Using the early November 1927 peasant revolt in Jiangsu province to illustrate features common to the many small Communist-led uprisings at the end of the 1920s.
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Chang Liu, “Making Revolution in Jiangnan: Communists and the Yangzi Delta Countryside, 1927-1945”
Some names from this episode:
Qu Qiubai, top leader of Communist Party beginning in the summer of 1927
Zhu De, Communist military commander
Zhou Enlai, leading Communist
Welcome to episode 73 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we reviewed the Politburo’s response to the failures of the Nanchang Uprising and the Autumn Harvest Uprisings, and explored the Politburo’s reasoning as the Communist Party renewed its commitment to a policy of fomenting armed revolt wherever and whenever possible; a policy that Qu Qiubai, the top Communist leader at this time, would later self-critically term ‘blind actionism.’ This episode, I want to round out our understanding of what this policy actually meant in practice.
One Chinese academic historical study of this period claims that during the two and a half years between August 1927 and the end of 1929, the Communist Party launched over 200 uprisings. Astute listeners may already have noted that the Communist seizure of the county seat of Yongxin in late July 1927 that we discussed in episode 66 was an instance of an armed uprising totally independent of the Autumn Harvest Uprisings which began about six weeks later. Likewise, the seizure of the Hailufeng region in Guangdong that came up in episode 71 represents a separate instance of armed insurrection. And, as we saw in episode 71, when the Southern Expedition arrived in the area around Chaozhou and Shantou in Guangdong, there had been a lot of preparation work already done for an insurrection among the peasants in the region.
So while there were some big examples of armed uprisings that were well-known from this period in Chinese Communist history, such as the Nanchang and Autumn Harvest uprisings, and the attempt to take over Guangzhou that we’ll talk about in an upcoming episode, there were also just a lot of less well-known uprisings that took place. While I would like to, we just can’t review all of them. Aside from the issue of the amount of time that it would take to do so, there is a real issue with there being just very limited sources on most of what happened. And really, there were so many efforts at launching uprisings that some may not have even made it into the historical record. But what I think that I can do in this episode is to give a sense of what was being tried.
One illustrative example took place in the counties of Wuxi and Yixing to the west of Shanghai in southern Jiangsu province. In early November, Communists had managed to incite a short-lived peasant uprising in these areas. In Yixing, 4,000 peasants occupied the county seat for a day, executed several local bullies and evil gentry, and burned land deeds. In Wuxi county, peasants occupied a dozen small towns, burned land deeds and debt contracts, and executed a landlord. The Jiangsu province Communist leadership interpreted these uprisings as a sign that the masses might be receptive to calls for a broader uprising, and moved to seize the moment.
On November 9, the Jiangsu Provincial Party Committee ordered the mobilization of a provincewide peasant uprising before November 15. In addition, a workers’ uprising was hastily planned for Shanghai. A frantic few days ensued during which Communist organizers went out to Shanghai factories and tried to get the workers to go out on strike. As it happened, the peasant movement in the countryside had already spent its force for the time being with the small uprising that had already occurred, and the workers of Shanghai were too terrorized by the recent repression to go out on strike. (If you need a reminder of the massive repression of the workers’ movement in Shanghai, go back and check out episode 49.)
So, I said that this example, of a small scale rural uprising, followed by a failed Communist attempt to escalate the uprising, to raise the uprising to a higher level of organized rebellion, is illustrative of what was going on with the wave of small Communist uprisings and attempts at uprisings that were happening during this period in late 1927. It is illustrative in a few different ways:
First, most of these uprisings were small. These sorts of one day uprisings where peasants rise up and take over a county seat or some smaller towns and maybe kill a few landlords or what they called ‘local bullies,’ were really pretty small affairs. It tells us a lot about the state of China’s countryside that these sorts of uprisings broke out on a regular basis. But any given one of these uprisings can seem very insignificant by itself, especially when compared with larger events like the Nanchang Uprising and Autumn Harvest Uprisings, which, while unsuccessful, ultimately led organically to much more important events and had very important historical actors participating, like Mao Zedong, and Zhu De, and Zhou Enlai. And given the rural locations where most of these uprisings took place and that they didn’t last long, they could easily occur without passing into an easily accessed form of historical record.
By the way, I just realized that I used a term just now, and in some past episodes, that I’m not sure if I ever explained, and which might be a little unclear for some people. This term ‘local bullies’ was basically a catchall term for people who oppressed the peasants in one way or another, like henchmen for the landlords or aggressive tax collectors or members of one of the landlord-sponsored militias that kept order by enforcing semi-feudal property relations in the countryside, for example.
So, the first way in which the peasant uprising in rural Jiangsu and the attempt by the Communists to spread the uprising across the province and into Shanghai in November 1927 is illustrative is in its small size and relative insignificance when taken as an individual event.
The second way in which these events are illustrative is the timetable on which the Communists were trying to act. Personally, when I first read about this example, my first reaction was “these guys are totally nuts if they think they’re going to get Shanghai to rebel in just six days, this is totally unrealistic.” After all, in episodes 44 through 48 we looked at the three armed uprisings the Communists already staged in Shanghai, and how difficult that was. But, this is the thing, as unrealistic as the six day timetable may have been, it was also indicative of how the Communists were trying to seize on rapidly unfolding events. The peasants rose up in the countryside outside Shanghai in early November. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know today that the energies of the peasants were spent in that day of revolt. But, there are times when those energies grow and a revolt spreads further, or where at least the potential is there for that to happen, if active forces can intervene and help to spread the revolt. Were the Jiangsu Communists being overly optimistic and unrealistic when, on November 9, they decided that they needed to seize the moment and spread the revolt? In hindsight, that seems like the historical verdict. But at the moment, in the midst of events, who can say how obvious it was or wasn’t that they were deluding themselves about the potential for revolt at that moment. So, they had to act, and act fast, to seize on an opportunity that had arisen suddenly, and which had to be seized quickly. The thinking was that the flames of revolt had to be fanned right away, or they would almost certainly go out on their own.
On one level, this might just seem obvious. Of course, this is what being poised as a political actor means in any context. You need to be ready to seize on events to push forward your political agenda. In the case of Communist revolutionaries, this means that when mass uprisings break out, or when longstanding Communist organizing efforts in one area succeed in arousing the masses, the Communist organization more broadly needs to be ready to try and spread and maximize the effect of the uprising. So, on one level, sure, this is obvious stuff. But it’s worth considering what this meant practically for the organization.
Coordinating a massive, provincewide peasant uprising and an urban revolt in six days is a daunting task. Given the clandestine nature of how the Communist Party was forced to work because of repression, and the travel times and means of communication involved in working in the countryside, the sort of organization that would be necessary to pull off a revolt like they had planned would have to be pretty impressive. And as we’ve seen in past episodes, communications among the Communists on the ground was something that posed real challenges during previous attempts at insurrection in Shanghai, with some pretty bad errors resulting from missed communications. I raise all this not to say how impressive the Communist organization was, but rather to say that I think that the Communist organization in the Jiangsu countryside and in Shanghai aspired to more than it was actually capable of. And this overall dynamic, of needing to work on a very short timetable with aspirational organizational resources in a context of uncertain mass sentiment, while maintaining an optimistic assessment of the masses’ willingness to revolt, was characteristic of Communist efforts at rousing the masses and launching uprisings at this time. So that’s the second way in which these events in Jiangsu in November 1927 were illustrative of what was going on more broadly.
The third way in which this example is illustrative is in the role that Shanghai was supposed to play in the uprising. We already saw that the peasants in part of the countryside had revolted, so the idea of spreading that revolt further across the countryside kind of makes sense. But why was it important to the Jiangsu Provincial Committee to add the difficulty of launching an uprising in Shanghai into the mix? Didn’t they have enough on their hands trying to spread the revolt across the countryside? Well, the reasons had a lot to do with the overall way in which the Communist Party Center was thinking about revolutionary strategy, and here we’re going to come back to one of the important differences in revolutionary strategy between Mao Zedong and the Party Center.
So, what was the thinking here, why was Shanghai important in these insurrectionary plans? There were two main reasons. First, the revolutionary model that the Party Center was still operating off of had a lot to do with the revolution that they had all just participated in. At the time, the whole process whereby the Guomindang, with Soviet aid and in a united front with the Communist Party, had consolidated its rule in Guangdong province and then launched the Northern Expedition (events we talked about at length in earlier episodes), this whole process was known in China as the Great Revolution while it was happening. And this remained a model for the Chinese Communists. The idea that you could take over a major city, consolidate rule in the surrounding areas, and then launch a military campaign to conquer other parts of the country was not an abstract idea, that was their already-lived-experience of revolution. They knew this could be done because they had already done it once. So this was a powerful model for the Communist leadership.
Now Mao was off to the side saying, no, the cities were too well defended by the reactionaries and couldn’t be taken, and the thing to do was to go up in the mountains and build strength there. As it turned out, Mao was right, and conditions didn’t exist anymore where a city could be taken and used as a base the way that Sun Yatsen had taken Guangzhou and then held it with copious amounts of Soviet aid while the Guomindang built up its forces. But, you can see the power of the idea of reproducing a revolutionary model that the Communist leadership had already experienced working once. So, there was the idea that you needed to take Shanghai if you were going to take the countryside of the surrounding Yangzi Delta region. And we’ll see this happen in Guangdong as well, probably next episode, where the Communists already held the Hailufeng region, but felt that they needed to try to take Guangzhou as well.
Now, the second reason that the Communist leadership felt that they needed to take Shanghai was more strictly ideological. The workers are in the city, and the Communists are the party of the working class, not the party of the peasantry. The Communist Party believed that their political program matched the interests of the working class, and that the working class had to play a leading role in the revolution or else the revolution would not lead to Communism. But, what did this mean in practice? The Communists thought that by taking Shanghai, that was a way of having an urban center with a lot of workers who, with their participation, would in some form provide leadership to the peasants who were rebelling in the countryside.
Now, no one was really saying that these workers from Shanghai would do anything concrete and specific. The Communist Party would lead things, and as the party of the working class, that was the most concrete form in which the working class would provide leadership to the peasants in the countryside. But, even though there was no concrete, articulated policy other than this for how the workers would provide leadership to the peasants, there was a sense or feeling among the Communist leadership that there was just something not right about Communists leading a bunch of peasants while not mobilizing very many workers. Somehow, there had to be some sort of worker involvement. Somehow, worker participation and the recruitment of workers into the revolutionary process and into the Communist Party was key to it being a ‘Communist’ revolution.
The Communist leadership had no concrete ideas about what threshold of membership needed to be workers for the revolution to be validated as ‘Communist,’ or how worker identity influenced or transformed the articulation of the guiding ideas of the revolution. But somehow, the workers just needed to be there, and the idea that you would go out and, guided by Communist theories that were tied to the interests of the working class movement and which purported to have arisen out of the international movement for the emancipation of the workers, organize peasants without having very many actual, living workers involved, seems to have struck much of the Communist leadership as just deeply wrong on some level. So, for them, you kind of needed to try and get Shanghai workers on board the revolution if you were working with the peasants in the region near the city.
Now, this does bring up an important philosophical issue for the Chinese Revolution and for the experience of international Maoism in countries with peasant movements more broadly. It seems like a reasonable question to me that, if you are going to say that you are a representative of the working class, or the ideas that correspond to the interests of the working class, that you might want to sort out what the participation of actual workers in that movement would need to be. And here I think that politics and philosophy somewhat diverge. Because on some level, if politically you are saying that you represent workers, you probably want some actual workers to show up and demonstrate concretely that this is true. Without that, the idea of representing workers’ interests lacks a certain political force.
But philosophically, I think that one can make a fairly strong case for a Communist revolution with very few workers involved. The case has been put a number of ways, with varying emphases, but it tends to revolve around the way in which the Communist Party itself concentrates the ideas and interests of the proletariat as an international class, which of course no particular worker individually embodies anyways. And so there is an abstraction and distillation of the workers’ interests and the ideas corresponding to the experience of the international working class movement embodied in the Communist Party which means that the working class is leading the revolution, even when relatively few workers are involved, or even when relatively few workers exist in any given country. I think that philosophically, these sorts of arguments make a lot of sense if you accept the premises of Marxist philosophy more generally. To fully flesh out the argument would require a bit more exposition, and there are certainly people who disagree, but I think that I’m not doing too much harm to the overall argument with this brief description.
I do think that the divergence between what makes sense philosophically within Marxism and what is politically feasible for a Marxist movement is pretty significant here, though. As the Chinese Revolution eventually moves away from this position of insisting that the cities are needed to guide the peasant movement, and Mao develops the strategy of surrounding the cities from the countryside, the Chinese Revolution essentially becomes a peasant war. And overwhelmingly, the party membership comes to be drawn from the peasantry. Mao isn’t defensive about this at all, but it is interesting that even as the Chinese Revolution develops as a peasant war, a certain amount of the myth-making that is involved in any revolutionary process ends up highlighting the role of those workers that did play a role in the revolution, such as the Anyuan miners who we talked about back in episode 61. No matter how well-reasoned your theoretical justification might be about why Communists can make a socialist revolution based mainly on peasants, it just always is going to seem a little off to most people, even apparently Mao Zedong, if you can’t point to any group of workers as playing an important role in a Communist revolution.
So, to sum up, this perceived need to connect urban revolt with peasant revolt is the third illustrative feature of the events from November 1927 in Jiangsu. Eventually, the guiding role of the proletariat in the Chinese Revolution will much more overtly come to refer to the guiding role of the ideas associated with the historical development of the international working class movement, as embodied in the Communist Party. But at this point, there was still some sort of felt need to draw urban workers into the revolution, even though the ideas about how their participation would lead to proletarian guidance of the peasantry were inchoate at best, and fetishized worker-identity as performing a magical revolutionary function at worst.
OK, so this episode we considered one of the many small, individually not very important uprisings that constituted one of hundreds of small revolts led by the Communists toward the end of the 1920s. But despite the relative insignificance of the events in Jiangsu, they were illustrative of a larger pattern which played out in many of these cases. And taken as a whole, I think we have a better understanding of what was meant by Qu Qiubai when he spoke about ‘blind actionism’ if we think not just about the Autumn Harvest Uprising, the Nanchang Uprising, and the insurrection in Guangzhou that we’ll talk about soon. Rather, those large, well-known insurrections need to be considered as the stand-out events of a trend where we saw very many small efforts at uprisings led by Communists across much of southern China.
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.