Discussing pay for professional revolutionaries, the role of servants in the lives of Communist leaders, and the Comintern in Shanghai.
Patricia Stranahan, Underground: The Shanghai Communist Party and the Politics of Survival, 1927-1937
Elizabeth Perry, Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor
Wang Fan-hsi [Wang Fanxi], Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary
Gavin McCrea, Mrs. Engels
Frederick Litten, “The Noulens Affair”
Anna Belogurova, “The Civic World of International Communism: Taiwanese communists and the Comintern (1921-1931)”
Onimaru Takeshi, “Shanghai Connection: The Construction and Collapse of the Comintern Network in East and Southeast Asia”
Jospehine Fowler, “From East to West and West to East: Ties of Solidarity in the Pan-Pacific Revolutionary Trade Union Movement, 1923-1934”
Josephine Fowler, Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Activists: Organizing in American and International Communist Movements, 1919–1933
Frederic Wakeman, Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937
Some names from this episode:
Liu Shaoqi, Leading Communist
He Baozhen, Communist cadre and wife of Liu Shaoqi
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of Chinese Communist Party
Qu Qiubai, Top Communist leader
Wang Fanxi, A member of the Central Committee Organization Bureau
Zhang Guotao, Leading Communist
Peng Shuzi, Leading Communist expelled in 1929
Welcome to episode 85 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
We’ve spent the last couple of episodes discussing different aspects of what life was like for the Communist Party leadership based in Shanghai at the end of the 1920s. This episode, I want to wrap up talking about the Communists in Shanghai by talking a little about the material conditions of work and life for the Communist leaders, and also touch just a little bit on how Shanghai remained an important city not just for the Chinese Communists, but also for various organizations related to the international communist movement which found Shanghai a useful base for their operations because of its position as a regional metropolis, making it a good site to set up headquarters for a variety of organizations focused on working toward revolution along the western edge of the Pacific Ocean.
So, probably the most natural place to start talking about the standard of living enjoyed by the Communist Party leadership is to discuss what they were paid. It’s not a question often asked, and one often doesn’t see it really addressed too much when reading about revolutionary movements. But the Communist Party leadership were kept more or less constantly busy, and couldn’t hold down regular jobs, and so they needed some way to pay for the necessities of life. In the base areas, like the Jinggangshan, the Communists might be able to do things like organize the feeding and lodging of the Communist leadership there as part of the overall logistics of running a revolutionary army. But in Shanghai, somehow the Party leaders had to handle things like buying food and clothes and other necessities of life. So, this had to be handled by paying them a salary.
Of course, if you were a member of the Chinese Communist Party, whether you were a leader of the party or not, you were expected to be a professional revolutionary in the sense that you were expected to devote yourself whole-heartedly and more or less devote all the time you had to spare to the revolution. That is, even if you had a job that you were working at for most of the day, you were still expected to prioritize your revolutionary work. The Chinese Communist Party conceived of itself as a party of professional revolutionaries in that sense, consistent with the Leninist norms for vanguard party organization as they were understood all around the world at that time. But in another sense, if we understand professional revolutionary not in the sense in which Lenin meant it, but in the sense that there were some members of a Communist Party who were supported by the Party and others who weren’t, the expectation in Shanghai in the late 1920s was that only a small number of party members would be professional, or full-time paid, Communist revolutionaries.
There was an expectation that most Party members would hold down jobs and pay dues out of their wages which would be the major source of the funds needed by the Party. However, this was often not the case in China’s cities in the late 1920s. It was frequently the case that the professionals outnumbered the rank-and-file members who held down jobs. There were a couple of reasons for this. On the one hand there was the repression which kept the membership numbers of the Party under more or less constant assault. And then there was the pressures of activism in the Party. As anyone who has fully devoted themselves to political activism knows, it can be really hard to hold down a job when your priorities lie elsewhere. And given the demands that Party membership made on the time of Communists, it’s not a surprise that they might not always have been the most stable of job holders.
However, there was no way that the Party could actually support all of these people by paying them a salary. A regular, formal salary was only given to top leadership. For the vast majority of these jobless, full-time Party members, there was a basic commitment that the Party made the keep these guys fed and not sleeping on the streets, and that was about all that could be done (although perhaps it was all that they needed, since all their time not eating or sleeping was expected to be taken up with Party tasks anyways).
Before giving you salary figures for Chinese Communist leaders, let me give some context. In Shanghai, the average worker’s monthly wage at the time was about 19 yuan (you will sometimes see yuan translated as dollar or Chinese dollar in the literature). A skilled mechanic in a factory could easily earn more than 30 yuan, and male machine operator in a factory would earn over 20 yuan, while many of the women factory workers earned around 10 to 13 yuan. An average family of five needed around 24 yuan a month to meet expenses. So, these average figures give you some idea of what workers in Shanghai were making at the time. Now, the standard of living for these workers was far below what it is in Shanghai today, and obviously nothing near the living standards of most workers in the United States or Western Europe today. So, keep that in mind.
The lowest ranking Communist Party members to receive a salary were members of the District Committees, who were paid 19 yuan a month, about what the average worker made. (If you forgot about the party hierarchy in Shanghai from last episode, I’ll just remind you that, from the top down, it went Central Committee, then the Jiangsu Provincial Committee (which also functioned as the Shanghai City Committee) under that, then there were the seven districts that Shanghai was divided up into, and then each district was comprised of party branches, which in turn were composed of party cells.) Then, above these district committee members, people serving on either the Provincial Committee or the Central Committee might be paid anywhere from 25 to 50 yuan a month, depending on their particular tasks and needs. So, the top leaders of the Party were being paid anywhere from a little above a regular worker’s pay to a little over two and a half times the average wage.
We’ve talked in past episodes about the just tremendous workload that top Party leaders endured. Lots of time in meetings, lots of time writing and reading reports, lots of time dealing with other people who also saw themselves as major leaders, which, knowing all the egos and the personality types involved, must have been major hassles. And then there was a lot of time spent in basic security measures. Everything takes longer when you need to avoid meeting in the same place too frequently, or you have to meet someone somewhere other than your regular office because they can’t know where that is so that when someone is putting a cigarette out in their eye they can’t say where it is. Stuff like that takes time. I think we talked about the drain that some of this organizational work could be on top cadres most explicitly when we discussed Mao taking sick leave and going back to Hunan back in episode 28, when he was suffering from a kind of nervous exhaustion from all the bureaucratic tasks and organizational diplomacy that he was engaged in. Although the conditions in Shanghai were quite different in that episode, Mao left Shanghai at the end of 1924, from how things were in the late 1920s, there is a real parallel I think in terms of the type of organizational work that he was involved in back then and the sort of work that continued to be done at the top level of the Party.
Anyways, I bring this up to say that these guys were really busy. Which, I think, puts this thing that I brought up two episodes ago in perspective. Remember, when we were talking about the suicide attempt of Liu Shaoqi’s wife, He Baozhen, it was the maid in the house they were living in who found He Baozhen unconscious from trying to poison herself. So, let’s talk about this. I have a couple questions here. There seems to me to be, at least on the surface level, a contradiction between having radically egalitarian beliefs and having people who cook and clean for you. But the degree to which this is a contradiction may well be culturally constructed. For example, here in the United States, really no one below the upper middle class has people come and clean their places, and only the really elite have regular, full-time servants. Perhaps with the exception of nannies, who some pretty upper middle-class people are able to stretch things out to pay for because childcare is so expensive in this country anyways. For our listeners outside the United States, you might not know that it’s not that uncommon for the entire salary of one parent of a couple with a young child to go to pay for childcare.
But when I’ve lived in Latin America and China, I also noticed that there were a lot of regular, middle-class people who had people come to clean their houses and even cook for them on a daily basis. Part of this has to do with just how little people who were doing this work were paid. But anyways, I bring this up because, although there might be on some universal level a basic contradiction between having people clean up after you and stuff like that, that there is also a relative way in which this might be a bigger deal in some cultural contexts than in others. Like, if someone told me they were a communist in the United States and they had a maid, I would be like, ‘whoah.’ But, on the other hand, I have met Marxist professors in Latin America who definitely had people coming to their house and cleaning and washing their clothes like every day and no one saw that as a contradiction at all.
So, anyways, I don’t want to spend too much time on this, maybe it is just my own hang-up, but I think this has to be taken into account in evaluating what was going on with these servants that the Chinese Communist leadership had in Shanghai in the 1920s. Was there a cultural context where this wasn’t seen as being a big deal, because anyone who was not making a living off their own physical labor probably had someone coming to do their cleaning? Yes, there was that going on. And was there a whole situation where these guys were insanely busy and, if you are spending all your time trying to liberate China and free humanity from imperialism, and doing that at a high level, then why not have someone else doing your cooking and cleaning. Yeah, there are a lot worse rationalizations than that, for sure. So, again, I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I thought this whole Communists with maids thing merited some discussion, because on a visceral level it just seems weird and wrong to me.
Which brings us to another aspect of this question, which is, who were these people? I mean, did they know who they were serving? If so, how did you have a situation where, on the one hand, someone could be trusted with knowing the locations and identities of Communist leaders on the one hand, and yet these were people whose tasks were very menial on the other hand? I would think that anyone trusted with that kind of knowledge would be someone who would be given more important movement tasks than cooking and cleaning. On the other hand, if these people didn’t know who they were serving, wasn’t there a constant danger of them finding out or hearing something that would be compromising? Wasn’t having servants a kind of perpetual security risk?
I have to tell you, I have been searching for an answer to these questions. And, I am amazed to say, I can’t find an answer. One of the things about people engaged in service work is that they are rendered invisible in lots of settings. So even if they are present, they don’t necessarily make it into the historical record. And when they do make it into the historical record, historians will sometimes erase their presence in how they write about the history. I don’t know who to blame, the historical record or the historians or both, but its kind of amazing to me that these guys were present and yet in the memoirs and histories of this period I can’t find any real discussion of them. You would think, at least, that Communists would be sensitive to this issue when writing their memoirs, but that hasn’t been the case in the examples that I have seen. And look, I’ve got a document here which is a list of expenses of the Office of the Secretary of the Shanghai City Committee of the Communist Party for November 1927, and it just has six items on it: rent, telephone, servants, miscellaneous, residences, and then the livelihood expenses for the members of the Committee. So, these people constituted one of the six basic expenses of the City Party Committee. And it’s just frustrating for me that I can’t find more information on these people who were intimately involved in a kind of basic way with the lives of the Communist leadership in the city at the time.
And, as long as we’re on the subject of Communists and their housekeepers, I will mention that I recently started reading a book of historical fiction called Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea. I haven’t finished it yet, so I can’t give it a complete endorsement, but I will say that it deals with the relationship between Marx and Engels and their families and the housekeepers that they had in some depth, so if you are looking to explore this theme some more, you might enjoy the book. Anyways, ok, let’s leave it at that for now.
Let’s move on to talk about where all this money came from.
Now, as I’ve already stated, in theory at least, almost all of the money used by the Party in Shanghai was supposed to come from dues paid by Party members who had full time jobs. But as we’ve seen, there were a lot of Party members who didn’t have jobs, and many tasks that needed to be done. So, when the money fell short that came from dues, what happened? On the one hand, there was undoubtedly a lot that either didn’t get done or didn’t get paid for. But the Chinese Communist Party had one additional source of income which was used to support the top-level leaders and make sure that essential functions kept on functioning. And that was the Soviet Union.
In fact, as I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, there were important organs of international communism functioning in Shanghai at this time. One was the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern. Because of the importance of Shanghai as a crossroads of international trade, giving the city very modern communications and a large international community that foreigners from across the world could blend in with, even despite the repressive conditions, the Comintern saw the city as a good place to situate its committee that was tasked with coordinating and overseeing efforts at fomenting the Communist movement in Japan, French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya, the US-occupied Philippines, Thailand, and Japanese-occupied Taiwan and Korea. It was not uncommon for revolutionaries from these places to go to Shanghai and hold important meetings and consultations there, rather than on their home territory. For example, the short-lived Taiwanese Communist Party was founded in the French Concession of Shanghai in 1928.
Another important organ of international communism in Shanghai was something called the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, which had been founded by the Moscow-based Red International of Labor Unions, or Profintern, to support radical union activity in the Pacific basin. Despite being based in Shanghai, the biggest successes of the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat involved work with Filipino and Australian workers. Interestingly, the work of the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat is one of the few points of intersection of the Communist movement in the United States and the Communist revolution in China. Japanese and Chinese immigrants to the United States who became Communists got heavily involved in the work of the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, especially with attempting to organize Chinese and Japanese seamen in American ports. And Earl Browder, who served as the top leader of the Communist Party of the United States from 1930 to 1945, was the first secretary of the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat and worked out of the Shanghai headquarters in 1928.
Anyways, I bring all this up about the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern and the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat being based out of Shanghai to establish that there was this presence of these organs of international communism in Shanghai which were funded by Moscow, and not by the dues of local Communist Party members. Now, naturally, the Central Committee leadership of the Chinese Communist Party intersected with these organizations, and money was made available to it by the Comintern. So, this was an important source of funding which ensured a sort of baseline of funding for the operations of the Central Committee.
But how did the funds get there? The Nationalist government wouldn’t just let the Soviets wire money directly into, say, Qu Qiubai’s bank account, right? Initially, when the Soviet Union began aiding revolutionaries abroad, the Soviet embassies were the centers through which a lot of the logistical aspects of supporting revolutions were funneled. Remember, for example, from episode 49, how Li Dazhao was living on the grounds of the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. But the raid in 1927 on the Beijing embassy, and a similar raid on the Soviet embassy in London in the same year, revealed the weakness of this way of doing things. After all, if the warlord regimes in Britain and China wouldn’t respect the sovereignty of the Soviet embassies, then it was a pretty bad idea to keep all your operational logistical information centralized there so it could be captured whenever the bad guys decided to raid the embassy.
So, in order to move money, and also to have hubs where couriers could go and pass along communications, the Comintern began setting up front businesses which could hide the movement of money, information and people. The most important of these in Shanghai at the end of the 1920s was an operation called the Metropolitan Trading Company. This was a real company that turned a profit, and which had been set up by German Communists in Germany, and which imported the German painkiller called Togal, which is an aspirin-based painkiller, into China. Of course, a genuinely profitable legitimate import-export business was the best cover for moving everything else that needed to be moved. So, this was the direction that things had gone in the late 1920s after the Soviets turned away from using their public diplomatic missions as the main centers for clandestine revolutionary activity.
Alright, before we wrap up this discussion of Communists and money, I want to share with you a statement that Wang Fanxi made in his memoir which I found thought-provoking. Wang Fanxi was a member of the Central Committee Organization Bureau in the late 1920s, and later on went on to become a Trotskyist. Anyways, in his memoir, Wang mentions being in a conversation where Zhang Guotao, who was a leading Communist quite opposed to the political line being taken at the end of the 1920s in Shanghai said to Peng Shuzi, an early leader of the Party who was expelled in 1929: “You can get by on translation work, but how could I earn a living if I left the Party?”
Now, in concrete historical terms, we do know that Zhang Guotao went on to join the Guomindang after being expelled from the Communist Party in 1937. But I think it’s a provocative question. The change in political line from the united front period to the period of ‘blind actionism,’ as it was later called, was pretty massive. (Keep in mind, as we discussed in episode 82, this is the period in which Mao (the bête noire of polite society everywhere) was criticized as a rightist for not engaging in enough burning and killing.) Leaving the Communist Party must have at least crossed the mind of some leaders who really opposed this change in policy. In fact, assuming Wang Fanxi’s memoir to be accurate, the conversation between Zhang and Peng would appear to be proof of that.
So, this quote has left me thinking about the interplay between political idealism and commitment on the one hand, and how that propelled someone like Zhang Guotao into pursuing the life of a professional revolutionary on the one hand, and how, later on, someone like him may have continued, at least for a time and under certain circumstances, to carry out his functions not so much because of commitment any more, but because he had to because it was the only life he had known, and if he didn’t he would be in a bad way pretty fast in terms of figuring out how to earn himself a living. Anyways, something to think about. Another complicated aspect of the revolutionary process.
Anyways, that wraps things up for our little three-part series on the Party Center in Shanghai. Next episode I think we’ll be heading back down to the countryside.