look at those regiments in more detail soon. So Mao does at this point still think that the peasants are going to rise up and support the uprising in very broad numbers, just that they will need a little organized military force to give the uprising that little bit of extra “oomph” to win.
Mao also does this thing in this passage that we will see him do a lot in the future, a kind of idiosyncratic thing when he says that “we should concentrate 60 percent of our energies on the military movement.” Mao likes to give percentages to things, like, we should put x% of our energies here and y% here, or that something or someone is x% correct and y% incorrect. Probably the most famous statement that Mao makes like this is in his evaluation of Stalin, after Stalin’s death, when he says that Stalin was 70% correct and 30% wrong (and, in different quotes, where instead of “correct and wrong” Mao says “70% Marxist and 30% bourgeois,” or “70% good and 30% bad”).
That last change that Mao made was to narrow the focus of the uprising. Just like in Hubei last episode, the Hunanese Communists found themselves with not enough forces to carry out the insurgency across the entire province. In Hubei, for example, I mentioned last episode that the special organization formed to carry off the insurrection had about 200 members. What I think I forgot to mention was that 400 Communists had been assigned to that work. Essentially, 200 people decided that discretion was the better part of valor and just didn’t show up to take up the work when they were assigned to do it. My sources don’t have numbers for Hunan like they do for Hubei, but it’s a good bet that something similar happened there as well.
So a decision was made to focus on just one region of Hunan. In light of the fact that Tang Shengzhi had concentrated a lot of his forces in southern Hunan to fight a subordinate who had rebelled against him, where Mao had originally proposed that a Communist regiment could be pulled together, a decision was made to focus on seizing Hunan’s capital, Changsha, and the countryside surrounding the city. As Mao explained in a letter of August 30 after being criticized by the Party Center for reducing the geographical scope of the uprising: “our strength can only support a mobilization in central Hunan. If our strength is to be scattered for uprisings in every county, even the plan for uprising in central Hunan could barely be realized.”
The Party Center responded quickly to Mao’s deviations from the original plan with a letter sent on August 23. Basically, the Politburo did not agree with any of Mao’s changes. But their most serious accusation against Mao went like this: “both your written report and the verbal report of [a comrade whose name is concealed in the letter as it has come down to us] reveal that your preparations for a peasant insurrection in the main counties are extraordinarily weak, and that you are relying on military force from outside to seize Changsha. This sort of overstress on military force appears to reveal a lack of faith in the revolutionary strength of the masses, and its result will be a kind of military adventurism.”
But Mao refused to back down on his position. In the Hunan Provincial Committee’s August 30 response to the Central Committee, Mao or one of his close collaborators wrote that “You call our action a military adventure… This shows a lack of understanding of the actual situation here, and the policy of calling on the people to launch armed uprisings without paying attention to the military question is inherently contradictory.”
On September 5 the Party Center got the last word of this exchange in as final preparations were underway for the insurrection. The Party Center’s letter went as follows:
“We hold that the Hunan Provincial Committee during the recent period of critical struggle has lost a number of opportunities for furthering insurrection among the peasantry. The provincial committee should immediately and resolutely act in accordance with the central plan, and build the main force of the insurrection on the bodies of the peasants. Hesitation will not be permitted… In the midst of the current critical struggle, Central instructs that the Hunan Provincial Committee must absolutely execute the resolutions of Central. There cannot be the slightest hesitation.”
But, despite the Party Center’s insistence that the Hunan Communists obey its authority, by September 5 the plan was moving forward as reconceptualized by Mao and the rest of the Hunan Provincial Committee. The armed forces that Mao hoped to utilize in the uprising were concentrated in the Hunan-Jiangxi border region, and when the September 5 letter from the Party Center arrived, Mao had already left to go to Anyuan, a mining center that had been a stronghold of Communist Party influence, just over the border from Hunan in Jiangxi province. Mao had left for Anyuan on September 1, after first accompanying Yang Kaihui to her home in Bancang. It was the last time that he would see her or his youngest son, the four-month-old Mao Anlong.
In Anyuan, Mao assumed leadership of the Front Committee, which was supposed to play the leading role in guiding the military aspects of the uprising. Interestingly, while the specific military plans for how the various forces at the disposal of the Communists would advance were made in Anyuan, the timeline for the uprising was decided by the Provincial Committee members back in Changsha. So on September 6 Mao learned in Anyuan of the timeline that had been decided: destruction of railroads was to start on September 9, on September 11 uprisings were to be organized in the counties surrounding Changsha, and then on September 15 an insurrection was the be staged in Changsha itself, during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Listeners might be familiar with the Mid-Autumn Festival as a time when mooncakes are traditionally eaten. When I was teaching Latin American and world history at a university in China, we were given this big tin of mooncakes at the Mid-Autumn Festival time. Anyways, it’s a pretty important traditional holiday. So, this communication that went out from Changsha on September 6 to Mao and other Communists who were spread out across Hunan informing them about what the timeline for the uprising was going to be, was intercepted by the Guomindang authorities. And the Communists learned about this interception of their communications on September 8, when the Changsha newspapers published a notice that a curfew was being imposed in Changsha. So, garrisons in the countryside were put on alert for the upcoming uprising, and in Changsha itself there was now a curfew, and whatever festive popular exuberance that the Communists might have hoped to take advantage of during the course of the attempted Changsha insurrection was tamped down by the heightened state of police and military readiness of the Guomindang in the city.
Having lost the element of surprise and seeing that the enemy was on the alert, doubts must have been raised about the chances for success of the uprising, but despite this, a decision was taken to keep moving forward as planned. Mao left Anyuan most likely on September 8, making his way toward the village of Tonggu to meet up with one of the regiments that would participate in the uprising. He was disguised as an agent of the Anyuan coal mine, but in a village on the way the landlord militia was conducting door-to-door searches for suspected rebels.
Here’s how Mao described what happened next when Edgar Snow interviewed him for Red Star Over China in 1936.
[quote from Snow]
Alright, next episode, as the Autumn Harvest Uprising actually gets under way in Hunan, we’ll see what actually happens.
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