The early divergence in strategic thinking and revolutionary priorities between the CCP and the Comintern.
Tony Saich, The Origins of the First United Front in China
Some names from this episode:
Chen Gongbo, Founding Chinese Communist who studied at Columbia and later joined the Japanese puppet regime
Henk Sneevliet, alias Maring, Dutch Communist and Comintern leader in China beginning in 1921
Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Guomindang
Georgii Chicherin, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union
Lao Xiuchao, Chinese Bolshevik who attended the first Comintern Congress in 1919
Chen Duxiu, editor of New Youth and first general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party
Gregory Voitinsky, Leader of Comintern delegation to China in 1920
Zhang Guotao, emerged from founding congress as important Communist leader
Li Hanjun, advocated study and propaganda as main party activities as first congress
Liu Renjing, one of the Beijing delegates to the first party congress
Welcome to Episode 18 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we left off with the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. On the one hand, just founding the organization was definitely an achievement. But, as we saw, it was an ambiguous achievement, because things were pretty disorganized, and there were very uneven levels of commitment to the party on the part of many of the founding members.
But the Congress did reach a decision as to the tasks it would set for itself. In a document titled “The First Decision as to the Objects of the Chinese Communist Party,” the six points that the party united around at the Congress are briefly summarized. And I want to use that document to begin to talk about what the Party got up to in its first couple years of existence.
But before we get into the content of this document, there is a history of how this document came down to us, which is also a good illustration of the unevenness of the founding members of the Chinese Communist Party.
So, because of the importance of security culture, and the way in which membership in the Chinese Communist Party was something that was supposed to be kept secret, a lot of the documents from the time period of the founding of the party were destroyed or lost. And so this, as well as some other documents, were only later rediscovered in English or Russian translations that had been made.
In the case of this document, one of the founders of the party who had been at the congress, Chen Gongbo, had left to study at Columbia University in New York City. There he wrote a Master’s thesis titled “The Communist Movement in China.” This must have been a pretty easy thesis for him to research, since he had participated in founding the movement, but anyways, he included this document, and some others, as an appendix to his MA thesis.
After graduating from Columbia, Chen ended up returning to China and joining back up with the Guomindang, not the Communist Party, and then eventually he moved on to serve in the puppet government that Japan set up when it occupied China during World War II. After the war he fled to Japan, but he was extradited to China in 1946 and executed as a traitor. So, Chen Gongbo was a particularly extreme example of the political unevenness of the founding members of the Chinese Communist Party.
The document that we are interested in, although lost in China itself, was rediscovered when someone at Columbia took a look at Chen Gongbo’s thesis in the 1950s. And so, on to the document. It’s short, so I’ll read it out here, and then I’ll discuss it as a way of beginning our discussion of how the Chinese Communist Party developed during its first couple years of existence.
[Document: “The First Decision as to the Objects of the CCP”]
And that’s the document.
So, I want to highlight a few features of this early, basic statement of the Communist Party’s objectives.
First, it’s worth noting the overall primitiveness of the document. This was clearly an organization that was just starting out. The document does something that is very common, internationally and across time periods, for organizations that are getting started, and which aren’t very sure of themselves and don’t have enough experience to say something very substantial about what they are planning to do. What they do is they give details and preconditions in advance, for example, for how many people have to be in a union, or of what sorts of publications local party branches can publish, but don’t really dive into the principles informing these decisions, or the larger strategic thinking involved. Given the fact that many of these details (for example, about how the institutions for studying labor organization will actually train or, in the language of the document, discipline workers into becoming party cadres) would be highly conditioned by the circumstances in which they were carried out, setting down such details a priori is something of a hallmark of political inexperience. But also, focusing on details rather than principles in a document like this also is a way of hiding an inability to unite politically on the sort of higher level which is necessary as an organization to actually carry out such plans.
I don’t say all this to diss the organization at all. It’s in fact very natural that, at its founding, just about any organization does this. I note it rather because in retrospect it is remarkable that even an organization which went on to do so much and carry out the Chinese Revolution started really in a very similar place to so many other parties around the world.
It’s also worth noting the need for the document to state that the party press should not run articles inconsistent with the party’s principles. This speaks to the diversity of opinion and inconsistent ideological unity that was clearly present at the founding of the party, despite the ideological campaigns that we discussed in the last episode that were waged against non-revolutionary forms of Marxism and anarchism. Party discipline and democratic centralism were principles that everyone was still learning.
Of the six points, two had to do with relations with the Comintern and other organizations, and four had to do with tasks the party would carry out.
Point six, affiliation with the Comintern, was something we discussed in our last episode.
Point five, about the attitude that the Communist Party would take toward other political organizations, is remarkably antagonistic. This is actually the one point that Maring did not get his way on at the first congress. This is kind of an important point, and we’ll come back to it in just a minute here.
Now, of the four points regarding tasks, one had to do with the necessary task of party propaganda, and the other three had to do with labor organizing. Just about any organization needs to say what it stands for and what it is about, so it is important to note that, aside from this task, essentially the only non-propagandistic mass work that the party set for itself involved forming labor unions.
So this tells us a lot about how the Chinese Communists saw themselves when they first started out. Their conception of what they were going to do was to go out and organize China’s small, but growing, working class into unions.
This wasn’t just a question of communist strategy for them. Sure it was that too. The general idea was that you organize the unions, the advanced workers join the party, you grow, there is some struggle, maybe you gain some prestige through winning some victories for the workers, hopefully once you gain prestige you manage to avoid being co-opted like happened with the parties of the Second International, eventually some sort of crisis ensues, there is an insurrection or something, and then you take over in a revolution. Not super specific, but that was the strategy in its basic outlines. Really, not a very different strategy than the communist movement had in a lot of countries at the time, especially in the industrialized world.
But there was a deeper, almost spiritual imperative behind this strategic vision of focusing on labor organizing. During the May 4th Movement, when the workers started mobilizing independently in June of 1919, this had a profound impact on the radical intellectuals. It impressed them with the power and potential of a mobilized working class, but it also highlighted to them the social gulf that existed between themselves and the workers. They tried to address this immediately, as we discussed in episode 13, by doing things like forming the Common People’s Education Lecturing Corps and going out and doing agitation among the workers, but the gulf remained fairly wide. For the radical intellectuals who founded the Communist Party, there was a kind of spiritual imperative to bridge the gulf between them and the working class, to connect with and identify with the laboring masses. This was the deeper motivation that had led these intellectuals to coming together and founding the party, and we can see that reflected in the party’s decision to focus on labor organizing.
Now, you might be asking, what else might the party have focused on other than labor organizing? Well, there were certainly other options. Peasant organizing and army-building, for example, were tasks that the party aspired to, but put off to the future.
But there is another strategic option to consider, that of working toward a nationalist revolution, which was gaining favor in the Comintern. And this brings up the significance of point five in the document, the antagonistic attitude of the Communist Party toward other parties, which was the one point where Maring didn’t get his way at the first congress.
Nationalist Revolution and the Comintern
But first, a little background on how the Comintern approached the idea of nationalist revolutions in the Third World. According to the orthodox Marxist theory that preceded the Russian Revolution, it was assumed that revolutions in countries where there had not been a lot of capitalist development and which had not had a bourgeois democratic revolution would have to have a democratic revolution led by an emerging capitalist class. When the Russian Revolution proceeded to first overthrow the Tsar in early 1917 and then later in 1917 to have a socialist revolution which overthrew all the capitalist parties which had been leading Russia since the first revolution in early 1917, that process raised a lot of questions about how to adapt Marxist revolutionary theory to explain what had happened, and to draw conclusions for other parts of the world where there had not yet been a lot of capitalist industrial development and which had not had bourgeois democratic revolutions.
In particular, if the Russian Revolution showed that you could have a socialist revolution in a largely peasant country with limited industrial development, then what had been the role of the bourgeoisie in the early stages of the Russian Revolution, and what consequences did this have for how a revolution should be seen in other parts of the world? And, if a country was dominated by foreign powers, either as an outright colony (like British India or Dutch Indonesia), or a semi-colony like China which was formally independent but which suffered under intense foreign pressures and controls, what would be the role of the political parties representing independence and nationalist interests but which weren’t socialist?
While there was a lot of debate at the Second Comintern Congress in the summer of 1920 on this question, the policy which ended up being adopted was that Communists in the colonial and semi-colonial countries should try to work with what were called ‘national-revolutionary’ political forces. That is, nationalist parties which didn’t call for socialism, but which opposed the domination of their countries by foreign powers, were seen as having a progressive role to play in carrying out an anti-colonial revolution. Their role in a revolution was conceived as roughly equivalent to the role that democratic bourgeois forces had played in overthrowing the Tsar in Russia.
The thing is, in discussing revolutions in the Third World, there were some very different priorities underlying the debate inside the Comintern. On the one hand, of course, there were the Communists whose main interest was the liberation of the people in those colonial and semi-colonial countries. But there were others who saw revolutions in the Third World mainly for their utility in serving other ends, because of the effect that a revolution in a colony would have on the imperial center. A revolution in a colony would, at least theoretically, weaken the imperialist center. So a revolution in Indonesia would weaken the Netherlands, and likewise, a revolution in a semi-colony would damage the imperialist countries which were heavily invested in that semi-colony. So, for example, a revolution in China would be particularly damaging to Britain and Japan (and somewhat less so to the United States and France). This could serve the priority of having a revolution in the oppressor country back in Europe or America, and also to weaken an opponent of the Soviet Union. So there were people in the Comintern whose main interest in revolution in the colonial and semi-colonial world was to have a revolution back home in Europe. And there were other people in the Comintern, and in particular in the Soviet government and military, whose main interest in revolution in someplace like China was that it would weaken Britain, one of the Soviet Union’s main opponents in the international arena.
So, while of course there was, in theory, no fundamental contradiction between wanting a communist revolution in China, in Europe, and for the Soviet Union to be protected from its international enemies. In practice, depending on where one’s priorities lay, there were people in the Comintern who intervened in the development of the Chinese Revolution whose main priority was not, in fact, the liberation of the Chinese people, but rather some other end, which they hoped would be aided by a revolutionary process in China. And the events of the next few years in China cannot be understood without keeping that fact in mind.
And that brings us back to point five in the document that we just read, Maring’s opposition to that point, and the relations that had been developing between the Soviet Union and the Guomindang, independent of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Guomindang and the Soviet Union
The first contact between the Guomindang and the Bolsheviks had already occurred in 1918. Early that year, Sun Yat-sen sent Lenin a telegram congratulating him, one revolutionary leader to another, on the success of the Russian Revolution, and expressing the sentiment that the Bolsheviks and the Guomindang shared a common struggle. The Soviet Union’s People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Georgii Chicherin responded with a telegram which referred to Sun as ‘honored teacher’ and stated that “the Russian working classes turn to their Chinese brothers and call them on to the common fight.”
Then, during the first congress of the Communist International in 1919, Lao Xiuchao, who was described in the Soviet press as a Comintern delegate from China but was almost certainly one of the Chinese workers who had joined the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, described Sun Yat-sen as “The pride of China” while the Comintern publicly named the Guomindang as its natural ally in China in an anti-imperialist united front. In particular, the Bolsheviks in 1918 and 1919 had hoped that Sun Yat-sen, whose power base was in southern China, might lead a revolution to overthrow the northern warlords who controlled Beijing, many of whom were heavily influenced by Japan and were anti-Soviet. (It is important to remember that Japan had intervened against the Russian Revolution in 1918 and maintained an occupying force in Vladivostok and the surrounding region until 1922, and northern Sakhalin Island until 1925.)
Official contact and the beginnings of discussions about possible cooperation between the Bolsheviks and the Guomindang began when Chen Duxiu introduced Gregory Voitinsky to Sun Yat-sen in the fall of 1920 in Shanghai. Maring came to China with the idea of following up on this initial contact, and his hope was that the new Chinese Communist Party would find a way to work with the Guomindang. But as I mentioned earlier, Maring did not get his way on this one point.
When the debate broke out between Li Hanjun and his supporters on one side and Liu Renjing and Zhang Guotao in support of Maring, which we discussed in the last episode of this podcast, Maring was put in the position of having to rely on Zhang Guotao and Liu Renjing during the congress. The problem for Maring was that, Zhang and Liu and most of the other delegates present at the congress had no interest in an alliance with the Guomindang. In fact, Zhang strongly opposed working with the Guomindang, and this feeling was expressed in point five in the “Decision as to the Objects of the CCP” document that we read out. This antagonistic position taken toward other political trends.
And this kind of makes sense. After all, if these guys had wanted to join the Guomindang, they could have just joined the Guomindang, rather than starting their own new Communist Party.
But from Maring’s perspective, after the founding congress of the Communist Party, he had to consider his options. On the one hand, he had just helped found a Communist Party that had about fifty to sixty members, not many of whom appeared to be particularly reliable. On the other hand, the Guomindang had possibly a couple hundred thousand members and controlled the important southern city of Guangzhou. Maring’s mission in China was not only to guide the Chinese Communists on behalf of the Comintern, but also to facilitate an alliance between the Guomindang and the Soviet Union.
With that mission in mind, Maring spent the winter of 1921-1922 in South China, where Sun Yat-sen had taken up the post of Extraordinary President of the Government of South China, openly setting up a counter-power to the warlord government in North China and declaring his intention to eventually launch a Northern Expedition to re-unite China under a Guomindang government. The results of Maring’s meeting with Sun Yat-sen and other Guomindang leaders during that winter would have a profound effect on the development of the communist movement in China.