As Mao’s troops arrive in the Jinggangshan region, a revolutionary reorganization of the people’s army is begun. Also, a tangent on Mao’s leadership style and nuclear war with a jump 30 years into the future.
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Mao Zedong, “Speech at a Meeting of the Representatives of 64 Communist and Workers’ Parties”
Some names from this episode:
Lu Deming, Leader of the Lu Deming Regiment
He Long, One of the Communist leaders of the Nanchang Uprising
Yuan Wencai, Communist ‘social bandit’ leader
Chen Muping, Yuan Wencai’s secretary and graduate of the peasant training institute
Welcome to Episode 62 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we saw how the Autumn Harvest Uprising played out in Hunan Province. And where we left off, the remnants of the Communist armed forces that had participated in the uprising in Hunan decided to retreat up into the mountains to build a rural base area for the revolution, where they hoped to be able to fend off the attacks of the Guomindang while building their strength to keep the revolution going.
So after this meeting in Wenjiashi on September 19, 1927, these forces led by Mao still didn’t know exactly where they were going to find this mountain base area that they had decided to form, only that this was the path they were going to follow. In the meanwhile, the Guomindang had sent troops after them in order to finish them off, so after two nights in Wenjiashi the Communists continued their retreat south along the Hunan-Jiangxi border, on the one hand escaping from the Guomindang forces sent after them, and on the other hand on the lookout for an opportunity to follow the ‘mountainous base area strategy’ that they had decided to act upon.
Mao had only a vague notion of where they were headed. Back in Anyuan, Mao had heard stories of a small Communist-led armed force with several dozen rifles holed up in a remote part of the mountains from a peasant organizer who had spent time in the area. But the comrade was killed during the Uprising, so Mao couldn’t follow up to get more precise information. While on the march south, a message arrived from the Jiangxi Provincial Committee of the Communist Party, confirming for Mao the location of this Communist armed group in the central part of the Luoxiao mountains, which is the name for the large mountain range along the borders of Jiangxi, Hunan and Hubei. The Jinggang Mountains, which is where Mao is going to end up, is one of the subranges within this larger mountain range. To clear up some possible confusion for listeners who may have read about Mao’s first base area before, you will often see the Jinggang Mountains referred to as the Jinggangshan. Shan is just the word to say mountain in Chinese, and for whatever reason, you will just as often see Jinggang Mountains or Jinggangshan in the literature, just depending on the author’s preference.
So, while marching south, Mao got the confirmation that this small Communist force did exist, and then this became a kind of most likely target for the end of the march. But it was still a ways off when Mao got this confirmation. On September 25, the rearguard of the Communist forces was attacked by the Guomindang and the Communists lost 300 men, which was a fifth of what they had left Wenjiashi with a few days earlier. Lu Deming, who we talked about some last episode, was killed in this skirmish while covering the retreat of his comrades. This was a low point along the march, but then the next day the Communists came upon the town of Lianhua in Jiangxi Province.
A few days earlier, the local peasant self-defense corps had tried to attack the county seat at Lianhua as part of carrying out the desperate orders of the Party Center to try to keep the Autumn Harvest Uprising going. But while the Guomindang’s poorly organized local detachment of what it called the peace preservation corps was able to defeat the local peasants, it was no match for a surprise attack by the Communists forces that were coming through with Mao. Lianhua was easily taken, and a hundred Communists were freed from jail and the county grain stores were opened up and distributed to the poor. So taking Lianhua was a big morale boost, coming on top of the loss that the Communists had suffered the day before.
The next few days, though, were very tough. The Communists fought continual skirmishes with Guomindang peace preservation corps forces, and malaria began taking its toll on the soldiers as well. Desertions began to tick up, and some of the officers in the Communist forces began doing things like beating and abusing the soldiers in order to enforce discipline, which was a pretty common thing traditionally in armies in China, although there had been an effort to extirpate this practice within the National Revolutionary Army. So when the Communist force of now less than 1,000 arrived at the village of Sanwan on September 29, the army was at a near crisis point, and this situation had to be addressed.
Sanwan was high in the mountains and easily defensible, and because the last of the peace preservation corps had been shaken off, it was a good place to settle down for a few days and make some changes in the army. In fact, what happened in Sanwan is known as the Sanwan Reorganization, and it’s a very significant event because some policies that were fundamental to how the people’s army would function going forward were instituted here. So let’s look at what these were.
Mao convened a meeting of the Front Committee in a grocery store in Sanwan on the evening that the army entered the village. Because the number of troops in the army had dwindled from the approximately 5,000 troops that they had when the Autumn Harvest Uprising began to now less than 1,000 troops, the three regiments were all consolidated down to just one regiment. While this was naturally a very practical thing to do, it also had an important side function This way some of the officers who were being problematic, either because they were treating troops badly or had contempt for the political authority of the Communist Party’s Front Committee and had more of a feeling that they should lead because they had more military experience, these officers could diplomatically be put aside from having any direct command of anyone, since the command structure was reduced for commanding one regiment rather than three.
To address the issue of desertion, the Front Committee decided that anyone who wanted to leave could do so, and would be issued traveling expenses to get home. I haven’t been able to find any numbers on how many people actually took up this offer to leave, but it seems that there was not a considerable loss in numbers between the Sanwan Reorganization and the founding of the Jinggangshan base area. This was part of a broader reorganization of the army to make it more democratic and to make sure that all participation was voluntary, and indeed not just voluntary, but motivated by high political ideals based on valuing the principle of equality among all people.
The principle that officers and regular soldiers would be receive the same treatment was instituted, and the elimination of corporal punishment within the army was clarified. In meetings, soldiers were to have freedom of speech. Of course, soldiers still had to obey orders, and discipline within the military would still be taken very seriously, so there was a contradiction here between equality of treatment and freedom to air opinions in meetings, and the fact that these people still had to obey orders. This is not a problem that is easily erased, and when some good examples of the ways in which this contradiction expressed itself come up, we’ll explore this question in some more detail.
And, you might be wondering, what are these meetings that the soldiers are free to express their opinions at? Most of us don’t think of armed forces as places where a bunch of the grunt level troops sit around and have meetings with their officers. Well, there were two types of meetings that soldiers would be participating in. Soldiers’ committees were set up, a sort of representative system within the army for soldiers to have a voice in administration and in the oversight of their officers. This was meant as a kind of institutionalized check on the inherent tendency in a hierarchical system like an army to undermine the democratic principles that were being instituted.
The second kind of meeting that soldiers would be participating in was more overtly political. As part of ensuring the authority of the Party over officers who had more military experience but less political solidity when it came to Communist values, a system of party representation was set up all the way down to the squad level in the army, to facilitate both the political control and the political education of the army, and so that the command would have a good sense of what soldiers were thinking and feeling at all levels, and, of course, so they could influence what soldiers were thinking and feeling; keeping morale up and the political understanding and commitment of the forces high. Mao understood that if this small and battered force was to survive and grow again, it could only do so through the energy and commitment of everyone at every level working enthusiastically for a common goal. Just getting people to grudgingly do things by ordering them about would quickly lead to defeat given the odds that the people’s army was facing.
The final aspect of the Sanwan Reorganization that Mao instituted was an important beginning to developing the mass support base that the people’s army would have to rely on. Mao said: “We need to cooperate with and seek the support of the local people. We need to turn over the sick and wounded to them for good care; in return, we can give the local people guns to help develop an armed force, so that they will not be beaten by the enemy.”
So the Sanwan Reorganization was a real beginning to implementing a democratic structure within the army, and in particular to creating a people’s army that was highly politically motivated and which would rely on the support of a local population. This was only a beginning first step, and the conditions in which this was implemented were pretty dire, when you look at the overall situation of the people’s army at this time. And it wasn’t just a case where something was decided and now it was done, there were some real problems that arose in implementing this system, but we’ll look at those as they arise in practice. But despite all that, in retrospect this reorganization is now understood to be a foundational step in moving the Communist armed forces onto the path that would eventually lead to victory.
In Sanwan Mao also made contact with representatives of the local Communist organization as well as representatives of the local armed forces. It was a tricky situation. There were actually two closely allied armed forces, which were of a variety that is sometimes in the academic literature referred to as ‘social bandit’ type forces. ‘Social bandit’ is a term that is used to refer to outlaw forces that do illegal things, but largely do them for the benefit of the poor. There is kind of a spectrum, really, where at one end would be some sort of ‘Robin Hood’ archetype which more or less exclusively robs from the rich to help the poor, and at the other end of the spectrum would be violent criminals who sometimes help the poor but are mainly out for themselves. In reality, a lot of these social bandit forces fall somewhere in between, and we’ve met some of these already in recent episodes, for example when we talked about the ‘People’s Self-Defense Army’ group in Hubei in episode 59, which first worked with and then turned on the Communist revolutionaries in Hubei during the Autumn Harvest Uprising.
One of these social bandit leaders, Yuan Wencai, had joined the Communist Party, and he sent his secretary to Sanwan to meet with Mao. This secretary, Chen Muping, had attended the peasant organizing institute in Wuhan. We talked about this peasant organizing institute in episode 38, when it was in Guangzhou. It had been moved to Wuhan after the Guomindang Left government was set up there. Anyways, Chen Muping had met Mao while he attended the institute. So this was a very fortuitous situation, because despite the fact that Yuan Wencai was a Communist, he was highly distrustful of the possible motivations of this large armed force that had just marched into his territory. In fact, he had withdrawn his forces up into the hills from his base in the village of Maoping in anticipation of a possible attack. So despite the fact that everyone involved were Communists, Yuan had a sense that his dominance in the area where he had been the head honcho, or one of two head honchos really, was threatened by the arrival of this large new force led by Mao. But Chen Muping went back to Yuan carrying a letter from Mao and also himself saying very positive things about this new Communist force that had arrived in the Jinggang Mountains. We’ll see how things work out with Mao beginning to settle into the region in an episode soon. But first, I want to look at one last thing from Mao’s time in Sanwan.
Before the army left Sanwan on October 3, Mao gave a rousing speech to lift everyone’s morale:
“We get enemy snipers’ shots from behind, but that’s not to be worried about. Everyone is a human being. The enemy has two feet, but we have two feet, too. With just two kitchen knives, Comrade He Long started an uprising, and now he has become commander of a whole army. We have more than just two kitchen knives. Here are two battalions with over 700 guns. Why should we be worried about not succeeding?”
You might recall He Long, who Mao refers to here, from episode 55 on the Nanchang Uprising. So He was well known to the Communist troops, although the uprising that Mao is referring to here isn’t the Nanchang Uprising, which obviously involved more than two kitchen knives. Rather, all the way back in 1916, when He Long was 20 years old, he killed a tax assessor who had killed his uncle for not paying his taxes, which was the beginning of his career as a kind of outlaw rebel who raised a small army that was eventually merged into the National Revolutionary Army. His signature weapon was a butcher knife, and the story went that he started his rebellion with just two knives. So he was kind of one of the early Communist military leaders who already had a reputation that people knew about and admired.
Anyways, this morale-boosting speech of Mao’s is interesting because it’s in a rhetorical style that we will see him employ for pretty much his entire political career, and is emblematic of his leadership style. There are many times where Mao takes a fairly dire-looking situation, takes as step back and puts the situation in a certain context where those following him can see that there is a way out, or that things aren’t as hopeless as they seem, and he succeeds in either raising his followers’ spirits, or making a solid rhetorical rejoinder to a more powerful opponent, depending on the specific case.
It demonstrates that Mao grasped something about political leadership that I think, historically, Communist leaders have often not been great at. What Mao grasped was the importance of framing and re-framing how to look at a particular situation, the fact that, many situations will look differently depending on the frame of mind that you bring to it. Traditionally, I think that you can see the rhetoric of Communist leaders resting mainly on arguments that are made which are meant to demonstrate, through logic or proof of one kind or another, that a correct analysis has been made, and that a certain course of action is indicated based on the correctness of the analysis. What Mao does here and many times in the future, is that he takes a given situation that he and his followers are facing, and he says ‘this is how we should think about this.’ I think that history demonstrates that this is actually a very important skill for political leaders to have, and Mao really excelled at it. It was very important in his ability to keep his troops’ morale up in difficult situations.
I’ll give you another example of Mao doing this from a very different context, a pretty well-known example of Mao doing this that is often misread, in my opinion, by people who comment on the statement of Mao’s that I’m about to read to you. Here’s something that Mao said at a speech in Moscow in 1957 at an international meeting of Communist parties:
“At present another situation has to be taken into account, namely, that the war maniacs may drop atomic and hydrogen bombs everywhere. They drop them and we act after their fashion; thus there will be chaos and lives will be lost. The question has to be considered for the worst. The Politburo of our party has held several sessions to discuss this question. If fighting breaks out now, China has only hand-grenades and not atomic bombs – which the Soviet Union has, though. Let us imagine, how many people will die if war should break out? Out of the world’s population of 2,700 million, one-third – or if more, half – may be lost. It is they and not we who want to fight; when a fight starts, atomic and hydrogen bombs may be dropped. I debated this question with a foreign statesman. He believed that if an atomic war was fought, the whole of mankind would be annihilated. I said that if the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist; in a number of years there would be 2,700 million people again and definitely more. We Chinese have not yet completed our construction and we desire peace. However, if imperialism insists on fighting a war we will have no alternative but to make up our minds and fight to the finish before going ahead with our construction.”
This quote from Mao is often taken as a demonstration of his cavalier attitude toward nuclear annihilation. I read it differently. Just as Mao raised the spirits and showed a way forward to his forces which had suffered over 80% casualties over the course of September with the speech that he gave when they left Sanwan, Mao kept on throughout his life making similar assessments of how a bad situation could be turned into a good situation. How even if the imperialists or the Guomindang kept on coming at you and killing so many of your people, and let’s face it, even in 1927 look at how many Communists and progressive peasants and workers had already been slaughtered, and really that’s just the bottom of what is going to be just a massive pile of bodies by the end of the revolution; the only choices would be to either give up or to fight back. It was a question of, how are you going to face this situation where there is so much death going on all around you. How are you going to frame this? As an overwhelming horror that you can’t stand up against? Or as something that you are going to be able to fight through and then triumph over?
As has become even clearer with the recent revelations by Daniel Ellsberg, the United States was actively considering nuking China at the time Mao made that statement in 1957. So, if you’re going to be realistic about these things, China could either give in to nuclear blackmail or try to come up with an orientation for how to persevere in the face of the American threats. For Mao not to be trying to think along these lines, and to do so publicly in a way that rallied rather than demoralized the Chinese population and the international Communist movement more broadly, would have been irresponsible. And, I think it is telling, next time you read a journalist or an academic commentator who quails in horror at Mao’s supposed cavalier attitude toward nuclear war, you should ask them whether they think that Truman’s actual use of nuclear weapons to hasten the end of World War II was justified. The answer will be quite telling, I think. And will, by the way, probably even further justify Mao’s sense that China had to be mentally ready to get bombed by the US.
Anyways, a bit of a tangent, I don’t want to just skip 30 years in the podcast here, but rather I brought this up to point out that this is a distinctive aspect of Mao’s leadership style that we are going to see repeated for decades. Mao’s emphasis on framing situations so that his followers can face them actually has a lot of overlap with things like sports psychology and marketing, and any other field that recognizes how decisive frame of mind can be for determining human actions, and it’s one of the most powerful aspects of Mao’s leadership that I think has gone under-analyzed and underappreciated, and seeing it here as Mao and his troops left Sanwan made me want to talk about it at a little more length.