Finishing our close reading of the resolution of the Border Area Party Congress of October 4 to 6, 1928. Also, the reorganization and purge of the party following the Communist recovery of the Jinggangshan base area after the August Defeat.
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
Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR: First Period: 1917-1923
Fyodor Vasilievich Gladkov, Cement
Welcome to episode 97 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the section of the “Draft Resolution of the 2nd Congress of the [County] Party Organizations in the Hunan-Jiangxi Border Area” which somewhat self-critically laid out the mistakes that the Communist Party had been making. This episode, I want to turn to the following section of that October 1928 resolution, titled “Transforming and Building the Party from Now on,” which, in an aspirational manner, lays out the changes that the Party decided on making in order to correct those mistakes.
This section of the resolution is comprised of 12 points, just like the self-critical section titled “The Past Mistakes of the Party” that preceded it. Rather than go point by point, I think we’ll be best served for if I read out this section as a whole, and then give my observations after that. So, let’s begin:
So, taking this section on “Transforming and Building the Party from Now on” as a whole, how can we summarize the prescription given here for rebuilding the party in the wake of the destruction of much of the local party organization during the August Defeat, and in a way that would address the weaknesses that were revealed during that defeat?
One reason why I read out all 12 points together, rather than going through them point by point, is that there just isn’t a lot that is very concrete that can be discussed. Instead of specifying particular measures which will be taken as part of rebuilding the party, much of this section is made up of reaffirmations of general principles that the Communist Party already subscribed to, such as the need for democratic functioning (or collective leadership) (as opposed to the tendency for leading bodies to become one-person ‘dictatorships,’ as we discussed last episode). A recurring theme is also the importance of the party being composed of workers and peasants (and also the need to educate them, which is a nod to one of the objective reasons why so much leadership remained in the hands of intellectuals, despite the recruitment of so many peasants). This is not very surprising, since one of the main themes of the self-critical section of the resolution was the putatively non-proletarian origin of the erroneous ideas within the party. And finally, the primacy of the branch as the basic unit of the party is another major theme here, reflecting the weakness of many of the basic, local units of the party in the base area that were created during the ‘High Tide’ period, as we discussed last episode.
So, these were the main concerns that got voiced here, so we can see that these were the lines along which the party leadership was thinking about how to proceed with the party reorganization. But these are all just, in essence, restatements of basic party policies which had always existed. I don’t get a real sense here that Mao and the party leadership had really come to terms with how the concrete practical demands of the struggle had mitigated the implementation of these party policies in the first place. And while reaffirming those policies might be the first step in trying to put them into practice now, the absence of a more concrete discussion of how that would be accomplished would seem to indicate that they really were still a bit at sea on these questions.
And that’s really quite understandable. In studying the history of international communism in part through the documents produced by party organizations at different crisis points, in many different times and places all around the world, this is a major recurring theme. When a crisis is recognized and problems are identified, but there is no real sense of exactly how to deal with those problems, documents get produced which reaffirm basic principles in very general terms, but almost always its only when documents get much more specific do you get a sense that the people in charge really have a good idea how to proceed. And let’s face it, these are really hard problems. The basic problem here was: how do you build a massive party organization to govern and revolutionize society in a very poor place, with a population of about half a million people, in an area about half again bigger than the state of Delaware, which can also defend its own integrity when the enemy occupies the area, and under conditions of nearly constant warfare. When I think about it in these terms, it’s hard to believe that setting policies could be anything other than working with constant improvisation and always trying to fall back on general principles. Yet, what we are going to see over the next couple decades is that Mao is going to be able, through trial and error, to become quite skillful and adept at managing base areas and revolutionizing rural China. How much of that will be learned improvements in policy creation and implementation, and how much of that will just be him becoming better and better at improvisation, I hope we can continue to explore as this podcast moves forward.
Now, following this section that we just read out and discussed, there are several more sections in this resolution. For the most part, they remain quite general. For example, the next section, section C., is titled “The Question of Work in Every County,” and this section reads, in its entirety, “It is the responsibility of the Special Committee to discuss the detailed plan for the work in every county.” That’s it. That’s the whole section. So, we’re not going to go through all of these other sections in the document.
However, there is one section which does have a good bit of concrete substance to it, and which informs our understanding of how the party did concretely move forward to try and rectify its organization and membership in the wake of the August Defeat. So, let’s look at that section, and then move on to discuss what actually happened.
This is section D., “The Question of the Struggle in the Rural Areas.” It consists of five points, and I do want to go through these one by one.
Back in episode 88 we got into the arguments that had taken place about how to carry out the land reform in the Jinggansghan, with the main debate occurring between proponents of a per capita land redistribution and those who advocated redistribution according to the power to work the land. At the time, the argument for per capita land redistribution won out, but we can see here that this policy is now being repudiated in this resolution. We got into some of the pros and cons of each argument in episode 88, and since it’s a pretty involved topic, and one which we will continue to revisit, I won’t go into that further here. As we discussed in episode 88, there were various ways in which some of the better off peasants were able to hang on to their best land during the land reform, and, judging from the next point in this resolution, as well as the fact that we know that many of these better off peasants turned against the revolution during the August Defeat, it is this accommodation of the better off peasants which I think is really the issue here.
Here’s the next point in the resolution:
This here represents a major shift on Mao’s part. If we’ll recall from previous episodes, Mao had been highly critical of the red terror policy endorsed by higher level party bodies, and which had been carried out during the South Hunan uprising. As we discussed back in episode 68, Mao was very concerned with keeping the economy in the base area functioning, and in order to do that, it was necessary to propitiate small and middle merchants and better off peasants who played such an important role in the economy of the region, even while expropriating the larger capitalists and landlords. And, after the South Hunan uprising, Mao had accurately summed up that the extreme red terror exercised during the course of that uprising had contributed to the Communists’ inability to generate enough mass support to make a realistic effort to hold on to the cities that they had captured.
On the other hand, during the August Defeat, Mao found that his lenient policies toward the more prosperous classes in the base area had created something of a trojan horse when the white armies invaded, with many of these people turning against the revolution. So now, we see in this resolution, Mao endorsing a policy of red terror.
We can see that this was a very difficult contradiction. On the one hand, Mao was correct earlier in recognizing that the economy could not function in the base area without the cooperation of the more well-off sections of the masses. But if these people could not be won to stand with the revolution during difficult times by such leniency, then now he endorsed a terror campaign to coerce them into submission. Naturally, that would not make them friends of the revolution either. So, we’ll see how this contradiction continues to play out in the future, but for the time being, we see Mao endorsing a policy of red terror in response to the white terror which had been exercised during the August Defeat. And this is definitely a major change of policy on Mao’s part.
I think these two points flesh out the second point and give us a sense of how the red terror is being conceived. Mao is no longer trying so much to create a unified peasantry as to rely almost exclusively on the poor peasants. And I think that this reliance upon the poor peasants is a lesson that is going to last with Mao all the way to the end of the revolution, even though his policies for working with middle and rich peasants will change over time according to different circumstances.
OK, these are just three basic points for how the Communists are going to organize to combat the white terror in the areas still under reactionary rule that are near the areas under Communist control, or which are in areas that are contested between the Communists and the Guomindang. And this gives us a sense of how the Communists were concretely working to contest those areas living under the white terror by responding with their own red terror.
Now, let’s move away from talking about this document, to discuss the way in which the Communist Party was reorganized in the wake of reconquering the Jinggangshan after the August Defeat.
This process, which was referred to as “cleansing the party,” was the first major purge in the history of the Chinese Communist Party. It began in September and picked up steam after the early October base area party congress discussed and ratified the process. This is how the purge worked: It began with revoking everyone’s party membership. Then, in each local area, meetings would be convened where each former member would have to re-enlist in the party. The way this occurred was for a secret meeting to be called in a local area and only those people who were considered certain to be able to pass muster to re-enlist in the party were invited. These meetings were kept secret as party of re-establishing the security norms of the party which had been cast aside during the High Tide period when the Party tried to become something of a mass party in the area.
At these meetings, the names of all the party members who had not been invited to the meeting would be gone through one by one and it would be determined whether they were fit to remain members of the party or not. There were three categories of people who were targeted by the purge for exclusion from the party: people who carried out party tasks unenthusiastically or even not at all; people who had betrayed the revolution during the August Defeat (or who had been captured under suspicious circumstances); and people from bad class backgrounds who were not active in their support of the revolution. Of course, these could be overlapping categories. And, as it happened, surprising as it may sound, because the Party was now in control of the area, there were people who had joined during the High Tide and then sided with the Guomindang during the August Defeat who were now siding with the Communists once again now that the Communists were in control. So, there was really some urgency in figuring out who all had betrayed the party and getting them out of the party.
The number of party members in the base area went from a high of around 10,000 in June down to about 4,000 after the purge ended in the fall. Some of these losses were during the August Defeat, and others came from the cleansing of party ranks process. It’s clear that a lot of people were excluded from the party during the purge.
And of course, the purge was also somewhat uneven in how it was carried out. What I have described was how the process was supposed to work. But there were some local party branches where they just resubmitted the entire old list of party members from before as worthy of readmission to the party. And there were other areas where the local leadership complained to higher level party authorities that some good people had been excluded from the party in order to mechanically achieve a higher percentage of worker or poor peasant membership in the party.
In his November report to the Central Committee, Mao discussed this party cleansing process like this:
OK, that’s Mao from that November Central Committee report, which we’ll be talking about in more detail soon.
This method of carrying out purges, by the way, was borrowed directly from the Soviet experience, and, despite the different conditions, it is remarkable how much the experience of expansion and purge in the Jinggangshan echoes the Soviet experience. In the Soviet Union the Communist Party had faced the need to expand rapidly in order to govern after the revolution and had brought in just a ton of people very rapidly. Inevitably, there were difficulties with people being brought in who, for whatever reason, were unable to carry out their tasks or who had only joined to pursue their own self-interest and not out of political unity with the revolution. And so, the way this was dealt with was with big purges where large numbers of people would have to go through a process of re-applying for party membership.
To give you some relevant numbers, the Communist Party in Russia went from 24,000 members in January 1917, to 612,000 in March 1920 and 732,000 in March 1921. From 1921 onward, the numbers were greatly reduced by purges. In 1923 they amounted to 499,000. There is a vivid fictional representation of what these purges were like in a novel, which I highly recommend, titled Cement, written by Fyodor Gladkov, which was published in 1925.
Anyways, that’s it for now. Until next time, take care.