[Book] China: From Permanent Revolution to Counter-Revolution

The Rise of the Second Chinese Revolution

4.1 Introduction

Stalin’s perspective for China was that the national bourgeoisie would lead a successful democratic revolution against feudalism and the imperialist and colonial powers. The leadership residing in the Kuomintang was – despite the personal wishes of those involved – an objectively revolutionary force that would not betray its own revolution.

This perspective was based on the assumption that in China, workers, peasants, artisans, intellectuals and national bourgeoisie (including the officer caste of the NRA) had more in common with each other than the imperialists. It was assumed that this multi-class bloc could become the Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry (proposed by Lenin in 1905 but firmly rejected by him in 1917)[1], which would carry through the national revolution and create a bourgeois state friendly to the USSR. Chiang Kai-shek and his generals had a more correct appreciation. They understood that revolutions do not stop when commanded but could flow right over them to a soviet regime. They planned and then acted accordingly.

On 20 March 1926, Chiang Kai-Shek staged his first coup in a clear and unambiguous statement that the bourgeoisie intended to control the Chinese Revolution to protect its interests which were most definitely not the same as those of the proletarians or peasants.

Despite this warning, Stalin continued to argue that a single national revolutionary front was a necessary condition for the successful anti-imperialist revolution and to achieve this, the CCP must sacrifice its organisational and political independence and adopt a subservient role to the KMT. To keep the bourgeoisie in the United Front the CCP should restrain the rebellious peasantry to within bounds acceptable to the KMT, i.e. stop land seizures.

As the national struggle progressed and the KMT armies moved northwards and took control of major industrial centres, the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and sections of the petty-bourgeoisie on the one hand and the proletariat and peasants on the other could no longer be contained within one political party. This problem would be resolved by the KMT, both left and right unleashing a white terror and massacring all the Communists it could. CCP membership had peaked at 60,000 of whom about 12,000 were women[2] by the end of 1927 the vast majority would have dropped their membership or be dead; this would mark the end of the Second Chinese Revolution.

4.2 Chiang Kai-shek’s First Coup: 20 March 1926

After Sun’s death on 12 March 1925, sections of the Chinese bourgeoisie came out openly for the exclusion of Communists from the KMT and opposed the radical elements in the policy of the Canton Government. The immediate cause of the right wing concern was the mobilisation of the working class in the Canton-Hong Kong strike; the Chinese workers were becoming a powerful and leading force in the democratic revolutionary movement, giving the movement a powerful impulse and greatly strengthening the left in the KMT.

In July, 1925, the first open test between the right wing and the left (including Communists) came in the elections to control the party in Canton. The left won a sweeping victory. Wang Jingwei, who had made a point of being seen to support the Canton-Hong Kong strike, declared a ‘National Government’ based on Canton with himself as its chairperson.

At once the right wing met separately and demanded the KMT: 1. Expel the Communists, 2. Give power to the military, 3. Dismiss Borodin and his Russian military advisers, and 4. Move the seat of the Central Executive Committee to Shanghai. Tai Chi-t’ao (a member of the Central Executive Committee of the KMT) produced an anti-Communist pamphlet as a rallying call to the right wing. There followed a relentless campaign against Communists and leftists. The campaign was particularly successful amongst the cadets of the Whampoa Military Academy where the anti-Communists (the majority) formed themselves into their own separate ‘society’.[3] In response, Peng Shuzhi published the article Who is the Leader of the Revolution? in the December 1925 issue of New Youth. Here, he openly argued that the Chinese bourgeoisie, including the industrial capitalists were too closely tied to imperialism to lead a successful revolution for national independence.[4]

The leftists and CCP dominated the 2nd KMT Congress in January 1926 and Wang was confirmed as leader. With Communist support, Chiang Kai-shek was elected to the Central Executive Committee (CEC) for the first time. The Congress condemned the behaviour of the right wing and emphasised the need for a KMT-CCP alliance.[5] Borodin and the ECCI took all this as further proof of the success of the bloc within and the weakness of the rightists within the KMT.

The great dream of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek was the Northern Expedition in which the NRA, under Chiang’s leadership would march against the northern warlords, defeat them militarily and unite the country. Chiang understood that the Northern Expedition was impossible without massive material support from the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet advisers in China opposed the Expedition, expressing instead a preference for the ‘People’s Army’ of Feng Yu-hsiang (the so-called Christian general). Chiang was worried that the military supplies he needed for his expedition might be diverted. Nor did Chiang wish to go marching off to Beijing and leave behind him a KMT Government under the political influence of Borodin. It was necessary to administer a sharp smack to the Communists and their allies to ensure the military wing of the KMT held the leadership of the Revolution but without provoking too much of a reaction. If handled correctly, such a move could also eliminate his rivals within the KMT.[6]

On the night of 19/20 March Chiang ‘discovered’ a conspiracy supposedly organised by a Communist naval officer. Chiang’s troops surrounded the quarters of the Soviet advisors, all CCP political workers attached to army units under his command were arrested, and in a move that was especially significant and unambiguously showed the motives for his actions – the Canton-Hong Kong strike was at its height – local trade union premises were raided and closed down.[7]

On the morning of 20 March 1926, Chiang was master of Canton. All railway stations were occupied, all telephone communications were cut and martial law declared. Chiang had demonstrated he held the real power within the KMT. His next step was to minimise the incident to ensure the ongoing material (and political) support of the Soviet Union necessary for a victorious march on Beijing. Publicly, Chiang dismissed the incident as a misunderstanding; he apologised to the Soviet advisers (who blamed the CCP for using inappropriately radical propaganda) and withdrew his troops to their barracks.[8]

Chiang’s coup was kept secret within the USSR, but news of it slipped out one year later when it was mentioned by Radek in an article that appeared in Izvestiya. Pravda hurriedly published a reply in the form of a report from Wuhan affirming Chiang’s loyalty to the national revolution and proclaiming the absence of any inner party disputes within the KMT.[9]

4.2.1 Outcomes of the Coup

Stalin, confused and confounded, made no public response, but behind the scenes deals were done; the Northern Expedition was unequivocally endorsed, and the coup was minimised or denied.

On 22 March, Solovyev, Councillor of the Soviet Embassy met with Chiang. The next day, Wang Jingwei, pleading illness, left for France. On 24 March many Soviet advisers, including the chief adviser at the Whampoa Academy took their leave of China. Chiang placed his own men in key positions within the KMT. The ECCI instructed the CCP to support the military dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and assist the forthcoming Northern Expedition. Action against Chiang or a break with the KMT having been ruled out, the CCP Central Committee passed a resolution pledging its support to Chiang.[10]

Right wing politicians and business men rushed to acclaim the man who had so easily established bourgeois hegemony over the mass movement. But the inaction of the CCP had demonstrated a serious weakness which undermined any possible future alliance with the left within the KMT.

In the face of the coup, Peng Shuzhi and Ch’en Pi-lan (editor of Chinese Women and Peng’s partner) travelled to Canton to convene a meeting of leading Communists with Borodin to consider whether the CCP should: withdraw from the bloc within and replace it with co-operation of independent organisations, expand the military units under its leadership, and unite its military forces with those of the left wing of the KMT. Borodin won the support of the majority of the meeting by revealing that Stalin had personally ordered that CCP-KMT ‘collaboration’ be maintained, and the proposals were rejected.[11]

Stalin, Bukharin, and soviet advisors not only closed their eyes to the warning given by the coup, they actively hid it. The international Communist press published deliberately misleading material; when news of the coup appeared in the bourgeois press, the International Press Correspondence of 8 April 1926, called it a “lying report”, and in the 6 May issue Voitinsky called it “an invention of the imperialists.”[12]

Chiang’s next step was to camouflage himself as a champion of the masses. On May Day 1926, the 3rd National Labour Conference representing one and a quarter million workers had as its honoured guest, Chiang Kai-shek, now Generalissimo of an army with an efficient, well-trained officer corps. With CCP approval, this representative of the bourgeoisie appeared before the masses as a revolutionary leader. In uniform, Chiang punched the air and shouted “Long Live the World Revolution.”[13]

Chiang Kai-Shek took Wang Jingwei’s place as head of the KMT, and at a special plenary session of the CEC on 15 May 1926, conditions were laid down for continuation of the bloc within:

1. The CCP press must not criticise the anti-class struggle principles of Sun Yat-sen. 2. The CCP must hand over a list of its members in the KMT. 3. Communists could not control more than one-third of the seats on any of the higher KMT committees. 4. Communists could not serve as heads of departments in the central KMT organisation nor government. 5. Without approval from above, no member of the KMT could call any meeting in its name to discuss party affairs. 6. Without authorisation from a higher body, no member of the KMT could be a member of any other political organisation or engage in any other political activity. 7. If the CCP wanted to send instructions to its members in the KMT, such instructions had first to be submitted for approval to a joint committee of which the majority was non-Communist. 8. Any members of the KMT wishing to join the CCP had to resign and could not rejoin the KMT.[14]

At the very moment when the Revolution needed Bolshevik leadership, the ECCI imposed restrictions on the CCP which constrained it to act as the left-wing within a bourgeois party. In the eyes of Moscow the KMT was “a unique workers’ and peasants’ party”, “a revolutionary bloc of workers, peasants, intellectuals and the urban democracy (i.e. the bourgeoisie) on the basis of a community of class-interests in the struggle against the imperialists and the military-feudal order in general.”[15] The ECCI continued to hail the KMT as a friendly, revolutionary party and allowed its delegates to remain on the ECCI with a consultative voice.

After the coup, the activities of the CCP were fatally constrained; it could not issue any public criticism of the KMT, could not form a faction within the KMT to fight to change the official line, it had to publicly subscribe to the capitalist principles of Sun Yat-senism, it was prevented from arming the people, forming Soviets, disarming the bourgeoisie, and it could not work to win over the soldiers of the NRA. Borodin, quoting Bukharin, said openly that the activities of the Communists were restricted to doing coolie service for the KMT.[16]

From this point, the CCP acted as a brake on the Chinese Revolution, a role that would cost many, many Communists their lives. However, for a large proportion of CCP members, recruited on the basis of the bloc within and subjected to continuous bombardment with the idea that a break with the KMT would sabotage the anti-imperialist struggle, these sacrifices appeared worthwhile. Stalinist mis-education which included demanding unquestioning obedience to the CI would end with the collapse of the revolutionary movement.

Landlords took the 20 March coup as a green light to attack peasant associations, and the murder of peasant leaders became widespread. In a tactic that would be used again and again, Communists played a disgraceful role by placing the blame for the killings on individual corrupt officials, avaricious gentry and hooligans rather than the landlord system. In Guangdong province the attacks were particularly severe. On 26 June 1926, Chen Duxiu in his Appeal reported that the leadership of the CCP requested that Borodin take 5,000 rifles from those allocated for Chiang Kai-shek, to allow the Guangdong peasants to protect themselves. He refused, on the grounds that the peasants might use the guns to seize the land, and that was quite unacceptable.

In late 1926, Borodin addressed a Peasant Congress in Hankou, central China. The Northern Expedition was to be supported as the first step to unifying China. The warlords and imperialists had to be defeated, after that would come the formation of a national government. This would (1) establish minimum land allocations for peasants, (2) lower rents, and (3) establish popular government at county, provincial, and national level. This was the same ‘wait and see’ message the Russian SRs had delivered in 1917, and the reason for their obliteration.

4.3 The Northern Expedition: from Guangdong to Shanghai

On 9 July 1926, just over four months after his coup, believing he had made his rear safe from revolution, Chiang began the Northern Expedition for the military unification of China. The NRA was not large, it numbered only about 100,000 soldiers, against over half a million warlord troops. Its successes came from its dynamism and its popular support.[17] The NRA was accompanied by a swarm of agitators, organisers, and propagandists who so well prepared the ground that often the armies needed only to advance on a village or town for the warlord’s forces to evaporate. In support of the NRA, railway and telegraph workers attempted to paralyse the warlords’ communications, peasants spied on warlord troop movements and made them immediately known to the NRA, and formed guerrilla bands to attack the rear of the warlords’ armies. There were even cases where the local peasant association staged an uprising ahead of the NRA.[18]

The NRA proceeded in two columns, the western column headed for Wuhan, strategically placed in the middle of the Yangtze valley, on the river and an administrative, industrial and transport centre, and the eastern column, led by Chiang, headed for Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province.

As the NRA began its march, the Central Committee of the CCP met in Shanghai (12–18 July 1926). It received and again rejected a motion submitted by Peng Shuzhi, supported by Chen Duxiu, for the withdrawal of Communists from the bloc within and the establishment of a United Front with the left wing of the KMT.[19] The published proceedings of this meeting were permeated with a desire to convince the bourgeoisie that the CCP was no threat to its interests. The resolution on the peasant question was typical, it proposed restricting the CCP policy to what was believed acceptable to the KMT; rent and interest rate reduction, lower taxes and removal of corrupt officials. Such an obsequious approach could only lead to further retreats.

The leadership of the CCP had voted to accept the instructions of the ECCI not only because the latter had behind it the prestige of the October Revolution and provided most of the resources that kept the Party afloat, but also out of loyalty to a body which been a major factor in its foundation, providing essential leadership over its difficult first days. But now the ECCI was proposing a course of action that cut right across Leninist norms. In public, Chen Duxiu, as Secretary of the CCP, followed discipline and declared the KMT one of the pillars of the national-revolutionary movement but within the CCP worked hard to separate the two organisations.

In opposition to Chen and Peng, ECCI representatives made every effort to win the CCP leadership, one obvious method being to promote onto the CC those who agreed with ECCI perspectives. Under Comintern pressure the weaker, the opportunists, those jealous of their positions, and those who genuinely believed in a stagist approach followed Borodin’s lead. Incrementally, the character of the Central Committee was changed. Each time Chen and Peng raised the question of breaking the bloc within they received less support and within the Party most new recruits (the vast majority given the rapid growth of the Party) were joining on the basis of support for the Northern Expedition and Chiang.

MN Roy, ECCI representative in China and second only to Borodin, would later claim that by this time the majority of the leadership of the CCP endorsed the Stalinist perspective: “Almost all the Communist leaders believed the stories about the ‘excesses’ of the peasants and declared that the most effective method of combatting the counter-revolution would be to check them.”[20]

Wang Fan-hsi was in Beijing as the NRA progressed northwards. He described how the CCP deliberately mis-educated the membership by fostering the idea that, apart from a few old men, the KMT was solidly on the side of the Revolution; not one word of criticism was voiced against Chiang at CCP meetings. Soon after, Wang moved to Canton where he discovered reality was very different from what he had been told. He found the strength of the so-called left wing of the KMT was largely illusory. The numbers of left-wing individuals within the KMT prepared to stand up for their ideas were so few that they would never constitute a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, Chiang and the forces of the right had real power, military power in their hands.[21]

As he gained confidence, Chiang suppressed trade unions, peasant leagues and the activities of Communists in the area under the control of the NRA. On 29 July 1926, he declared martial law. All labour disturbances were forbidden for the duration of the Northern campaign. The NRA’s triumphant progress continued and by September the Yangtze valley was in Chiang’s hands. The ECCI was delirious with joy.

On 9 August 1926, the KMT declared compulsory arbitration in all labour disputes, workers were forbidden to bear arms of any description, to assemble or to parade. Military patrols took possession of the streets. Stalin said: “The withdrawal of the Chinese communists from the Kuomintang at the present time would be a profound mistake. The whole course, character, and prospects of the Chinese revolution undoubtedly testify in favour of the Chinese communists remaining in the Kuomintang and intensifying their work in it.” In flagrant opposition to the facts available to him but as a smokescreen to justify his own policies, he presented the advance of Chiang’s troops as meaning “freedom of assembly, freedom to strike, freedom to organise for all the revolutionary elements in China in general, and for the workers in particular.”[22] The victories of the NRA and the propaganda of their own Party convinced many doubters within the CCP that the curbing of peasant attempts to seize the land was justified.

In Canton the local government had been under the control of the left KMT and initially had been supportive of the Canton-Hong Kong strike, but it soon moved to the right as the consequences of Chiang’s coup became clear. The bloc of four classes began to reveal its true face. In May, the Canton Government offered to ensure “the complete cessation of the boycott and of all other anti-British manifestations throughout the territory controlled by the Canton Government” in exchange for a $10,000,000 loan from the British. Squads of soldiers and police patrolled the streets of Canton and the food kitchens were discontinued. The betrayal by the Canton Government broke the back of the strike and on 10 October 1926, the strike and boycott were called off unconditionally. No loan was given.

The strike and boycott had opened the door to an independent working-class perspective and had demonstrated the capacity of the Chinese workers to organise and function in their own interests. The CCP described the abrupt termination of an historic fifteen months’ struggle without a single concession as “not a defeat but a great victory”.

The CCP had allowed an historic opportunity to slip without even realising it. The workers of Canton would pay dearly for this ‘victory’. The gangsters of Canton were mobilised into a Central Labour Union and carried the offensive against the revolutionary workers onto the streets.[23] Against the advice of the CCP, militants defended their organisations, but with the masses disheartened and defeated, this was to no avail.

In early October, the NRA took one of the most important of China’s industrial areas, the Wuhan complex comprising the three cities of Wuchang (railroad centre), Hanyang (industrial centre) and Hankou (important commercial port on the Yangtse) each with a substantial industrial population. In November, Chiang took Nanchang which then became the centre for the rightists within the KMT.

Borodin successfully persuaded the remaining left KMT leadership in Canton to move their government to Wuhan to take advantage of the working class base that existed there. No doubt the defeat of the Canton-Hong Kong strike weighed on his mind. The move coincided with the 7th Plenum of the ECCI (22 November–16 December 1926). This was the first Plenum since the counter-revolutionary coup of 20 March and incredible as it might seem, not one word was said about the coup, not one word about the shootings of the workers and peasants carried out by the KMT in a number of provinces, not one word about the withdrawal of support for the Canton-Hong Kong strike, not one word about the efforts made by the Canton government to strangle and denigrate the peasants’ movement, to prevent its spread and development. The 7th Plenum passed over in silence the Central Committee of the CCP’s public undertaking not to criticise Sun Yat-senism, effectively endorsing the CCP’s renunciation of its right to function as an independent workers’ party.

The Plenum was guided by a resolution passed at the meeting of the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party on 26 October 1926 which had decided the CCP should make a significant shift to the right.[24] The Plenum issued a manifesto drafted by Martynov (against whose ideas Lenin wrote What is to be Done?) who, by ignoring basic Marxism – that the power of a state was ‘bodies of armed men’ (e.g. the NRA) – was able to conclude that China was heading towards a multi-class state. On the key question of land to the peasant, the manifesto declared national liberation was impossible without agrarian revolution – nationalisation of the land was fundamental.[25] This sounded wonderful, but the lands and property of KMT leaders and the officers of the NRA were excluded. The heart of the CCP’s land programme was reduced to demands acceptable to Chiang Kai-shek.

Martynov proposed that Communists penetrate the new Government and use the state apparatus to confiscate land, reduce taxes and invest real power in peasant committees. But the 20 March coup had been precisely to stop such things happening, to ensure that real power would be kept out of the hands of peasant committees. In such a situation, taking posts within the state apparatus meant Party members punished peasants for revolutionary acts. That CCP members were volunteering to become magistrates to enforce bourgeois laws even before the manifesto arrived, demonstrated the level of mis-education within the CCP and the political level of the people being recruited.[26] The public face of the CCP was class-collaboration and this naturally attracted recruits who favoured such a policy.

Martynov justified the CCP entering the left KMT government by arguing that it would strengthen the ‘revolutionary’ left wing against the right, that it was possible to change the KMT into a ‘real Party of the People’. His classification of ‘revolutionary’ left was demonstrated by the first on his list of desirable participants – the KMT Government in Canton which was at that moment disarming workers, protecting yellow unions, and attempting to strangle the peasants’ movement.[27] Without independent bases in the proletariat and peasantry (which required the clear slogan of “Land to the Peasant”), the CCP did not have sufficient weight within the KMT to counter-balance the right wing which had military support.

The CCP was enmeshed in a net of contradictory requirements, the only way to break out and save the Revolution was to support the peasants’ seizure and distribution of the land – and that required Soviets. But by Stalin’s direct order Soviets were excluded. Instead the CCP was instructed to use the “apparatus of the National Revolutionary Government”, a formula for achieving nothing. In the army, for example, this was interpreted as manoeuvring individual sympathisers into command positions rather than winning the soldiers to a revolutionary position by setting up Communist nuclei of rank and file soldiers.

The Plenum did warn that the bourgeoisie were trying to “smash the revolution”, but failed to say who these people were (Stalin personally declared Chiang was loyal), when they would act, under what conditions they would do so, where they would act, and what they would do. The ECCI warning was abstract in the extreme, but the actions it demanded were immediate and concrete – capitulation to the bourgeois KMT.

As the leadership of the CCP tried to square the circle of supporting the peasants without introducing soviets and without offending the officer corps, it became caught up – and partners in – spinning a web of deceit. The CCP had to choose support for the KMT or support for the peasant revolution; rather than risk a break with the KMT it decided to block the revolution.[28] On 13 December 1926 in Hankou, in the presence of Borodin and Voitinsky, Chen Duxiu delivered a report on the current situation to the Party leadership. The published version of the report had the CCP bowing to ECCI discipline: unity with the KMT would be maintained and the disease of “left naivete” eliminated from the body of the CCP. The report argued that the rightists had been “frightened” by the CCP success in mobilising the mass movement, and by the dominance of the CCP at a rank and file level in the KMT. The solution was for CCP members to call for confidence in the KMT leadership but, and in particular, to try to stop the leftward movement of the masses. The political goal was to establish a left civilian government headed by Wang Jingwei.[29]

4.4 Peasants and Workers Self-Mobilise

But the Chinese proletariat and millions of land-hungry peasants were moving into action. The CCP placed itself, the authority of the October Revolution and the Communist International as barriers to this movement. In Hunan, Mao put the party line to a meeting of more than 300 peasant delegates: “The time for us to overthrow the landlords has not come … Now is the time … to reduce rents, to reduce interest and to increase the wages of farm labourers.”[30] The response was not reported which in itself is significant.

As the summer progressed and the NRA advanced, it became clear that the Chinese countryside was on the verge of widespread revolt. Behind the NRA the peasants spontaneously organised to demand rent reductions and an end to arbitrary taxation. But such moves have a logic of their own and the peasantry in Hunan and Hopeh, having unilaterally reduced their rents, soon took the obvious next step of paying no rent, and then seizing the land.[31]

1926 saw not only a spectacular growth of the peasant movement, but a parallel strike wave of great depth and intensity in all the major industrial centres, with the Canton–Hong Kong strike acting as an example. Well over one million workers were directly involved. In Hunan, trade union membership increased from 60,000 to 150,000, in Wuhan 300,000 workers were organised, and nationally there were 2,800,000 unionised workers, a greater number than in the Russia of October, 1917. Naturally, the great majority of the strikes were fought for wage increases and improvement in working conditions and most were wholly or partially successful. The workers of China were raising their heads as never before. By the end of 1926 – despite the defeat in Canton – the strike wave was stretching beyond economic demands into open political struggle, which demonstrates that individual defeats, even major ones, can be overcome when the mass movement is on the rise.

In a single leap, the workers of Hankou took the lead of the anti-imperialist struggle. On 4 January 1927, a demonstration took place at the boundary of the British Concession in Hankou. Spontaneously the cry went up: “Take it now!” Teams of workers tore down the barbed-wire barricades and joyful crowds stormed the Concession and claimed it for China. This was done without any leadership, either from the KMT or the CCP. When the KMT politicians in Hankou recovered from their fright at the nerve of the workers, the British retreat gave them courage. They stepped in to negotiate and emerged with agreements which returned the Hankou and Kiukiang Concessions to China, a ‘diplomatic victory’ made possible by the actions of the Hankou workers and their comrades (James, Op. cit).

The reaction of the CCP to these events was a short period of silence and then a statement to the effect that the actions had been incorrect![32] This is an object lesson in the harm a revolutionary organisation can inflict upon itself when it moderates its programme to obtain unity with non-revolutionary forces. In its attempts not to damage the bloc within, the policies of the CCP became less revolutionary, less anti-imperialist than those of the local KMT.

As Chiang’s troops swept into new territories the peasants self-mobilised and between November 1926 and March 1927, over ten million peasants joined peasant leagues in the southern provinces of Jiangxi (Kiangsi), Guangdong (Kwangtung), Hunan (the most radical) and Hopeh alone. In Hunan peasant associations grew to over 2,000,000. In a manner similar to Russia in 1905 and early 1917, the peasants organised themselves, with rural agitators eager to push way beyond the limits set by the CCP or KMT.[33]

It was in this context in February of 1927, that Mao wrote his Report of an Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan[34] and it was referred to at the 8th Plenary Session of the ECCI (18-30 May, 1927) by Bukharin as ‘excellent’. Sections were published in Communist International. The Report made Mao’s name within the CI.[35] Mao presented his Report first to the leaders of the CCP in Wuhan and then to the 3rd Enlarged Plenary Session of the CEC of the KMT on 10 March 1927. The Report, written as advice to “the revolutionary authorities in Hunan”, was first published in a condensed form in the Weekly Organ of the Central Executive Committee of the KMT on 15 March.[36]

The writings of Mao Zedong as they appear today are often not the same as when first published. Cohen has demonstrated that many of the claims for the originality of Mao’s ideas come from the re-writing of important texts years later when the questions had been decided by actual events, and Mao’s Report is one such. It contains Mao’s supposed innovation that it would be the middle and (particularly) the poor peasants who would be the most important and reliable allies of the proletariat in the democratic revolution. In fact, Lenin had stated this a quarter of a century earlier and had carried through a successful socialist revolution based on just such an analysis. The political content of the original text was in line with the ECCI and CCP decision to designate the KMT not the proletariat as the leader of the national democratic revolution. Thus, the original Report makes no mention of the industrial proletariat being the leading force in the Chinese Revolution, nor of a worker-peasant alliance, these concepts were added in 1951.[37]

Importantly, in the original version of the Report, Mao avoided discussing the land question as part of the agrarian revolution, no doubt because of the curbs the CCP imposed to maintain the bloc within, but a very significant omission when viewed from post-revolution China. In 1951 Mao added the words in italics – “An economic struggle should also be started immediately in order that the land problem and other economic problems of the poor peasants can be completely solved.” The lack of any mention in the original version of the CCP as an independent body was another serious omission. Mao had exhorted “all revolutionary parties” to face up to the leadership test presented by the rising peasant movement. In the 1951 version, the Communist Party suddenly appears in numerous places such as “The poor peasants …. are the most responsive to Communist Party leadership.”[38]

The language of the Report was militant and strident:

“In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. … They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. …. In force and momentum the attack is tempestuous; those who bow before it survive and those who resist perish. As a result, the privileges which the feudal landlords enjoyed for thousands of years are being shattered to pieces.”

The form was militant and radical but the content was class collaborationist (private ownership of the land would remain with rich peasants and even some landlords as suitable allies, it was the feudalists who would be swept away), and quite acceptable to Moscow and the left KMT.

Other texts received similar treatment[39] so it is difficult to take current publications as a genuine expression of what was said at the time. Re-writing historic texts is a feature of a regime in ideological crisis, a dishonest regime that cannot face its own past, it is a de facto admission that its policies at the time were wrong and it shows a total lack of respect for its own Party members.

Re-writing took other forms; in 1930 a booklet was published in Russia entitled A Brief History of China’s Labour Movement, written by Deng Zhong-xia, a labour leader executed by the Nationalists. It made no mention of Mao. When the booklet was re-published in Yenan during the rectification campaign in 1943 a passage was inserted: “In 1922, thanks to the leadership of comrade Mao Zedong, the workers’ movement in Hunan developed stormily …”[40] Taking his lead from Stalin, Mao also had the military history of the Long March re-written, every defeat was due to those who did not follow his lead, successes such as the ‘Great Victory at Pingxing Guan’ against the Japanese army were credited to Mao.

In early 1927, Chiang established himself at Nanchang. Pending the conquest of Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek attempted to take absolute control of the KMT. He demanded that the seat of Government be moved to Nanchang, but the petty-bourgeois radicals, buoyed up by the victory over the British refused. The 4th January events had stiffened the resolve of the left leaders at Wuhan and demonstrated how important it was for the CCP to have an independent base outside the KMT if the left was to be won to an anti-imperialist position.

In response, Chiang announced his intention to root out the Communists from the KMT:

“No more differences or tendencies among us! … every true member of the (KMT) must be just that and nothing else. Whoever goes against the aims and methods indicated by Sun Yat-sen will not be a comrade but an enemy who must not remain among us.”[41]

The left KMT held its own Central Executive Committee in Hankou on 10-17 March, its decisions reflecting its buoyant mood. It took back the powers assumed by Chiang Kai-shek just a year before. Resolutions were passed in support of an agricultural policy which reflected Mao’s Report in sounding militant in its attacks on local bullies, bad gentry and the feudal landlord class, but in content was mildly reformist. The left was all for ‘co-operation’ with the CCP, and called upon the latter to send “responsible comrades to join in the Nationalist and Provincial Governments.”[42] In open opposition to Lenin’s principle that the CCP must retain its freedom of criticism, it was agreed: “the Press organs of the Third International, of the Chinese Communist Party, and of the Kuomintang shall not violate the spirit of co-operation in their reports and criticise one another.”

The KMT in March, 1927, launched a Land Commission which began its sessions on 27 April. It was composed of the principal Kuomintang leaders, with Tang Ping-shan representing the Communist Party. This was supposed to find ways of enacting the KMT Platform for Workers and Peasants which had been approved the previous October and promised the peasants a 25% reduction in land rent and the ‘prohibition’ of usury, limiting interest on loans to 20% per annum. Instead of taking the movement forward, this Commission stepped back even from the 25% reduction in land rents by recommending that land rents should not exceed 40% of the harvest.[43] During these discussions the CCP replaced Marxist class-based analysis by moral categories such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gentry. Unity with the former was essential so their land was inviolate. But it soon turned out that the KMT could find something good to say about every landlord.

The Mensheviks and SRs had got themselves into just such a swamp of inaction in 1917 from which Lenin had deduced that a Bolshevik Government was necessary to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia. As in Russia, so in China, the Commission proved wholly ineffective and demonstrated to the peasants that partial reforms would not work; the question that had to be addressed was who owned the land.

Even the mild reforms demanded by the left KMT terrified the possessing classes. This fear, supported by the anxious imperialist powers, expressed itself in the murder of workers, peasant agitators, and Communists in the areas controlled by Chiang (Dorland, Op. cit.). The nearer their protector and ally got to Shanghai, the clearer became his intentions on taking power.

On the ground in Jiangxi province strikes were squashed, workers and peasants disarmed, the bourgeoisie was allowed to organise its own forces (gangsters and the ming tuan militias) to suppress strikes and kill workers. At the time no reports of these events appeared either in the left KMT or Communist press: both were too anxious to maintain their links with Chiang and the NRA. It would be revealed later that Chiang waged a terror campaign against the peasant unions from at least the beginning of 1927, but these acts were covered up by the CCP on the grounds that at a critical time in the national revolution it was imperative to maintain the united front and this meant “the crimes of those who fight against imperialism” could be “temporarily” overlooked.[44]

The strategy of the bloc of four classes demanded unity with these reactionaries for the success of the anti-imperialist struggle, and this led to the CCP and ECCI deceiving themselves and the world communist movement. Wuhan, simply closed its eyes to Chiang’s activities, and declared that the national revolutionary movement was moving forwards unhampered by any suggestion of inner conflict. This fitted well with Chiang’s strategy. He would break with the left when he was ready.

What could the left KMT and CCP have done to halt Chiang’s counter-revolutionary moves? The best course would have been to launch a campaign among the masses exposing Chiang’s actions, to promote the most radical social reforms (above all, land to the peasant) so that if Chiang Kai-shek fought back he would have had to do so from an openly reactionary position and against the mass movement. Instead, with Stalin’s praise for Chiang ringing in its ears the CCP took no action and left the way open for him.

Lenin’s advice was to get the peasants to form Soviets as soon as practicable. In China there could have been no better time than from the spring of 1926 to the summer of 1927 to form Soviets. In the urban centres the workers were already on the move and in the countryside Soviets could have been based on the peasant leagues around the slogans ‘Land to the Peasant’ and ‘End Debt Repayment’. This would have given structure to the mass opposition to the bourgeois and begun the task of creating a genuinely revolutionary army based on the actual movement unfolding in the liberated areas and in the cities.

4.5 Summary

The ECCI imposed on the CCP the stagist theory that China had to complete the democratic revolution before proceeding to the socialist, and that the appropriate strategy was the bloc within. Maintenance of the KMT-CCP block was deemed essential for a successful anti-imperialist revolution, and as this was a stage that could not be bypassed the CCP had to surrender its own particular interests and submit itself to the nationalist party foregoing an independent, critical voice. The way to hell is paved with good intentions, so it is said, and the attempt to form an unbreakable anti-imperialist front with the national bourgeoisie was one such. The newly-founded CCP, as a member of the CI accepted its discipline and the leadership of Moscow even though the ECCI perspective was increasingly clashing with reality.

The Russian proletariat (and the peasants in the army garrisons) spontaneously created Soviets in February 1917 based on democratic demands. The Soviets were key to destroying the army as a functioning counter-revolutionary force. It was through Soviets that the Bolshevik party was able to make contact with the masses, assess their revolutionary spirit, mobilise them for action and realise the slogan ‘Land to the Peasants’. The Soviets mobilised the masses that neither the party, nor trade unions nor even peasant associations could reach, and educated and organisationally prepared them for insurrection. During 1905 and 1917, based on its own experiences and guided by the Bolshevik Party, the Russian proletariat rose from lower to higher levels of understanding. However, in China such a perspective meant a break with the bloc within, with the concept of stages and with the bloc of four classes.

The NRA advance to the Yangtze and the gigantic upsurge of the mass movement had brought the class contradictions in the Nationalist movement to breaking-point. The Communists hid the issues from the masses and, especially, from the Shanghai workers. Unwarned, and unprepared, they would first become Chiang’s pawns and then his victims. Chiang Kai-shek, for his part, had concluded that this time the mass movement could be halted only by decapitation.


[1] Roberts, J. Lenin, Trotsky and the Theory of the Permanent Revolution, Wellred, 2007.

[2] Saich, T. The Rise to Power of the CCP, Sharp, 1994, p240.

[3] Tien-Wei Wu. Chiang Kai-shek’s March Twentieth Coup d’Etat of 1926, Jnl Asian Studies, 1968 27(3)585-602.

[4] Peng Pi-lan, The Chinese Revolution, Education for Socialists, SWP, 1972, p9.

[5] North, R. Moscow and the Chinese Communists, Stanford U.P., 1963.

[6] Tien-Wei Wu. Op. cit.

[7] North, Op. cit.

[8] Cliff, T. Trotsky, Pluto Press, 1991, Vol 3:197.

[9] Pantsov, A. The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919-1927, Curtzon. 2000, p131.

[10] Tien-Wei Wu. Op. cit.

[11] Alexander, R. International Trotskyism 1929-1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement. 1991, Duke U.P., rosswolfe.files.wordpress.com.

[12] Cliff, Trotsky, Op. cit. Vol 3:201.

[13] Lescot, P. Before Mao Harper Collins 2004, p70.

[14] Elleman, B. Moscow and the Emergence of Communist Power in China 1925-1931, Routledge 2010, p24-25.

[15] Stalin, J. International Press Correspondence April 25 1927.

[16] Chen Duxiu Appeal to All the Comrades of the Chinese Communist Party 10 December, 1929, w.m.com.

[17] Dorland, A. The Concept and Function of “China” in Trotsky MA thesis McGill Univ., Montreal, Canada. 1971.

[18] McColl, R. The Oyuwan Soviet, Jnl of Asian Studies, 1967, 27(1)41-60.

[19] Alexander, R. Op. cit.

[20] North, Op. cit. p102.

[21] Wang Fan-hsi, Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary, Columbia U.P., New York, 1980, p25.

[22] Degras, J. The Communist International, 1919-1943: Documents, O.U.P. 1965, Vol 2:337.

[23] Cliff, Trotsky, Op. cit. Vol 3:187-224.

[24] Pantsov, A. & Levine, S. Mao, Simon & Schuster, 2012, p163.

[25] James, C.L.R. The World Revolution, w.m.org.

[26] North, R. and Xenia E. M.N. Roy’s Mission to China, Univ. of California Press, 1963, p31.

[27] James, Op. cit.

[28] North and Xenia, Op. cit. p30-35.

[29] Saich, Op. cit. p219-228.

[30] Schram, S. Mao’s Road to Power Sharpe, 1992, Vol 2 p421-422.

[31] Cliff, Trotsky Op. cit. Vol 3:203.

[32] James, Op. cit.

[33] (ibor, M. The Chinese Revolution, London, Thames and Hudson 1961, p73-79.

[34] Mao Zedong, Report of an Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan March 1927 w.m.org.

[35] Wittfogel, K. The Legend of Maoism, The China Quarterly 1960 Vol 2: 72-86.

[36] Wittfogel, Op. cit.

[37] Cohen, A. The Communism of Mao Tse-tung. Univ. Chicago Press, 1966, p30 and 49.

[38] Wittfogel, Op. cit.

[39] Cohen, Op. cit. p37.

[40] Kwan, D. Marxist Intellectuals and the Chinese Labour Movement, Univ. of Washington Press, 1997, p249.

[41] Isaacs, H. Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Secker & Warburg, 1938 p143.

[42] Lescot, Op. cit. p75/7.

[43] Tawney, R. Land and Labour in China, Allen & Unwin, 1932.

[44] Isaacs, Op. cit. p235.