A close reading of the portion of the resolution of the Border Area Party Congress of October 4 to 6, 1928, which later became a key early text in the Maoist canon.
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
Mao Zedong, “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?”
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Jane Degras, ed., The Communist International, 1919-1943: Documents, vol. 2: 1923-1928
A name from this episode:
Du Xiujing, Inspector sent to the Jinggangshan by the Hunan Provincial Committee in May 1928 and who returned in June
Welcome to episode 95 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast. Let’s start here with a poem that Mao wrote in the wake of the reconquest of much of the Jinggangshan base area by the Fourth Red Army in the autumn of 1928.
[Open with Mao Poem from MRP3 61]
We spent the last couple episodes of this podcast discussing the August Defeat of the Red Army, and the subsequent battles to retake much of what had been lost. The period that followed, in October and November 1928, was a time when the Communists in the base area took stock of the defeat and summed up its lessons. Some of what was summed up ended up becoming key tenets of the Maoist canon, and were presented to the world many years later in the first volume of the Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung in the form of two documents: “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?” and “The Struggle in the Chingkang Mountains.” These documents that appear in the Selected Works are revised versions of the October 5 “Draft Resolution of the 2nd Congress of the [County] Party Organizations in the Hunan-Jiangxi Border Area” and the November 25 “Report of the Jinggangshan Front Committee to the Central Committee” respectively.
Because these two documents both represent political evaluations of the situation at hand from the time when they were written, and were later used (in somewhat altered form), as basic documents for educating large numbers of people both in China and internationally about the historical development of and important themes pertaining to Maoism, or Mao Zedong Thought, as it was originally labeled, these documents, and the series of meetings that produced them, are a good starting point for talking about how the August Defeat was summed up by Mao and the rest of the Communist leadership in the base area, and about the longer-term relevance of this summation for the development of the body of ideas associated with the victory of the Chinese Revolution.
So, let’s start with the October 4 to 6 Congress of the [County] Party Organizations in the Hunan-Jiangxi Border Area, which was held near Maoping in Ninggang County. This Border Area Party Congress accomplished some important tasks of reorganization for the base area, such as creating a new 19-member Border Area Special Committee to better coordinate the work of the several counties which fell within the base area. This was of particular concern because of the tendency for some county-level party organizations, especially Yongxin, to sometimes go their own direction. As you might remember from episode 66, Yongxin had a party organization which had been quite strong before Mao and the other outsiders came to establish the base area in the region. Anyways, we’ll talk in some more detail about that issue as we discuss the document. Another significant aspect of the party reorganization that this Border Area Party Congress accomplished was that it formally restored Mao as the leader of the whole base area.
So, let’s take a look at what we can learn from the content of the “Draft Resolution of the 2nd Congress of the [County] Party Organizations in the Hunan-Jiangxi Border Area.”
This resolution is divided into two main parts, which read almost like different documents. The first part of the resolution, titled “Political Problems and Tasks of the Party Organizations in the Border Area,” is the section of the resolution which, with some editing, was turned into the document “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?” which appears in Mao’s Selected Works, and which is one of the key works of the Maoist canon. In this section of the resolution, Mao uses the experience of the Jinggangshan base area and the Fourth Red Army of the past year to lay out some of the fundamental components of the strategy of protracted people’s war that would guide the Chinese Revolution for the next two decades.
The second part of the resolution, titled “The Transformation of the Party in the Counties of the Border Area and Some Recommendations,” has a much more immediate focus. It lists recent actions and, in particular, mistakes, committed by the Party and its organizations, and states actions to be taken to correct these mistakes in the future. While this section of the resolution is not as important as the first part of the resolution to the overall development of the body of ideas which emerged during the Chinese Revolution and which were synthesized and spread internationally in the wake of the victory of the revolution, it is in some ways more fascinating for people who have been studying the Jinggangshan experience closely, as we have in this podcast series, because it is a very concrete statement about what the Communists thought they had done wrong and how they should in practice correct what they had been doing.
So, let’s start by looking at the first part of the resolution. Again, this part is given the heading “Political Problems and Tasks of the Party Organizations in the Border Area.” This section of the resolution is Mao’s earliest extended elaboration of a revolutionary strategy focused on creating rural base areas which were to be consolidated by carrying out a land reform and then which would be defended and spread through the work of a people’s army. So let’s look at how Mao makes his case for this revolutionary strategy here.
The first subheading of this section of the resolution is “The Internal and External Political Situation.” What I first want to draw attention to here is a method for presenting reasoning which is very common in Communist documents, not just in China but around the world. What Mao does here is he starts off the resolution by characterizing the domestic political situation and situating the domestic political situation within the global situation. This reflects a methodology for determining appropriate political action based, in the final instance, on the global situation and on how the global situation then determines what will, or can, happen on more local levels. It’s a method for presenting arguments or statements about political action that is rooted in Lenin’s emphasis on the importance of global events and in particular international contention between imperialist powers, and so it’s a method for presenting arguments that is very much a product of the Russian Revolution and the way in which the Communist International standardized ways in which Communist Parties created political documents and the rhetorical strategies that were used in these documents. But Lenin himself drew on the way in which Marx very frequently argued for how local events were shaped by international events, although Marx did not systematize his thinking about this to the degree than Lenin did, and it took the Communist International to standardize the rhetorical presentation of this method by Communist Parties around the world.
So, how does Mao characterize the domestic and international situations? He begins like this:
[MRP3 62 first paragraph]
So, Mao characterizes China as having had its bourgeois democratic revolution interrupted, and China as being ruled by an alliance of the rural gentry with the comprador capitalists, that is, those capitalists who represent imperialist interests in China, so that just about everyone, even much of the domestic bourgeoisie, are oppressed.
He goes on in this section to argue that the democratic revolution can only be led by the proletariat, although he doesn’t here expand on the reasoning behind this statement. Mainly, he makes this argument through historical analogy. Here’s how he discusses the defeat of the revolutionary process that began with the National Revolutionary Army first conquering Guangdong province and then continuing on in the Northern Expedition and which ended with the Guomindang purge of the Communists (a process we have covered in some depth in past episodes of this podcast):
So, what is very interesting here is the role that historical parallel, or what some scholars (myself included) call revolutionary asynchronicity, plays in Mao’s argument. At this point, some arguments had been developed for why only the proletariat, or actually, only the political representatives of the proletariat as an international class, that is, the Communist Party, could lead a democratic revolution in China, and later on much more detailed thinking would be presented by the Communists to make this case. But its interesting that here the argument is supported by appeal to parallels with the Russian Revolution, despite that fact that in this document Mao makes a case for a very different revolutionary strategy than the one carried out by the Bolsheviks in Russia.
This statement, drawing a parallel between the 1905 revolution in Russia and the Grand Revolution of 1925-1927 in China, was dropped when this resolution was modified to become “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?” Similar parallels that were drawn between Chinese and Soviet experience were dropped in other documents as well when the originals were transformed into the body of political canon represented in Mao’s Selected Works. At the time that Mao was writing, the Russian Revolution was the only existing way that was known of how a successful revolution had developed, and so the Soviet revolutionary process was taken as a model, as we see Mao doing in this document.
But then why were these statements removed later on when these documents were edited and made widely available as a tool for political education in China and then later internationally? There are two partially competing explanations for this. The most common of these explanations, and the most cynical (although probably not entirely wrong), is that removing these references to the Russian revolutionary model from Mao’s works was a way to distance the Chinese from the Soviets. Even before the Sino-Soviet split began in 1956, it was perhaps only natural that the Chinese would want to emphasize their own independent efforts in forging their own revolution.
Another explanation for why these references to the Russian revolutionary model were removed from Mao’s works is that the Chinese Communist Party later rejected the thinking that informed the way in which these parallels were drawn and did not want to propagate what it saw as incorrect thinking. After the victory of the Chinese revolution, the idea that all revolutions would be based, one way or another, on the Russian model was explicitly rejected, and so instances where Mao’s own arguments seemed to be based on invoking the Russian model as a way of legitimating his own ideas were removed because why would the Chinese Communists want to train people in what they saw as an incorrect methodology? Now, whether Mao actually believed what he was writing in these instances or whether he was invoking the Russian model as a way of shoring up support for his own heterodox ideas is a whole other question, which would be too much of a lengthy diversion to really explore in detail right now. But it’s a question to keep in mind.
The last passage that I want to draw attention to in this first subheading of the first part of the resolution is the one paragraph dedicated to characterizing the international situation in the fall of 1928. Here’s how it reads:
With hindsight, this statement about the international situation in 1928 might seem a bit odd, but it reflects the way in which the Comintern was viewing the situation in Asia at the time. A Comintern document from May 1928 analyzed the situation in China like this:
“To conquer the country in order to partition it—that is the imperialists’ policy in China. The first part of this criminal plan they have carried out by joint military intervention against the national revolution. Japan’s capture of new war booty in Shantung is the beginning of the second stage. Japan will be followed by the other imperialist robbers, in the first place England and the United States, who will demand their share in the plunder.
“England, which is inciting Japan and approves the Japanese robbery, is out to get a free hand for itself for military conquest… American military activity has become more marked and more intense as a result of the occupation of Shantung. The Washington Government is frankly out for a new division of colonies, the winning of new markets and raw material sources. The protection offered to Nanking and the ‘indignation’ about the occupation of Shantung only mean that American imperialism will stop at nothing to secure for itself unrestricted opportunities for plunder.”
So, we can see that the Comintern, ever attuned to the vicissitudes of inter-imperialist rivalry so as to make out the shape of a forthcoming new world war which, among other things, would spell new opportunities for socialist revolution, saw the contention between England and Japan on the one side, and the United States on the other side, as potentially shaping up into a new war.
Mao had access either to this document or to other Comintern documents characterizing the international situation in East Asia in similar terms. And as is usually the case in Mao’s works before the victory of the revolution in 1949, his statements on the international situation are basically restatements of positions emanating from the global Communist center in Moscow. This can make these statements sometimes seem a bit tacked on and disconnected from the rest of the text, as I think is the case here, and so it’s no surprise that this paragraph was excised in the Selected Works version of this document, and the subheading for this section changed from “The Internal and External Political Situation” to just “The Internal Political Situation.”
With this initial section characterizing the internal and external objective situation out of the way, Mao moves on to the real meat of the portion of the resolution which became “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?” in the second section of the document, which has the subheading “Reasons for the Emergence and Survival of Soviet Political Power in Various Places in Present-Day China.” This isn’t any big surprise, since after all the title “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?” is just a more elegant way of restating the subhead title “Reasons for the Emergence and Survival of Soviet Political Power in Various Places in Present-Day China.”
So, let’s read through this section and I’ll comment as we go:
Now, this is a very interesting argument that Mao is making here if we are interested in the globalization of Maoism. This is the key early document in Mao’s articulation of why you can have communist base areas for what he would later term a protracted people’s war strategy of revolution. And Mao is very clearly making the case that the conditions which allowed for this strategy in China, at least as he was seeing things in 1928, were very specific to China itself. Mao is saying that the armed competition, the ongoing warfare, between various factions of the Chinese elite, is a key objective condition for the development of local Soviet power in China, such as we have been looking at in past podcast episodes in the Jinggangshan. Mao strongly implies here (and this is made explicit in the edited version that appeared in the Selected Works) that it was China’s status as a semicolony where several imperialist powers contended for influence which fueled the warfare among the different factions of the Chinese elite. So, if China had been a direct colony dominated by a single imperialist power, or if China were a country with a strong, unified economy (and thus a strong, unified elite), this ongoing armed competition within the elite wouldn’t exist. And so, China’s exceptional position as a site of contention between imperialist powers, and the concomitant willingness of different factions of the Chinese elite to utilize alliances with foreign powers in their own struggles for local dominance, is one of the objective factors facilitating the creation of Communist base areas.
The second objective factor that Mao cites here is China’s ‘localized agricultural economy.’ He doesn’t fully spell this out, but I interpret the significance of this factor in two main ways. First, the dispersed nature of China’s agricultural economy made it possible for local power bases to be established throughout the country. This constituted a powerful material factor in the emergence and maintenance of different elite factions which could sustain themselves by holding on to sections of the country while they fought other sections of the elite. The existence of self-sustaining local economies was the material basis for the existence of various regional elites. Secondly, it was also the potential basis for Soviet power, in that the Communists could hold an area, develop the economy, and feed and otherwise supply themselves for a relatively long period of time.
Ok, continuing reading this key section of the resolution:
Here once again Mao focuses very much on specific historical conditions in China that facilitated the creation of rural base areas controlled by the Communists. In addition to the ongoing fighting among China’s reactionary forces, the factor that Mao emphasizes here is the development of mass movements and mass organizations such as trade unions and peasant associations in the wake of the Northern Expedition’s triumphant march from Guangdong up to the Yangzi River. It was only in the areas affected by these revolutionary nationalist mobilizations that the early Communist base areas emerged, taking advantage of the politicization and mobilization of masses of people. And in addition, the armed forces that the Communists were relying on were split offs from the professional army that was created with aid from the Soviet Union, the National Revolutionary Army, whose soldiers and officers had been trained both in the modern methods of waging war and, to some degree, in revolutionary nationalist politics.
As we can see, all the reasons that Mao is giving here are very particular to China’s circumstances at the time. As Mao gains more experience over time, and begins to think of protracted people’s war as a revolutionary strategy appropriate not only to China’s particular conditions, it will be interesting to see how his thinking develops about what is universal in his experience of revolutionary warfare, and not just what was particular about China’s conditions which allowed him to pursue the strategy that he was devising.
OK, let’s keep reading this resolution:
Here we can see Mao moving toward his theory of the countryside surrounding the cities. On the one hand, he writes of the rural Communist base areas as becoming one of many forces contributing to the seizure of political power. After all, at this time the Communist center was still located in Shanghai, and I think that even for Mao the overall vision for how the revolution would unfold still involved a heavy component of urban insurrection as well as rural guerrilla warfare. But Mao also writes here that the Communist base areas will “continue to develop and gradually approach the seizure of overall political power.” Which really sounds much more like the strategy that Mao ends up ultimately pursuing, of the rural revolution eventually surrounding the cities and forcing the reactionary forces based in the cities to capitulate only once they were totally surrounded.
OK, we’re close to the end of this portion of the document, it continues:
Here Mao returns to his ongoing disagreement with the party center about the importance of regular armed forces to the Communist revolution, as opposed to just relying on armed mass organizations, like militias based on peasant associations or formed by trade unions.
Which highlights the importance of how Mao ends this section of the resolution:
This might seem like an innocuous passage, a sort of boilerplate reference to the importance to the Communist Party and the need for one to lead a revolution. However, I think that Mao’s wording here, brief as it is, highlights a key element to Mao’s outlook.
What Mao is saying here is, ok, I just said something that has been a major point of contention between myself and the party leadership above me. Now, I’m saying that the Communist Party is a necessary condition for the revolution to succeed, but I’m adding a caveat here that the Communist Party must have a correct policy. Without a correct policy, the Communist Party will not in fact lead the revolution. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that, on this very point, as we have repeatedly discussed in this podcast, Mao has repeatedly violated party discipline ever since the Autumn Harvest Uprising. So, when we put these two passages together, the first highlighting the importance of regular armed forces for the victory of the revolution, and the second highlighting the need for a Communist Party with a correct policy to lead the revolution, we have in essence a very early statement by Mao about a key dilemma of the revolutionary process.
The dilemma is this: Communist Parties operate according to an organizational system where lower levels are expected to follow orders given by higher levels, and even if people at lower levels think that the policy is mistaken, the expectation is that in order to test the policy of the organization as a whole, and in order to maintain the security, cohesiveness, effectiveness, etc. of the party, those lower levels still need to follow the orders given to them even if they disagree. And they also are expected to understand that because of security needs and because knowledge of the overall situation is supposed to be concentrated at the top of the organization, that there might be things that the lower levels don’t know about that, if they did know about it, would alleviate their concerns about the policies they are being told to carry out.
But on the other hand, if a Communist Party is just made up of people who blindly follow orders and can’t think creatively in the moment and adapt to conditions and have a generally very critical attitude, the Party is not going to be very effective (or, in fact, very revolutionary, because what sort of revolutionary organization would it be if it were made up of a bunch of conformists?).
So, here’s the thing, as we have repeatedly seen, Mao, has violated party discipline in order to pursue what he considered the correct revolutionary policy, especially on this point of developing regular armed forces as opposed to just relying on militias attached to peasant associations. And so, while Mao is someone who definitely stresses the importance of party discipline, we also keep seeing him come back to pursuing what he sees as the correct policy when he thinks that the Party Center is not pursuing the correct policy (especially in cases where he thinks the Party Center’s policy is going to get him killed, such as by giving instructions for pursuing armed struggle in ways that Mao is certain are doomed to failure). And so, I think that here, we see Mao at the end of the day saying that, while party discipline is important (and understood implicitly to be necessary for the existence of the Communist Party), that having a correct policy, or correct political line as it is sometimes called, is even more important. We’ll see this tension at play throughout Mao’s life, and most dramatically during the Cultural Revolution, so I think it’s very interesting that even here, already in 1928, we can see Mao taking this position.
The next subheading in this first half of the resolution which was later turned into the document “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?” is “The Independent Regime in the Border Area and the August Defeat.” Here, Mao quickly summarizes both the policies that had led to success in the months before August, and explains what errors led to the August Defeat. This represents a kind of quick summation by Mao of the events we have been covering in this podcast since episode 86, so let’s look at the meat of what Mao wrote in this section:
So, this recapitulates the events of our recent episodes. And while it puts the burden of the errors on Du Xiujing’s shoulders, we know that the policy pursued by Du Xiujing (if not necessarily the way in which Du carried out this policy by taking advantage of the discontent of the 29th regiment), was one set by the Provincial Committee. So, this is a moment where Mao is writing down that, look, we can see what the results were from these two different policies, Mao’s and the Provincial Committee’s, and we can pretty definitively say now that Mao was right and that the Provincial Committee’s policies led to disaster. We’ll get to see eventually whether the correctness of Mao’s ideas registered at the higher levels of the party or not.
The rest of this first half of the Resolution is composed of three more short sections with different subheadings: “The Role of the Border-Area Independent Regime in the Worker-Peasant Insurrections in Hunan, Hubei, and Jiangxi Provinces,” “Economic Problems,” and “The Problem of Military Bases.” But we’ve really now dealt with the heart of this first half of the Resolution, the part which was turned into the key early Maoist text “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?,” so we’ll leave those aside.
Next episode, we’ll discuss the second half of this resolution. That part was not incorporated into Mao’s Selected Works and really has a totally different character from this first half, and I think it will be very interesting for us, because, as I said at the beginning of this episode, it had a very concrete and immediate focus, listing recent actions and, in particular, mistakes, committed by the Party and its organizations, and stating actions to be taken to correct these mistakes in the future. It can actually be read in some parts as something of a self-criticism on Mao’s part. So that’s where we’ll pick up next episode.
Take care until then.