Mao explains his refusal to comply with orders from the Hunan Provincial Committee.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Some names from this episode:
Du Xiujing, Inspector sent to the Jinggangshan by the Hunan Provincial Committee in May 1928 and who returned in June
Yuan Desheng, Representative of the Hunan Provincial Committee in the Jinggangshan
Yang Chisheng, Guomindang commander defeated by the Communists in June 1928
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Yuan Wencai, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Wang Jun, Guomindang military commander in Jiangxi
Shang Chengjie, Guomindang military commander in Hunan
Xu Kexiang, Guomindang military commander in Hunan
Wu Shang, Guomindang military commander in Hunan
Welcome to episode 92 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, we’re going to get back to the story of the Chinese Revolution that we last talked about back in episode 89, when we began talking about the midyear crisis of 1928. I’m going to pick up right where we left off with that one. And, if you’re listening to this episode at the time that it is being released, in July 2022, you may have noticed that this podcast has had a bit of a midyear crisis of its own, in that I haven’t released episodes very regularly for the past few months. A surprisingly large number of people have contacted me about that and seem interested in hearing about what has been going on, so I’ll address that briefly at the end of this episode for those who are interested in that sort of thing. But for now, let’s jump into the history.
To quickly refresh your memory on where we left off with the narrative, in episode 89 we talked about how the central leadership of the Communist Party began to take an interest in asserting control over the armed forces that Mao Zedong and Zhu De had built up in the Jinggangshan base area. The Communist leadership of Hunan province articulated some fairly harsh criticisms of Mao and, in line with those criticisms, sent some directives to the Jinggangshan in late June commanding the Fourth Red Army to make major political and organizational changes while also engaging in a campaign of aggressive military expansion.
When the emissaries from the Hunan Provincial Committee arrived in Yongxin on June 30 carrying their documents ordering a dramatic change of course for the Jinggangshan base area and the Fourth Red Army, the local cadres immediately convened a meeting to discuss these new orders, which has come to be known as the Yongxin Joint Conference. Now, in putting together its orders to the Jinggangshan communists the Hunan Provincial Committee had relied on a report written by a provincial inspector, Du Xiujing, who had spent a week or two in late May in the base area. The situation at the end of June 1928 was already quite different than what it was when Du had conducted his investigations a little over a month earlier.
In the past month, the Communists had defeated the suppression campaign which had been launched against them, and which we discussed in episode 87, resulting in the expansion of the base area to the greatest extent that it would reach, covering the entirety of Ninggang, Yongxin, and Lianhua counties, and portions of neighboring counties. It occupied an area over 7200 square kilometers and had a population of over 500,000 people. This victory ushered in the period known as the ‘High Tide’ of the Jinggangshan base area and created the conditions for the land reform that we discussed in episode 88. So, these substantially changed conditions from the conditions which had existed at the time of Du Xiujing’s report and which formed the basis of the orders sent to the Jinggangshan by the Hunan Provincial Committee had created room for Mao and the Jinggangshan leadership to make a strong argument during the Yongxin Joint Conference that most of the directives from the provincial committee should be disregarded.
As a result, the Yongxin Joint Conference decided that, rather than advance with the Fourth Red Army into southern Hunan, the army would rather stay within the base area to defend against further enemy attacks and to help consolidate the recent gains.
On July 4 Mao wrote to the Hunan Provincial Committee to defend the decision not to comply with its orders. To get a good idea of how Mao saw the situation, and to understand how the ongoing political differences between Mao and the higher levels of party leadership continued to play out in practice, let’s read Mao’s letter, and I’ll intersperse some comments.
“To the Hunan Provincial Committee:
“Comrade Yuan and Comrade Du arrived at Yongxin at the same time on June 30, and from them we have obtained the circular of the Provincial Committee and the resolution of the Central Committee regarding work in Hunan.”
Comrades Yuan and Comrades Du are Yuan Desheng, who had been sent to the Jinggangshan as the Hunan Provincial Committee’s representative and been tasked with staying in the Jinggangshan for a time to see that the Provincial Committee’s instructions were followed before returning back to the Provincial Committee; and Du Xiujing, the inspector who had been in the Jinggangshan in May and who now returned with the assignment of “assisting the committee with its work.” Clearly, the Hunan Provincial Committee did not trust that its instructions would be followed without having its own representatives on the ground and participating in leading the work in the Jinggangshan.
Returning to the document: “The directives given in the two letters from the Provincial Committee are quite inconsistent. The former asks us to continue to build the organs of political power in the counties in the middle section of the Luoxiao mountain range as the military bases, without changing the Central Committee and Provincial Committee directives of a month ago. The latter, however, asks us to rush to southern Hunan after we capture Yongxin in order to avoid ‘annihilation’ by the enemy and to solve the problem of economic difficulties. Here, after they defeated the troops of Yang Chisheng on June 23, most of the Fourth Red Army troops have moved toward Lianhua, Anfu, and southwest of Ji’an through Yongxin, carrying on guerrilla warfare to raise money and mobilize the masses for uprisings. [What Mao is saying here is that after beating the suppression campaign launched against the base area, which was led on the Jingaxi side by this Yang Chisheng mentioned here, that rather than need to retreat to safety from Yongxin, the Communists were instead expanding and consolidating the area around Yongxin and even to the east, penetrating further into Jiangxi province (and to the opposite direction than they were called upon to do by the Provincial Committee, which wanted the Fourth Red Army to move into southern Hunan). Back to the document:] On the evening of June 30, the Special Committee, the Army Committee, and Yongxin County Committee held a joint conference to discuss the letters from the Provincial Committee. Comrades Yuan and Du also attended the meeting, at which it was decided that the Fourth Red Army should continue to deepen the work among the masses in various counties in the border area of Hunan and Jiangxi to build or consolidate the bases. With such bases, moving forward toward Hunan and Jiangxi, the Red Army will arrive at places with consolidated independent regimes that cannot easily be wiped out by the enemy. The reasons are as follows:”
In this first point, there’s both a rhetorical and practical component to Mao’s argument. On the one hand, Mao draws the Provincial Committee’s attention to the fact that there is this ongoing process of suiting the Red Army for political work among the masses, and not just to serve as a fighting force. This politicization of the Red Army is a theme that we have returned to repeatedly in this podcast, most recently in episode 86. The 31st Regiment of the Fourth Red Army, which were the troops who had been with Mao the longest, were the most advanced in this regard. But those troops who had traveled with Zhu De through all his meanderings before uniting up with Mao, and those troops whose main background was as bandits who had come into the Red Army under Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo’s command, were still in need of a lot of transformation.
Now, Mao reminds the Hunan Provincial Committee here that the low political level of much of the Fourth Red Army was precisely one of the criticisms that had been raised in Du Xiujing’s inspection report and in the letters written to Mao based on that report. And so, there is this rhetorical component to Mao’s argument here where he is saying, look, on the one hand you say that you want us to raise the political level of the troops, to bring the army more fully under the command of and in line with the politics of the Communist Party, but on the other hand, you want us to keep running off willy nilly and fighting all over the place and never settling down and doing political training and mass work.
OK, moving on to the second point that Mao raises in this letter:
In this paragraph, Mao makes a pretty straightforward case for fighting against the enemy that is weaker, the Guomindang forces in Jiangxi province, rather than against the enemy who is stronger, the Guomindang forces in Hunan province. This strategic orientation of striking the enemy where he is weakest and gradually annihilating the reactionary armed forces piece by piece in this manner is going to become an important aspect of Mao’s strategy of protracted people’s war as it is articulated in the coming years. Here, Mao is making this argument in an eminently practical way in regard to immediate circumstances, but later on we will see Mao abstracting a universal theory of warfare from these particular early experiences.
Moving on with Mao’s letter:
Here, Mao brings up the advantages of the terrain and the mass base that have been built up in the central area of the Jinggangshan base area. He seems to be saying, look, we may seem like an effective fighting force which might be able to stand our ground against these strong Guomindang forces that you want to send us against in Hunan, but that’s because we have all kinds of advantages when we fight here in the Jinggangshan. These advantages will disappear once we leave the mountains, so please take that into account.
OK, moving on with the letter:
In this passage, Mao is at pains to make clear that he is not taking the perspective of an old-style bandit chieftain defending his mountaintop base when he argues for taking some time to consolidate what was been won already and not to march right off to war again. Remember, the main concern of the Hunan Provincial Committee in ordering Mao off into Hunan is to bring the best armed force that the Communists had, Mao’s Fourth Red Army, to bear on areas where vulnerable and small local Communist forces had been regrouping and developing their organizations and small-scale local armed struggles. These various revolutionary shoots of growth were incredibly vulnerable, and the Hunan Provincial Committee hoped that the Fourth Red Army could be used to protect and nurture those revolutionary efforts outside the Jinggangshan.
The Hunan Provincial Committee had accused Mao of being just concerned with protecting his own fiefdom and not with the overall revolutionary movement. In this passage, Mao is trying to make clear that, no, he is not being conservative and focused on his self-centered local autonomy. Rather, he is trying to say that he shares the Hunan Provincial Committee and the Party Central Committee’s sense that the Fourth Red Army should participate in spreading the Communist revolution, however his disagreement is on where and how to do it, what direction the expansion of his forces should take place in and the way in which expansion and consolidation should be balanced.
OK, moving on:
Although short, this is a very important passage. The Hunan Provincial Committee had made the case that one of the ways in which the difficulties of providing for the large Communist armed force of the Jinggangshan base area would be through expansion into southern Hunan. We discussed this problem of having sufficient resources under Communist control in order to support the Fourth Red Army once it absorbed the large number of troops who came with Zhu De after the defeat of the South Hunan Uprising back in episodes 86 and 87. For Mao and Zhu De, this need was met by expanding the base area and getting control of the rich area around Yongxin. And Mao took this opportunity to remind the Hunan Provincial Committee that the policy of rampant ‘burning and killing’ that he opposed, but which they supported, had already contributed to wrecking the economy of South Hunan during the brief period of Communist control there in early 1928, as we discussed in episode 82. As we’ve seen in prior episodes of this podcast, Mao had a much more realistic sense of how to keep the rural economy functioning than the Hunan Provincial leadership had.
Moving on with Mao’s letter:
This final point that Mao is making here returns our attention to one of the practical aspects of revolutionary armed struggle that is ignored in many historical accounts and seems not to have really entered into the calculations of the provincial leadership, but which we have seen come up repeatedly in our close look at the progress of the Chinese Revolution. Soldiers get wounded, and what to do with them and how to treat them is a constant issue that has to be dealt with. Remember, one of the key factors that Mao took into consideration in deciding to establish the base area in the first place is that after the Autumn Harvest Uprising his forces had accumulated a growing number of sick and injured and Ninggang was the first place that he found where there was a possibility of establishing a safe place to care for them. And during the Southern Expedition which followed the Nanchang Uprising, one of the main reasons why the rearguard was still 300 kilometers north of the vanguard when the vanguard reached the southern terminus of the march was because of all the wounded that had to be slowly transported. Although in this case it had the fateful consequence that Zhu De missed the main fighting in the south and Zhu De ended up making a long retreat which ended up with him uniting his troops with those of Mao.
OK, let’s just read out the end of the letter here:
So, to sum up where things are at then, we’ve seen in this letter how Mao explained to the Hunan Provincial Committee why the leadership of the Jinggangshan base area was not going to comply with the instructions that had been sent to it, at least not immediately, both due to changes in the situation on the ground since the provincial committee issued its instructions, and due to disagreements over the best way to proceed, which Mao laid out in this letter.
But even as Mao sent off this letter of July 4, 1928, the situation was already in the process of changing. The Guomindang was already preparing another suppression campaign against the base area, sooner than had been expected by Mao, who had been hoping for a month or so of respite from fighting. In our next episodes, we’ll see how this suppression campaign plays out, and how the incorporation of the emissaries of the provincial committee to the leadership structure of the base area affects the Communist response.
OK, as I promised at the beginning of the episode, I just want to acknowledge that it has been a little while since we had a new episode, and in particular since we advanced our ongoing narrative of the Chinese Revolution. I’ve had a surprising number of inquiries into the state of the podcast, and I want to let you all know that I hear you. It has been gratifying to see the podcast audience grow, even while few new episodes have been produced recently. Naturally, like anyone else, my life goes through periods where I have more or less time available to do this sort of thing, and the past few months have been a particularly difficult time for me to find the time. Of course, if I were just writing a book, the whole thing would just come out when it came out, but with podcasts, we have this kind of ongoing thing where you, the listener, expects new content on a reasonably regular basis, and I, as the author, benefit from a kind of sustained interaction with listeners as the story unfolds.
Anyways, like anyone else, when I have limited time, I have to decide what to prioritize and, as part of prioritizing, sometimes I feel the need to go back to first principles and take the time to think deeply about why I am doing something and whether it is worth the time spend or not. And that’s part of what I’ve been doing related to this podcast over the past few months. This was partially prompted by what I see as major changes in the world situation, especially the ongoing war in Ukraine which has the real danger of escalating into a nuclear exchange. It was partially also prompted by what I see as a deep and continuing crisis in US society (expressed most recently by the overturning of the federal right to abortion), and the total inability of any progressive force to be able to make a significant intervention in this situation so far.
I think that it’s only natural, under these conditions, to take some time and think about whether devoting my time to developing a slow and detailed historical narrative of the Chinese Revolution, and global Maoism more broadly, is really what I should be doing. On the one hand, I think that knowledge of this history is something that can and should inform large numbers of people, for the reasons that I laid out in episode one of this podcast. But on the other hand, confronted with the immediacy of the world’s problems, it can feel very inadequate. And, on a personal level, in the face of such grand historical events, I often feel like: “who am I to tell this story.” But, then I do look at some of the most common ways in which this, and similar, stories, are told to a popular (as opposed to academic) audience, and I think that at least I have the professional training and a basic level of sympathy for the ultimate goal of eliminating exploitation and oppression, and so I should probably keep on doing this. And, I do want to acknowledge that all the encouraging words from the listeners to this podcast have made a difference. It has been touching to hear that this modest effort at telling the history of the Chinese Revolution has been meaningful to so many people.
OK, I just wanted to let everyone know where I have been at, mentally at least, and to explain for those of you who care, why there haven’t been many episodes lately. Where things stand now, I do intend to keep chugging away at this podcast. But things are still going to be pretty stretched for me timewise, especially until the end of summer.
All right, that’s it for now. Take care.