A close reading of a couple portions of Mao’s November 25, 1928 report to the Central 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
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 2: National Revolution and Social Revolution, December 1920-June 1927
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Mao Zedong, “The Struggle in the Chingkang Mountains”
Names listed as having attended Nov. 6 meeting mentioned near the beginning of the episode:
Zhu De, Chen Yi, He Tingying, He Changgong, Yuan Wencai, Wang Zuo, Tan Zhenlin, Deng Ganyuan, Li Quefei, Chen Zhengren, Wang Zuonong, Xiao Wanxia, Liu Huixiao, Xie Chunbiao, Liu Di, Xiong Shouqi, Yang Kaiming, Cao Shuo, Deng Jiuting, Mao Zedong, Song Qiaosheng, Peng Gu, and Yuan Desheng.
Welcome to episode 98 of the People’s History of Ideas podcast.
We have spent the last three episodes talking about how Mao articulated what he had learned about conducting a revolution in rural China in the wake of the August Defeat of 1928. In the document that we looked at in those episodes, it was my aim that we would get a concrete idea about Mao’s learning process during the period from the Autumn Harvest Uprising of 1927 through the reconquest of the Jinggangshan by his forces in the aftermath of the August Defeat. I chose to focus on the resolution of the border area party congress of early October 1928 in order to discuss those lessons. However, there is another major document from this time period which we are not going to spend so long on, but which it would be remiss of me not to mention.
I’m talking about the report that Mao wrote for the Communist Party Central Committee on November 25, 1928, which appears in edited form in Mao’s Selected Works under the title “The Struggle in the Jinggang Mountains.”
The main reason why we won’t spend more than just this episode on this major document is because, for the most part, it recapitulates many of the main points that we have already covered during the past three episodes. The documents, and the discussions and summations collectively arrived at more broadly, which came out of three major meetings from October and November, all served as a kind of rough draft for this major report to the Central Committee that Mao wrote toward the end of November. The three meetings included the October base area party congress which produced the resolution that we examined so closely during the past three episodes, as well as an enlarged base area special committee meeting of November 6, and a congress held for party members in the Fourth Red Army held on November 14 to 15.
So, because this report to the Central Committee repeats a lot that we have already covered, we won’t spend as much time on it. However, because it goes into greater depth on some points and represents a bit more of a consolidated and refined summation than the October resolution, I want to highlight how this document articulates some of the main issues that Mao was dealing with at the time. Also, there are a few sections of the document as it was produced in 1928 which didn’t make it into the version that appears in Mao’s Selected Works, and some of these have some historical interest that I want to highlight, just because I find them interesting, and I assume that some of you listeners will as well.
That said, we’re really not going to do the document full justice, because that would just be too repetitive with the last few episodes of this show. So, if you are really into this topic, I encourage you to go and check out the whole document for yourself, at least in the version that was printed in the Selected Works, which is available to read online for free, and I’ve included a link in the show notes. (And if you have access to a good academic library, you can find an English translation of the original version of the document in the third volume of the Mao’s Road to Power collection, which is what I’m working off of here.)
OK, let’s look at the first excerpt that stands out for me here.
I want to begin, actually, with the very beginning of the document, which gives some immediate context for the writing of the report, and which isn’t included in the Selected Works version. Here goes:
What is very interesting to me about this passage is what it tells us about the logistics of the relationship between the Jinggangshan Communists and the Central party authorities. We can see that this letter of June 4 only arrived in the base area on November 2, taking almost five months to arrive. And even then, the Communists in the base area didn’t have the necessary codes in order to decipher part of what had been sent to them. So, this gives us a concrete sense of the distance involved and difficulties in communication between the Communists in the base area and the Central authorities in Shanghai.
This June 4 letter from the Central Committee was greeted with a lot of happiness by Mao and the other leaders in the base area, because what it did was to free them from subordination to the Hunan Provincial Committee in the Communist Party’s organizational hierarchy. The ‘special committee’ that Mao had led was abolished and a ‘front committee’ was formed in its place. At some historical distance, it just seems like a name change for the leading body of the base area, but at the time the significance of the name change was that this new body was ultimately a special body subject ultimately to the Central Committee itself, even though as we can see from the text it was supposed to also consult with the Jiangxi and Hunan provincial committees, depending on where the front was mainly operating at the time.
This meant that there would no longer be any need for Mao to entertain the meddling of the Hunan Provincial leaders who he had persistent disagreements with, and whose interference had contributed considerably to the loss of the 29th regiment and the August Defeat, as we saw in episodes 89, 92 and 93.
And yet in the text of this introduction to the report, we already see Mao disagreeing with the Central Committee on one of the same issues that he had with the Hunan Provincial leadership. In the June 4 letter, the Central Committee had called on Mao to extend warfare beyond what he deemed prudent, just as we saw the Hunan Provincial Committee do back in episode 89. And Mao here dismisses the suggestion as inappropriate to the current situation, just as he did with earlier orders from the Hunan leadership.
OK, there’s more that we could draw out from this paragraph, not least of which is how so many of these names that are listed are people who would go on for decades to play leading roles in Chinese, and by extension, global history, given the global significance of the events of 20th century China. But I want to get to some more excerpts from this document before we put it aside.
After this introductory paragraph, the report goes on to spend a few pages reviewing the recent history of the Communist forces and their struggle in and around the base area, which is all stuff we have covered in some detail in this podcast, so I won’t dwell on it here.
Then, the document gets to its final large section, which is titled “existing problems.” The first and longest sub-headed section here is “military problems,” and here I want to highlight Mao’s discussion of the class origins of the Red Army soldiers. Here’s what Mao says:
So, what’s going on here? Mao is saying that most of the soldiers making up the 4th Red Army are coming from two different social groups, both of which are coded as somewhat undesirable according to the form of class analysis that the Communists were using at the time. They were vagrants and mercenaries. And Mao clearly would prefer people who he can code as peasants and workers to be his soldiers, but makes clear that, for practical reasons, it looks like the red army will mainly be made up of vagrants and mercenaries for some time to come.
But we also know that the Chinese Revolution was, among other things, a massive peasant war. Nobody really disagrees about this, so what does Mao mean when he talks about most of his soldiers being vagrants and mercenaries at this time?
Let’s take each of these categories of people separately. Who are the vagrants?
The episodes that we did where we talked about the economy and society of the Jinggangshan, episodes 63 and 64, will be helpful for thinking about who these vagrants were who joined the red army. They were people who were landless and had been forced by poverty and circumstances to engage in a range of hustles in order to survive, including sometimes participating in bandit operations which might sometimes be a sort of social banditry and sometimes take more anti-social and predatory forms. In a certain broad sense, these people were connected to the peasantry because they were rural people and often had family connections or fictive kinship connections with people who lived by working the land. I think that from a historical distance and taking in the Chinese Revolution in broad strokes, most historians would group these vagrants in with the peasantry as a social category that encompasses a range of different people.
There is a rough parallel between these Jinggangshan vagrants and the people that often get coded as the lumpen proletariat in the developed capitalist world. People who have been excluded from regular work for most of their lives in one way or another, and therefore have to engage in any number of hustles and sometimes criminal activity in order to survive, but who clearly form a part of a broad conception of the working class in places like the United States, because of their importance as part of the reserve army of labor, in addition to the personal ties most lumpen proletarians have with more traditionally defined workers, especially among the most exploited sections of the working class.
As we can see in the passage that I read, the Hunan Provincial Committee had seized on the large number of vagrants in Mao’s armed forces as a point to criticize him on, and Mao defends himself here on practical grounds. Even before becoming a guerrilla leader, though, Mao had seen revolutionary potential in the marginalized and sometimes criminal elements in society. Back in his January 1926 “An Analysis of the Various Classes among the Chinese Peasantry and their Attitudes Toward the Revolution” (which was a kind of follow up to the 1925 “Analysis of All the Classes in Chinese Society” that we discussed in episode 33), Mao wrote this about the vagrants as a subclass of the peasantry:
And as we have seen, it wasn’t too long before Mao began to grapple in very practical ways with how to harness the vagrants as a revolutionary force.
But Mao is also going to become very frustrated with this task. As a taste of what is yet to come, here are some quotes from a June 1930 resolution that Mao drafted titled “The Problem of Vagabonds.” And, while the term vagabond is different from vagrant, we’ll see from how he defines the term that the term is meant to include the people we have been discussing as vagrants.
His definition here is very similar to his earlier definition of vagrants:
So, there’s Mao’s expanded definition. Now I’m going to quote at some length here now from the 1930 resolution, because it is indicative of some of the issues that are going to arise out of the necessity that Mao faced of continuing to recruit soldiers heavily from among this section of people.
So, we can see that, going forward from where we are at in 1928, this issue of discipline in the Red Army and continually transforming the Red Army soldiers is going to be a major task of Mao’s and, as we can tell from this June 1930 resolution, often an unsuccessful one.
Now, turning to the second category of people that Mao mentioned in his November 1928 report to the Central Committee as constituting the bulk of the soldiers in the 4th Red Army, these are mercenaries. Since we have seen mercenaries included in both Mao’s 1926 and 1930 discussions of vagrants and vagabonds, we can assume that much of what was said in general about vagrants and vagabonds also applies to this group, but why are they singled out here in the 1928 report to the central committee?
As Mao makes clear in this report, the main source from which the Red Army had been of necessity replenishing its ranks was from prisoners of war. Basically, you had these desperate men, most of whom came from poor peasant backgrounds, who had joined these Guomindang and warlord armies. The story of these men is not dissimilar to Zhu De’s early years, which we discussed back in episodes 77 to 80. Once captured by the Red Army, these men were given some basic political lectures on the nature of Chinese society and the revolution that the Communists were fighting for, and given the option of either going home or joining up with the Red Army. These were very poor people in general who had few options in life other than the soldiering life that they had chosen, and so the choice to switch sides and join the Communists rather than to go home penniless, if they even had a home to go to, was a natural one for many of them.
And Mao characterizes their consciousness of the political struggle and willingness to fight for the revolution in these terms in the November 1928 report:
But we can also see from the June 1930 resolution that the transformation of these mercenaries will be slow and uneven, and some of them will eventually create major problems for the revolution.
One of the reasons I wanted to take a little time to discuss this issue of vagrants and mercenaries from the November 1928 report is that much of this does not make it into the Selected Works version of this document, and I think that the reason for this is indicative of the way in which the stories that triumphant revolutionaries tell about their victories differ from the actual process of the revolution as it happened. (A difference that can have fatal consequences for people who try to copy a revolution’s strategy as told, and even as taught, by the victors, rather than studying the process of the revolution as it actually happened.) Understanding the Chinese Revolution as a struggle waged by what was, at least for a time, an army comprised in its majority by people from what would later have been classified as ‘unclean’ or inherently morally compromised backgrounds, is necessary to have a more realistic understanding of the revolutionary process as it actually took place in China, and not as some sort of triumphant march of a morally untainted poor peasantry.
OK, there is one more section I would like to highlight in this document, before we move on.
The next sub-headed section of the “Existing Problems” section of the document is titled “The Land Problem.” However, the bulk of this section is really made up of the problem of dealing with the better off peasants. In the document, the terms “Intermediate Class” and “Intermediate Classes” are used here, but what Mao is really mainly talking about is the problem of how to win over, or at least keep from antagonizing, the better off peasants in the area. These are people that in later Maoist categorization schemes will come to be known as rich and upper middle peasants, and also some small landlords. For those of us living in the developed world of 2022, and I know I’ve said this in past episodes, but it’s worth repeating, the term ‘rich peasant’ is a very relative term. No one in the United States today would consider any of these people rich by a long shot. What it concretely meant in the circumstances of 1928 rural China was that these people had enough to eat and weren’t living on the precipice of economic catastrophe, and that they could maybe send their sons to get some schooling and, as a result of all this, enjoyed some status in the local peasant community.
Now, last episode, we read about how the Communists in the Jinggangshan had decided to implement a red terror policy as a result of how so many of the better off peasants had collaborated with the Guomindang armies and landlord militias when they occupied most of the base area during the August Defeat. This represented a major shift for Mao, from policies that had tried to win over the better off peasants, or at least get them to some sort of friendly neutrality toward the revolution. That document was written in early October.
Now, in late November, Mao is again swinging the other direction, trying to figure out how to neutralize and potentially win over these rich and upper middle peasants. Recognizing that they tend to work against the revolution, especially when the revolution doesn’t treat them well, and kind of trying to figure out a balance between carrot and stick in dealing with these people.
Here are some excerpts from the document:
So here Mao lays out the basic problem: there is a fairly influential group of peasants who are doing ok, these owner-peasants, later in the revolution to be called rich and upper middle peasants, whose economic interests are often tied up with local exploiting classes, small landlords in particular, who are not going to be happy when land is redistributed, because they are going to lose land, even if, at the end of the day, these peasants might be better off were all the reforms of the revolution to be carried out. Also, these peasants tend to have considerable prestige in local society, particularly in clan organizations, and they tend to be the local leaders in these villages where everyone belongs to the same extended family. These are not natural friends of the revolution. But also, there is a sense in which these really should not be enemies of the revolution either, at least not in some ideal world. These are people with many connections, especially family ties, with the poor peasants who make up the majority of the base area population, and they are not serious exploiters themselves.
Let’s move on with the document and see how Mao develops this discussion:
These are events that we’ve talked about at some length in past episodes, so I won’t dwell on them here. However, I do want to draw your attention to how Mao phrases things here. He says that “The intermediate classes had been under attack during the high tide of revolution, so they defected as soon as the White terror arrived.” If, in our first excerpt, it might have seemed that Mao was explaining how circumstances naturally had created an antagonism between the Communists and the rich peasants, even to the extent that some had to be executed in order to get the land redistribution to go forward in part of Yongxin county, here it seems that Mao is implying that the Communists had gone too far in pushing the rich peasants toward the counter-revolution.
OK, let’s move on with the document:
In this last excerpt, Mao pretty clearly is blaming the revolution for having excessively attacked the intermediate classes. Yet, he hasn’t amended his initial analysis of the overall situation, which put forward in pretty clear terms the antagonism which objective circumstances would create between Communists and the rich peasants. And this is how Mao leaves things in this document. On the one hand, clearly Communist policies of land redistribution are going to alienate the rich peasants. On the other hand, Mao is saying that Communists should not be so hard on these rich peasants, because if they are, the rich peasants will strengthen the counter-revolution. It is clear at the end of this last excerpt that Mao sees the poor peasants standing alone as representing an unfavorable polarization of class forces in the countryside for the revolution. Somehow, policies must be devised which win over these intermediate strata. This is going to be an ongoing concern of Mao’s in the revolution, and ultimately, he is going to have some concrete proposals for how to do this. And most historians would argue that Mao’s success hinges in part on how he does eventually solve this problem, or at least deals with it well enough, because by its nature its not an entirely solvable problem. But at this point, Mao isn’t quite sure what to do, and toward the end of this section of the document, Mao indicates this by saying: “We request the Central Committee and the two Provincial Committees to instruct us as soon as possible regarding the methods (the concrete methods, not merely the broad policy) used by Soviet Russia in dealing with the rich peasants, especially during the democratic revolution, when the Soviet government was surrounded by the White regime.”
OK, that’s it for Mao’s November 25, 1928 report to the Central Committee. This document is one of the classics of the Chinese Revolution, and we have in no way fully done it justice here, mainly because I didn’t want to get repetitive with our recent episodes. But I do want to encourage those of you who have some time and inclination to go ahead and read it for yourselves. I think that, if you’ve listened to this podcast from the beginning, or at least since the base area in the Jinggang Mountains got set up, you will get a lot out of the document that you might not have gotten had you gone into it cold, without having the historical background.
Take care and see you next time.