In the wake of their military victories in late Spring 1928, the Communists carried out a major land redistribution and a mass recruitment drive. There were some unforeseen complications.
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
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Some names from this episode:
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Yuan Wencai, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Welcome to episode 88 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the string of victories that the Communist guerrillas under the leadership of Mao Zedong and Zhu De won over Guomindang campaigns in May and June 1928 to suppress the base area controlled by the Communists along the Hunan-Jiangxi provincial border and centered on Jinggang Mountain (but which was also expanding into the lowland valleys surrounding the Jinggang massif). When we ended the episode, the base area had expanded in the wake of the Communist military victories to the greatest extent that it would reach, which was over 7200 square kilometers, with a population of over 500,000 people.
These victories brought the Communists a temporary respite from Guomindang attacks, and they decided to make use of this time to expand the party and try to set up a better functioning government in the area, and to experiment with carrying out socioeconomic reforms. In particular, land reform was on the agenda. These victories had given the Communists a great morale boost, and the affect that this had on the psychology of both Communist militants and regular peasants in the area was one of like “hey, the Communists can beat the Guomindang, these guys could really win a revolution.” The effect on the one hand was that people who wanted to fight for a more equal and just China who may have doubted whether joining the Communists was a good idea were animated to join up. But also, there was an effect where many people joined out of self-interest. We’ll get into some details on all this in just a minute. But anyways, this time period, around the middle of the summer, because it was characterized by all these victories and expansion and growth of the party and a general sense of winning, is known as the High Tide period of the Jinggangshan base area experience.
Now, this High Tide was somewhat anticipated by Mao Zedong’s sense of optimism at a conference of party representatives of the border area that took place on May 20, 1928, during the break between the two suppression campaigns that we discussed last episode. At this conference, Mao gave a speech addressing a question that some people had been asking, which was framed as ‘how long can we keep the red flag flying?’ That is, there were a bunch of Communist party members asking this very important and reasonable question of how long they could actually keep hold of their base area, was it or wasn’t it inevitable that, eventually, the Guomindang would send enough troops that the Communists just couldn’t hold out any longer?
This theme prefigures a resolution that Mao put forward at a different party meeting in October 1928, much of which appears in Mao’s Selected Works under the title “Why Is It That Red Political Power Can Exist in China?” Some pretty major stuff is going to happen between this May 20 speech by Mao and the October 5 resolution that Mao put forward, but the question will remain germane for some time to come. We don’t have the text of the speech from May 20, but we do know from people who were there what Mao talked about. The central piece of that talk was a summation of the process of the formation of the Jinggangshan base area, which Mao gave in order to concretely explain what the material conditions were that facilitated the continuing existence of a Communist base area. By doing this, what Mao sought to show was that the pessimists and, as he called them, defeatists, were not being materialists, that they were letting their subjective fears about defeat carry them away.
After summing up what had been accomplished so far, and rhetorically using the success that had been had so far as a way of quashing the pessimism that some comrades had been feeling about the long-term prospects of the Jinggangshan base area, Mao put forward a plan for going forward and deepening the revolutionary process in the base area. The key aspect of this was carrying through a land reform which was supposed to solidify mass support for the revolution in the area. At the same time, governmental structures would be elaborated in order to govern in a less ad hoc manner, and as part of this process the Party would need to grow quite a bit as well. It was a kind of plan for moving on from just hanging on with military force to setting up to govern in a kind of semi-permanent way in the region.
Now, the next suppression campaign by the Guomindang came not long after this speech by Mao, and these plans had to be put on hold for the most part. But after the Communist victory in June (which, again, we discussed last episode), this plan for carrying out land reform and growing the party went into effect and was really carried along by the sense that the Communist movement was on the ascendant that had been engendered by the military victories.
Now, the key to everything that the Communists hoped to accomplish in terms of solidifying their rule in the region and growing the party and achieving a strong base of mass support was land reform. And on one level, land reform is a pretty simple concept to grasp. It goes something like this: There are a lot of peasants who don’t have enough land to make a good living off of the land (and back in episode 63 we spoke in more detail about the specific survival strategies of people in the Jinggangshan region). The idea with land reform is that you give these people enough land to make a decent living off the land, and then they will support your political aims. Naturally, this is an easier proposition for people with egalitarian agendas than for political groups that rely, at least partially, on the support of people with large landholdings. But land reform in one form or another has actually been carried out by all kinds of political groups with modernizing agendas around the world during the past couple hundred years. For example, capitalist modernizers believe that breaking up inefficient large landholdings is important for creating a market for capitalist goods, for modernizing agriculture (and thus the national economy as a whole), and for building a middle class that has a stake in the system. So, land reform isn’t necessarily even a very radical concept. It all depends on how it is carried out.
Let’s look at how the Communists in China were thinking about land reform and its relationship to their overall political project, and then see what they did in the Jinggangshan.
Land reform is one of those problems that initially can seem like a pretty simple idea, but then gets more complicated the more you think about it, and then even more complicated in the process of being carried out. For example, the November 1927 Politburo meeting in Shanghai that we discussed back in episode 72 came up with a draft program for land reform which it submitted to the party for further discussion. This “Draft Resolution on the Land Question” called for confiscating all land and redistributing it to poor peasants who had been organized into peasant soviets. Essentially, this policy boiled down to the Party nationalizing all the land and then distributing use rights to all of the poor peasants. An elegant solution, but not one which could easily be adapted to the situation that the Communists found themselves in at the moment, as we will see here.
Mao and his colleagues decided that the November 1927 “Draft Resolution on the Land Question” was not workable, it just left out too many variables that had to be considered. But this left them with a number of practical questions that they had to answer, such as: Who would get their land confiscated? What would be the geographical realm within which each local redistribution would take place (for example, just within a village, or a cluster of villages, or a larger area than that?)? How much land would people get, and how would you decide who got land and who didn’t? The answers that they came up with were the beginning of a decades long learning process that culminated in the land reform that the Chinese Communist Party carried out after the victory of the revolution.
The first question, who would get their land confiscated, was kind of a difficult one. There was broad consensus within the Communist Party that large landlords would get their land taken. But the thing was, there were only a few of those, and these guys, while they had relatively a lot of land compared to other people in the area, did not have huge amounts of land. Even if you took all of these large landlords’ land away, then, you wouldn’t have enough land to redistribute to all the people who needed more land. So that meant, that you had to take land away from other people too, from prosperous but by no means wealthy peasants; what you might call the upper layers of just normal people in the countryside.
The largest landlords had probably fled the area when the Communists came, so taking their land was no problem. But these other people maybe had supported or at least been neutral to the revolution, and the Communists didn’t want to make enemies of them. Not the least reason for not wanting to alienate these better off peasants was that they were disproportionately influential in their villages, with their success in life having led to them playing roles as community leaders. But this desire not to alienate these middle peasants, or as Mao called them at the time “the intermediate class” (and the historian Stephen Averill refers to them as a “lower elite stratum”), this desire not to alienate them had to be balanced against the gains to be made by solidifying the loyalty of the mass of poorer peasants. So, it was kind of like, in an ideal world according to the Communist land redistribution vision, large landlords would have enough land to go around for all the peasants to be satisfied. But as it was, if you wanted to actually give enough land to make a real difference in the lives of the vast majority of the peasants, you were going to have to take land away from some people that you didn’t really want to have to take land away from.
But then the question naturally came up, which was how do we determine how much land to take away from these people? And the only real way to answer this question was, it depends on how much land is going to be distributed to the beneficiaries of the land reform. Which immediately leads to the next question, what is the criteria for distributing the land. And this became a subject of hot debate within the Communist Party, and apparently to some degree in the area outside the party as well. The question was, does the land get redistributed on a per capita basis, or on the basis of the power that the recipients have to productively work the land? This was an argument that would go on for some years, actually, although in the case of the Jinggangshan they are going to go with per capita distribution. Let me sketch the arguments out here.
The argument in favor of land distribution according to the power to work the land hinged on the fact that it would lead to a more efficient and productive use of the land, which would benefit the overall economy and well-being of the base area. The power to work the land would be determined by some combination of age, gender, and possession of tools and draft animals. That would perhaps be a bit cumbersome to determine, but it made more sense, according to this argument, than giving land to children, the elderly, women with bound feet who couldn’t engage in agricultural labor, and so on. Also, because the Communists wanted to avoid the re-emergence of a market for buying and renting land, if you gave land to people who couldn’t use it, the argument went that by distributing land per capita all these people who couldn’t work the land would have land and inevitably they would end up selling or renting that land, and this capitalist economy in land use would distort Communist efforts to change social relations in the base area.
The argument in favor of per capita land distribution was principally that this was more egalitarian, with the additional benefit of being administratively much easier than trying to rank everyone according to their ability to work the land and then doling out land amounts of varying sizes according to some sort of ‘power to work the land score.’ The problem with giving out land to people who couldn’t work it was effectively dismissed by indicating that in practice children, the elderly, women with bound feet, and whoever else couldn’t work the land were almost always connected with people who could work the land. So, this wasn’t as big of an issue as it was made out to be by the proponents of distributing land according to the power to work the land.
But the most important issue for the proponents of per capita land distribution was that distributing land according to the power to work the land would preserve more of the inequality that already prevailed. Even when the better off peasants and small landlords had some or even much of their land taken away, they retained other advantages. They had better tools and seed stock and had more and better draft animals. So, the decision to favor per capita land distribution ultimately came down to prioritizing a more egalitarian distribution of land, at the expense of what may have been a somewhat better economic outcome for the base area in the short term. It is interesting that here, even at basically the first point where the Chinese Communist Party had to make a decision about how to reshape society in an area that it governed, the contradiction came up between prioritizing economic outcomes and prioritizing egalitarian values in social reconstruction. This would be one of the main contradictions that characterized the policy choices of the entire period of socialist construction that began in 1949 and which engendered conflicts within the Communist Party between the partisans of egalitarianism and the partisans of development at any cost.
In any case, at the time we’re discussing here, 1928 in the Jinggangshan, the policy that won out was the more egalitarian per capita land distribution policy, and this was also the policy that Mao Zedong endorsed at the time. So, the decision was made that everyone would be entitled to a certain equal amount of land. This still didn’t account for the fact that some land was good land and some land was poor land. In general, as it turned out, this was supposed to be accounted for in the redistribution, but in fact often the rich peasants and small landlords who had to give up land managed to give up their worst land. Which speaks to another aspect of the land reform.
You may have noticed that the November 1927 “Draft Resolution on the Land Question” that I mentioned earlier had called for a full confiscation and redistribution of all land. Essentially, that the land would be nationalized and then given out anew to the peasants. What the Communists did in the Jinggangshan, however, was not to just take all land and redistribute it, but to take land away from people who had more than their per capita share. So, the land that peasants kept after having some taken away was land that they had already owned. As a result, people who received land might have a plot here and a plot there, rather than one nice sized contiguous plot to work. So, when we try to picture this land redistribution, we can think of people having a plot here, a plot there, and so on. And maybe one plot would be of better land and another plot of not so good land. This, in fact, was not all that uncommon even before the land reform, especially in the mountains where good agricultural land could be kind of spaced out.
This dispersed geographical dimension to the farming of poor peasants in mountainous areas is actually a kind of regular feature internationally, where peasants might have a plot here and a plot there, and some might even be so far that they walk a day between them and have to spend several days there working the land to make it worth the trip. Which raises the question of, just how large of an area was taken as the basis for each land redistribution? I think that when most of us picture land redistribution, we probably think of more or less a single village and there is some land around the village, and it is just kind of carved up and given out. But actually, in practice, the Communists in the Jinggangshan found the village to be a very difficult basic unit for the redistribution of land.
The problem with villages was that you had these small populations where everyone knew each other, many people, or even everyone, might be related to each other, and there were all kinds of complicated interpersonal ties and histories that people had with each other, including various ties of dependence and indebtedness. So, when you redivided land within that small population, you could explode a bunch of very personal issues, or the whole land redistribution could be undermined by the dominance of a someone who headed up the most powerful family in the village, just to name two possibilities. One of the problems that Mao mentioned when discussing the process of party growth and expansion in these small mountain villages was that “party members with the same surname often make up a branch, and the branch meeting is simply a clan meeting” and that “a fairly long time will be required for class polarization to take place in the villages and for clan ideology to be overcome.”
So, it was usually necessary to redistribute land in a larger geographical area than just the village. This usually meant that the administrative unit taken as the basis for the redistribution was something called a ‘township,’ which might include several villages and allowed the distribution to be a bit more impersonal in character than if it was done in an area where everyone was very intimately connected. But it also meant that you might have quite a bit longer walk to get to the land that you had been given. In the lowland areas, say around Yongxin, where you had denser clusters of agricultural production and of population, smaller areas did lend themselves to redistribution. But it was still necessary to be careful about all the ties that people had to each other and how that might undermine the land reform.
Now, along with this land reform, there came a big campaign to increase party membership and mass involvement in the revolutionary project. The way in which this recruitment drive was carried out makes it appear that the Communists in the Jinggangshan envisioned a qualitative transformation in the Communist Party into a mass party which would be the vehicle for broad participation in the government of the area’s affairs. Previously, recruitment into the Communist Party had been a secretive process which relied on personal recommendations by people who were already party members. In contrast, during the High Tide period suddenly the party was being marketed to a mass audience. Cadres held large mass meetings in some places and signed up new members on the spot. In some parts of the Jinggangshan, quotas were given to cadres tasked with recruitment so that a certain number of new members had to be signed up within a given time frame. There is even some evidence that this enthusiasm for growing the party and a perceived need for new members led to forced recruitment in some villages, with some people being coerced to join in what was called the “press-gang style.”
As problematic as coercive recruitment into the party may have been, the larger danger to the Communist Party’s integrity was from the many people who were happy to join precisely because the Party appeared to be more or less fully and securely in charge of affairs in the area now. In many small townships, an initial Party core membership of a handful grew to forty or fifty members. Overall, party membership grew about 10-fold. That’s a 1000% increase in membership. The motivation for the increase in members is clear enough. If the party was actually going to govern effectively, there were a million tasks which cried out to be done. And the army, which had often served as an ad hoc governing body, was both ill equipped for regular governance and was needed for specifically military duties.
But under these circumstances, many new members had little knowledge of or regard for the party’s standards for personal behavior, much less its history and ideology. In particular, many of the better off peasants were able to parlay the influence that they enjoyed in their villages into becoming party members, effectively becoming the party leaders in new branches formed in their villages. Thus, they were in a good position to manage the land reform in such a way as to protect their best lands and their interests overall. When Mao wrote of the problems involved in party meetings in some villages just being a new name for what previously would have been a meeting of a lineage group, this is one of the issues that was implied by the problem. This mass recruitment drive would lead to the first purge of the party in the fall. It is kind of remarkable how much this echoes similar mass recruitment drives followed by party purges in the Soviet Union that happened around the same time, where the need to expand the party ran into the various problems thrown up by admitting a ton of people into what had been set up to be a more elite and selective organization, with lots of people joining for selfish reasons and many others just lacking the training and education to carry out the tasks that were now expected of them, and with the party organization itself unable to either train or monitor people and thus having to correct itself only through cumbersome rectification campaigns and purges rather than through the more orderly disciplinary functioning that one would expect from a modern institution. Anyways, we’ll talk about the fall purge, the first in the party’s history, in a future episode.
Another unforeseen problem which occurred was the resurgence of the ethnic tensions in the region as a result of the land reform. This was a major theme that we discussed in our background episodes on the region, in episodes 63 through 66, and the land reform really dredged up these issues. While the Communists, especially those from outside the Jinggangshan, conceived of the land reform in terms of economic divisions among the peasants, many local peasants saw the land reform in ethnic terms. And this included many locally recruited Communist cadres and army soldiers who carried out the land reform. Not only that, but these ethnic tensions found expression within the Communist movement itself.
As we discussed in episode 66, the early party organizations in the area tended to be dominated by the ‘early settler’ Han Chinese of the area. And this remained the case, even though efforts had been made since Mao’s arrival in the area to redress the imbalance. However, the 32nd Regiment of the 4th Red Army, as we discussed two episodes ago, was made up of the former bandit forces of Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo and were overwhelmingly ‘guest people’ Hakkas (and remember, even though they were called ‘guest people,’ many of these families had been in the area for centuries). So local perception was of an early settler party and a Hakka ‘guest people’ army. This found further expression in some personal animosities that developed between some prominent leaders of the party and the army, one early settler and the other Hakka, that we’ll discuss in a later episode. To give you a preview of things to come, this involved no matter of revolutionary principle but instead revolved around rivalry for the love of a local great beauty and the humiliation of masculine pride. Which, combined with ethnic tension, proved a much more volatile issue than principled debates over the virtues of ‘per capita’ vs. ‘labor power’ land redistribution. And yes, this will contribute to a lot of people getting killed.
But we’re not there yet. Now, the land reform was supposed to be carried out by the local Soviet government. But in reality, the Soviet governments were not functioning so well, which was part of the reason for the big party recruitment drive. So, in practice, much of the land reform was carried out by the army. What this meant was that in some places you had the 32nd Regiment, a bunch of Hakka former bandits who had become Communist soldiers, carrying out the expropriation of the land of a lot of more prosperous early settler peasants. In practice, to many if not most participants on both sides, this process felt like a direct continuation of the earlier situation where poor Hakka social bandits descended from the mountains on better off early settler farms. So, there was this totally unintended re-stoking of ethnic tensions in the region that took place during the land reform, which the Communist leadership did not foresee. As a result, many local people conflated the Communist revolution with the assertion of the interests of the local Hakka people.
And perhaps the most disappointing of the unexpected challenges of the land reform was the resistance of Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai to having their own land redistributed. Here were the two top local leaders of the Communists, the leaders of the 32nd regiment, and both were heavily associated with the local Hakka cause, and they were happy to confiscate and redistribute other people’s land, but initially refused to allow the considerable land that they had accumulated over the years to be divided. Eventually, other party leaders prevailed upon them to allow their land to be divided. But much damage had been done to inter-ethnic relations when they presided over the division of the lands of well-off early settler peasants while preserving their own holdings.
So, as I alluded to earlier in this episode, when a land reform hits the ground and theory becomes practice, there are always unforeseen ways in which things play out which show the need for revolutionaries to learn and adapt to the way in which reality is always more complex than theoreticians assume it to be. This was a big learning experience for the Communists, and while there wouldn’t be much time to correct all the problems that came up in the process of the land reform in the Jinggangshan, this experience informed later land reforms (which, in turn, presented their own sets of new challenges).
Alright, that’s it for now, thanks for listening, and thanks especially to everyone who is supporting the show. See you next time.