The last major armed uprising of 1927, in which the Communists temporarily took over Guangzhou.
Arif Dirlik, “Narrativizing Revolution: The Guangzhou Uprising (11-13 December 1927) in Workers’ Perspective”
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Hsiao Tso-Liang, “Chinese Communism and the Canton Soviet of 1927”
Lenin, “Advice of an Onlooker”
Some names from this episode:
Zhang Tailei, secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the Communist Party
Ye Ting, Communist military leader
He Long, Communist military leader
Heinz Neumann, German Comintern agent
Zhang Fakui, Guomindang militarist who seized Guangzhou on November 17, 1927
Xu Xiangqian, Communist military officer, played leading role in Guangzhou Uprising
Deng Zhongxia, Communist labor leader
Huang Ping, One of the organizers of the Guangzhou uprising
Qu Qiubai, top leader of Communist Party beginning in the summer of 1927
Welcome to episode 75 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the background to the uprising that the Communists launched in Guangzhou at the end of 1927, with a particular emphasis on the history of the workers’ movement in the city. This episode, let’s see what actually happened during what came to be called the Guangzhou Commune.
As we discussed last episode, the Communist Politburo in Shanghai had decided on November 17 to launch an uprising in Guangzhou. The thinking had been that the fighting between Guomindang militarists in the area had created a chaotic situation that could be taken advantage of. And as we also saw last episode, Guangzhou had been a major hotbed of militant unionist activity. And while the workers’ movement had been losing strength since the Northern Expedition was launched from Guangzhou in the middle of 1926, there was still a hardcore of revolutionary unionists who burned with the desire for revenge against the Guomindang.
On November 26, the Communists in Guangzhou formed a small Military Revolutionary Council to carry out the concrete plans for the uprising. Zhang Tailei, the top Communist leader in southern China, headed the five-man committee, and Ye Ting was named the commander-in-chief for military operations related to the uprising. You might remember Ye Ting and being one of the leaders of the Nanchang Uprising and Southern Expedition, which he led alongside He Long, resulting in their military force being called the Ye-He troops. Anyways, Ye had made his way from the debacle near Shantou at the end of the Southern Expedition to the new Communist base area in Hailufeng, and from there clandestinely to Hong Kong. Despite being named to the military revolutionary council, though, Ye Ting had to stay in Hong Kong for fear that he would be recognized and arrested in Guangzhou, and he didn’t end up arriving in Guangzhou until hours before the uprising was launched on December 11. And if you think that having your military commander not participate in the concrete planning of an uprising you are participating in might create some problems, you would be correct.
Another person who may have had a major role in the planning process was the German Comintern agent Heinz Neumann. It’s unclear just how much influence Neumann had on events. We know that early on in the planning, he recommended that the Communists reach out to Zhang Fakui, the militarist who controlled Guangzhou, and try to win him over. You might remember that during the Nanchang Uprising there had been hopes among the Communists that Zhang Fakui might be won to their side, but as things turned out, he fought them and chased them all the way south. Even so, Neumann had retained the hope that Zhang, as a representative of the progressive petty bourgeoisie, in Neumann’s thinking, might still be won over. But after having fought so hard against Zhang Fakui so recently, the Chinese Communists vetoed Neumann’s suggestion. I bring this up to demonstrate that in no way were the Chinese Communists who carried out the Guangzhou Uprising slavish followers of the Comintern. This is an important point, because there was for much of the 20th century some controversy over the role of the Comintern in this uprising, reflecting a way of seeing the Chinese Revolution which saw the Chinese Communists as passive pawns of Moscow. But historians have now firmly laid to rest those old claims, and I don’t think there’s much need right now to rehash and present the evidence against them here. We do know that Neumann was present for most, if not all, of the important planning meetings. But he was one of several leading voices, and as we’ve seen, his opinion did not always prevail.
As it turned out, there were two main military forces that the Communists managed to organize and which they would rely on when they launched the uprising. The first force was comprised of about 2,000 militant workers, who were labeled as the Red Guards. Normally in Chinese history we see the term Red Guard attached to revolutionary youth during the Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s, but the term is actually derived from the Russian Revolution, when it was used to name the paramilitary forces of workers and soldiers who had gone over to support the Bolshevik Revolution. So this term was derived directly from the Russian experience of a decade earlier. The worker Red Guards in Guangzhou were the direct descendants of the worker picket forces that the Hong Kong-Guangzhou Strike Committee had fielded, and represented the hard core of worker militants who remained in the city. While they were very enthusiastic participants in the uprising, the Red Guards largely lacked weapons, and drilling and training couldn’t take place in advance of the uprising because it would be impossible to hide that sort of activity. What training did take place happened on paper. The Red Guards were broken down organizationally into battalions, and drill and strategy sessions were held on paper in meetings that individual battalions held with Communist officers, including Xu Xiangqian, who would later go on to become one of the top generals of the People’s Liberation Army.
The other military force that the Communists were able to utilize in the uprising was the 1200 member Officers’ Training Regiment. These were cadets who were being trained to become officers in the Guomindang military. The Communists had succeeded in infiltrating this force and had won it over to join in the uprising, which was set for December 13. However, as pretty much always happens with conspiracies, word leaked out about the planned uprising. When the Communists learned that Zhang Fakui planned to disarm the Training Regiment and reinforce the Guangzhou garrison in order to prevent the insurrection, the date was moved up from December 13 to 3:30 am on December 11.
In addition to these 3200 troops formed by the worker Red Guards and the Training Regiment, there were an additional 500 armed peasants who arrived to support the uprising from Huaxian, to the south of Guangzhou. The Hailufeng Soviet was a good couple hundred kilometers to the east of the city of Guangzhou, so peasant forces couldn’t arrive from the Communist base area to support the uprising, especially when the timing of the uprising suddenly got changed. The insurgents hoped that 1500 peasants would join them, but were lucky to get the 500 that they got.
So, between the Red Guards, the Training Regiment and the peasants from Huaxian, the insurgent forces at the beginning of the uprising numbered around 3700. They were opposed by over 10,000 Guomindang military and police in the city, and by anti-communist paramilitaries from the Guomindang unions who outnumbered the Red Guards. Clearly, the Communists had to hope that the masses would rise up in their tens of thousands to make up the imbalance in the forces. As it happened, these hopes were disappointed. The long months of repression had taken their toll, in Guangzhou as elsewhere, and the hoped for mass revolt in support of the insurgency did not take place. Some masses did apparently heed the call of the revolutionaries. While everyone agrees that not enough did, there was some controversy over just how many did rise up.
Probably the most accurate number was given by Deng Zhongxia, who had played a major role as an organizer in the Hong Kong-Guangzhou strike, but was assigned to work elsewhere during the uprising. He was sent to Guangdong by the Party Center in the wake of the failure of the uprising to figure out what had gone wrong, and to help resolve the dispute between the Party Center, which blamed overall objective conditions for the failure of the uprising, and the Guangdong Party Committee, which blamed the failure of the intellectual leadership, especially Zhang Tailei, for not sufficiently mobilizing the masses as part of the launch plan (that is, Zhang’s plan had been to rely on the military forces that the party could directly mobilize and hope the masses would come forward to support the uprising; the criticism of the Guangdong Party leadership (which now no longer included Zhang since he died during the uprising) was that something like a general strike should have been called in order to launch the uprising, thus resulting in an uprising that was launched more by mass action rather than by a military initiative taken by the Communists).
Anyways, Deng Zhongxia estimated that about 20,000 workers came forward to support the uprising. In his own words: “one might say that the numbers were too few, but not that there were no masses.” Other estimates by participants in the uprising varied widely. The German Comintern representative and one of the Chinese organizers, Huang Ping, both gave 3200 as the number of participants, essentially just the Red Guards and cadets. And Ye Ting, the military commander, estimated 4200. But a special committee appointed to investigate what happened estimated that there were 23,600 participants, and the Guangzhou Workers’ Delegates Congress, the Communist union federation in the city, estimated more than 30,000. The low numbers given by Huang Ping and Heinz Neumann are also somewhat suspect, since they were heavily criticized for failing to carry out their duties during the insurrection, and lower numbers make it look like their failures weren’t their fault. So, if you’re trying to visualize the mass turnout in support of the uprising, picturing about 20,000 workers in addition to the 3700 Red Guards, cadets and peasants is the most accurate guess, based on the evidence available. As Deng Zhongxia said, it wasn’t nobody, but it also was far from enough.
Ok, so what actually happened?
The uprising was launched at 3:30 am on December 11, and within a few hours, much of the city had fallen to the insurgents, who benefitted from an element of surprise and seizing the initiative, despite the fact that the Guomindang knew that an uprising was being planned. However, they were surrounded and outnumbered by hostile forces, and as we have been discussing, the workers did not rise up in the numbers necessary to sustain the revolt. The city’s public security bureau was turned into Soviet headquarters. A meeting was called on the 11th to announce the formation of a Soviet government, but not enough people showed up and it was decided to postpone the ceremony until the next day. About 100 prisoners were captured early in the fighting, and they were held in the Soviet headquarters. Nobody could be found who was willing to execute these prisoners, and so they were kept in the headquarters until, as it turned out, they ended up executing their captors as the revolt collapsed on the 13th. As we have seen a few times now, those instances when the Communists take the high road and are more humane than their enemies tend to end in tragedy for the Communists themselves.
On the evening of the 11th, the Guomindang counteroffensive had already started. The Guomindang militarists whose fighting had created what the Communists perceived as an opening to seize Guangzhou put aside their differences until the Communists had been crushed. Once the Guomindang militarists stopped fighting each other outside the city and turned their attention to the Communists, it meant that there were 50,000 reactionary troops opposed to the Communists just outside the city.
In a meeting at midnight Ye Ting and other military leaders suggested a retreat in the face of superior forces. It’s not quite clear where he anticipated retreating to, perhaps he saw the worker insurgents melting back into the city, and the more organized military forces fighting their way to the Hailufeng Soviet. However, Zhang Tailei and Heinz Neumann vehemently opposed any idea of drawing down the insurrection. Neumann reportedly said that, now that the uprising had been launched, that it must “advance, advance, and again advance.” Neumann also accused Ye Ting of having a bandit mentality, perhaps reflecting the ongoing dispute between the Communist central leadership and Mao Zedong over military line, which we’ve discussed at length in prior episodes.
It is clear that Zhang Tailei and Neumann saw themselves as following Lenin’s guidance on insurrection, which they had studied assiduously. In particular, they drew on a piece of guidance that Lenin wrote just a couple weeks before the insurrection in which the Bolsheviks seized power in the Russian Revolution. In this short piece of guidance by Lenin, which was published as an article titled “Advice of an Onlooker” in 1920, Lenin saw himself as distilling Marx’s thoughts on insurrection. Lenin was drawing on a series of articles titled “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany” which was written by Engels, but which was published under Marx’s name. This was the case with a bunch of articles on military affairs written by Engels during the 1850s, when Marx relied on writing articles for the New York Tribune in order to make a living, and Engels helped Marx out by writing articles that Marx could publish under his name. But it wasn’t until later that people came to know that Engels had written these articles and not Marx, so Lenin thought he was distilling Marx’s wisdom.
In any case, this is what Lenin said in this piece of guidance to the Bolsheviks who launched the insurrection that began the Bolshevik revolution (just remember to substitute Engels as the real author every time that Lenin writes the name Marx):
“[A]rmed uprising is a special form of political struggle, one subject to special laws to which attentive thought must be given. Karl Marx expressed this truth with remarkable clarity when he wrote that ‘insurrection is an art quite as much as war.’
Of the principal rules of this art, Marx noted the following:
(1) Never play with insurrection, but when beginning it realize firmly that you must go all the way.
(2) Concentrate a great superiority of forces at the decisive point and at the decisive moment, otherwise the enemy, who has the advantage of better preparation and organization, will destroy the insurgents.
(3) Once the insurrection has begun, you must act with the greatest determination, and by all means, without fail, take the offensive. ‘The defensive is the death of every armed rising.’
(4) You must try to take the enemy by surprise and seize the moment when his forces are scattered.
(5) You must strive for daily successes, however small (one might say hourly, if it is the case of one town), and at all costs retain ‘moral superiority.’
Marx summed up the lessons of all revolutions in respect to armed uprising in the words of ‘Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known: de l’audace, de l’audace, encore de l’audace.”
Lenin is actually accurately quoting Engels, who was slightly misquoting the French revolutionary Danton here, who actually said “De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace,” which means “audacity, more audacity, and ever more audacity.”
Anyways, Lenin’s advice on insurrection was very influential on Zhang Tailei, and together with the Comintern representative he prevailed against the, in retrospect, good advice of the military commanders of the uprising. Once begun, Zhang believed that an insurrection must be carried forward, always advancing, and that hesitation or moving to the defense would doom whatever small chance for success that the insurrection ever had.
As it turned out, Zhang Tailei was killed on the second day of the insurrection, December 12. As he was returning from the mass meeting that announced the formation of the Guangzhou Soviet, he was set upon by members of the anti-communist paramilitary Physical Education Corps. By the evening of the 12th, the military forces of the revolution were in retreat. But the insurrection had been plagued by a lack of communication and coordination from the beginning, and with Zhang’s death things really fell apart. This meant that the Red Guard worker forces were not informed of the retreat of the cadets. By all accounts the Red Guards fought valiantly, but they were totally overwhelmed. This lack of communication, though, was interpreted by many Guangzhou workers, at least those who survived, as a sign of a hasty and cowardly retreat on the part of the intellectuals leading the Communist Party, and was recalled with much bitterness after the events.
British gunboats came to support the counter-revolution, which had completely retaken the city by the afternoon of December 13. What followed was a massacre, mainly of workers. During the two and a half days of the Guangzhou Commune, casualties had only been in the low hundreds from both sides combined. But during the slaughter that followed the retaking of the city by the Guomindang, nearly 6,000 people were murdered over the course of five days of retribution, often in a gruesome manner. Several members of the Soviet Consulate delegation had died in the fighting, and five surviving members of the Soviet consulate who had participated in the uprising were taken and shot in a public execution. The brief heroic rising of the workers, followed by mass slaughter, contributed to a renaming of the event that stuck over time. Initially referred to mainly as the Guangzhou Uprising, gradually it came to be called the Guangzhou Commune, or the ‘Paris Commune of the East,’ as one article was titled. The defeat of the Commune marked the last phase of the transition of Guangzhou from its days as a global center of the anticolonial movement, Red Canton, back to semicolonial domination by Britain. In March 1928, the British governor of Hong Kong visited the city and merchants were forced, under penalty of a fine, to put up British flags and other pro-British decorations outside their shops. Many observers remarked that Guangzhou now resembled a British city.
The defeat of the Guangzhou Uprising, coming on the heels of the Nanchang and Autumn Harvest Uprisings, was going to contribute to a rethinking of this policy that Qu Qiubai later termed ‘blind actionism.’ But we’ll get to the summation and reevaluation of this policy in a future episode. For now, I just want to thank everyone for your ratings, reviews, and contributions. They are all very much appreciated.