The first days of Mao Zedong’s long career of armed struggle.
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Roy Hofheinz, “The Autumn Harvest Insurrection”
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
C. Martin Wilbur, The Nationalist Revolution in China, 1923-1928
Elizabeth Perry, Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition
Some names from this episode:
Lu Deming, Leader of the Lu Deming Regiment
Zhang Fakui, Guomindang general close to Wang Jingwei
Qu Qiubai, Named head of new provisional politburo at August 7, 1927 Emergency Conference
Zhang Guotao, Leading Communist
Welcome to episode 61 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we looked at some of the planning that went into the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan; the conflict between the Hunan Provincial Committee and the Party Center; and finally Mao’s arrest and near brush with execution by the landlord militias, before he escaped and made his way to meet up with the forces that he would be leading in the Uprising. Mao arrived in the village of Tonggu on September 10, and if you remember from last episode, the Uprising had been set to begin on September 9 with the tearing up of railroads. The Uprising did in fact start on schedule, so when Mao arrived in Tonggu, things had already gotten underway. Communist railroad workers had gone out on September 9th to destroy the railways leading in to Changsha. Who better to destroy the railroad, after all, than the people who worked on it?
So, who were these people who participated in the Uprising? We’ve talked at some length about this dispute between Mao Zedong and the Party Center about whether Mao should use organized armed forces in the Uprising, or just rely on the peasant associations without the aid of already armed regiments. Let’s look now at just who comprised these armed regiments that participated in the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan and where these regiments came from.
There are four organized, armed groupings that the Autumn Harvest Uprising drew together and which Mao reorganized into something called the First Division of the First Army of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army.
The first of these groupings was something known as the Lu Deming Regiment, after the regiment’s commander, Lu Deming. The Lu Deming regiment was part of Zhang Fakui’s forces. Zhang Fakui, you might recall, was the Guomindang general who we met in Episode 55 when a portion of his forces mutinied and started the Communist armed struggle against the Guomindang. The Lu Deming Regiment was under Communist leadership, and had been stationed a ways west of Nanchang. When the Nanchang Uprising broke out, the Lu Deming Regiment had tried to meet up with the other Communist forces that had mutinied, but was too far away and by the time they got near Nanchang, they learned that the mutineers had already marched off South on the Southern Expedition, and there were too many Nationalist troops between themselves and their comrades to be able to easily unite with their forces. So instead, after a meandering course, during which there were numerous mutinies, the Lu Deming Regiment ended up back in the Hunan-Jiangxi border region, in the village of Xiushui.
The Lu Deming Regiment had been greatly diminished during the month of August, between its original mutiny and settling in Xiushui. This was because the regiment’s leadership was Communist, but there were many troops who were not Communist. And so you had a situation where there was military discipline within the regiment, where subordinate troops were supposed to do as commanded, but a larger situation in which the Regiment had rebelled against the larger power structure, and so there were periodic episodes when troops who had no loyalty to the Communist cause rebelled, either because of political differences or because they had no desire to be on the losing side of a rebellion that they had no strong feelings about. After settling in Xiushui, the regiment began bolstering its numbers again by organizing peasant armies in the surrounding region. This was the state that it was in when it was turned into the First Regiment of the First Division of the First Army of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army. Right up until the eve of the Uprising, Lu Deming had been in Wuhan reporting to the Party Center, but he returned just in time for the uprising to take the post of General Commander of the whole First Division.
The second already armed and organized grouping which participated in the Uprising was a guard corps comprised mainly of unemployed coal miners and railroad workers from the Anyuan mining complex. Miners from Anyuan had been a longstanding Communist constituency and support base, and were prominent participants in the Nanchang Uprising as well. This guard corps ended up forming the Second Regiment of the First Division of the First Army of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army.
The third already armed and organized grouping was an example of a phenomenon known as a “rag tag army,” which was a sort of semi-bandit armed grouping that was able to exist in the confusion surrounding the fragmentation of the Guomindang and the proliferation of armed forces attached to different Guomindang leaders who were jockeying for position. This grouping had mutinied from one Guomindang general back in May, when that general had rebelled against Wang Jingwei’s Wuhan-based government of the Guomindang Left. However, this group now was formally allied with a different, anti-Communist Guomindang general, but largely operated independently. This group was based around Xiushui, where the Lu Deming Regiment was based, and had had some friction with the Lu Deming Regiment. However, it was persuaded to participate in the Autumn Harvest Uprising and was absorbed into the First Regiment along with the Lu Deming Regiment. We’ll see just how well absorbed it was though in just a minute here.
The fourth and final armed and organized grouping that joined the Uprising was a worker-peasant militia from the town of Liuyang that had managed to preserve some of its strength, despite the repression of the past few months. This is the force that Mao met up with in Tonggu. Which is noteworthy, since the presence of what had been known as the Liuyang Worker-Peasant Volunteer Corps in Tonggu is indicative of the fact that the Liuyang force had been driven out of Liuyang by the Guomindang’s repression. But, they were hoping to fix that, and one of the targets of this group in the Uprising was set to be Liuyang, a sort of homecoming for them. This group was turned into the Third Regiment of the First Division of the First Army of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army.
The basic plan for the Uprising was that these three regiments would advance from the mountainous Jiangxi-Hunan border region toward Changsha in a three-pronged assault, conquering the major towns in the countryside along the way and rousing the peasantry to action. Then, on September 15, with Changsha more or less surrounded and the countryside to the east of the city controlled by the peasantry, an insurrection in the city would take Changsha from the inside. This was the plan, anyways.
On the crucial part of the plan that involved rousing the peasantry, the organizers soon found that they had badly miscalculated the mood in the countryside. As one report soon after the Uprising’s failure went: “This time peasants did not come forth to join our troops upon their arrival. The peasants were far less active compared to their response to the arrival of the Northern Expeditionary Army. Most of them dared not take action as they were frightened by the prospect of disaster in the event of our troops’ defeat.”
This meant that the three regiments of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army were really the only substantial force in the uprising, and victory or defeat would be contingent on their performance without the aid of the peasantry. Let’s see how they did on a case by case basis.
The first regiment, the former Lu Deming regiment with the admixture of the rag tag army forces, planned to advance from their base in Xiushui southwest to take the county seat of Pingjiang and occupy the countryside north of Changsha. In a practice that was standard among the warlord armies in China, the weakest forces were put in the vanguard of the advancing army. The idea behind this general practice was apparently that the forces in the front would take the brunt of any assault, so just go ahead and sacrifice your worst troops in that position. In this case, these weakest forces were also the least reliable forces, the troops that had until recently formed the ‘rag tag’ army regiment that was aligned with the Guomindang. What ended up happening was that, this ‘rag tag’ force coveted the better weaponry of the troops coming up behind them. So, what they did was they falsely communicated that they had made contact with the enemy, and then set an ambush for the main force of the Lu Deming regiment that was coming up from behind. This ambush inflicted very heavy casualties and basically ended the advance of what had been the most experienced of the Communist armed forces participating in the Uprising.
The second regiment, the former guard corps of Anyuan miners, was quite a bit more successful. It set out from Anyuan west toward the county seat of Liling on the evening of September 10 and occupied it on September 12, with a small advance force taking the town of Zhuzhou further down the rail line toward Changsha on the same day. Zhuzhou could only be held for a few hours, however, as the fall of that town created a panic in Changsha among the Guomindang authorities and a strong counter-attack of what were called ‘suppression armies’ was sent out to retake Zhuzhou and Liling.
After taking Liling on the 12th, the second regiment had set up a ‘revolutionary committee’ for the city, announcing the legalization of workers’ unions and peasant associations, as well as the new land confiscation program. However, under military pressure, the next day, September 13, the second regiment left Liling to advance on Liuyang, where the hope was to meet up with the third regiment, the one that Mao Zedong was with. The third regiment, which had as its objective to advance from Tonggu southwest through Liuyang as it approached Changsha, didn’t make it very far however. Less than halfway between Tonggu and Liuyang, Mao’s regiment was defeated and turned back and began a retreat south to regroup. Given the unfavorable situation in the countryside and the alert military police forces within the city, the Hunan Provincial Committee in Changsha decided to call off the urban insurrection there that had been scheduled for September 15. When the Anyuan miners’ regiment reached Liuyang on September 16 it did manage to take the town, but could not hold it for very long under the fierce blows of the Guomindang counter-attack.
The three regiments of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army had been reduced in numbers from about 5,000 to 1500 in just a few days, and the surviving forces regrouped in the village of Wenjiashi near the Hunan-Jiangxi border. On the evening of September 19 a Front Committee meeting was held to decide what course should now be taken. It was a very contentious meeting. One side argued that their orders remained to try to capture Changsha, and that if they didn’t take their regrouped forces and try to take Changsha, they would be charged with deserting their duties. As we’ve seen in the case of Hubei two episodes ago, the remnants of the Hubei special committee had just been ordered on September 18, the night before the Front Committee meeting in Wenjiashi, to go back out and try to make the uprising happen (resulting in the death or disappearance of everyone involved), despite the complete defeat that had already been suffered in Hubei. So, those comrades in Hunan who argued that the Central Committee would still want them to march on Changsha were correct that this is what the Central Committee would order.
However, another set of people at the meeting, with Mao Zedong as their main representative, argued that the Autumn Harvest Uprising had already been defeated in Hunan and that attacking Changsha would be like attacking a rock with an egg. Mao argued that the army should retreat up into the mountains and rebuild its strength. As it turned out, Mao’s argument won the day. The next morning, Mao addressed the army, which had assembled on the sports ground of a school. Here’s how Mao described the path that the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army was going to now embark on:
“The Chinese Revolution today cannot succeed without the gun. Only with guns can we defeat the reactionaries. The setbacks of this uprising are not at all a big deal. Victory or defeat is something common for the soldier. Our forces are still small, and cannot at the moment attack big cities heavily guarded by the enemy. We should first go to the countryside where the enemy rule is weak, preserve our strength, and work for a peasant revolution. At present, we are like small stones, while the Chiang Kai-shek reactionaries are like a big water vat; but someday, we small stones will crash Chiang Kai-shek’s big water vat!”
This decision to find a mountain redoubt from which to build strength in areas where the enemy was weak was a decisive strategic turning point for the Chinese Revolution, but it was going to be a long time before that was discovered. At the time, as predicted during the meeting of the Front Committee, the Party Center treated the decision of Mao and the rest of the Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army to go up into the mountains and try to create a base area for revolution as desertion from the revolutionary struggle.
The Comintern representative in Changsha wrote a scathing report in which he claimed that “The masses were willing to struggle but their leaders had soiled their own diapers.” And the Party Center sent a notice to the Hunan Provincial Committee condemning the Committee for “taking a permissive attitude towards the retreat of the peasant army.” The Party Center ordered the Provincial Committee to continue the attack on Changsha and sent along a comrade to Hunan who was supposed to “direct the Provincial Committee in executing the original plan for insurrection.” The Hunanese comrades proved to be less willing to follow insane orders than their counterparts in Hubei, however, and in any case, the only force that they had to rely on to continue the uprising had committed itself to a different policy by marching south in search of a place to create a rural base area for revolution, essentially in rebellion against the Party leadership.
So, we’ll have the opportunity soon to follow Mao’s road from Wenjiashi to settling on the Jinggang Mountains as his first base area. But I want to wrap up this episode by focusing on this question: What was the thought process underlying the more or less suicidal instructions that the Party Center gave in both Hunan and Hubei, ordering the comrades tasked with the Autumn Harvest Uprising to keep on going and to carry out the insurrection, even though they had in fact already been defeated? I know that I just characterized these instructions as ‘insane’ a moment ago, but insanity is not really an explanation, and perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word, because I don’t want to create confusion.
Here’s the problem, we’re talking about a group of very dedicated and in some cases very intelligent people, like the party leader Qu Qiubai, at the Party Center. These were not people trying to sabotage the Communist movement. And they were not dumb. And there were a bunch of them, so it wasn’t just one or two people going off the rails. So, what was really happening? What was the dynamic at play and the form of reasoning which led to these orders, which were really disastrous?
You might recall from episode 56 that Qu Qiubai later on referred to this period between the August 7 Emergency Conference and the end of 1927 as a period of what he called ‘blind actionism.’ This ‘blind actionism’ that he was referring to definitely included these orders from the Party Center to continue trying to carry out the Autumn Harvest Uprising even after decisive defeats in Hubei and Hunan. And we’ll see some more examples before the policy is ended.
I think that we can identify several converging factors that contributed to this policy of ‘blind actionism.’
The first of these was an assessment that the masses were ready for revolution. This was essentially a position based on the experience of mass upheaval over the course of 1926 and early 1927, with the huge upsurge in the peasant and workers’ movements in the wake of the Northern Expedition, which we discussed at some length in earlier episodes. Essentially, there was a lot of faith that the masses may have been brutally beaten down during the repression of the last few months, but that the essential spark for revolution was still there. And we’ve seen in these episodes of the Autumn Harvest Uprising that the Communists who went out into the field to organize the insurrection were surprised at the lack of response that they got from the peasants. So, there was this failure to appreciate that the mood of the masses had changed as a result of systematic and brutal repression.
And this failure to appreciate the change in the mood of the people converged with a certain sense that the Party had missed an opportunity for revolution by pursuing its united front with the Guomindang at all costs for too long. As we discussed back in episodes 50 to 54, the Communists sacrificed the interests of the workers and peasants for the sake of the United Front, and then when they changed their policy, they really regretted that they had done this, and there was a feeling that real chances for revolution had been missed out on during that time. So there was, in a certain sense, a desperation not to have missed that chance at revolution, to grasp at a possibility that maybe had existed and was slipping away. Clearly, there was a feeling that a terrible error had been committed, and there was some sort of hope that maybe the Party could redeem itself if the error could be made up for. I think that there was clearly this sort of emotional component in how the situation was read and how urgently the revolution was being striven for in the wake of changing over from the policy of ‘united front at all costs’ to the new policy of ‘blind actionism.’
This combined with an unwillingness on the part of the Party Center to accept that the situation had changed when they got reports from the field that the peasants were not really looking like they would rally to the cause, as we saw in Hubei, and which prompted the attempt at a purge of the special committee tasked with carrying out the insurrection just days before the start of the uprising. And then, when in both Hunan and Hubei much smaller numbers of peasants rallied to the cause during the insurrection itself, the Party Center refused to accept that the mood of the masses had changed. Rather, they blamed their subordinates as either incompetents or cowards.
This was a kind of epistemological problem, a problem of where knowledge comes from. The Party Center had decided that reality was a certain way. Faced with a situation where Party activists out in the field sent in reports that contradicted what had been decided on at the Center, the leadership either had to accept that it had competent agents out in the field who could read the situation correctly and change overall plans based on those reports, or the leadership had to decide that the activists were the problem. That the leadership couldn’t face its own mistaken assessment of the situation was a major failure of leadership, but one hardly unique to the time or place.
Just to give a quick example off the top of my head, I’ve been reading a book which deals in part with the emergence of the insurgency in Iraq in the early 2000s and how the leadership of the US government dealt with that, and how Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney just insisted that the reality on the ground was entirely different from what was in the reports they were getting for just a really long time before they admitted that an actual insurgency existed. And, working on this episode at the same time that I am reading this book, this seems to just be a universal problem of bad leadership, irrespective of time, place or ideology, this phenomenon where leaders just won’t accept information that contradicts their understanding of what should be happening. So, this was a factor as well, this unwillingness at the Party Center to accept that they had been wrong, and inflexibility in the face of new information.
Finally, there was a very strong desire to strike out and take vengeance against the Guomindang for all the violence that had been done to the Communists and the masses. You might recall from episode 55 on the Nanchang Uprising, when Zhang Guotao had been sent down at the last minute to try to call off the uprising there, one of the reasons (among others) that Communists there gave for going ahead with the Uprising was that they felt a need to strike back finally against everything that had been done over the past few months, to finally strike a blow themselves against the reactionaries who had been constantly striking out at them. I think that this imperative also strongly influenced the Party Center to keep trying to strike out, even when conditions indicated that it would be better to retreat and regroup.
So, I give these four factors by way of at least partial explanation for what I think at first look seem to be insane instructions that the Party Center gave in Hunan and Hubei to keep fighting despite the fact that defeat had already occurred. One of the sad things about the way in which the pervasive anti-Communism in most cultures in the world today affects scholarship on the history of Communist movements is that explanations like ‘and then the Communists did something insane and crazy’ are often taken as sufficient, because according to anti-Communist ideology, one has to be insane or crazy to be a Communist in the first place, or that even if those movements incorporate well-intentioned individuals, that the movement itself follows a logic that is nuts. So the explanation becomes, they did the crazy thing because Communists do crazy things. But really, when you think about it for just a second, that’s lazy thinking resting on the prejudices of most of our cultures, and so I think it’s one of the tasks of this podcast to dig a little deeper and try to explain what actually was going through the mind of the Party Center when it gave orders that led to the sacrifice of so many comrades.
OK, that’s it for now I think.
I want to thank everyone for your ratings, reviews, and contributions. They are all very appreciated. I saw one this morning from a teacher that really felt great to read, and which brought up two issues. Here, let me read the review:
“As a teacher I’m always struggling to find the balance between accuracy and comprehensibility. This podcaster knocks it out of the park. Huge fan of Chinese history but as a Latinamericanist I am so excited to get to Peru! This podcast takes on the history of controversial ideas without prejudice or distortion and I highly recommend to anybody who wants to understand where our world got the narratives we are living with!”
One, I know that a number of teachers listen to the show. I would really love to hear from you if you have any thoughts about anything that I could be doing to make this material more accessible for you to use with your students. I know that you all are doing the real heavy lifting for your own students and for their own needs in relation to the material, but if there’s anything that you think that I could do that would facilitate your work with the subject matter, I’d really welcome hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second, the reviewer mentioned something that I’ve heard from a number of listeners, which is a desire to learn more about Peru and the attempt to have a Maoist revolution there. If we go strictly chronologically, given the detail of the treatment that we’re giving to the Chinese Revolution, it might take a long time to get to Peru. So I’ve been considering possibly doing some side episodes on Peru, but that would slow down our treatment of the Chinese Revolution even further. Anyways, I would welcome listener feedback on this. Again, the place to send that would be at email@example.com
Alright, see you next time.