The Politburo meets to decide whether the leadership’s overall policy was wrong, or whether all the cadres carrying out the policy are just bad.
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
Chang Kuo-t’ao [Zhang Guotao], The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party (2 volumes)
Some names from this episode:
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party until summer 1927
Qu Qiubai, Top leader of Communist Party beginning in the summer of 1927
Zhang Guotao, Leading Communist
Li Lisan, Leading Communist
Tan Pingshan, Leading Communist expelled for the failure of the Nanchang Uprising
Zhou Enlai, Leading Communist
Welcome to episode 72 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the end of the Southern Expedition of the Communist forces that had participated in the August 1, 1927 Nanchang Uprising and which were shattered on October 1 in a battle at Tangkeng in Guangdong province, near the cities of Shantou and Chaozhou. The Nanchang Uprising and the Autumn Harvest Uprisings, which, aside from last episode, we discussed in episodes 55 through 61, had been the first Communist responses to the collapse of the United Front with the Guomindang. With the collapse of the United Front, the idea had been to stage uprisings and capture some territory, including some major cities, from which a new people’s government could operate and wage war against the Guomindang and the warlords, not unlike how the Guomindang, with Soviet aid, had managed to use Guangzhou as a capital where it could gather strength, train forces, and then eventually launch the Northern Expedition.
Now that these early initiatives at launching armed struggle had been carried out, there was a need for the Communist leadership to gather and sum up what had taken place, and make new plans based on that summation. The venue for this summation was the November 9-10, 1927 Enlarged Conference of the Temporary Politburo in Shanghai, where the Party Center had relocated back to after having been in Wuhan for a while during the reign of the Guomindang Left regime there.
So, let’s deal with the two modifiers to the label of this Politburo meeting before we move on to deal the content of it. Why was this a temporary politburo, and why was this an enlarged conference? First, this was considered a Temporary Politburo, because, as you might remember, the Party had been unable to call a Party Congress yet, which would have been the proper, official venue for selecting a new Politburo. So when Chen Duxiu was deposed as general secretary after the collapse of the United Front, the reorganized politburo that had been put in place had a provisional character to it, and would have a provisional character until the next party congress could be held. That is why the party’s new top leader, Qu Qiubai, wasn’t officially the general secretary. This was the situation until the 6th Party Congress was held in Moscow in June and July of 1928. And, regarding the second modifier, this was an enlarged Politburo meeting because a number of leading comrades who weren’t on the Politburo were asked to attend so that a fuller discussion could be had than if only Politburo members were in attendance.
This Politburo meeting passed a “Resolution on the Current Situation in China and the Mission of the Communist Party,” which concentrated what lessons the Party was drawing from the recent period of struggle, particularly the experience of the Autumn Harvest and Nanchang Uprisings, and how those lessons would be applied in the immediate future; that is, what tasks the Party would now take up.
Let’s look at some of the most relevant parts of this document:
The document begins by reviewing the contents of the circular letter sent out to the party membership on the basis of the discussions at the August 7 Emergency Conference, and which we discussed back in episode 57. It then proceeds as follows: “The political situation has fully shown that the Central Committee’s conclusion is correct, as is its political strategy. Of course, the Nanchang Uprising and the Southern Expedition of the Revolutionary Army in Guangdong failed at Chaoshan. [Chaoshan being the name for the region centered on the cities of Chaozhou and Shantou, which includes the area where the battle of Tangkeng took place.] Neither did the peasant uprisings in Guangdong, Hunan, and Hubei win any decisive victories. However, despite these new failures of the revolution, the general experience of our struggle during the recent three months has proved further that our party’s strategy is entirely correct.”
So, despite the failures, the party’s strategy was correct. What happened then?
Anyone who has spent time studying the International Communist Movement knows what is coming next. Whenever you see a leading body reaffirm its strategy, despite overwhelming failure, someone is going to get blamed for messing up the strategy. So, let’s see what form that takes in this document:
This section of the document is subtitled “The Evil Legacy of Opportunism.”
“The 7 August Emergency Conference seriously criticized the opportunist and semi-Menshevik political line of the party’s former leading body, and the Temporary Politburo has repeatedly corrected the opportunist errors of the various local party leading organs. However, the evil influence of petty bourgeois opportunism remains within the party. One of the major reasons why the Ye-He troops [this is just another way of referring to the Communist forces from the Nanchang Uprising, because two of the leading military commanders were Ye Ting and He Long. You might remember He Long, by the way, as the storied general who began his revolutionary career in 1916 when he killed a tax assessor who had killed his uncle for not paying his taxes, and was supposed to have begun his rebellion with just himself and two butcher knives. This was the guy whose example Mao used in the motivational speech that we discussed back in episode 62.]
So, continuing with the document: “One of the major reasons why the Ye-He troops failed at Chaoshan and the Nanchang Uprising lost its political significance was because the commanders at the front did not carry out the revolutionary policy. Rather, they adopted a compromising reformist policy on various major issues. For example, they only wanted to confiscate the land of the landlords with over 200 mu [that would be about 33 acres] and maintain a reduced rent which still accounted for 30 percent of the harvest. They neglected revolutionary propaganda work among the peasant masses; forbade workers and peasants to take their own independent decisions about executing the gentry, landlords, and counterrevolutionaries; and gave up the policy of confiscation of properties of the gentry and landlords. The Party’s Front Committee also made bad decisions on military issues. Their direction lacked a revolutionary dynamic and firm resolution. The lack of determination and firm revolutionary will among the leaders is the main reason for the defeat of many peasant uprisings.”
Here, with the reference to ‘many peasant uprisings,’ the Resolution shifts to begin criticizing not only the Nanchang Uprising, but also the Autumn Harvest uprisings, so, let’s take a step back and assess these criticisms of the Nanchang rebels real quick. There is certainly something to them. As we saw in our two episodes on the Nanchang Uprising and Southern Expedition, that is episode 55 and last episode, there was certainly a lot of military decision making done on the fly, and often it did not turn out very well, although to what degree these were bad decisions and to what degree it was the balance of forces, I think it’s hard to say. From a military decision-making perspective, the situation was clearly very difficult, but it is probably true that better decisions could have been made at various points.
But the political criticisms are much more interesting. The political criticisms boil down to three main points: a failure to conduct propaganda work and to mobilize the masses along the route; a conservative approach to land reform; and a failure to allow the masses to do a lot of killing of landlords, gentry and counterrevolutionaries more generally. Let’s consider each of these criticisms.
We did see last episode, and heard Zhang Guotao’s own account from the march, that revolutionary propaganda work and mass mobilization was neglected on the Southern Expedition, despite the fact that at Ruijin this weakness had been acknowledged and a decision was made to try to correct the error. Zhang had described the lack of mobilization of the masses along the route as a combination of the exhaustion and demoralization of the cadres on the march, on the one hand, and on the other hand the lack of organized peasant masses for those cadres to interface with. So, how do we connect this criticism with the objections raised by Zhang Guotao? As far as exhaustion is concerned, this issue of ‘revolutionary will’ was raised in the Resolution right where we cut off the quote. One suspects that the protests of exhaustion and demoralization that Zhang mentioned are being countered by this invocation of the need for revolutionary will. This is a hard criticism to evaluate. Clearly, in every historical situation of rural armed revolt by Communist forces, the energies, both physical and mental, of the revolutionary guerrilla cadres are taxed to great degrees. And we see in the writings of the major ideologues of rural revolution in the 20th century, such as Mao and Che Guevara, a lot of emphasis placed on the role of human willpower in the revolutionary endeavor. Yet, there is also a point at which a limit is reached, and things break down, and one simply cannot proceed without rest. Without seeing the concrete situation, it is hard to say whether a failure is due to lack of willpower, or because an objective limit has been reached. Clearly, in this case, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party believed that the problem was with the willpower of the cadres concerned.
What about Zhang’s other objection, that the peasants were not organized into associations? Clearly, the propaganda group that Zhang was a part of on the Southern Expedition expected the peasants to be organized and to sort of be ready to get a boost from the Communist force coming through the area. The fact that peasants in the region had either not been organized as so many other peasants had been during the past couple years, or that those organizations had been totally crushed by the counter-revolution already, was demoralizing for Zhang’s group. One of the tasks that the Politburo has in mind in criticizing the Nanchang rebels is that they did not pull together peasant associations in their wake (as the Northern Expedition had done earlier). This would have implied a slower advance along the march, to be sure, and so calls into question the rush on the part of the military leaders to get to Chaozhou and Shantou as quickly as possible (which still took almost two months, after all). But that military decision had been predicated on the hope that Soviet aid would arrive in the port of Shantou which would perhaps have qualitatively changed the overall military picture, and it’s not clear that the areas that the Southern Expedition passed through were in a much more defensible military position than the Nanchang rebels ultimately found themselves in at the end of the march. But clearly, the Politburo thought that the Nanchang rebels should have been able to do more to organize the peasantry along the march.
Which brings us to the next criticism that was levied in the Resolution: the conservative approach to land reform. The Resolution states that: “they only wanted to confiscate the land of the landlords with over 200 mu and maintain a reduced rent which still accounted for 30 percent of the harvest.” Now, this is actually only partially true. As we discussed last episode, there was some disagreement among the leaders of the Nanchang Uprising about how moderate or radical their land reform policy should be, and, in any event, they were unable to carry out the land reform as they proceeded, with the reason given by Zhang Guotao being the same one we just discussed, that there were no active peasant associations along the route of the march, and so the Communists lacked enough local knowledge to carry out a land reform without the activism of local peasants.
This is not exactly a fair criticism. When the Nanchang Uprising was launched on August 1, the Communist Party had not yet adopted a radical land reform policy. The land reform policy that the leaders of the Nanchang Uprising were criticized for adopting (again, only partially accurately) in the Resolution was similar in spirit to the land reform policy of the Communist Party as it existed on August 1. Of course, in spirit, the Nanchang Uprising was supposed to represent a break with the previous policies of the Communist Party from the United Front period, so perhaps there is something to the criticism that some of the leaders of the Nanchang Uprising were still hewing to the conservatism of the old political line, and should have intuited a need for more radical land reform.
However, it is worth noting that, as we have discussed before on this podcast, while the assumption on the part of the Communist leadership clearly was that a radical land confiscation policy would unleash the peasantry, in fact the dynamic between the relative moderation or radicalism of the Party’s agrarian policy and how that resonates with and helps to mobilize the peasants or not is actually quite complicated and varies from location to location and based on the overall political situation. It is worth noting that for much of the Chinese Revolution, the policy that the Communist Party most successfully implemented under Mao Zedong’s leadership and which best succeeded in mobilizing mass peasant support for the revolution, was actually a policy of quite moderate land confiscation and rent reduction, which was quite similar in fact to the policy that the Nanchang rebels were criticized for in the resolution. But, we will get to the development of various land reform policies under Mao at a future date.
For now, let’s talk about the third criticism leveled against the leaders of the Nanchang Uprising in the Resolution: the failure to allow the masses to do a lot of killing of landlords, gentry and counterrevolutionaries.
As we saw last episode, this wasn’t a uniform policy either among the leaders of the Nanchang Uprising, but there was the big example of the commander who aided the peasants in assaulting a walled town and then refused to allow the peasants to occupy the town after they were victorious, because he was afraid that the peasants would just kill a bunch of people indiscriminately. Clearly, the Politburo here is coming down pretty hard on the side of thinking that it is better to allow the masses to kill a lot of people in the course of the revolution, including inevitably lots of people who really hadn’t done anything to deserve it, rather than risk restraining the masses and fettering their revolutionary energies.
Historically, there has never been a successful revolution without there being some sort of exercise of revolutionary terror, which in the context of military movements like the Nanchang Uprising and Southern Expedition would find expression in acts that most reasonable people would consider war crimes. There is a necessary tension that a revolutionary leadership must exercise between unleashing the masses to participate in the revolution, recognizing that these acts will take place, and playing some sort of responsible leadership role that tries to minimize these sorts of occurrences, while still achieving the desired result of both keeping the masses active and mobilized and the opponents of the revolution terrorized into accepting their defeat. Marx and Engels, and later Lenin and the leaders of the Russian Revolution, drew pretty explicit lessons about this from the experience of the terror during the French Revolution. And Mao has a famous saying about revolution not being a dinner party in his “Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” that we discussed back in episode 41, which also addresses this question. Here, in this Resolution, the Politburo of the Communist Party seems to be compensating for the United Front policies which restrained the peasant movement in the interests of maintaining unity with the Guomindang by coming down hard on the side of letting the masses kill whoever they decide needs killing.
So, summing things up so far, we can see here in this Resolution a certain summation of the Nanchang Uprising which says: “Look, if you guys had been a bit more radical, exercised a bit more revolutionary willpower and effort in trying to mobilize the masses, maybe been a little smarter militarily, we think you would have succeeded, or at least given the counter-revolution a run for its money. So, we’re not going to say that our policy is incorrect, rather, we want to keep moving forward with that policy and see if we can correct for these errors and have some success this time.”
But before moving on to consider what’s coming next, let’s just move on to look at the rest of the passage that I was quoting from the Resolution, to consider what is added in it that applies to Mao Zedong and the Autumn Harvest Uprisings.
Ok, picking up the Resolution’s text where we left off: “The lack of determination and firm revolutionary will among the leaders is the main reason for the defeat of many peasant uprisings. Characteristically, the opportunists trust neither the strength of the mass movement nor rely on the workers and peasants. They always pin their hopes on troops who are, in fact, unreliable, and they only want to collaborate with the small local warlords.”
So, these lines are a direct reference to the disagreements on military line between the Party Center and Mao Zedong, which we discussed at some length in episodes 57 and 60. The Autumn Harvest Uprisings, like the Nanchang Uprising, are blamed on the errors of the cadre on the ground who carried it out, not on the policy itself.
So, how is this problem to be rectified? Here’s how the Resolution continues on this question: “The Central Committee has decided at this meeting to use all the party’s strength to get rid of this evil legacy of opportunism, which has brought fatal dangers to our party. Since one of the main reasons why this kind of opportunism can survive is that many of the leading party members are from a nonproletarian class background, this meeting orders party committees at all levels to act resolutely to replace the leading members with people from a working-class background and to eliminate all opportunists in the party. We ought to understand that our recent failures in Hunan, Hubei, and Guangdong, as well as the failed Southern Expedition of the Ye-He troops, are largely owing to subjective errors, and that without a powerful and sound non-opportunist party leadership, the revolution cannot triumph.”
So, basically, the solution that the Politburo decided was to replace the bad leaders, hopefully with some workers if it could find them, because, as we all know, workers have magical minds that don’t make mistakes. But, much easier than finding new worker-leaders for the Party, was the dismissing of the old, bad leaders. So, who got the blame for all these subjective errors?
Well, clearly there were way too many important Party leaders involved in the Nanchang Uprising to blame all of them, so it would be important to narrow things down a bit and choose a good couple of scapegoats.
The main scapegoat was this guy Tan Pingshan, who had been a leading Communist since the Party’s founding, and had been one of the more moderate, or conservative, voices among the leaders of the Nanchang Uprising. He had also been one of the Communists tasked with working with the Guomindang at the highest levels during the United Front, so that made him especially convenient as someone to shoulder the blame. He was expelled from the Party, and wouldn’t be rehabilitated until 1949.
Lesser punishments were meted out to some other leaders of the Uprising. Zhang Guotao, for example, was dismissed from all positions of responsibility and ended up spending the better part of a year just hiding out in Shanghai. Interestingly, Zhou Enlai, who was also a leader of the Nanchang Uprising, managed to get promoted onto the Politburo, showing his consummate ability as a natural born diplomat to please everyone and always land on his feet. Zhang Guotao expressed some bitterness about this in his memoir.
As far as responsibility for the Autumn Harvest Uprisings was concerned, there was no one still alive who could be held responsible for the failure in Hubei, which we discussed back in episode 59. But, as you can imagine, the blame for Hunan fell squarely on Mao Zedong’s shoulders. As a result, Mao was dismissed as an alternate member of the Politburo. Mao wouldn’t learn of his demotion until early March 1928, during a set of events that we’ll talk about in another episode, when Mao gets back in touch with the Party hierarchy after being isolated in the Jinggangshan for some time. The guy who tells him about his demotion is something of a jerk, and lies and tells Mao that he was expelled from the party completely, but that’s the kind of inner party inter-personal relations that get cultivated when a Communist Party takes a path of correcting errors which focuses more on blame than on understanding and correcting the root causes of errors.
So, we’ll talk about the plans that get made to move forward next episode. But, since the Party leadership decided that there was nothing to be corrected, just bad cadres to be replaced or disciplined, don’t be surprised when what we get is more action in line with the policies that gave us the Autumn Harvest Uprisings.
But before we end, I just want to reflect on the more general trend in the history of the International Communist Movement of what we saw in this episode. It is just surprisingly common when studying international communism, at different times and in different places, to find examples of policy failures summed up as some form of error or sabotage on the party of the cadres tasked with carrying out those policies. It’s kind of the eternal lament of the Party leadership which has its correct ideas, which, if only some competent cadre could be found to bridge the gap between the leadership and the masses, they would unleash those masses and herald the onset of victory in the proletarian revolution. Rather than confront the ways in which the plans formulated by the Party did not quite match up with objective reality, or resonate with the masses, and then alter plans on the basis of a new, higher level understanding, the impulse to blame people for ‘carrying out the line wrong’ is one of the most common responses to failed policies that one sees in the history of International Communism. And it is, of course, a self-sabotaging policy, totally at odds with the scientific method and a materialist world outlook.
Of course there are going to be cadres who implement policies in a way that is mistaken. And others will lack the refinement and nuance that ideas might sometimes have in the minds of those who originally articulated a strategy (although that isn’t the case in the particular examples we saw in this podcast episode). And naturally, there will be a lot of improvisation when ideas confront reality; when a cadre gets out in the villages or on the street and tries to run with a political line and confronts situations that they haven’t foreseen. But that’s the nature of reality. There is no way that the top leadership can bring their ideas into unmediated contact with the world. And the frequency with which failure is confronted by this sort of infantile blame-game in the history of international communism is really pretty striking, and this is the background against which we are going to see Mao Zedong develop a different epistemology for figuring out political policies, which is much more self-conscious, reflective, and scientific. We’re a little ways off still in this podcast series from talking about Mao’s philosophical thinking, and how that intersects with this thinking on mass mobilization and how different party initiatives should be summed up, but when we get there, I’m going to ask you to try and remember back to this other way in which things were done, at this November 1927 Politburo meeting, which was much more about crying about cadres on the ground being failures, rather than about figuring out how to proceed given a new and higher level of understanding of the reality that was being confronted.
OK, that’s it for now, see you next time. Thank you for listening, and thank you for supporting the podcast with your ratings, reviews and contributions. Ratings and reviews do help people to find the podcast, so if you enjoyed the episode or learned something, please do consider leaving a rating or review. And your contributions definitely help with the costs of putting out this podcast, especially the cost of books. So, thank you again, it’s all very appreciated.