The Party Center puts the South Hunan Special Committee in charge of the Jinggangshan, and the contrast between the strategies advocated by Mao and the Party Center are put on vivid display.
Agnes Smedley, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh [Zhu De]
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography,vol. 1: 1893-1949
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Some names from this episode:
Zhu De, Communist military commander
Li Weihan, member of politburo standing committee
Zhou Lu, head of the military branch of the Southern Hunan Special Committee
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Yuan Wencai, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Welcome to episode 82 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode we talked about how the Southern Hunan uprising of early 1928 began with a series of successes, as the Communist rebels under Zhu De’s military leadership took three cities in succession: Yizhang, Chenzhou, and Leiyang, while also fighting off attempts by the Guomindang militarists to squash the rebellion. This episode, we’ll discuss how Mao Zedong and some of his forces from the Jinggangshan base area were drawn into the uprising, and how ultimately the military defeat of the uprising would lead Zhu De and his forces to retreat into the Jinggangshan, heralding the beginning of a 21-year military partnership between Mao and Zhu which led the Chinese Revolution to victory in 1949.
If you were looking at a map of Hunan province as we talked about this uprising last episode, you probably noticed that the progress of the uprising involved a fairly steady march northward, with Chenzhou around 100 kilometers to the north of Yizhang, and Leiyang about 100 kilometers to the north of Chenzhou. If you were looking at how all this was situated in regard to the Jinggangshan base area and the area of operations of Mao’s forces in the area surrounding the Jinggangshan, you may have noticed that Chaling, in Hunan province, was just another 100 kilometers or so to the northeast of Leiyang. Chaling, you might remember, was the county in Hunan which straddled the Jinggangshan region, and was where Mao made his first military raid after arriving in the Jinggangshan in episode 67, in mid-October 1927. It was also the city that one of Mao’s subordinates took over and held for a month, starting in mid-November 1927. We told that story in episode 68. And then, as Mao’s control of the Jinggang region expanded in early 1928, it became one of the areas to get a new Soviet government in February 1928, more or less concurrent with the advances being made in south Hunan by Zhu De. So, with Chaling so close, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that an initiative was devised by the political leadership of the South Hunan uprising to draw forces from the Jinggangshan into aiding the uprising.
In early March 1928 the Central Committee had placed the Special Committee of Southern Hunan in leadership over the Communist forces in the Jinggangshan region. Now, you might be wondering, here you have two relatively successful Communist efforts at armed struggle and conquering territory, creating base areas if you will, very close to each other, one in the Jinggangshan (which was mostly in Jiangxi province but also reached into eastern Hunan around Chaling) and the other in south Hunan. If anything, the one in the Jinggangshan had been going on longer, but it had also been more or less totally out of touch with the Party Center in Shanghai. This was due to the remoteness of the region, but also due to the fact that Mao’s move to create the base area there was more or less in direct contravention of orders from the Party Center. As I explained back in episode 61, Mao’s decision to march south after the failure of the Autumn Harvest Uprising and create a base area in a remote mountainous area was in direct disobedience of the orders of the Central Committee that he find some way to continue the Autumn Harvest Uprising and attack the cities of Hunan.
And this led to Mao’s expulsion from the Politburo at the November 1927 Politburo meeting in Shanghai, where Mao was blamed for the failure of the Autumn Harvest Uprisings in Hunan, as we discussed in episode 72. And of course, this was just the latest iteration of the ongoing disagreement that Mao was having with the Party Center over military line, as we discussed at some length in episodes 57 and 60, and boiled down to the Party Center’s insistence that the uprisings had to be carried out by peasant associations, without any significant reliance on any organized military force outside the peasant associations. And Mao saying that the peasants can’t win without the participation of more organized and well-trained military forces than what the peasants can put together in their associations.
This had led the Central Committee in its November resolution to denounce Mao as lacking “determination and firm revolutionary will,” not trusting “the strength of the mass movement” and being unwilling to “rely on the workers and peasants.” And also that he always pins his hopes on collaboration with small local warlords. I’m paraphrasing here, we’ve got the full actual quote in Episode 72.
When the Party Center later learned that Mao had constituted his base area in the Jinggangshan by absorbing the forces of the local bandits Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai, the denunciation of Mao’s actions and political line was escalated. On January 12, 1928 the Central Committee issued a circular in which it took on “erroneous attitudes” regarding the armed struggle. The first item in the list was directed at Mao Zedong, and read as follows:
“Not trusting in the strength of the masses—for the reason that they do not trust in the strength of the masses, but lean toward military opportunism, they draft their plans in terms of military forces, planning how to move this or that army unit, this or that peasant army, this or that workers’ and peasants’ rebel-suppressing army, how to link up with the forces of this or that bandit chieftain, how to organize this or that guerrilla detachment, and in this way to unleash an ‘armed uprising’ by a plot calling itself a plan. Such a so-called armed uprising has no relation whatsoever to the masses. For example, last year’s Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan… saw the mobilization of military force alone.”
So, we can see here that the Party Center’s criticism of Mao was the same as before, but now was extended to include linking up with bandit chieftains and given the label of military opportunism. If we see that this is how the Party Center was viewing what Mao was doing in the Jinggangshan, then it isn’t a big surprise that, as the South Hunan uprising grew and extended toward the region where Mao had been operating, the Party Center sought to draw off the strength of Mao’s efforts in the Jinggangshan to aid the South Hunan uprising, and in the process to subordinate Mao to the will of the Central Committee. So, on March 10 the Central Committee issued a letter in which it put all the Communist forces in the Jinggangshan “under the unified leadership of the Special Committee of Southern Hunan.”
This was despite some reservations that the Party Center held about the Special Committee of Southern Hunan. In a January 20, 1928 letter from the Central Committee to Li Weihan, a member of the politburo standing committee, members of the South Hunan Special Committee are described as having “incorrect and unproletarian political tendencies” and Li is asked to go to south Hunan and “rectify” the situation. Li Weihan was an old friend of Mao’s from his student days. What exactly was meant by “incorrect and unproletarian political tendencies,” is not entirely clear, although we’ll be able to make some inferences from some of what follows here.
Whatever the problems of the Special Committee of Southern Hunan, though, they clearly weren’t as big as those that the Party Center thought that Mao Zedong was exhibiting, or they wouldn’t have subordinated Mao to the Special Committee of Southern Hunan. So anyways, in early March, the head of the military branch of the Southern Hunan Special Committee, Zhou Lu, went up to the Jinggang Mountains to let them know that he was in command now and that there were going to be some changes. And he began with letting them know about the various decisions made at the November 1927 politburo meeting (which we discussed in episode 72).
In accordance with the decisions made at that meeting, he informed the Jinggang Communists that they were “leaning too much to the right, doing too little burning and killing.” You might recall from episode 68 that one of the policies that Mao had fought for in the Jinggangshan was a relatively moderate one regarding poor property owners. He had fought against what was called the ‘Red terror’ line which held that when the Red Army entered an area, any property owner should just have all their stuff taken, and that the physical safety of small property owners shouldn’t be guaranteed in the face of the anger of poor peasants. Mao’s notion of who could be won to support the revolution, and whose support would be necessary to ultimately actually win the revolution, was much broader than that of the advocates of the ‘Red terror’ line.
In contrast, as we know from episode 72, the November politburo meeting had summed up that one of the weaknesses of the Nanchang Uprising and Southern Expedition, and of the Communist armed struggle in general, had been an insufficient exercise of red terror. So now Zhou Lu was telling the Jinggang Communists that they were, as he said, “leaning too much to the right, doing too little burning and killing.” He also criticized them for failing to implement the policy of “turning the petit bourgeoisie into the proletariat, and then forcing it to participate in the revolution.”
This is an odd policy, and I’m not sure I totally understand what is meant by it. I’ve been searching around for some sort of elaboration of what exactly is meant by it, and I haven’t been able to find one. What I think is meant by this is that small property owners were to be dispossessed, or have their property destroyed if it wasn’t readily subject to expropriation, thus rendering the former peasant or artisan or merchant now a propertyless proletarian, whose new material interests would lie with the revolution, and thus they could be either mobilized through persuasion or, perhaps more likely, conscripted to fight in the revolution. While it seems to me that this policy would create more enemies than friends for the revolution, it does seem from the overall context of encouraging a lot more “burning and killing” that this is more or less what the policy was. If this was in fact the policy, it is the complete opposite of Mao’s reasoning in sparing small property owners in order to win them to either support the revolution, or at least to be neutral and not work against the revolution, as we discussed in episode 68.
So, as part of making these criticisms of how Mao had been conducting the affairs of the Jinggangshan base area, Zhou Lu summed up Mao’s alleged errors as representing ‘Rightist capitulation’ and as ‘relying merely on guns.’ Zhou informed Mao of the criticisms that had been made of him by the Party Center at the November politburo meeting and in the January circular. Finally, Zhou wrapped up by telling Mao that he had been expelled from the Communist Party. Now, we know that Mao had been removed from his position as an alternate member of the Politburo, so Mao had been expelled from the Politburo back in November (although he was just hearing about it now). But Mao had not actually been expelled from the Party. So what was Zhou up to here?
The main Chinese biography of Mao, the one co-edited by Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, and which I have been using in its recent English translation, describes Zhou Lu’s action in telling Mao that he had been expelled from the Party and removing Mao from all Party posts as a misinterpretation of the Central Committee’s decision to expel him from the Politburo. The non-Chinese historians who I have read tend to ascribe more malign motives to Zhou Lu, with one speculating on Zhou’s own leadership ambitions as the reason behind him acting as if Mao had been expelled from the Party.
As you can imagine, the expulsion of Mao from the Party had some dramatic consequences for the organization of the Jinggang base area. The Front Committee, which Mao had headed, and which managed both military and civil affairs, was abolished. Mao was labeled as a ‘person outside the Communist Party’ and removed from all political roles that he had held. However, the importance of Mao’s military leadership thus far was recognized, and he was retained as the commander of the First Division of the Red Army. There was only one division in the Jinggang, so he was still the military leader. But because he wasn’t considered as a party member anymore, a Communist was placed above him to supervise military affairs. He was then ordered to move his troops down to support the South Hunan Uprising.
Now, the Red Army forces up in the mountains weren’t kept at all times in one central place where they would always be ready to just march all together at a moment’s notice. These were very poor mountains where people lived in small villages. Supporting a large concentration of troops for an extended period of time was a very difficult thing in the Jinggangshan, so rather than have one central military base, the various troops of the Red Army camped in a variety of places throughout the mountains. Besides this issue of materially supporting the troops, it was also general policy that when not involved in military action, the Red Army would be engaged in political work, so the troops were dispersed and engaged in this work as well. So when orders went out to go down and join the South Hunan uprising, it took a few days for all the various dispersed troops to get together and join up. On March 18, all these forces rendezvoused at the town of Zhongcun, in Hunan province, right about on the edge of the territory that Mao had been operating in since his arrival in the region in October 1927.
However, after, gathering the army together in Zhongcun, the Jinggangshan forces under Mao’s leadership decided to stay in place and conduct training exercises and go out into the surrounding countryside and conduct political propaganda activities and carry out land reform. In late March, while conducting these exercises and political work, Mao received news about the sudden collapse of the South Hunan uprising. Also, during this week or so that was spent in Zhongcun, clarification arrived about Mao’s status as a Communist Party member, so he was no longer a ‘person outside the Communist Party.’ In response to the news about the collapse of the uprising, Mao sent the regiment led by Yuan Wencai down to the west to meet up with the retreating forces, while he maneuvered the rest of his force in an attempt to block the pursuing Guomindang forces.
But let’s take a step back and try to understand what happened with the sudden collapse of the South Hunan uprising, which had seemed to be going so well. There are two major factors at play in the collapse of the uprising. The main factor involved the balance of military forces. After having taken three cities and occupying the surrounding countryside, the Communists in South Hunan had got the attention of the various Guomindang militarists in the region. The Guomindang generals put aside their various feuds and competition in light of the greater threat posed by the Communists. We saw last episode that Zhu De had managed to dispose of the first wave of Guomindang forces sent against him. However, larger and more powerful forces were on the way. In the face of these forces, there was no way that the cities that had been taken during the uprising could be held, and even the most hardline members of the South Hunan Special Committee could see this eventually and a decision was made to retreat up to the Jinggangshan.
Although the force being brought against the Communists by the Guomindang generals was almost certainly enough in itself to defeat the uprising, there was a second factor which contributed to the defeat which is worth mentioning. When the Communists first took the three cities in South Hunan during the uprising, there was a lot of support from the urban populations, and also a lot of people who were neutral, and so were willing to wait and see how things went with the Communists running things. However, this policy of doing a lot of “burning and killing” had created a real feeling of terror and fear in these cities, and a lot of the early support and neutrality toward the revolution on the part of the urban population had collapsed, which made holding on to the cities even more difficult than it would have been.
With the abandonment of the cities, local cadres and peasants who had participated in the uprising were able to melt back into the countryside. However, the more cohesive armed forces, those being Zhu De’s army along with some of the more developed peasant detachments that had been formed, began a retreat toward the Jinggangshan. They moved very slowly, however, because there were a lot of non-combatants. There was the South Hunan Special Committee along with its headquarters entourage, along with a large number of family members and an assortment of other non-combatants who had become attached one way or another to the uprising.
Here’s how Stephen Averill describes the movement of these refugee columns in Revolution in the Highlands:
Most of the South Hunan Communist Party leaders, including Zhou Lu, died during the collapse of the uprising. So, what began as a seemingly successful endeavor as the Communists quickly conquered much of southern Hunan in January and February had turned into a complete disaster by April and was a major setback for the revolutionary movement in the region. And the absence of so many troops had also allowed the Guomindang to reoccupy major areas of the Jinggangshan base area itself, at least for the time being. However, the long-term effect of the joining of Mao Zedong and Zhu De’s forces would be very fortuitous for the revolution.
And the irony of the South Hunan refugees needing to find refuge in the Jinggangshan, when the policy of the Party Center was that Mao should be drawn out of the Jinggangshan and into the battle to conquer cities in South Hunan, must have been a vivid illustration for some participants in the viability of the different military policies being advocated by Mao and the Party Center. It seems that Zhu De was probably won at this point over to see Mao’s point of view on this question. As we shall see, the Party Center itself would be a bit more hard-headed on this point.
Now, what happened when somewhere between ten and twelve thousand refugees poured into one of the poorest places on the planet earth? You can bet we’ll talk about that in an episode in the near future.
Alright, that’s it for now. Thanks for listening, and thanks especially to all of you who have been supporting the show.