A discussion of the concept of opportunism as it developed in the international communist movement, and a close reading of the self-critical portion of the resolution of the Border Area Party Congress of October 4 to 6, 1928.
Lenin, “Opportunism, and the Collapse of the Second International”
Cheng Yen-shih, ed., Lenin’s Fight Against Revisionism and Opportunism
Mao Zedong, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People”
Lynn White, Policies of Chaos: The Organizational Causes of Violence in China’s Cultural Revolution
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
Liu Zhen, Secretary of the Yongxin County Party Committee
Welcome to episode 96 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the first half of the “Draft Resolution of the 2nd Congress of the [County] Party Organizations in the Hunan-Jiangxi Border Area.” That first half of the resolution later became an important document in Mao’s Selected Works, titled “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?” This episode, I want to move on to consider the second half of the resolution. As I mentioned last episode, it had a more 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 even be read in some parts as something of a self-criticism on Mao’s part. So that’s what we’ll consider in this episode.
This second half of the resolution is titled “The Transformation of the Party in the Counties of the Border Area and Some Recommendations.”
So, what is the transformation that is referred to here?
In the first paragraph of this half of the resolution, this is explained in these terms:
[MRP3 70 from “because of the rural economic environment …” to “… true proletarian leadership.”]
So, just to be extra clear, what the resolution is saying here is that this section of the resolution is going to, as it says, “point out past errors” with the goal of “eliminating the legacy of opportunism.”
But before we move on, I want to go on an extended digression about a very loaded term that is used in this paragraph.
This term, ‘opportunism,’ has a meaning that might not be totally clear to all listeners, so let me just say a few words about that. In one sense, used colloquially and not in the sense that it is used in the historical documents of the International Communist Movement, one might assume that the term refers to someone who is poised to take advantage of opportunities, on the lookout for how a situation can arise that they can then take advantage of. In this sense, of course, that’s something that any political actor who hopes to be successful would have to do, communists included. After all, Mao and other Communist leaders were always on the lookout for how to take advantage of the changing situation that they found themselves in.
But there is an additional connotation to the term ‘opportunism,’ which is that the ‘opportunist’ casts aside all principle in searching for their own personal advantage in any given situation. Political principles and ethical considerations are cast aside by opportunists who are only out for how to advance their own personal position. This could mean their position materially in the world (by making money, for example) or in terms of their status within an organization, like the communist party, which might mean taking certain political stances or performing certain actions which might or might not be of overall benefit to the revolution, but undertaking those actions with the motivation of improving their own personal status, rather than out of concern for the overall collective endeavor of making the world a more just and equal place.
The term ‘opportunism’ was in general use in the political discourse of Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even today, the term still gets used as part of non-Communist political discourse, although much less frequently than back then.
The term ‘opportunism’ became a widely used term with specific connotations different than those used in broader political discourse in international communism after the victory of the Russian Revolution, because of Lenin’s use of the term in widely read texts which were used to educate the movement. In particular, Lenin’s discussions of the political errors that led to the collapse of the Second International focused on this problem of ‘opportunism.’
Here is how Lenin defined opportunism in his 1915 work, “Opportunism, and the Collapse of the Second International:”
“All Marxists in Germany, France, and other countries have always stated and insisted that opportunism is a manifestation of the bourgeoisie’s influence over the proletariat; that it is a bourgeois labor policy, an alliance between an insignificant section of near-proletarian elements and the bourgeoisie.”
So, to further clarify Lenin’s definition here, opportunism in the sense used by Lenin, and as it came to be used in the international communist movement, and so also in the Chinese Communist document that we’re examining, means ideas that are manifestations of bourgeois influence that express themselves within the Communist Party itself (or within the workers’ movement more broadly).
Now, here’s the thing with this definition. If you believe that the working class, led by its political representative, the Communist Party, is going to inevitably be victorious because that is how history is bound to play out (which was the orthodox interpretation of Marx’s ideas within international communism), then you are likely to also believe that, in any given immediate situation, if you take the correct actions, that you can emerge triumphant in the immediate sense. Now, there is only a small intellectual slippage to embracing the following chain of logic:
- Because the Communists will inevitably win, then in just about any given situation that forms part of the revolutionary process there is a path for the Communists to come out on top.
- The way to do that is to formulate the correct political line and to faithfully apply that political line.
- If the Communists do not come out on top, that is because either the correct political line was not faithfully applied, or the political line that was adopted was not correct.
- Therefore, since the correct political line would have been an objective reflection of the proletarian position in the historical process in the thinking of the Communists, then if an incorrect line was adopted (or if it was not faithfully applied), then that represents an objective reflection of non-proletarian thinking in the minds of the Communists.
What this line of reasoning means in practice is that virtually any error can be labeled as ‘opportunism,’ because a correct proletarian line would have led to success in any given endeavor.
Now, not everyone in the international communist movement thought in these terms. But this line of reasoning was highly influential and was applied very often in dealing with major disagreements within Communist Parties. So, if you had a major disagreement about a policy decision, your opponents were not necessarily just people who disagreed with you about how best to proceed to a shared goal. Rather, they could be thought of as, or presented as, agents of the bourgeoisie within the Communist Party. Either conscious agents, that is, people working consciously to sabotage the revolution, or as people who were not conscious of their ‘wrecking’ activities but who, in any case, objectively represented the bourgeoisie within the Communist Party. Which, in a movement that prided itself on its lack of sentimentality and in its hardness, could sometimes be considered just as bad. (In fact, you can find Soviet documents where the supposedly unconscious agents of the bourgeoisie are discussed as being almost worse than the conscious agents, because that meant that these guys were allegedly fools in addition to being, objectively, traitors. Of course, the macho bravado in these sorts of documents is just off the charts.)
Anyways, as you can imagine, once you decide that your opponents are agents of the enemy and not just reasonable people who disagree with you, it can become very easy to legitimize violence against those people, or jailing them, putting them on trial, etc.
Later on in his life, Mao is going to articulate a line of reasoning that attempts to modify this practice. In a 1957 speech that was later published as “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” Mao tries to dial back this idea that disagreements within the party necessarily represent the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as it is reflected within the Communist Party. To be extra clear here, he doesn’t disavow the idea that this class struggle takes place within the party, rather, what he does in that work is to try to create a better distinction between what might be called genuine mistakes, or mistakes made in good faith by well-intentioned people, and errors that actually represent counter-revolutionary policies. And he also does something that is remarkably absent in much of the Soviet experience, which is to emphasize the way in which mistaken people or people who are doing bad things can be transformed. This is something that we have already seen in this podcast in his writings on transforming the soldiers in his army, and it is a recurring theme in Mao’s writing that we don’t see so much in the Soviet experience.
So, this has been a bit of a digression, but the use of this term ‘opportunism’ in the first paragraph of the second half of the “Draft Resolution of the 2nd Congress of the [County] Party Organizations in the Hunan-Jiangxi Border Area” is something that could easily be passed over, and I really want to point out here just how densely loaded this term is in both philosophical terms and in terms of the political consequences of that way of thinking as it was expressed globally during the several decades of international communist experience following the victory of the Russian Revolution.
So, returning to the document, after the brief introductory section, this second half of the resolution is composed of 11 short sections. The first of these sections is titled “The Past Mistakes of the Party,” the second is titled “Transforming and Building the Party from Now on,” and then the following nine sections briefly elaborate on some specific questions. What I want to do here is to read through the 12 points listed under the heading of “Past Mistakes of the Party” and to offer my own comments on those points individually as we move through them.
So, here the list starts off by framing what is to come once again in terms of ‘opportunism,’ which is at once vague and all-encompassing as far as specific errors, but also highlights that the mistakes are not mainly going to be dealt with just as mistakes, but as indicative of the influence of ideas which are purported to be alien to the proletariat within the Communist Party, and that there is going to be a strong tendency to focus on the class background of many of the party cadres as either peasants or intellectuals as an important cause of these errors.
Now, we also see here that the tendency to rely on the army to lead mass struggles rather than on the party organization proper is put side by side with the invocation of the Party’s legacy of opportunism. This represents something of a self-criticism on Mao’s part. As we have seen in previous episodes, this is one of the points that Mao had been criticized on, most recently by Du Xiujing in his capacity as representative of the Hunan Provincial Committee, but also going back for some time. Mao here appears to be conceding the point to Party higher-ups that there should have been more effort to organize mass struggle by relying on independent party organizations and not using the Fourth Red Army, and the party organization within the army, as the backbone for most mass organizing initiatives undertaken in the base area.
Given the conditions of more or less constant warfare and the shortage of capable and experienced cadre, the pressure to rely on the army as an organizing tool was immense, but Mao is conceding here that, at least in principle, that this was erroneous. However, we’ll see if in practice it actually turns out to be possible to change this situation.
Here we see the tendency of each county-level party organization to assert their own independence, especially in Yongxin, which had the most developed local Communist organization before Mao came to the area. This is an expression of a simmering conflict going on in the party, where there is a certain amount of local resentment at the fact that most of the leadership of the base area is composed of people who are not from the area.
Here, this problem is blamed on the ‘peasant’ character of the party, implying that the working class has a more natural affinity for the discipline involved in centralized hierarchies. This involves a presupposition going back to Marx about the ways in which socialized production is supposed to condition the minds of workers to work in concert and accept their roles in a large-scale division of labor. And while there is, I think, something to that, the tendency of many Communist thinkers to assume that this condition of mind broadly engendered by socialized production on a large scale translates into the creation of party structures less amenable to fracturing according to how the interests of, say, a local party branch might seem on the ground than they do from the vantage point of a higher level party body (in this case the county level party committees and the special committee set up to run the base area as a whole), I think that the history of international communism shows that this is a demonstrably incorrect assumption, because there are just tons of examples of parties made up mainly of workers where these same problems of tensions between central and local bodies manifest themselves.
And Mao himself is going to come to view this problem differently later as well. After liberation in 1949, Mao takes a very dim view of the cities, where most workers were, and sees them as having been corrupted by contact with imperialism, and in fact many of the cadres sent in to do party work in the cities, and to head up the party’s oversight of factories with lots of workers in them, will in fact largely be former peasants who joined the Communist Party during the revolutionary war.
This point is explicitly self-critical on Mao’s part, and puts, I think, our last point in a different light. The tensions between the Special Committee and the Yongxin Party Committee can, apparently, be read also as individual tensions between Mao Zedong and Liu Zhen, if at times they were each the only members of these committees!
Now, there are a couple of ways to read this admission to the tendency to do away with collective leadership and devolve into what is labeled here as ‘individual dictatorships’ over areas of party work. A standard anti-communist reading of this text might quickly rest at stating that this reflects an inherently dictatorial tendency in Communist organizations. However, I think that there is a better explanation. These were, after all, people who believed in collective leadership as a principle. (That is why this is a self-criticism, after all.)
So, what is actually indicated here about how the party organizations were actually functioning speaks to the real difficulty in maintaining some sort of functioning organization under the conditions of constant warfare and a with a shortage of capable cadres. There were always a million tasks to be carried out, under very dangerous and chaotic conditions. And with the shortage of capable party cadre available for work the tendency was for anyone who could do the work to be given a portfolio of tasks which pushed the limits of what any one person could do. In practice, this meant setting aside many of the organizational norms that the party was, on paper, supposed to follow in its functioning. So, this third point is really quite the rare window showing us just how thinly stretched the actual party organization was. And, because this problem was rooted in very urgent material conditions that the struggle was taking place in, I think that we’re going to see that this is in practice going to be a very difficult problem for the party to overcome.
Mao here also criticizes himself for not following orders coming from higher level party bodies, such as the Hunan Provincial Committee. Now, given that the events of the August Defeat more or less completely vindicated Mao’s position, it is hard to believe that Mao actually regretted disobeying party discipline. So here I think what we are seeing in the resolution is a nod on Mao’s part to the principle of party discipline, perhaps under pressure from other participants in the Party congress. It’s kind of like a statement that “ok, since we all know now that I was right all along, I’m happy to reaffirm that I do in principle believe in party discipline and we can put all this behind us.” We’ll see how that works out later.
Here again, this issue of trying to improve the party by improving the class background of people in leading positions. Note that, because there are so few workers around in rural China, peasants in this point are considered as preferable to intellectuals in leading positions, even though the document has just made clear that peasant class backgrounds are considered a source of major errors in the party in the recent past.
This refers to the massive recruitment drive that took place during the high tide period that we discussed back in episode 88. As we discussed in that episode, the way in which this recruitment drive was carried out makes it appear that the Communists in the Jinggangshan had 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. The perceived need for new members led to forced recruitment in some villages, with some people being coerced, or “press-ganged,” as the resolution puts it here.
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.
When the August Defeat happened, the problems with this mass recruitment drive were made abundantly clear, with many of the people who had joined the Communists because they were on top switching sides to support the momentarily triumphant Guomindang, and leading Guomindang soldiers and landlord militias to find and execute the Communists and their supporters. We’ll talk, probably next episode, about the party purge which is about to happen, as an attempt to rectify the way in which the Party’s doors were thrown open during the High Tide recruitment drive.
These final seven points reflect, in the main, themes that we have already touched on in other points here. Mainly, this was the difficulty that we discussed earlier in getting the party to function the way in which it was supposed to under the difficult circumstances in the base area, either in terms of the relations between various levels of the party, the overreliance on the army, or in functioning in a secure manner.
So, that’s where the self-critical reflections end here. In our next episode, we’ll look at the measures that were decided upon for rectifying those errors, and, I think, discuss how the first party purge was carried out in practice.
Until then, take care.