The Chinese Communist Party 1927-37 – The development of Maoism

As the Chinese Communist Party gathers for its 18th Congress, we look back at the 1925-27 revolution, which was a heroic attempt of the Chinese workers to follow in the footsteps of the October 1917 Russian Revolution. However, due to its unprepared and irresolute leadership, it went down to a tragic defeat. Failed revolutions are always the greatest of tragedies. However, the only way of really honouring the many victims of the counter-revolution that ensued is to study the revolution and learn from its mistakes.

The Development of Chinese Trotskyism and the Heavy Price of the Failed Revolution

It was in fact the heroic defeats of the Paris Commune and the 1905 Russian revolution that created the Bolshevik leadership capable of leading the working class to power in 1917. Marxists therefore could not allow themselves to be lost in despair over the defeat of 1927.

The task for the temporarily defeated Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was to “know how to cling to every ledge, to hold tenaciously to every point of support so as not to tumble down and be smashed” (Leon Trotsky, The Chinese Question after the 6th Congress, 1928). In other words, to hold on to its best cadres and to absorb the harsh lessons of the defeat in order to emerged strengthened once the proletariat had recovered.

The Development of Trotskyism in China

maoMaoBut what was unprecedented about the failure of the Chinese revolution was the new factor of the Stalinised Communist International, whose heavy hand strangled the internal life of its affiliates throughout the world. Because of this the necessary process of free internal debate, self-criticism and reorientation was artificially restricted from without, leading to an enormously distorted development for the Chinese Communist Party. But the need to change course and to understand the tragic mistakes of the party had to take place in some form.

It did so with a dual character; the bulk of the party, remaining under Moscow’s dictatorship, was destined to suffer from the demoralising experience of constant changes in and purges of the CCP’s leadership. Moscow always blamed the local leadership for each and every defeat to prevent the party from understanding the real causes of failure - the opportunism of the Moscow bureaucracy. This confusing process was destined to lead to the development of Maoism, that is the transfer of the party’s base from the working class to the peasantry, since the inability to learn the real lessons of 1927 made it impossible to ‘cling to every ledge, to hold tenaciously to every point of support’ in the cities.

However, a minority of the party, despite its immense numerical and financial weaknesses, and with all of the Comintern bureaucracy aimed against it, took onboard the need for the party to bravely and honestly tell the truth to the Chinese Communists. They understood and explained that Stalin was to blame for the fundamentally false strategy of subordination to Chiang Kai-shek; that the defeat this engendered was so severe that it would take many years for the proletariat and the labour movement to recover; and that consequently it was necessary for the CCP to soberly adapt its slogans and strategy to the new, counterrevolutionary epoch. The ultimate truth was that the Marxists of China and the world had to wage a struggle in the Communist movement against the disease of Stalinism.

These were the Chinese Trotskyists.

Students in Russia

As counterrevolution began to engulf the CCP in the course of 1926 and 1927, many of the most promising young Chinese cadres were ‘exported’ into safety in Russia. There they were enrolled in the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV), which had been set up in 1921 to quickly train up cadres from the emerging Communist movement in Asia. During this period the university was headed by Karl Radek, who was an open Trotskyist and leading member of the Russian Left Opposition. He used his position amongst the Chinese students there to enrich Trotsky’s analysis of the situation in China and the errors of Stalin’s policy. He convinced wider and wider layers of these students of the correctness of the Left Opposition and the need to form a Chinese Left Opposition to combat the fatally erroneous line imposed by Moscow. The fact that he was able to do so for two years (he was expelled from his position in mid 1927) indicates that at this point the Stalinist bureaucracy had not yet conquered total control of the Russian party.

Nevertheless the weight of this bureaucracy was already suffocating, and the likes of Radek and Trotsky were swimming against a very strong stream. Thus the main reason for the success of Radek in recruiting a large layer of these students to Trotsky’s ideas was the students’ own experience, both of the falsity of Stalin’s line for China and of life in Russia itself.

Wang Fanxi, who would later go on to become a leading Chinese Trotskyist, saw the reality of Stalin’s Russia with his own eyes. Up until this point, as was the case with almost all Chinese Communists, he was blissfully unaware of the struggle being waged between revolution and counterrevolution inside the Russian Communist Party, and quite naturally assumed that Stalin was the rightful leader of Russian and world Leninism in whose hands the Chinese revolution was guaranteed.

But as he describes, immediately upon setting foot in Siberia, on his way to Moscow for the first time, Wang was forced to realise that something was unsettlingly wrong about the real Russia,

“We Chinese students occupied two sleeping compartments on the train [to Moscow]. Each compartment had an orderly to look after and keep an eye on the passengers...Ours was a middle-aged ex-Red Army man. He was agreeable and open towards us, and he looked after us very well. We became friends immediately, and he volunteered to teach us the Russian alphabet. We got on fine with him until one morning when we were sitting round in a circle, pencils in hand, practising the Russian alphabet. One of us traced out the word ‘Stalin’ in Russian. Our teacher took one look and turned away without saying anything. One of us gave him the thumbs-up sign and said: ‘Stalin! Stalin! Korosho! (good!)’. We were all grinning at our Russian friend, expecting him to react as enthusiastically as we did. To our astonishment, he stubbed out his cigarette, spat contemptuously and held up his little finger, saying ‘Eto, eto! (this one!),’ red in the face with anger. Then he raised his thumb and said ‘Trotsky! Trotsky! Khorosho!’ After that he stormed out into the corridor, where we could hear him muttering away angrily in Russian.” (Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary)

Throughout these memoirs Wang recounts the series of unexpected and shocking experiences he and many other Chinese students went through in Russia. Speeches were attended in which Trotsky and Trotskyism were denounced in the usual reassuring manner, only to be interrupted by sizeable sections of the audience screaming ‘liar!’ and ‘shame!’ and storming out. He recounts witnessing with giddy anticipation the momentous celebrations for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1927, whose enthusiastic welcoming of the Chinese revolutionaries such as himself moved him to tears, only to later discover that a Left Oppositionist counter-demonstration had been broken up, demonstrators arrested and Trotsky’s car shot at. He describes a film screening of Eisenstein’s October, in which “every time Trotsky or Stalin appeared on the screen the audience erupted. Some clapped their hands and cheered, while others whistled and stamped their feet...In this battle of decibels, the support for Trotsky was at least as loud as, if not louder than, the support for Stalin...My own admiration for Trotsky dated from the showing of that film” (Ibid).

The intense experience of these heady days, thrown as they were from a failing revolution in one country into the tumult of a climaxing struggle between revolution and counterrevolution in another country, the ‘home of revolution’ in their eyes, must have challenged every preconception these young revolutionaries had. But on its own the correctness of the arguments of the Russian opposition were not enough to convince Wang and others. It was that in combination with witnessing the process in China, where all of Stalin’s arguments and his ‘revolutionary strategy’ were thoroughly, mercilessly exposed by the unforgiving realities of history. The events in China forced Wang and the other Chinese students in Russia to let go of their attachment to Stalin. Whereas “hundreds of the Chinese among [various foreign students at KUTV] became Trotskyists; of the thousands of non-Chinese, only a handful did.” (Gregor Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries, 1996, p22).

Thus when news filtered through that Chiang Kai-shek had staged a counterrevolutionary coup in Shanghai in April 1927, the embryonic interest in Trotskyism as an alternative to Stalinism amongst these Chinese students rapidly crystallised into a well organised, disciplined underground organisation of Chinese Left Oppositionists in Moscow. (Ibid, p21)

“By the Summer of 1928, most of the Chinese students in Moscow - including nine out of ten of those who had studied at KUTV - reportedly sympathised with the Trotskyists...In the early Autumn of 1928, a dozen or so Trotskyists held a secret meeting and elected three (or five) of their number to form a committee to support the Opposition.” (Ibid, p24).

These students took advantage of their close proximity to one another and to far more experienced Russian Left Oppositionists to quickly raise their understanding of Marxism and to try to gasp the fundamental problems of the Chinese revolution. However, by 1929 much of the group had been exposed to the authorities, and most Chinese students, oppositionist or not, were being sent back to Chiang Kai-shek’s China anyway. Before leaving, this group of relatively consolidated Trotskyists agreed to what was a broadly correct and non-sectarian strategy for work in the extremely difficult conditions in China, which were as follows:

1. When we returned to China we should stay in the CCP and thereby prove ourselves to be good Communists. We reasoned that it was only by establishing ourselves as brave fighters, and by winning the respect and confidence of our fellow Party members through our part in the actual revolutionary struggle, that we could earn the right to put forward our views and win support for them...We therefore decided that in our actions we would abide by party discipline and obey the decisions of the majority, while in ideological or political discussions we would criticise the wrong tactical and strategic decisions adopted by the Sixth Congress of the CCP [...]

2. Since we still considered ourselves to be a faction of the CCP, and saw our task as rectifying the mistakes in the Party caused by the dominant influence of Stalinism, we did not intend to form a new political party.” (Wang Fanxi, op cit., pp95-6)

Chen Duxiu and the Development of Trotskyism Within China

Those green, promising young Chinese communists won to the cause of Trotskyism in Russia owed a great deal of their political and ideological development to their Russian experience, and thanks to this many of them would go on to play leading roles in the Chinese Left Opposition later on. However, as this was taking place a parallel development took place amongst many of the leading, more experienced cadres within China, including the founder of the party, Chen Duxiu. These comrades lacked the time and space for the development of their grasp of Marxist theory which those like Wang Fanxi were lucky enough to have. They also lacked Wang Fanxi’s and others experience of regular discussions with experienced Russian Bolsheviks. But Chen Duxiu more than made up for this with direct experience in leading the Communist Party of China and the immense political and moral authority he held amongst Chinese communists and youth.

The history of Chinese Trotskyism is sadly neglected and even repressed, thanks to the extraordinarily unfavourable circumstances they found themselves in. It is clear that the Chinese Left Opposition and latterly the Chinese section of the Fourth International were not well integrated into the world Trotskyist movement, and the assumption many have is that Trotskyism in China barely ever existed, the movement there being dominated by Maoism. These people will be shocked to learn that not only did this Left Opposition win significant numbers from the CCP - “most of the workers’ branches of Shanghai were won over to the Left Opposition” (Peng Shuzi, The Causes of the Victory of the Chinese Communist Party over Chiang Kai-Shek, and the CCP’s Perspectives, 1951) - but they even won the founder of the CCP, China’s most famous and respected revolutionary, Chen Duxiu.

Chen had originally always classified the Guomindang as the party of the Chinese bourgeoisie, and along with many others, was consistently opposed to working in it. In 1929 Chen referred to five occasions in which he moved resolutions opposing work inside the Guomindang; every single time Moscow overruled the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

But documented history never got in the way of Stalin before, so why should it in China? Since Chiang Kai-shek’s April coup forced Moscow to recognise the very fact that they had been denying for the past 4 years, that is the bourgeois and counterrevolutionary character of the Guomindang, a way had to be found to ‘discover’ that a gross error had been made in supporting the Guomindang all this time. This had to be ‘discovered’ in such a way that showed that Stalin was the victim of this crazy policy, rather than its chief advocate. So in the time-honoured methods of Stalinism, Chen Duxiu, despite the fact that he had led the calls to leave the Guomindang from day one but had been overruled by none other than Stalin, was found to have been recklessly pursuing an opportunist policy toward Chiang Kai-shek in open defiance of Moscow. That is to say that the very opposite of the truth was declared.

Thus an emergency conference to remove Chen was called for August 7th 1927, but not by the Central Committee or any other body of the Chinese Communist Party, but by the Comintern in Moscow (Conrad Brandt, Benjamin Schwartz & John K. Fairbank, A Documentary History of Chinese Communism, 1959, p98). Ambitious young leaders of the party such as Qu Qiubai (who was to be the new leader following Chen’s removal), Zhou Enlai and Li Lisan worked with Moscow to support these endeavours and to help in the campaign within the party to slander Chen as solely responsible for the previous opportunism. The Moscow bureaucracy needed to recruit a new layer to lead the party, and of course this presented problems for them, since this latest manoeuvre was such a blatant act of falsification. It needed leaders prepared not only to follow orders from Moscow, but also willing to accept and repeat blatant lies. Those stepping up to the task had to be prepared to do this since those sticking the knife into Chen were guiltier than he of the sin of opportunism:

“What remains to be noted here is the implementation of this policy [of opportunism towards the Guomindang] by some of the very men who now posed as its opponents. On the Party level, the orders to restrain the peasant rebellion in 1927 had been issued by Qu Qiubai, then head of the Peasant Bureau of the CCP Central Committee. Similarly, the ‘cowardly and irresolute leading organ’ which cancelled an impending attack on Changsha in late May turns out to have been Li Weihan (Lo Man), a member of the CCP Politbureau and chairman of the Hunan Provincial Council, a close ally of Qu at the August 7 Conference.” (Ibid)

The method of slander and falsification proved successful, although at untold cost to the integrity of the party, and on August 7th 1927 the founder of Chinese Marxism was removed from the leadership of the party he founded.

For two more years Chen remained in the party in open opposition to the leadership, and in particular their policies of continued deference to the Comintern leadership and their refusal to honestly assess the causes for the CCP’s failures and their true source - Moscow. Since Moscow could not shut up the outstanding leader of the Chinese communist movement, they disgracefully had him expelled on November 15 1929, just as they had done to Trotsky two years previously, and only eight years after Chen had founded the party. A more rapid and spectacular rise and fall is hard to find, but such are the bizarre zig-zags that have always characterised Stalinism.

A month later Chen wrote an extremely impassioned, bravely honest and humble open letter to all comrades of the party, exposing the sham of democratic rights for the CCP in the Comintern. This letter, written as it was by the leading participant of the events themselves, is all the proof any Communist would ever need of Stalin’s responsibility for all the errors of the CCP since its inception. Chen also correctly criticised the contemporaneous ultra-left line of the party, which he said would lead to the destruction of any workers’ struggles having the misfortune to be led by the CCP, as indeed it did. And instead of writing an article denouncing the Left Opposition, as the new leadership insisted he do (knowing that he wouldn’t, thus manufacturing an excuse to expel him), he now “recognised fundamentally that Comrade Trotsky’s views are identical with Marxism and Leninism” (Chen Duxiu, Appeal to all the Comrades of the Chinese Communist Party, 1929).

Chen’s expulsion from the CCP marks the real beginning of Chinese Trotskyism, and this letter is its founding document. One has to bear in mind that the CCP at this stage was still a very young party at nine years old, and as such much was heterogeneous and unclear in its political-ideological composition. The Moscow bureaucracy had played a shameful role and the most respected leader of the party had just exposed this fact.

The need for Moscow to undemocratically force false positions onto the CCP and to persecute all who dissented in no way flowed from the needs of the Chinese revolution or even of the bureaucracy of the Chinese party (except to the extent that this bureaucracy needed Moscow to survive). Indeed there barely even was a degenerate bureaucracy in the CCP at this time. Stalin’s desire to find a strong, respectable ally for the USSR in the person of Chiang Kai-shek, the butcher of the Chinese working class, as well as the need to doggedly contradict whatever position Trotsky took, had nothing to do with the CCP and everything to do with Moscow.

For these reasons the vast bulk of the membership of the CCP would not have understood this struggle for control of the CCP and if anything would have been more sympathetic to Chen Duxiu, both because of his political authority and the evident correctness of his criticisms of the leadership in his open letter.

“Many Communists who did not become Trotskyists wanted to see the rift between the Opposition and the official party healed and felt that it had been wrong to expel Chen Duxiu. One example of a call for reconciliation is that by the three CCP martyrs Peng Pai, Yang Yin, and Yan Changyi, who from their death cells in late 1929 sent out a last testament imploring the Central Committee to solve its dispute with the Chen Duxiu-ites by peaceful means.” (Gregor Benton, op cit., pp57-8)

It was therefore not impossible that with a sustained and well organised campaign directed at the rank-and-file of the party, the Trotskyists under Chen Duxiu’s leadership could have won a huge chunk of the party membership to their position and fatally wounded Stalin’s leadership of the Comintern,

“At the time of [the Trotskyists’] Unification Congress in 1931, the prospects of an even more massive conversion to the Opposition looked extremely bright. The official party, to which the Trotskyists still vowed allegiance, was in terrible disarray. It had changed its leader four times in as many years and was racked by factionalism, largely a direct result of Russian interference. In late 1929, many branches of the CCP had not yet discussed the new political line decided on at the Sixth Congress in Moscow, and others were inactive; moreover the new ultra-left Li Lisan line did much harm to the party’s security and standing...

“The Trotskyists, in contrast, were freshly united under the party’s founding father. They had an explanation for the long row of defeats and claimed to have discovered a new way forward for the revolution.” (Ibid, pp.58-9)

The essence of a Marxist organisation lies not in its quantity of members nor in its organisational make-up, but in its ideological clarity, its scientific analysis of the class struggle and its adherence to revolutionary principles above prestige politics. For that reason the new Trotskyist organisation in China, with Chen Duxiu at its head, represented the genuine heritage and tradition of Chinese Marxism, for these comrades were prepared to forego important positions in the official Chinese Communist Party to preserve their commitment to the truth. That does not discount the thousands of sincere and heroic revolutionaries who remained supporters of the official leadership in China and in Moscow, whom it was the duty of the Trotskyists to win and to fight alongside. Indeed it is those committed revolutionaries not won to Trotskyism whose story makes up the bulk of this work. Indeed the fact that the story of the Chinese revolution is predominantly not about the Trotskyists proves that they represented genuine Chinese Marxism only in potential.

The Price Paid by the Chinese Working Class

With the loss of the revolution and the victory of the counterrevolution there always comes a brutal wave of oppression. This is intended to leave deep ideological scars on the working class and to smash its organisations. It is always the layer of activists that suffer the most, but all the working class pays a heavy price.

However, because of the newness and relatively small size of the Chinese working class, the establishment of Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship in 1927 meant not only severe repression but the actual near destruction of this working class. Whereas those working in factories went from virtually nothing in the first decade of the 20th Century, to 660,000 in 1913 and over one million in 1919, by 1933, six years after Chiang Kai-shek came to power, it had failed to grow beyond the level of 14 years previously (James Pinckney Harrison, The Long March to Power, 1972, p9). Many workers retained their ties to the countryside and so with the combination of brutal repression, the resulting inability to fight for better wages and conditions and the effects of the Great Depression, thousands returned to their rural ancestral homes. This objectively regressive process is the underlying basis for the CCP’s shift from the cities to the hinterland.

In the mid ‘20s the comrades in the CCP had founded and led China’s trade unions and its first council of all trade unions, the National General Labour Union. Roughly 2.8m industrial, transport, utilities, mining and service sector workers were organised under its banner (Leon Trotsky, Stalin and the Chinese Revolution, 1930). It was the real centre of the proletarian led revolution of 1925-7. By 1929, its membership had gone down to 60-70,000, and of this 60% were actually rural based, that is not bona-fide proletarians (James Pinckney Harrison, op cit., p161). In the heat of counterrevolution in 1927, 37,986 trade unionists were killed, roughly 25,000 of which in fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, and another 13,000 were executed (Jacques Guillermaz, A History of the Chinese Communist Party 1921-1949, 1972, p.226).

CCP worker-activists were of course drowned in this bloodbath, with a far greater proportion of their members executed than within the working class as a whole. Between 1927 and 1937, the Guomindang “claimed to have arrested as many as 24,000 Communists and 155,525 ‘red masses’ or radicals, while the Communists charged the Nationalists with ‘butchering’ more than 300,000 ‘progressive youths’” (James Pinckney Harrison, op cit., p220).

Tragically for Chen Duxiu, he shared with Trotsky not only his analysis of the Guomindang as a counterrevolutionary party, but also having both his sons murdered by the counterrevolution. Li Dazhao, the co-founder of the CCP with Chen, was executed in 1927 on the orders of the warlord Zhang Zuolin after the Soviet embassy was raided.

Therefore thanks to the false line pursued by the CCP in the revolution, which unnecessarily gifted Chiang Kai-shek absolute power, a near extinction of the CCP’s proletarian and urban base was inevitable. According to Zhou Enlai’s Report to the Third Plenum of the Party in September 1930, “though there are 120,000 Party members, the industrial worker members only number a little more than 2,000.” In this report, Zhou is extremely frank about the numerical weaknesses of the party. However, by failing to point out and explain why the party went from having hundreds of thousands of worker members leading trade unions with millions of members, to having only 2,000 workers out of 120,000 members three years later, he refused to address the problem honestly. But of course to do so he would have to go into opposition to Stalin himself.

The impressive sounding figure of 120,000 members was also misleading as the vast majority were recruited in the rural areas, not so much due to the party’s correct intervention in the class struggle but more due to leading a petty-bourgeois adventure in the wastelands. Hence Guillermaz’s contention that at this point the party was “virtually lacking in all popular support” (op cit.). Because this adventurism carried enormous risks for the party, as we shall soon see, by 1936 membership was down to 30,000 (Pinckney Harrison, op cit., p5).

In the aftermath of 1927 Trotsky presciently wrote that “Engels said that a party that misses a favourable situation and suffers a defeat as a result, turns into a non-entity” (Leon Trotsky, Three Letters to Preobrazhensky, 1928). The CCP did not become a political non-entity. But the missing of its ‘favourable opportunity’ and Stalin’s refusal to allow them the necessary democratic space to absorb the lessons of this certainly did reduce the CCP to a non-entity in the urban working class. The scale of this defeat meant that the CCP would be incapable of leading a proletarian, socialist revolution.

‘Third Period’ Ultra-leftism and the Liquidation of the Cadres

It cannot be stressed often enough that the most precious commodity in a revolutionary, Marxist party is its theoretical clarity and correct perspective on the class struggle. With that comes its base of cadres, that is those who have absorbed this perspective, can explain it in the movement and develop the party’s analysis as conditions change. The mass organisations of the working class can and will be rebuilt, moreover the task of building them can only belong to the working class itself, not to the relatively small numbers of Marxist activists.

But it takes years of reading and discussion to produce a layer of Marxist cadres, which is the unique contribution of a Marxist organisation to the labour movement. Such a layer cannot be improvised at the moment of revolution and so it is the duty of the leadership of such an organisation to carefully preserve and develop its cadres over time. To do this it is necessary for the party to maintain a sober head with a clear understanding of the development of the class struggle - where events are going, what the consciousness of the working class is, what the balance of class forces is, etc. - so that it does not miseducate its members. It must train them on how to intervene in the class struggle in a way that can connect with and advance class consciousness. A correct analysis, internal democratic discussion and a sense of proportion minimise the risk of this party frittering away its cadres in fruitless struggles completely out of proportion with the real balance of forces.

The reorganisation conference of August 7th in 1927 would be vital in setting the party on the correct path, but under Moscow’s directives the comrades set off on the wrong foot. Rather than begin an internal and open discussion on what had gone so terribly wrong between 1925 and 1927, instead the same basic policy of continuing to work in the Guomindang was maintained. Chen Duxiu was removed and blamed for everything, as if the failure of an entire revolution can be the fault of one man and yet not the policies he pursued. This was the exact opposite of what the CCP needed. Chen Duxiu was the outstanding leader and had also shown he was prepared to critically assess the party’s failures; therefore he would be vital to the correct reorientation of the party. Instead he was removed and the policies which were to blame were maintained. Thus Moscow served to educate the CCP in the methods of Stalinism.

However, a small concession to reality was made, and with the removal of Chen Duxiu came the admission that the party had failed due to its opportunism in seeking an alliance with the Guomindang, although bizarrely this alliance was maintained as the aim of the party. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the realisation that the party had been too conservative at the peak of the revolution, led to the false conclusion that now, as the revolutionary mood in the working class was subsiding, the party must go on an all out offensive. This mentality already displays the subjectivist tendencies of Stalinism, that is in imagining that the working class and the revolution can be made to obey orders and the interests of the Communist Party’s bureaucracy.

Therefore the new Qu Qiubai led CCP carried out several insurrections throughout the latter half of 1927, as described in previous articles, all of which were disastrous failures. Consequently Qu was removed at the following 6th Congress of the CCP. This took place in Moscow from July to September 1928, since it was too dangerous for the CCP to hold a large meeting under the Guomindang’s dictatorship. Incredibly such were the difficulties the party would now face, that this was the last full congress the CCP would hold until 1945! The new politbureau ‘elected’ was apparently chosen beforehand by Bukharin and Stalin (Pinckney Harrison, op cit., p.156).

This second post-revolution congress did mark a genuine attempt by the CCP to honestly assess the failure of the revolution and what the character of the Chinese revolution must be. The ‘national bourgeoisie’ was now counterrevolutionary (previously it was an ally of the revolution, only the ‘compradore bourgeoisie’ was counterrevolutionary), as was all of a sudden the Guomindang, whom the CCP took upon itself to overthrow rather than to work in. And it was admitted (one year late) that the revolution had been defeated.

But the Comintern’s chief interest lay not in the healthy development of the CCP and the success of the Chinese revolution, but in its increasingly sharp struggle against Trotsky. It was a categorical imperative that anything resembling Trotsky’s position must be negated. Unfortunately for the CCP leaders having to tow the Moscow line, reality in China had an annoying resemblance to Trotsky’s position, which was that the revolution had been decisively defeated due to the CCP’s opportunist capitulation to the Guomindang, and that the party must now adapt its slogans to this reality to recover its base. This unfortunate accuracy therefore restricted in advance the CCP’s ability to take a correct position.

So the new leadership emerging in mid 1928 was forced to take a completely abstract, vague and contradictory position. Whilst the Guomindang and national bourgeoisie were counterrevolutionary, they were still in a ‘subordinate’ position to the feudal classes, and thus the door was left open to their supposed ‘revolutionary’ character. Whilst the revolution had been defeated, it remained only in a ‘trough between two waves’ and so the CCP must start preparing for armed insurrections (Conrad Brandt, Benjamin Schwartz & John K. Fairbank, op cit., p125).

Indeed the documents that were produced by this congress in Moscow betray the despotism of the Moscow bureaucracy over the CCP at every step. The first statement of the Political Resolution (the most important resolution) is to assert that the Sixth Congress “agrees entirely with the evaluation of the Chinese revolution by the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Plenums of the Executive Committee of the Communist International [that is, every Comintern position from 1926 to 1928, thus absolving Moscow from any responsibility or association with the failure of 1925-7]” (Political Resolution of the Sixth National Congress if the CCP, 1928). The failure of 1925-7 was entirely due to the fact that “the leadership of the CCP failed to carry out the directives of the Communist International” (Ibid), which were presumably infallible. Thus again the epic drama of revolution was trivialised and subjectivised.

Whilst it is very careful to isolate the causes of failure from Moscow, this crucial resolution developed no strategic or tactical elucidations whatsoever other than that the CCP must somehow, somewhere, organise armed insurrections, which are apparently to be the sole method of the revolution. How these are to be organised or carried out was not explained, nor do we find any analysis of the class struggle as it actually is - the methods to be used are always argued for on the basis of what would be best for the party, which tactic is too mechanical, which one too hasty etc., and never explained on the basis of which one flows from the real situation in the working class.

Chen Duxiu - considered to be the founder of Chinese TrotskyismChen Duxiu - considered to be the founder of Chinese TrotskyismOpposition within the CCP and the Failure of Chinese Trotskyism

Disaster in Changsha and Wuhan

The need to push for a revolutionary insurrectionist policy to cover up for the embarrassment of Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship led inevitably to a gross underestimation of the task of winning deep roots in the working class first - hence the vague talk of insurrections with no reference to the objective situation. Moscow culpability for this is once again proven by an open letter to the CCP sent from Moscow in October 1929, “which appears to have urged the Party to undertake direct action on a vast scale as soon as possible” (Guillermaz, op cit., p196).

Understandably, acting on such strong orders from the Comintern, in 1930 the CCP under Li Lisan’s leadership embarked on a series of disastrous insurrections which served to finish off whatever base in the cities they had left. Isaacs describes the impatient mentality of Li Lisan’s ultra-leftism in 1930, with its fantasies of conjuring mass working class support out of thin air, very well:

“[Li] was sure that a single puncture in the Guomindang dam would be enough to precipitate a revolutionary flood. “When the revolutionary high wave arrives,” he was later quoted as saying, “90,000,000 can be organised in three days.” In the June resolution he wrote: “Long ago the masses said: ‘When there is an uprising let us know and we shall surely come.’ Now is the time when the Party must bravely call upon the masses: ‘The time for insurrection has come! Organise yourselves!”...In Shanghai he formed a ‘Red Guard’ composed of exactly one hundred and seventy-six workers to prepare for the ‘fourth uprising.’ He plotted an insurrection in Nanjing [Chiang Kai-shek’s government’s headquarters] with a handful of soldiers.” (Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, 1951, p.331)

If ultra-leftism is the tendency for relatively small groups of revolutionaries to grow impatient with the working class and pose as their revolutionary leaders without patiently winning their support, then this was the distilled essence of ultra-leftism. Zhang Guotao wrote at the time that “it is worthwhile to [launch a CCP attack on a city] even if we could only hold a city against the enemy for but a few days. Though it is ideal to plan simultaneous uprisings in both rural and urban areas, there is no need to have those in one area wait for those in the other.” (quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit., p.143).

The masses are not born revolutionaries and are not always simply waiting for the opportunity to take power. The masses move towards revolution when the objective conditions have matured, when the crisis of the existing regime pushed them to seek a revolutionary way out. Any move to insurrection must take this elementary idea into account. Conditions for revolution inevitably mature at some point but they must also be preceded by a lengthy period of winning the confidence and involvement of the masses in such a plan. Failure to do so will always mean that the masses are little more than ‘curious observers’ as happened in these insurrections (ibid, p.177).

In July and August 1930 Changsha and Wuhan were taken by the CCP in armed insurrections by handfuls of party members. The few occupying Changsha fled when it was bombarded by British, American, Italian and Japanese gunboats, leaving the local population defenceless. It was the latter, not so much the CCP activists, who paid the price for this, and roughly 5,000 were slaughtered. When they fled, the CCP actually took $400,000 from the city and 3,000 of the city’s most advanced worker-activists - thus decapitating the local labour movement (Isaacs, op cit., pp332-3). The failure in Wuhan, which was immediately surrounded by 6,000 Guomindang troops, led to 40 beheadings per day for a period, with the headless bodies deliberately left on display as a warning.

When, in preparation for these adventures, Li Lisan said in June 1930 that we must “awaken the will of the broad masses to struggle to the death” (Li Lisan, The New Revolutionary Rising Tide and Preliminary Successes in one or more Provinces, 1930) he was more prescient than he knew.

Internal Opposition Develops

This reckless adventurism, which must have sacrificed countless more of the few remaining Communist cadres, and went hand in hand with the abandonment of the urban base and the development of what would be known as Maoism, a mainly peasant based phenomenon, did not go unopposed in the party. But the inability of Stalin to allow any internal democratic life in the Chinese section which could lead to the loosening of his grip on the International meant that such healthy disagreement had to be snuffed out. This had the effect of further weakening the party, especially in its traditional working class base, since it was from these quarters that the dissent came.

Just as Stalin had to blame those below him in China, such as Chen Duxiu and then Qu Qiubai, for all the errors flowing from his policy, so the leadership of the CCP after 1927 were compelled to mimic his bureaucratic methods since they were barred from opening a genuinely democratic discussion. They began to always blame those below themselves, in whose personal failings were to be found all the sources of failure, rather than in a wrong political line.

In opposition to this dictatorial method, the Jiangsu Provincial Committee of the CCP, based in Shanghai, wrote a letter which describes the situation thus

“In spite of the defeat...the Central Committee persists in clinging to the tactic of immediate uprisings and takes as its point of departure an estimation leading to the direct ascent of the revolution...These measures flowed from a subjective estimation of the situation and did not correspond to the objective circumstances. Obviously, under such conditions, defeats will be inevitable


“no attention is paid to the fact that our organisations have lost contact with the masses...if anybody was not in agreement with the new line, without further ceremony he was not permitted to renew his party card and even comrades who had already carried out this operation were expelled...without paying attention to the mistakes of its own leadership, the Central Committee nevertheless demands the most severe party discipline from the rank-and-file militants...It pounces down with accusations and says that the Provincial Committee is no good; the latter in its turn accuses the rank-and-file organisations and asserts that the district committee is bad. The latter also begins to accuse and asserts that it is the comrades working on the spot who are no good. And the comrades declare that the masses are not revolutionary.” (Quoted in Leon Trotsky, The Chinese Question after the 6th Congress)

In response to this outbreak of Marxist criticism, Li Lisan “tried to enlarge the provincial committee with his supporters”. After this was effectively opposed, Party Central under Li’s command sent a delegation to completely take over the Jiangsu Provincial Committee. The same was done to other dissenting committees, which caused those in the Shunzhi Committee to demand “the right to discuss all questions with superior organs and...that the leading cadres be elected by the masses.” For doing this, all these Provincial Committees were now to be under the jurisdiction of the North China Bureau. (Pinckney Harrison, op cit., p160).

He Mengxiong and the ‘Real Work Faction’

Out of this struggle, which took place in 1928-9, stepped forward a very experienced and respected trade union leader, He Mengxiong. As not only a member of the important, Shanghai based above-mentioned Jiangsu committee but also an experienced trade union militant, He’s opposition to Li Lisan’s ultra-leftism and the drift into the countryside represented the party’s true proletarian and Marxist heritage. They named themselves the ‘Real Work Faction’; the implication that they were the only group with a real connection to the working class is obvious.

By all accounts the oppositional position he took was a healthy one, and apparently by 1931 had “many, if not most, lower ranking party members” (Ibid, p.186) in support. He argued for the need of the CCP to have an “accurate evaluation of the movement’s weaknesses” and emphasised the need for the Party to be “enlarged systematically through the trade unions in the towns” (Guillermaz, op cit., p.220). In other words, to patiently work on explaining the defeat suffered and winning new comrades in the cities.

His group became more vocal the more the disaster of the Changsha and Wuhan insurrections became clear, and as Moscow began to try to impose a new leadership on the CCP to replace the disgraced Li Lisan, an act which incensed many comrades. Such was the support in the CCP for Real Work’s opposition that by the end of 1930 it had become an “independent organisation with an executive committee of twenty-seven that continued to lobby for an emergency conference [to oppose any new leadership imposed from Moscow].” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

Pavel Mif, the Comintern representative in China, overruled their campaign and organised a meeting that was to elect a new leadership, initially without even informing these comrades of the nature of the meeting. The meeting was composed mainly of Comintern loyalists, and while many of the Li Lisan-ers kept their positions (by confessing that all the errors of the insurrections were purely down to them and had nothing to do with the Comintern leadership), most were now the ‘Russian returned students’, stooges trained in Moscow and led by the hated Wang Ming.

Mysteriously, when He continued to organise his opposition, and called for Mif to be recalled and a new Party conference to be announced, he was arrested “the very next day” by British police, who handed He and others over to the Guomindang, who executed them one month later (Ibid, p.187). Thus another layer of honest cadres was destroyed.

Lo Zhanglung took over from He and now, following his expulsion, organised a rival CCP with branches in 6 Provinces. Clearly, the basis existed for the Chinese Left Opposition to make contact with dissidents inside the party, and through an intelligent campaign win over sections of the party. However, Lo, like He, was betrayed to the Guomindang two years later. This fact, and He’s execution before that, give a clue as to the causes of the Trotskyists’ failure to really build influence in the CCP despite the latter’s internal crises. Apart from the Trotskyists’ subjective failings, of which there were many, in particular of the sectarian variety, there was the objective problem that any Communist in opposition to the CCP leadership faced a double oppression. They not only had to avoid detection by Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, but also to avoid being expelled from the CCP and handed over to the authorities by it.

The same happened to one of the remaining layers of comrades in a big city when Xiang Zhongfa and 4,700 others were arrested and executed in Shanghai in June 1931. For one reason or another, a CCP comrade defected to the Guomindang, betrayed another comrade, Gu Shunzhang, who then capitulated and betrayed an entire layer, including a leading party member, Xiang Zhongfa. In this way the bulk of the remaining Shanghai membership was wiped out.

Then the new Wang Ming leadership immediately took the initiative and attacked anyone associated with criticism of Moscow and the CCP leadership. He had 1/4 of all comrades expelled. Thus Stalin and his local stooges had in Chiang Kai-shek’s despotic regime (which resembled his own in many respects, if not in its economic base), a powerful tool with which to discipline their membership. That is the real, objective reason why Stalin was able to infect the Chinese party with his own bureaucratic methods, and why the Trotskyists were unable to build an effective opposition.

The Dissolution of Trotskyism in China

Whereas the CCP, despite its dire situation after the routing of 1927, was still able to draw upon $40,000 a month in financial support from the USSR, as well as from the resources in their new rural bases, the Trotskyists shared all the same difficulties, but also lacked any bases or financial support at all. One can barely imagine the material and psychological difficulties a band of around 350 Oppositionists, with no finances at all and coming out of the defeat of a revolution and mass expulsion from their party, must have faced. This not only made it difficult for the Opposition to operate effectively, but also represented an enormous barrier to recruiting the numerous CCP comrades unhappy with the line imposed from Moscow. As Benton points out, “it was therefore a big step for a CCP official on $25 a month - equivalent to the salary of a teacher - to give up this secure income for the uncertain life of a Trotskyist militant” (Gregor Benton, op cit., p60).

Wang Fanxi explains the objective difficulties very clearly,

“No one had joined the Party to make money, so how was it that financial considerations prevented some comrades from joining the Opposition? One reason was that although no revolutionary would put money before his revolutionary beliefs, the situation changed somewhat when it was a question of choosing between two different factions within the same party, as Stalinism and Trotskyism were at that stage. Although many in the Soviet Union sacrificed high state or Party rank to follow Trotsky, even more renounced the Opposition in order to cling to their privileged positions...We had no funds of our own and no external source of finance. As if earning a living was not hard enough, we had to put money aside regularly to finance the work of our organisation...[CCP] comrades could be heard lamenting the fact that they were professional revolutionaries rather than revolutionary professionals, so that they had no job to fall back on should they disagree with the official line and want to distance themselves from the party apparatus. The scarcity of employment under the old regime in China thus helped Stalin to defeat the Trotskyists.” (Wang Fanxi, op cit., p125)

Added to this was the isolation of these Trotskyists from the rest of the Trotskyist movement worldwide, thanks to China’s backwardness and the Japanese invasion. Many Trotskyists were killed by the Japanese and were even, when attempting to fight them, sometimes caught between Maoist and Japanese armies, both of which were hostile to them. Indeed in the 1930s the CCP, following Moscow’s demands that it wipe out Chinese Trotskyism, consciously used the Guomindang dictatorship by tipping it off regarding the Opposition comrades. In this way huge layers of the leading Trotskyists were put into gaol or even executed - Chen Duxiu, along with Wang Fanxi, Peng Shuzi and many others, was put into gaol in 1932 for five years.

These objective difficulties were compounded by, and to some extent caused, the theoretical weaknesses of the Opposition and its tendency towards sectarianism. Of course for a principled Marxist organisation questions of theoretical clarity are extremely important, and so we do not make a fetish out of organisational unity - sometimes it is necessary to maintain the ideological clarity of an organisation at the expense of having less members, since in the long run short cuts to a larger organisation will undermine its ability to understand the working class and the revolution as it really develops.

But splits of a sectarian nature are characterised not by a pursuit for a clear understanding of the revolution but by rigid formalism, becoming fixated with secondary questions, all of which boils down to petty intriguing and egotism masked by pretensions of theoretical greatness. Sectarianism is a kind of failed opportunism or careerism, where one group jealously defends its existence as against the others, however minute it may be. Unfortunately the Trotskyists in China did degenerate in this direction, probably as a result of the habit of being in opposition to the majority of the CCP, coupled with a lack of time and space for discussion to come to a deeper understanding of why the revolution had failed.

For example, many of the Oppositionists were opposed to Chen Duxiu joining them when he was won to Trotskyism in 1929. Instead of understanding that the revolution had failed because of Stalin’s short-sighted opportunism, they blamed the defeat on Chen (who of course, under orders, carried out this opportunist policy) and, probably unconsciously, did not want him involved precisely because he would help them to build - the authority of his name in Chinese Communism would undermine their own importance in the local Trotskyist movement. As a condition for his joining them, they demanded that he disband his group (Benton, op cit., p.30). By 1930 there were already four different Trotskyist organisations competing against one another, and in 1981 “Zhao Ji frankly admitted that the Militant Group had been formed not for ideological reasons but to get a better position for its members in the future unified organisation” (Ibid, p.33).

Chen Duxiu, who towered above this kind of petty intriguing, summed up these errors in a letter addressed to Trotsky in 1939,

“If ultra-leftists who stay aloof from the masses and the real struggle...continue to brag and pretend to be big leaders, to organise leadership bodies that lack all substance, and to found petty kingdoms for themselves behind closed doors and relying on the name of the Fourth International, they will achieve nothing beyond the tarnishing of the Fourth International’s prestige in China.” (Chen Duxiu, quoted in Zheng Chaolin, Chen Duxiu and the Trotskyists)


Trotsky had quickly seen through this sectarianism and defended Chen against the criticisms made against him, which were of a very formalistic nature. He urged that, since there was no principled reason for division, the Trotskyists in China must hold a reunification congress and quickly get on with the task of winning influence within the by now very weakened CCP. Thanks to Trotsky’s intervention, this congress was held in May 1931 and resulted in around 500 Trotskyists joining together. At this point, things looked bright, as the Communist Party leadership had just been replaced with the unpopular Wang Ming, and the Comintern’s authority could not but have been weakened.

But just as the subjective weaknesses of the Trotskyists appeared surmountable, the objective obstacles came back with a vengeance - within three weeks of the congress the whole Central Committee of the unified organisation, known as ‘The Spark’, were arrested by the Guomindang, and just over a year later, the remaining leading Trotskyists, Chen Duxiu and Peng Shuzhi and seven others, were arrested by the French and British police in Shanghai (Benton, op cit., p35).

This effectively spelt the end for Chinese Trotskyism. Without the leading lights of Chen Duxiu and Trotsky (who was increasingly suffering from international isolation by the GPU), the organisation was decapitated, and once again the sectarian squabbling broke out as inexperienced members failed to grasp the meaning of the changing situation. In particular, the war with Japan, which changed everything, threw the group into a confusion which made effective intervention in the situation impossible. The national question has always been one of the trickiest and subtlest of questions for Marxists, and it has tripped up not a few experienced comrades in the past. We should not be surprised that this group, having had such a hard time and without its learned cadres, would make classic mistakes of ultra-leftism on this issue.

Trotsky explained the correct position on the war with Japan thus,

“We do not and never have put all wars on the same plane. Marx and Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great Britain, of the Poles against the tsar, even though in these two nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy...In the Far East we have a classic example. China is a semicolonial country which Japan is transforming, under our very eyes, into a colonial country. Japan's struggle is imperialist and reactionary. China's struggle is emancipatory and progressive...

“But Chiang Kai-shek? We need have no illusions about Chiang Kai-shek, his party, or the whole ruling class of China, just as Marx and Engels had no illusions about the ruling classes of Ireland and Poland. Chiang Kai-shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants. But today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the remainder of the independence of China. Tomorrow he may again betray. It is possible. It is probable. It is even inevitable. But today he is struggling...

“But can Chiang Kai-shek assure the victory? I do not believe so. It is he, however, who began the war and who today directs it. To be able to replace him it is necessary to gain decisive influence among the proletariat and in the army, and to do this it is necessary not to remain suspended in the air but to place oneself in the midst of the struggle. We must win influence and prestige in the military struggle against the foreign invasion and in the political struggle against the weaknesses, the deficiencies, and the internal betrayal.” (Leon Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War, 1937)

And yet sections of the Chinese Trotskyists took a criminal position of neutrality in the war against Japan. Why? They argued that since the US backed China, supporting the fight against Japanese imperialism meant supporting US imperialism. In this way these ‘Trotskyists’ allowed the struggle for the emancipation of China to be, in their heads at least, cancelled out in advance because the US gave it support. But the US’ support was not for the emancipation of China, only for the defeat of Japan so that the US may dominate China. The character of China’s war for emancipation from brutal oppression was not defined simply by the US’ role, but first and foremost by the internal dynamics of Chinese and Japanese society. Thus a victory for Japan would mean the strengthening of the regime of Japanese fascism both in China and Japan. A victory for China would mean the weakening of the Japanese regime even in Japan, a strengthening of the Japanese revolutionary movement and of course of the Chinese masses, who would have successfully fought off an external oppressor and in all likelihood their own ruling class as well, who as we shall see, were incapable of effectively opposing Japan.

Arguing that Marxists should not support the war as it may help US imperialism was, Trotsky explained, like opposing a strike in one factory because its victory might mean the strengthening of a different capitalist in competition with this one. Again, to take this position would mean voluntarily cancelling the class struggle for fear of temporarily aiding one capitalist as against another. But Marxists are indifferent as to which capitalist is stronger; we are interested in the weakening of the capitalists as a class, which means the strengthening of the workers as a class. A strike victory in one factory may temporarily strengthen one capitalist, but what is far more important is the raising of workers to their feet and the example to other workers that this one victory represents. Similarly, as Trotsky pointed out, if the Chinese people, through an almighty effort, managed to throw off the chains of one imperialism, they would be all the more able to do so against another imperialism thanks to this victory. As it turned out, this is exactly what happened when in 1949 the Chinese people finally broke free of the yoke of imperialism in general.

This dispute not only weakened the Trotskyists’ capacity for action but also diminished their prestige in the eyes of the masses and members of the CCP. Thanks to a combination of brutal state repression and theoretical weakness, the Trotskyists’ reunification failed to materialise into any real growth and they more or less disintegrated as the war dragged on.  With the victory of Mao in 1949, the final few were gaoled, executed or forced to flee, mainly to Hong Kong.

The Nature of the Chiang Kai-shek Regime

According to this subjective approach, power becomes concentrated in a corrupt clique merely because the people at the top happen to be greedy, mistrustful and jealous of their power. But this seductively simple explanation is so simple it explains nothing, it is a tautology, like when a child, in response to the question ‘why did you break this?’ answers ‘because I did.’

In defending the record of Bolshevism Trotsky explained that it is foolish to try to explain the growth of bureaucratic tendencies and the rise of Stalin purely on the basis of policy errors. Yes, seizing power magnifies a political party’s power over society greatly, but doing so also imposes all the objective tendencies of society, all its social contradictions, onto that party with a force of far greater magnitude.

Chiang Kai-shek ‘betrayed’ Sun Yat Sen

In this way there was an objective necessity to the Guomindang’s degeneration upon taking up its role as the force of counter-revolution. The fallacy of the idealist thesis that a governing political party rules purely in accordance with its own wishes is disproven by the transformation in the Guomindang upon leading the counter-revolution. In order to play this role, a painful process of internal purgation and ‘betrayal’ of its principles, as it adopted those of the ancien regime and even of fascism, had to take place. Rather than being the party of the liberation of China, of its modernisation and democratisation, as many of its founders sincerely wanted, instead it internalised and reproduced in ever more grotesque forms all the barbarism and backwardness of feudal China, distorted and exaggerated as this was by imperialism.

Today the Chinese Communist Party, in its adoption of capitalism and courting of Taiwanese capitalists, has tried to resuscitate the role of the Guomindang (which still rules in Taiwan) and its founding figure of Sun Yat Sen, with the anti-Marxist position that Sun Yat Sen was an honest revolutionary whose principles were unfortunately betrayed by Chiang Kai-shek. But betrayal of ‘principles’ is inherent in bourgeois politics, especially when based on a particularly backward, semi-feudal bourgeoisie as China’s was.

Whereas a Bolshevik organisation is based upon adherence to a clear revolutionary programme, and is composed of a membership committed to that, a bourgeois organisation such as the Guomindang is necessarily loose. Thus Sun Yat Sen’s opportunistic policy for gaining power was to encourage everyone and his uncle to join, with no attention paid to their sincerity and no political education given. Yes, such a policy can lead to a rapid taking of power, but at what cost? That the party is internally extremely weak and thus far more open to tendencies of corruption.

Nevertheless in its quest for power the Guomindang relied upon the hard work and dedication of honest revolutionaries, both CCP members who had joined under orders and honest rank-and-file Guomindang members. But both these groups were generally on the far left of the party, which at the rank-and-file level may have been in the majority (Eastman, The Nationalist Era in China 1927-1949). When the party took power in 1927-8, they earnestly believed it was carrying out a revolution. Local Guomindang party organisations under the control of the rank and file would organise militant anti-imperialist, anti-warlord campaigns and even carried out programmes of rent-reduction for poor peasants (Ibid)

Therefore the first act of the Guomindang’s conversion into a lackey of imperialism and warlordism was to reveal its true face by purging all these nuisance elements. Like the fascists in Italy and Germany, Chiang Kai-shek personally and the Guomindang as a party had been paid handsomely by Shanghainese capitalists to sort out the labour unrest. He was charged with setting the record straight that warlord/landlord land would not be touched and that their extreme exploitation of the peasants would not be questioned.

As a result in early 1928, the Guomindang Central Executive Committee moved to dissolve all provincial party organisations ‘not creditable to the party.’ All members had to ‘re-register’ and members were ordered to conduct themselves ‘in the spirit of the leadership’. “Mass movements were also, for all intents and purposes, suspended. Henceforth, the mass organisations would serve as Nanjing’s instruments of control, not as organs for the expression of popular opinions or initiatives.” (Ibid)

The Guomindang ceased to be a real party. Its genuine supporters were expelled for, being cannon fodder, they had now served their purpose. Only those yes men who clung to the coat tails of the warlords and imperialists remained. And they were joined by the armed feudal warlords, who backed the various factions of the party now that they could see its ‘revolution’ was an established fact and one they could do quite well out of. These warlords joined the Guomindang to “indulge in political manoeuvres which, they hoped, would result in the preservation, if not the enhancement, of their personal and regional power” (Ibid)

To get a job in the government it was necessary to be a Guomindang member. The party was quickly inundated with the rotten bureaucracy of the old regime, whom Chiang Kai-shek welcomed with open arms as an ally in his struggle against the left-leaning party rank-and-file. Of course, if one intends on faithfully administering the needs of the old ruling class and enriching oneself in the process, it is necessary to have a staff of corrupt bureaucrats who aren’t necessarily any good at their jobs but are faithful defenders of the system of privilege. These mandarins “shuffled papers, but paid minimal heed to the actual implementation of policy. Thus the values, attitudes, and practices of the old warlord regimes had been injected into the new government.” (Ibid)

Fascist Tendencies

In this respect Chiang Kai-shek’s regime took on a characteristic of fascism - the conversion from a mass petty bourgeois movement with populist, pseudo-socialist imagery, into a direct instrument of the most brutal state oppression.

Under this new regime everything backward and outdated in China was brought forward in a cruder form than ever before. The Chinese revolution had begun with a process of intellectual ferment as restless students finally tore down the edifice of Confucianism (China’s conservative 2,000 year old ideology of caste and filial servitude) in their search for revolutionary ideas. But as the revolution’s executioner Chiang Kai-shek brought it back “to provide the moral and national basis for anti-Bolshevik action. In the context of society, the role of the gentry, who were the examples and guides[!] for the rural population...was enlarged and rendered more powerful.” (Guillermaz, op cit., my emphasis)

Chiang Kai-shek’s adoption of the most hated and antiquated ideological system as the moral justification for the rule of the gentry is proof that the counter-revolutionary party does not operate in a historical vacuum or pursue ‘new’ policies of their own choosing. It is forced by its social role to adopt and enhance all the ready-to-hand rubbish of human history. It is the Guomindang’s eventual role as leader of counter-revolution and defender of privilege that determined the ideas it espoused and its brutal methods of rule.

The secret to understanding why the regime was so unprecedentedly corrupt and based itself on economic plunder rather than growth is that it not only defended and maintained capitalism, but that it based itself on a ruling class and economic system whose time was up, was no longer viable. The revolution of 1925-7 proves that. And so from the very beginning the regime abandoned itself to the most short-sighted plunder. Having defeated the progressive forces in China, it went on an unconstrained reactionary binge. “Its generals and bankers, its landlords and bureaucrats, its jailers and executioners, inextricably interlaced, mercilessly drained the country. The land, the people, even the most limited kind of economic enterprise, became sources not merely of profit but of plunder.  All the existing means of exploitation that had been vainly challenged by the revolution were not merely preserved but sharpened to an unprecedented degree.” (Isaacs, op cit.).

It is thought that by 1930 140,000 had been executed, and in 1931 “a collection of reports from only 6 provinces produced a total of 39,778 executions that year.” (Ibid). To discipline the rural population the Guomindang once again fell back on the most barbarous methods from Chinese history. They used the Baojia medieval system of collective punishment and incorporated into it the harsher Japanese Lianzuo punishment system, whereby if the local chief failed to report any dissidents in his family/clan, the entire clan would be punished.

In addition to the political executions meted out there were the deaths from the civil war with the CCP in the 1930s. Upon capturing Red territory, the Guomindang army would “make of such districts a desolate, uninhabited wasteland...thousands of children were taken prisoner and driven to Hankou and other cities, where they were sold in ‘apprenticeships’. Thousands of young girls and women were transported and sold into the factories as slave girls and as prostitutes.” (Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China) Having recaptured an area from the CCP, they went to extraordinary lengths to give the land back to the landlords, it having been given to the peasants by the CCP. This was done even when it had become practically impossible to do so.

Snow quotes Red Army General Xu Haidong on witnessing the atrocities committed by the Guomindang, “in Ma Cheng, we came to one of our former athletics fields. There in a shallow grave we found the bodies of twelve comrades who had been killed. Their skin had been stripped from them, their eyes gouged out, and their ears and noses cut off.” (Ibid).

To fill the vacuum left by the expulsions of rank-and-file activists and to bolster his own position, Chiang Kai-shek created a hardcore fanatical organisation known as the ‘Blue Shirts’. A counter-revolutionary regime does not merely maintain the status-quo as it was, but is forced to heighten the oppression and exploitation in order to grind the masses down. The ideological expression of this was not just the maintenance of Confucianism but the adoption of the new and fanatical methods of fascism. With the Blue Shirts Chiang Kai-shek consciously attempted to develop his own regime into a fascist one, saying in 1935 that,

“ a stimulant for a declining society.” “Can fascism save China? We answer: yes. Fascism is what China now most needs. In fascism, the organisation, the spirit, and the activities must all be militarised...In the home, the factory and the government office, everyone’s activities must be the same as in the army...In other words, there must be obedience, sacrifice, strictness, cleanliness, accuracy, diligence, secrecy...And everyone together must firmly and bravely sacrifice for the group and for the nation...What is the New Life Movement that I now propose? Stated simply, it is to militarise thoroughly the lives of the citizens of the entire nation so that they can cultivate courage and swiftness, the endurance of suffering and a tolerance for hard work, and especially the habit and ability of unified action, so that they will at any time sacrifice for the nation.” (Quoted in Eastman, op cit).

This is not to say that the regime was fully fascist. Although he created the Blue Shirts, they remained a very weak force and were created after the fact, whereas in Germany the Brown Shirts were a genuine mass movement that helped bring Hitler to power. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime also lacked a base in society outside the militarist clique, and it was too weak to establish anything genuinely totalitarian. But the regime had clear fascist tendencies. It was a bourgeois Bonapartist regime with aspirations towards fascism. But fascism in Germany also proved itself in the last analysis not to be a strong regime, a viable new form of capitalism, but a final agonising cry of capitalism, a kind of senile insanity which could easily have been replaced with socialism had the Soviet Union been a healthy workers’ state. In this way Chiang Kai-shek’s regime spelt out its own doom and the necessity of the victory of the CCP in 1949.

National Dis-unification

Despite high hopes that Chiang Kai-shek’s victory would at long last lead to national unification, he proved incapable of overcoming warlordism. In absorbing into itself, rather than struggling against, the warlords, the Guomindang capitulated to their regional power, legalising their role by creating local branch ‘councils’ as part of the state apparatus in 1928, which were autonomous administrative organs. What started out with the Northern Expedition as a war to unify and modernise the country ended up in the institutionalisation of these regional parasites.

The system whereby China was effectively divided up into local fiefdoms of feudalistic warlords was extremely beneficial for imperialism, for a country divided is all the more easily dominated. Probably a chief factor in the weakness of the labour movement after 1927 was the division of the country into separate authorities, which must have undermined working class unity, so in that respect it benefited the exploitation of labour.

However, the inability to unify the country and overcome medieval-style military cliques was the most explicit expression of the chronic weakness of Chinese capitalism. These cliques were constantly at war with one another and with Chiang Kai-shek. There were endless intrigues against his power which forced his resignation at the end of 1931. Actually these brutal mini-civil-wars must have been a big factor in the CCP’s ability to fend off all but the last of the Guomindang’s 5 extermination campaigns on their base in Jiangxi, as Chiang’s troops and resources were diverted to fighting this or that warlord-Guomindang clique.

According to some reactionaries, dictatorships such as that of Chiang Kai-shek have a saving grace in the stability they bring and the economic growth that comes with that. What this perspective fails to understand is that capitalism’s need for dictatorships flows from its inability to take society forwards. Such regimes do not remove the obstacles of capitalism’s inner flaws, in fact they raise them to new heights. Chiang’s regime was an economic failure of the first order and one of the most unstable regimes imaginable.

Between 1929 and 1931 there were four different factional wars between various militarists and Chiang Kai-shek. The mid 1930 conflict between Chiang’s regime and the warlords Feng Yuxiang, Yen Xishan and their Guomindang allies Wang Jingwei and the Western Hills faction led to approximately 250,000 deaths (Eastman, op cit.). Each time the bloodshed was ended not through resolving the underlying problems, but merely by Chiang personally bribing the respective warlord with millions of dollars and the promise of an important and lucrative official position.

Economic Decay

The militarism that accompanied this represented a grotesque indulgence on behalf of the ruling class. Between 1927 and 1937 two thirds of state expenditure was devoted to the military and to servicing debt - but most of the latter was military related anyway. This is not to mention the vast military expense of all the competing landlords.

Thanks to the regime’s chronic weakness, its regional dislocation and utter inability to carry out any land reform or in any way touch the privileges of the landlord class, it was unable to guide the economy and protect it from more competitive imperialist capitalisms. It could not even collect tax properly.

Prior to contact with Western capitalism, the Chinese peasantry had always been relatively self-subsistent and well-off compared to European peasants in the past. Arable land was of a high quality which freed up labour, meaning that half of the household would produce the tools, clothing etc. that peasants would need. Most peasants were not hired labourers or serfs, and the landholdings of the landlord class were rarely much larger than what relatively well-off peasants would have. Social differentiation in the countryside was much lower than in Europe.

But the forcible entry of the world market into China destroyed all that. The cottage industries were wrecked by cheap British cotton. The landlords got rich from trade and they used this money to buy up the land of the now impoverished peasants. More peasants slipped into feudal servitude. Rents became obscenely extortionate and were sometimes collected decades in advance.

The Guomindang based itself upon this and strengthened the gentry at the expense of the peasants. They had no intention of carrying out the kind of land reform France had experienced 130 years previously. During the 1930s “Unequal income distribution [in the countryside] perpetuated a group of high income recipients who employed their earnings to finance high standards of consumption as well as to maintain their position through land purchase and speculative marketing and credit operations.” (Douglas Paauw, The Guomindang and Economic Stagnation).

For these reasons they were unable to raise tax from the countryside. Considering it made up 65% of GDP and involved four fifths of the population, taxing agricultural production would be a cornerstone of any programme of industrialisation. Instead, in the 1930s 85% of tax revenues were derived from trade and industry, despite the fact that they only comprised about 3.4% of GDP (Ibid).

However, ruinous local taxes were collected by unscrupulous warlords to finance their own private armies and lavish lifestyles. The defeat of the revolution and peasant uprisings in 1927 gave the warlords the green light for an unprecedented expansion of exploitation beyond their wildest dreams. Peasants were fleeced in everything they did, and the utterly unproductive warlords blocked every pore of productive activity in the countryside with taxes on sales, domestic animals, camels, salt carrying, salt consumption, opium lamps, sheep, merchants, porters, pigeons, land, middlemen, food, special food, additional land, wool, coal, skins, slaughter, boats, irrigation, millstones, houses, wood, milling, scales, ceremonies, tobacco, wine, marriage and vegetables. There was a 30% tax on the sale of sheep, cows and mules, 25% on the ownership of a sheep, a tax on slaughtering pigs and 40% on the sale of a bushel of wheat.

The indebtedness that resulted “forced many farmers to sell all their cattle and abandon their lands. Great areas had been bought up by officials, tax collectors, and lenders at very cheap rates, but much of it remained wasteland because no tenants could be found to work under the tax burden and rents imposed.” (Snow, op cit.)

In addition to being grossly inefficient the tax system clearly expressed the regime’s subservience to imperialism and backward feudal localism. Regarding the former, the tax system was devised so that it failed to develop the Chinese economy and to protect it from more advanced ones. Customs duties “failed to provide incentives to investment in China’s leading modern industry, cotton textiles, for example, since imported raw materials and other producers’ goods were taxed at rates almost as high as the duty on imported textiles.” Taxes were also devised that lowered demand for Chinese goods. Low quality goods were taxed higher than high quality goods, when it was precisely in low quality, cheap goods that the weak Chinese economy excelled.

Like Germany at the time of the industrial revolution, the Chinese economy was also hampered by its lack of centralisation, with a tax system known as Likin, a tariff between provinces. This obviously tended to depress trade and prevented the formation of the national market, a key part of the development of strong capitalism. It was abolished by the Guomindang in 1931, but since the Guomindang failed to abolish warlordism, the basis of local particularism such as this tax, the warlords reintroduced it under another name and the central government was powerless to prevent them.

Because of the pitiful tax revenues the government was constantly forced to go into debt to the Shanghai bankers. 25% of expenditure was financed by borrowing, and thanks to this dependence on debt the bankers took yields of 20-40% on these bonds. This guaranteed source of high returns, combined with the unprofitable nature of Chinese business (as we have seen, it was taxed in such a manner to promote foreign competitors, and it was taxed highly since it was the only source of government revenue) caused an explosion in unproductive speculation on government debt,

“One Chinese writer estimated that 50% of Shanghai’s total liquid assets were invested in government bonds, and that much of the remainder was diverted to speculation in these same credit instruments. Nanjing government finance, therefore, promoted the diversion of the economy’s stocks of savings from investment to speculative uses. In addition, it raised the cost of bank credit to the point where private entrepreneurs could not make use of bank credit for productive purposes.” (Paauw, op cit.)

According to Paauw, during this period consumption fell, foreign investment fell from 1931 to 1936 and domestic investment was so low it was not even sufficient to maintain existing capital. According to Eastman less than 4% of government expenditure from 1934-6 was devoted to economic development, much of which was embezzled anyway. Total agricultural output increased by less than 1% in the 5 year period 1932-36. GDP in 1936 was approximately the same as in 1932, and average output for the 1932-36 period was somewhat lower than the 1932 figure. The growth of GDP failed to keep pace with the increase in China’s population, and an index of production for seven leading industries, constructed by the Central Bank of China, showed no increase in output over a 3 1/2 year period (1932-5) (Ibid). But what did the Guomindang care - they were able to exploit their prize possession - state power - and a layer of top bureaucrats became rich.


A direct consequence of the descent into feudalistic dependence was the great North West famine of 1928-30, in which up to 6 million impoverished peasants perished. Natural disasters bring the contradictions and injustices of class society into sharp relief, firstly because their disastrous consequences are usually unnecessary. Secondly because of the disgusting way in which the ruling class takes advantage of the ruined state of the masses to extend their wealth and power. This famine was no exception to this rule.

Despite the drought there was plenty of rice and wheat around, and money with which to purchase more from abroad. The trouble is that this rice and wheat was deliberately kept from peasants’ bellies by those who also held the money, so that it would make them even more money as it rose in price. Money and food collected from abroad also failed to make it to the starving due to factional struggles between the regional warlords.

Because they were so desperate for food, starving farmers were effectively forced to sell all their productive land to landlords and financiers for as little as three days’ worth of food, so that the latter may get richer. Of course with their sums of money and superior knowledge they could wait until the best land became available, and so in this way the concentration of wealth advanced thanks to the famine. It’s no surprise then that according to Eastman, China’s death rate in 1930 was virtually the highest in the world, two and a half times that of the US and significantly more than India’s. These are the economic conditions that the CCP were struggling against, the kind of political regime they were up against, and that made Chinese capitalism so ripe for overthrowing.

We have seen how Stalin’s power in the late 1920s in Moscow veered from one extreme to another. The reality that the Communist movement could not be built through an opportunist policy of accommodation with the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie had to be admitted. 


The Origins of Maoism

The reason for this was that not to have done so in China by 1928 would have meant the total extinction of the CCP with the real danger that the remaining members could be won to Trotskyism. So to eliminate that possibility it was now stressed that the Guomindang was the enemy of the CCP and the revolution, and that therefore the party’s chief task was to win back the working class to an open socialist programme.

But on the other hand it was an imperative for Moscow that such a policy be clearly distinguished from that of the Trotskyists. Stalin could never admit that Trotsky had been right in his perspectives for China. Therefore whilst declaring the Guomindang to be an enemy, the CCP was forced to adopt the self-contradictory position that its sudden transfer from ally to enemy only signified the raising of the revolution to a new, higher plane. So to combat Trotsky’s influence, a task far more important for Stalin than the wellbeing of the CCP, the CCP was forced to seek evidence of the rising revolutionary tide and find, somewhere, an avenue to pursue an immediate revolutionary policy.

This development displays the idealist tendencies of Stalinism, by which I mean its tendency to think it can manipulate reality purely in accordance with its own narrow wishes. If the revolution failed, the real task for Marxists is to understand and explain this failure, however personally difficult this may be. Stalinism, being based on the careerist interests of the bureaucracy, rather than on sacrificing one’s own interests for the real needs of the revolution, attempts to hide reality in the hope it will go away.

A Product of Moscow

So in pushing the CCP to find ‘evidence’ of the healthy state of the revolution and the good prospects for the Comintern in China, Moscow began to create within the CCP a strong tendency towards substituting itself for the real action of the working class, towards adventurism and voluntarism. If evidence of the revolution wasn’t there, there was enormous pressure on the party to make it up, to artificially create a ‘revolutionary rising tide’. In a resolution written by Li Lisan in June 1930, it is argued that any lack of faith in the imminence of the revolution must be cut out, which will aid in “speeding the arrival of the rising tide in the workers’ struggles.”

It is always an illusion to imagine that a revolutionary organisation’s task is to ‘speed up’ the arrival of the revolution. Workers will move in that direction when they feel the need to, based on their own experience of economic and political crises. Considering that the party had systematically lost all influence in the proletariat by 1930, such a claim can only be seen as evidence of Stalinist wishful thinking.

The same resolution then makes a wild departure from reality in justifying the policy of campaigning for armed insurrections on the basis that the revolution is merely a product of the party itself,

“ great workers’ struggle in an industrial or political centre may immediately lead to the formation of a revolutionary upsurge – (that is), to a directly revolutionary situation... [this would] mean that the ruling class is not only unable to hold the rural areas, but also incapable of suppressing or controlling the revolutionary struggle in the cities. This would mean that objective conditions are ripe for armed insurrection. Therefore we may say that the upsurge of the revolutionary rising tide will inevitably be followed by armed insurrection.” (Li Lisan, The New Revolutionary Rising Tide and Preliminary Successes in one or more Provinces, June 11, 1930, my emphasis)

Perhaps the worst casualty of this policy was the core of Marxism – its unswerving materialist philosophy, its emphasis on the fact that the objective laws of society are decisive, not the will of the party. Above we find no mention whatsoever of the actual consciousness of workers, their level of organisation, the state of their leadership. Mass actions of the workers are dreamed up out of nothing, one imagined scenario is built on top of another, and hey-presto, we arrive at armed insurrection!

A Mistake of History

This characteristic of Stalinism in the late 1920s is the root of what would become Maoism, although it was by no means certain that things would develop in this way. Since Moscow’s pressure on the CCP to ‘find the revolution’ at this time was not a product of a scientific understanding of the situation, but was a knee-jerk, empirical response to an unforeseen development (the failure of 1925-7), so too its outcome (Maoism) was not foreseen and has the character of a historical accident.

The reason Maoism, or the strategy of armed insurrection from the countryside, became the dominant political line of the CCP from the early 30s onwards, was because a rural struggle uniquely fitted Moscow’s opportunist need to deny the failure of the revolution and to continue the fight at the will of the party leadership. It was not a genuine theoretical development of Mao that expressed the Chinese revolution’s uniqueness. In fact, although Mao became the policy’s chief leader, it did not originate with him.

The Political Resolution of the 1928 CCP Congress (which Mao did not attend and which took place before Mao had risen to prominence), meeting in Moscow and under decisive influence of the Comintern leadership, declares that it is necessary for the party “to organise revolutionary armies of workers and peasants in the present guerrilla areas... this task is now the central issue in the peasant movement, deserving special attention by the party. The success with which this task is carried out may give an impetus to the growth of a new revolutionary rising tide” (Political Resolution of the 6th National Congress of the CCP, 1928, emphasis in original).

Here it is explicitly stated that the rural movement deserves special attention because it can fulfil Moscow’s desire to artificially kick-start a revolution. On this basis the resolution outlines the concrete tasks of the party as expansion of the Soviet areas; to create a revolutionary army of peasants; and to induce the ‘broad masses’ to participate in the Soviet areas’ organisation once the latter have been established (by the party, not by the ‘broad masses’).

This is the recipe for the Maoist strategy of the party creating a rural insurrection as a substitute for the masses creating an urban based revolution in which the party would participate and aim to lead. It must be pointed out that all of this happened by mistake. The failed Autumn Harvest and Nanchang Uprisings that disastrously ended the revolution in 1927 obliged what remained of its military force to flee into the nearby countryside, which included Mao Zedong and Zhu De.

It was here that this ragtag force built the first ‘rural soviet’. And for the very same reason that they fled the cities to hide in the nearby no-man’s-land of the Jinggangshan mountain range, (because this region was safe from government persecution), the CCP began to see the Soviet in the Jinggangshan as the panacea for their urban failure. If you want to create a ‘revolution’ artificially, it is far easier to do so in an obscure rural backwater with a loose and scattered peasantry than in an urban centre. After all, with the Canton Commune the CCP had tried to manufacture the revolution in a city, but without genuine mass support this lasted only 3 days. Contrariwise, the rural soviets lasted, in one form or another, right up until 1949.

Therefore considering Stalinism’s need to ‘find the revolution’, and given the party’s systematic loss of its best urban activists and its alienation from the working class, it was inevitable that it would stumble into the policy of rural armed struggle as its main strategy. Maoism was improvised independently of Mao himself and with little thought given to its long term consequences.

For the first few years of the 1930s the rural struggle was still officially subordinate to the urban one, with Party Central clandestinely based in Shanghai. But the fundamental point about the socialist revolution is that it can only happen thanks to the interdependence and unity of the working class. That whole sections of the party were forced to now base themselves on an extremely un-unified class (the peasantry) represented a massive defeat for the revolutionary forces, not an innovative step forwards. The Jinggangshan’s remoteness was not an advantage but a massive disadvantage, and it inevitably led to an objective dislocation and conflict between the rural and urban sections of the party. From now on unity of action, the best weapon in a Bolshevik party’s armoury, would be constantly undermined.

Mao’s Base in the Jinggangshan

Mao was born and raised in Hunan Province, a rural setting in South Central China and in close proximity to the Jinggang mountains, which straddled Jiangxi and Hunan Provinces. No doubt due to his peasant origins (most of the prominent youth in the party were from a student background) Mao took a great deal of interest in the party’s work amongst the peasantry, organising Peasant Associations in Hunan from 1925.

So when the Autumn Harvest Uprising was organised in Changsha (the capital of Hunan) in 1927, Mao was the comrade to lead it. When it was summarily crushed, he knew the surrounding countryside. As a man particularly steeped in China’s traditions of rural uprisings, he was most likely familiar with the local tendency for bandits and other outlaws to hide in the remoteness of the Luoxiao Mountains, of which the Jinggangshan range forms a part.

Because of the economic, social and political weakness of the peasantry as a class, any peasant based uprising must have the tendency to subordinate the politics of the movement to the narrow technical and military aspects of it. In the cities Marxists can work amongst the existing organisations of the working class, and therefore concentrate their efforts on giving those organisations a socialist programme. Organising peasant uprisings and revolutionary governments in the countryside, however, necessarily drags communists into the extremely difficult work of holding the movement together economically and militarily.

The scanty resources, low level of productivity and economic isolation found in Jinggangshan and other rural areas made running the Soviets a constant burden. As we shall see, the political needs (agrarian reform, raising of agricultural productivity etc.) of the movement had to be subordinated to the task of bare survival, let alone the fact that it was impossible to carry a revolutionary programme out on the basis of one or two Xiens (rural districts). If socialism in one country is impossible, socialism in one Xien was certainly a pipe dream!

If the desire to use the isolation of certain rural districts to keep the ‘revolution’ going flowed from Stalinism’s inherent bureaucratic, commandist methods, then the organisational weakness of the peasantry was its perfect social basis. One could hardly get away with invading the homes of workers in a city and declaring yourself their revolutionary government! But in a sparsely populated rural area, that is another question entirely.

The need to place organisational tasks ahead of winning the political struggle in this context is exemplified by the fact that the political organs of the supposed self-rule of the peasants in the Jinggangshan Soviet were established “artificially and directed from outside” (Guillermaz, op cit.) by what was in effect an invading and occupying force, albeit a benevolent one. These organs of power were not created by the peasant masses; they did not flow from their own struggle and experience. They could only be sprung up once the Red Army had done its military work. Thus there was no political experience of the masses as the prerequisite, there could be no political work conducted in convincing the peasant masses of the need for socialism as they went through their own struggle.

This explains Mao’s 1928 admission that “wherever the Red Army goes, the masses are cold and aloof, and only after our propaganda do they slowly move into action... We have an acute sense of our isolation which we keep hoping will end.” (Mao, quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). Again a party report in 1929 stated that “the masses completely failed to understand what the Red Army was. In many places, it was even attacked, like a bandit gang.” (quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

Formally speaking the soviet was democratic, but in order to ensure mass participation “everybody over the age of 16 had to take part.” (Guillermaz, op cit.). “The establishment and functioning of the new administration was constantly hindered by such difficulties as finding qualified office-bearers... lack of understanding of the respective roles of assemblies and committees” (Ibid).  But democracy is not a set of formal arrangements, a certain number of committees legally responsible to the people as the liberals imagine. Democracy is only real democracy when the mass of people actively and voluntarily participate and feel the process to be theirs.

Genuine democracy therefore has an economic basis – the masses must have the time, education and resources to exercise real control. But the economic conditions in places such as the Jinggangshan were to preclude this. The low level of productivity in these areas meant that peasants were already performing back-breaking work. For them to participate in the political organisation of their region was simply not possible. Furthermore, the population would undoubtedly have been illiterate and unaware of national politics. All these problems apply not only to Jinggangshan but also to the following Soviet established in Jiangxi as well as all the others established by the CCP in provinces such as Shaanxi.

In addition to this, the Jinggangshan was made up of particularly barren and infertile land. At the best of times it would barely have been able to feed its own peasant population, and yet the (in effect) occupying force of the Red Army now had to be fed too. Although when they first arrived they had only 1,000 troops, by the time Zhu De’s forces arrived, following their failure in the Nanchang Uprising, the number went up to approximately 5,000, and then reached a height of 10,000. That is a lot of people for 2,000 impoverished peasants to feed!

A harmonious and democratic socialist society therefore must be built on the highest of economic foundations; and yet here the CCP appeared to be trying to build it on the very lowest of foundations. True, at this time they had no illusions that socialism would be created here; they continually emphasised that these ‘Soviets’ were merely stepping stones to the proletarian revolution.

In reality, they represented a haven from the already failed proletarian revolution, an escape from reality, and so it was inevitable the party would be mired in these conditions for some time – in the end, this period lasted 22 years. They underestimated the essential role of the consciousness of the working class in the fight for socialism and therefore could not grasp what had been thrown away in 1927 thanks to Stalin’s policies. The workers could not be stimulated into action by a strange army in the countryside. It would take years of hard, patient work in the cities to win back the confidence and participation of the workers. For this reason they were unconscious that this ‘temporary’ concession to peasant politics would become the long-term foundation of the party.

The deleterious effect on the unity of the party that this barbaric struggle for survival had was already visible less than one year after arrival. By Summer 1928, the Red Army’s “operations had exhausted the region economically, while the food situation in the army, which was scarcely ever paid, had grown still worse. Yuan Zhongzuan, in command of the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Regiment, rebelled and killed his colonel and part of his unit followed him in his revolt for some time.” (Ibid). According to Mao himself “discipline was poor, political training was at a low level, and many wavering elements were among the men and officers. There were many desertions.” (Mao, quoted in Snow, op cit.).

It has already been mentioned that this remote area, and countless others like it, had traditionally harboured bandits and outlaws who, like the Red Army, could operate here in safety from the state. Indeed in order to settle in the area Mao not only had to placate two local bandit chiefs but was actually obliged to assimilate them into his army! It appears from his own account that Mao naively believed these roving de-classed elements were immediately transformed, by means of some verbal commitments, into “faithful Communists” “carrying out the orders of the party.” And yet he also admits that “later on, when they were left alone at Jinggangshan, they returned to their bandit habits. Subsequently they were killed by the peasants.” (Ibid). The desperateness of the efforts to build the Communist movement in these conditions clearly compelled the party to downplay the material and class basis for the movement in an idealist manner.

It’s no surprise to learn that if this environment was the ‘natural habitat’ for bandits, to the extent that the Red Army actually absorbed outlaws into its ranks, the Red Army itself began to lose its proletarian revolutionary character, and took on more of the lumpen-proletarian characteristics of a bandit gang. Again, Mao honestly lists these tendencies in the CCP and Red Army at the time,

“‘Partisanism’, for example, was a weakness reflected in lack of discipline, exaggerated ideas of democracy, and looseness of organisation. Another tendency that had to be fought was ‘vagabondage’ – a disinclination to settle down to the serious tasks of government, a love of movement, change, new experience and incident. There were also remnants of militarism, with some of the commanders maltreating or even beating the men, and discriminating against those they disliked personally, while showing favouritism to others.” (Ibid).

Under incessant military pressure from the Guomindang and facing a ruinous economic situation, the exodus from the Jinggangshan into Jiangxi took place in dribs and drabs from mid 1928 through to 1930. The first rural Soviet experiment, which was cobbled together ad hoc without the CCP really understanding what was in their hands, and under Mao’s leadership by an accident of history, had failed.

But guerrilla armies are stubborn things. They grow accustomed to their arms and heroic lifestyle; they lose touch with the city and the urban masses. They begin to see the only path to power, or at least the only way to sustain their own existence, as being in the continuation and enlargement of the guerrilla struggle.

The weakening of party structures, discipline and centralism that is inherent in leading an obscure rural armed struggle are evident here. Because although at this time Mao was repudiated by and expelled from the Central Committee for the loss of comrades this movement led to, with sections of the party beginning to decry this adventure, he nevertheless maintained his army in spite of their criticism.  So rather than pack-in this peculiar experiment in petty-bourgeois adventurism and return to the cities, Mao and his troops found it far easier to simply set up another camp in the neighbouring province.


Much time has been spent criticising the rural experiment beginning in the Jinggangshan. But it cannot be denied that the establishment and maintenance of a rural government in the most adverse of conditions and after years of party failures represented a huge technical achievement. The success in establishing a government in the Jinggangshan meant that a Communist haven from persecution had been created.

For that reason when Mao and Zhu De’s band were forced to abandon their first base here, they found in the neighbouring province of Jiangxi (and in a few other border areas) rudimentary Soviet bases already established. Communist refugees from cities such as Changsha established copy-cat bases, so this was the natural place to take the forces from the Jinggangshan. It is unclear to what extent the moves to create these various bases were led or coordinated by the CCP leadership (still in Shanghai), but it would seem that to a large extent these activities were simply the unplanned outcome of the failed uprisings of 1930 detailed above.

By 1931 Mao was now leading what was known as the Jiangxi Central Soviet, with headquarters in Ruijin (then called Juichin). This was by far the biggest of the 7 soviet bases in and around Jiangxi. At the beginning of the Jiangxi period in 1930, there were about 60-70,000 Red Army troops defending these bases.

The new base was undoubtedly more successful than the previous one, for several reasons. Of course by now Mao and the Red Army had gained valuable experience in establishing a rural government, and the cadres in the party must have been toughened up after three years in the countryside. The land in Jiangxi was, like the Jinggangshan, suitable from a defensive point of view, being both mountainous and remote. But it also had the advantage of being more hospitable and therefore the Red Army was better fed and, crucially, less of a burden for the local peasantry who had to feed them. Finally, the Guomindang regime was weakened by splits, civil wars, regional dislocation and general unpopularity.

In these more fertile conditions the movement flourished. The total population governed by the Chinese Soviet Republic, as it was now called, grew to a size of up to five million from 1932-4. 17,375 new comrades were recruited to the CCP in 1931-3. 4.2% of the local population were party members and in 1932 there were 678 rural branches. This compares with only 10 branches in factories, 1 in a school, 123 in public sector workplaces and 160 in the military. Whereas in “all non-Communist territory” there were only around 6,000 members (bear in mind the number of urban and working class members will have been still lower than that, since this figure includes all non-Communist territory), there were as many as 97,000 members in Jiangxi alone (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). This shows how rapidly the party had lost its working class, urban base.

James Pinckney Harrison gives some useful statistics on Red Army numbers and the CCP class composition in the rural areas,

“The various Red Armies, of which there were about a half-dozen principal groups and more than a dozen in all, supposedly grew from less than 10,000 in 1928 to 22,000 in 1929 to 66,000 in the spring of 1930 to something more than 100,000 by early 1931. Estimates of total strength in 1932 ranged from 92,900 to 200,800, to possibly as many as 300,000 men in all groups by late 1933. Much of the time, about half or more of these forces were associated with Mao Zedong and Zhu De, who had more than 100,000 men by mid-1933.


“early in 1934, 28% of Red Army men were Party members, and another 16.6% were members of the Communist Youth League. Thus, about 45% of all Red Army men and a higher proportion of its officers (about 55%) were in the CCP or its youth affiliate. Only 4% of army men were over 39, 44% were from 23 to 39, 51% were 15 to 22, and 1 % were under 15. Their class backgrounds were supposedly 30% worker (apparently including 20% ‘agricultural labourers’) and 68% peasant; about 1% were former government employees and 1% ‘other’. Another survey, of 1932, reported proportions of 57.5% of the Red Armies peasant, 28% (former Nationalist or warlord) soldier, 8.75% ‘vagabond and bandit’, and 5.75% worker...The source of recruitment of the Red Armies was 77% from ‘revolutionary bases,’ 12% from Guomindang areas, 4% defected from Guomindang armies, and 7% converted prisoners of war.” (Ibid).

Economic and Social Relations in the Soviets

But let us be absolutely clear, the rural Soviets express the most herculean struggle, the noblest sacrifice of the downtrodden Chinese masses. In them we find an extraordinary determination to overcome all obstacles. Against the odds, the comrades managed to achieve many progressive tasks, and it is in large part thanks to the objectively progressive role of the rural soviets that the CCP was swept to power in 1949.

The Progressive Role of the Soviets

The absolute cornerstone of this was the progressive agrarian reform carried out, in various forms, by the CCP in this period. The November 1931 Land Law of the Soviet Republic states that,

“...all the lands of the feudal landlords, tuhao, gentry, militarists and other big private landowners, shall be subject to confiscation without any compensation whatever, irrespective of whether they themselves work their lands or rent them out on lease. The Soviets will distribute the confiscated lands among the poor and middle peasants... Hired farm hands, coolies, and toiling labourers shall enjoy equal rights to land allotments, irrespective of sex... Aged persons, orphans, and widows, who are not in a position to work and who have no relatives on whom to depend, shall be given social relief by the Soviet government.” (Land Law of the Soviet Republic, November 1931)

The Constitution of the Soviet Republic from November 1931 “guarantees to the workers, peasants, and toilers freedom of speech and the press as well as the right to assembly... the workers, peasants, and toiling masses shall enjoy the use of printing shops, meeting halls, and similar establishments by the power of a people’s regime, as a material basis for the realisation of these rights and liberties.”

With regards to the ethnic minorities encountered on the Long March (which was like the Chinese Soviet Republic in transit), the Red Army broke down their hatred of the dominant Han Chinese on a class basis, explaining that there were actually ‘Red’ and ‘White’ Chinese. They freed tribes from their oppression by the warlords, and as a result these nationally oppressed peoples spread the good word about this poor man’s army. The current CCP regime could learn a lot from such an intelligent and class based approach to the national question in places such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

The Marriage Law of the Chinese Soviet Republic prohibited arranged marriages and the buying and selling of women. Marriage had to have the consent of both parties and any couple could be given a marriage certificate free of charge. All children were considered legitimate, and either party could get a divorce for free. The property was then divided equally, both parents had to care for the children, and the male was obliged to supply two-thirds of the child’s living expenses (Snow, op cit.).

Of course, progressive laws are just words on paper before they become a social reality, and as we shall see, in the backward, destitute and militarily insecure conditions of the rural soviets, reality rarely matched up to the legal ideal. Nevertheless, these laws combined with the radical land programme represent an extremely bold step forward.

The bold entry of this party onto the scene was like the sweep of an invigorating hurricane of fresh air through a stale cellar. These were areas where destitute peasants were crushed by a millennia old class system. On the basis of an outdated and extreme form of class exploitation, ancient and cruel Chinese practices such as child slavery, concubinage and foot-binding were carried on well into the 20th Century. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an extraordinarily well organised and determined party establishes itself. It not only preaches a few progressive ideas, such as an end to despotism, but actually carries out a programme of wealth equalisation and with the most modern of social programmes for women, ethnic minorities, children, etc. Indeed their marriage laws were significantly more progressive than those of many Western countries even today.

According to Edgar Snow, who lived for some time in the Soviet areas of China, the Soviets managed to completely eliminate opium cultivation and use, official corruption, beggary and unemployment, child slavery and prostitution, and foot-binding and infanticide were finally made illegal. Land deeds were destroyed, taxes on poor peasants abolished and the poor peasantry was armed. All of this was achieved by what appeared to be a ragtag band of defeated and isolated Communists. Whereas under the Guomindang regime, whose key task was supposed to be ending landlordism and the obscene rents that crushed the peasantry and agriculture as a whole, the landlord system was strengthened and rural inequality deepened, as we have seen above.

It is no surprise then that “as many as 80% of the eligible youth joined Communist sponsored organisations” (Guillermaz, op cit.). The enthused and sympathetic peasants spread the word, so that during the Long March the Red Army essentially had a vast and impossible to infiltrate network of informal peasant spies and scouts.

According to Mao’s Report to the Second All-China Soviet Congress in January 1934, the proportion of the Soviet administered population voting in the Soviet elections in late 1933 was more than 80%. He also claimed that “in the majority of city and xiang [village] Soviets, women delegates constitute more than 25%”, and in some districts women delegates were actually the majority.

Of course Mao had an interest in prettifying the regime and made a serious error in presenting this as the building of rural socialism. For the reasons outlined above, socialism cannot be built from the peasantry upwards, and collective peasant self rule will always be a fiction, due to their being scattered and illiterate, their lack of time and their varying levels of wealth and interests. But the evidence is that the Soviet government did grant the peasantry genuine social and economic freedoms and did engender a certain amount of enthusiasm.

Why in the 1930s did the CCP manage to grant genuine freedom of expression and democracy if upon seizing national power in 1949, the very same people established a totalitarian regime (albeit one that did still carry through land reform and nationalisations)? Because this rural regime’s existence was daily threatened from outside in the form of the Guomindang and the warlords, and from the inside in the form of economic weakness. To combat the constant external military threat, Mao needed to mobilise the maximum number of peasants to fight for the Soviet, and he had no recourse to a large and established state apparatus to coerce the masses into doing so. To combat the incessant danger of economic catastrophe, he needed to give the peasantry control over their land so that they did not feel that in feeding the CCP forces, they were labouring under the same old exploitation in another name.

It was their objectively progressive role that the CCP depended on for their survival. Socialist revolution represented to hundreds of millions of toiling Chinese masses the only real way out. They had seen what the bourgeois nationalists in the form of the Guomindang could do. The USA is thought to have spent, in various forms, around $50m on propping up the Chiang Kai-shek regime. The still weak USSR spent no more than $15,000 per month on maintaining the CCP. And yet the influence of Russia and Communist ideas on the Chinese masses was infinitely greater, because only they had the boldness to finish thousands of years of class rule. As Mao himself put it,

“The peasant millions, awakening from their long dark age, have confiscated land and other properties from all the landlords and fertile land from the rich peasants, abolishing usury and onerous taxation. They have eliminated everything which stands in the way of the revolution and built up their own regime. For the first time, the Chinese peasant masses have broken their way out of the hell [they live in] and made themselves their own masters. This is the fundamental situation that differentiates the rural districts under the Soviet from those under the KMT.” (Mao, op cit.)

Material Realities

The secret of history, its hidden thread, is the ability of society to develop the means of production. The viability of any social system, however big or small, rests upon its ability to do so. If the relations of production are such that the forces of production from which society lives stagnate or decline, then those relations of production are doomed to extinction.

Therefore the litmus test for the Chinese Soviet Republic was not the earnestness with which the comrades pursued their project, nor the tolerance for hard work in the peasantry. It was whether or not an isolated rural district under military siege and with no industrial base could improve the living standards of the peasantry, as well as sustain its own military force, purely on the basis of land re-division. The evidence is that in the long run, no, they could not.

In fact, Marx explained not only that any social system depends on its ability to develop the productive forces, but also that a new, higher social system can only come about on the basis of the full development and exhaustion of the old social system. Although it is true that the old system of landlordism found in China’s rural districts was beyond exhaustion, it was by no means the case that the valid successor growing out of this system was the rural Soviet system.

For the landlord system did not stand in splendid isolation, but was crowned by industrial, capitalist relations in the cities. What the CCP was doing then, was to try to impose a utopian rural communism onto the occupied areas. In doing so they cut these areas off from the industrial relations they previously depended on. As a result the agricultural production in these areas had to be sustained with extremely limited access to the products of industry in China, let alone the rest of the world. For all its communistic ideals, this did not represent a higher social system than the semi-feudal production which it replaced.

In the final analysis politics does not trump economic relations; one cannot mould social relations from outside without oneself being fundamentally conditioned by economic relations. It was therefore inevitable that in one way or another the CCP would succumb to the enormous social pressures of the environment.

To the extent that they were able to trade with the rest of the Chinese economy, the administration of the Soviet areas always tended towards bankruptcy, since its illegal and extremely precarious existence determined very unfair terms of trade (Snow, op cit.).

This was partially overcome by heavy taxation on the rich and ‘voluntary contributions of the people’. Illegal trade with the outside world necessarily had an extremely limited or depressed character, and so both these ‘solutions’, which are not based on production and merely redistribute existing wealth, were not solutions by any means. 40-50% of total Soviet expenditure was derived from confiscations, and 15-20% from voluntary contributions. A minority of revenue was from productive activity. It is clear that if the CCP failed to overthrow the Guomindang in the cities it would perish.

In order to sustain their existence in these desperate conditions, there must have been strong incentives to embark on dangerous military adventures to seize new territory containing productive industry or other resources. Strategy would be more and more determined by economic necessity rather than the class struggle, and the Party was forced to conquer areas to survive, like a benevolent imperialism. Once again we can see how holing oneself up in economic isolation from the rest of society and placing oneself outside of the class struggle, has unavoidable tendencies towards degeneration for a Marxist party.

Social Relations in the Rural Soviet

It is easy to imagine that rural areas of China at this time had a simple class composition similar to that of the cities – rich landlords and the poverty stricken peasants whose labour power the former exploited. Actually the simplicity of social relations in the cities is unique to capitalism. The peasantry is not a mass of equally poor labourers, but has as many social distinctions within itself as there are geographical differences.

The 1928 Resolution of the Sixth National Congress on the Peasant Movement points out that whereas in Southern and Central China “landless peasants constitute the majority of the rural population, and the major aspect of the struggle centres on opposing landlords”, in Northern China “the majority of peasants are small landowners.” It follows from this that it is impossible for this class, to the extent that something as heterogeneous as this can be considered one class, to lead a unified national struggle to transform society around common interests, since this group lacks common interests.

Actually the above statement in itself is an oversimplification of the peasantry, since it gives the impression that within one very large area (Southern and Central China) there is a more or less homogenous composition of the peasantry, who like the working class ‘have nothing to lose but their chains.’ This is not accurate as the CCP would learn in the coming years.

The complexity of social relations in the Soviets of Southern China is indicated in the strategy and tactics that the CCP was obliged to pursue, which resembles a circus performer juggling knives whilst walking the tightrope,

“Our class line in the agrarian revolution is to depend upon the hired farm hands and poor peasants, to ally with the middle peasants, to check the rich peasants, and to annihilate the landlords... Hence, the Soviet government should deal severely with all erroneous tendencies to infringe upon the middle peasants (mainly the well-to-do middle peasants) or to annihilate the rich peasants.” (Mao, Report to the Second All-China Soviet Congress, 1934)

Some peasants had no property whatsoever, and constantly sold their labour power to others, just like a worker. However, unlike workers they did not constitute a majority of the rural population and did not work socially, i.e. in large numbers with a division of labour, and consequently lacked social weight that the CCP could base itself upon.

Also, unlike workers they did not sell their labour power to one kind of possessing class from whom their interests were clearly, sharply differentiated. Some sold their labour power to middle peasants, who as the above quoted passage from Mao indicates, did not have diametrically opposed interests to the poor peasants whose labour they may have enlisted – they too were exploited by landlords, who often owned some of their land and to whom they paid rent.

Both groups were also exploited by merchants (some of whom were also landlords) who took advantage of their capital and access to industrial goods to squeeze the atomised and weak peasantry. But their ability to unite in a common struggle and do away with the class divisions in the countryside was barred by the fact that middle peasants had an interest in maintaining the system of landownership which they partially benefitted from, and by the simple fact that their work focused around atomised economic units tenuously connected by a market they were the victims of. Lacking the social distillation of the modern city, the countryside can never of its own accord sweep away all the ancient injustices by implementing and carrying to completion the agrarian revolution. The political unity and swiftness of action necessary for ending the power of the ruling class can only be found in the working class in the cities.

These factors made it impossible for the CCP to pursue a militant revolutionary policy in the rural Soviets, and as time went on their agrarian policy generally moved from the more revolutionary to one of open class collaboration. Middle peasants, let alone the rich ones, would rebel if the re-division of the land were too thoroughgoing, and so the CCP had to back down to stay in power. Hence the fact that by June 1933, the party openly admitted that three quarters of the Central Soviet area had witnessed no land reform under their watch. (Guillermaz, op cit.)

And since their power was restricted to small and economically dependent areas, they depended on the local bourgeoisie through whom they accessed the wider market. They therefore could not pursue a policy too antagonistic to bourgeois interests. Class collaboration therefore became a necessary policy of the rural struggle.

Trapped in a position of governing a class divided region within which no single class had the power to transform the situation, the CCP was essentially playing the role of managing the class struggle, attempting to find a formula with which to balance between the class forces, with no hope of eliminating the ruling class. Unconsciously, the party became a Bonapartist regime.

It is a law of history that any state apparatus which is not the instrument of a new, rising class, will inevitably become transformed into an instrument in the hands of the old ruling class. At least to an extent, in the brief amount of time that the CCP ruled any one area, it would appear that the party was infiltrated and used by the landlords and rich peasants.

“‘Two-thirds of the government is in the hands of the rich peasants,’ wrote a correspondent from one of the Soviet districts in 1931. ‘Rich peasants are in all the party posts,’ wrote another in August that same year. In 1933, at Juichin, the Soviet capital, a leading spokesman wrote:

“‘The land was divided, but the landlords and rich peasants also received land and better land at that. A number of landlord and rich peasant elements still retain their authority and position in the villages... Not a few of them are in control of party and government institutions and use them to carry out their own class interests...’” (Isaacs, op cit.)

This attempt to bureaucratically ‘manage’ or constrict the class struggle, to make it fit into their schemas, is also expressed in the constitution of the Chinese Soviet Republic. Here farm labourers, handicraft workers and other amorphous and ephemeral semi-classes which in some way resembled the urban proletariat (on which the party still officially based itself) were declared to be the rural proletariat and as such were arbitrarily granted greater representation in Soviet elections, like a consolation prize for their lack of real power. But democracy and the class struggle are not simply outwardly balanced arithmetical combinations, but the real movement and power of the masses.

All these factors played a key role in the decision to abandon the Jiangxi bases and begin the famous Long March to Shaanxi. Of course the Soviets were continually facing extermination from wave after wave of Guomindang attacks (more on these later). One of the worst effects of these extermination campaigns, combined as they were with the trade embargo applied to the region, was the fact that as the productive class it was the peasantry who bore the burden. As in the Jinggangshan before, the CCP was an occupying force living off the surplus produced by the local peasantry’s back-breaking work, but was incapable of leading the liberation of the peasantry. This could be masked for a time if there were a good harvest, but when things inevitably turned for the worst, it was the same peasants who suffered.

It has already been explained that the shifting of the base of the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1920s from the proletariat to the scattered peasantry inevitably meant the increasing dislocation of the party leadership, with as many factional struggles as the party had local bases. By 1928 five major factions in the party existed in the aftermath of the failed 1925-27 revolution; submerging the party in this rural, petty-bourgeois environment would do nothing to resolve these factional disputes. It is within this environment that Mao was to eventually emerge as leader.


The Emergence of Mao

The story of Mao’s emergence is inseparable from his pivotal role in the rural Soviet movement. If we can allow ourselves to make a simplification, we can say that Mao’s path to power was the story of the struggle between the Party Central leadership, based in Shanghai and closely tied to Moscow, and that of the new rural tendency led by Mao.

The earliest flashpoint in this power struggle took place in September 1928. Mao used his leading position in the Jinggangshan Soviet to remove his pro-Party Central opponents in the CCP’s Hunan Committee from the Jinggangshan area, giving him total control of the 4th Red Army (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

If we can trace a general political difference between these two tendencies, it is that Party Central still viewed the rural struggle as merely a tool with which to kick-start the more important proletarian revolution. In that respect their strategy was an ultra-left one; it was one of impatience and ignorance of the real conditions in the countryside and the consciousness of urban workers.

The tendency actually rooted in the countryside and led by Mao, on the other hand, was that which began to view the rural struggle as fundamental to the revolution. From a tactical and technical point of view, Mao was correct in objecting to Party Central’s impatience and adventurism. They wanted the rural bases to be constantly used as launch pads from which to attack the cities. As the best exponent of the more cautious guerrilla tactics in battling the Guomindang’s four ‘Encirclement’ or ‘Extermination’ campaigns on the Jiangxi bases, Mao was the natural leader of the Party as the rural struggle became its struggle.

However, it was not only Mao’s more intelligent guerrilla tactics that made him so suited to the rural struggle, it was also his Bonapartist tendencies. In conditions where the working class is going forward it is very hard to establish oneself as the leader of a proletarian, Bolshevik organisation in a bureaucratic, strong-arm manner. The working class is capable of taking a leading role in politics, and is therefore less want to tolerate such leadership. The peasantry is much more adapted to being moulded as a tool in the hands of Bonapartist elements. Also, such leaders would of course (unless the party were in power) not have recourse to armies and police, so their ‘strong-arm’ character would be an illusion easily exposed. In the rural Soviets however, Mao did have access to a state apparatus and a more pliable peasantry.

His actions in removing opponents, such as that described above, are an example of his method of leadership – rather than winning authority through political debate, he used his position to shift his opponents around. Local Communists “resented his strong-arm methods of taking over local Party organisations” (Ibid), and consequently these opponents had to be removed too.

The Futian Incident

In late 1930 in their new base in Jiangxi, Mao and his closest ally in the Red Army, Zhu De, had 4,400 members of the XX Corps of the Red Army arrested as ‘anti-Bolsheviks’. In response, a leader of this Corps “led several hundred followers” in open rebellion against Mao, killing several and freeing those imprisoned and establishing a “rival Soviet government” in Yungyang (Ibid). This is how the infamous Futian incident began.

Mao’s counterattack is thought to have led to the execution of as many as 700 Red Army officers and 70,000 deaths in total in all the resulting purges over the years. A massacre on this scale can only have served to further weaken the party, destroy many good cadres, and generally to have strengthened the Stalinist transformation of the Party.

A belated Party Central Bureau report from 1932 concluded that Mao’s brutality, including his use of “physical torture”, led to “many revolutionary organisations and offices [being] destroyed.” It also stated that “no effort has been made to mobilise, educate, and win over the masses. On the contrary, a reign of terror has been created among the masses.”

Mao’s opponents in this affair attempted to defeat him by driving a wedge between himself and the leader of the Red Army and Mao’s closest ally, Zhu De. But Zhu strongly backed Mao and the wider Jiangxi leadership erred on the side of caution and backed Mao too.

To defeat his enemies within the Party Mao found it necessary to create a secret police for the Soviet areas. As Marxists we do not condemn the use of secret police against genuine enemies of the revolution, against those trying to undermine workers’ power. However, where there is no workers’ democracy, no genuine workers’ power such organisations are fraught with danger for the revolution. Only a healthy workers’ state, one directly, democratically controlled by the workers, has the revolutionary strength necessary to wield such an instrument without inflicting mortal blows onto itself.

Mao’s fledgling Soviet state was nothing of the sort however. There could be no mass democratic control of this state apparatus since it was never created by the disorganised rural masses. By pushing a weak and divided party into a fruitless armed struggle, the Comintern determined that the Chinese Party would turn on itself in this way. Denied by Moscow the liberty to digest the bitter fruits of their defeat and learn the lessons – which would have involved a thorough criticism of the Comintern leadership – the Party turned in on itself and resorted to the methods of the secret police and purges that were directed not at the class enemy but at critical party members.

It should not be Mao that is blamed for adopting such methods, for he was merely applying the practices Stalin himself had mastered. But having now dabbled in these ‘dark arts’, neither Mao nor any other CCP leadership would be able to do without them.

The unpleasant history of these factional struggles, with their attendant executions, does not owe its existence to the personality traits of Mao et al, but rather to the conditions. This is proven by the experience of Xu Zhishen, a military leader in the E Yu Wan Soviet. This base was completely geographically separate from Mao’s base, and yet his experience was so similar to that of the Futian incident. After an apparent dispute with local Party leaders over guerrilla tactics and land reform, Xu and the men under his command prepared a rebellion. When they were discovered in September 1931, at least 600 of them were arrested and about 30 executed (Ibid).

The tendency for political differences to degenerate from open, honest debate into direct armed struggle is an obvious result of the predicament the CCP was in. The extreme difficulties of survival would naturally lead to continual political differences. The primacy of the Red Army in all CCP matters in the rural struggle meant that political differences would tend to be solved, not on the basis of what line was correct for the revolution, but on the basis of what best served the most immediate military needs.

Military Tactics

Mao’s strength in the Party was inversely proportional to the strength of Party Central in Shanghai and the degree of influence from Moscow. On the surface, the manoeuvres in the party in the early 1930s would indicate a succession of defeats for Mao. But paradoxically it was precisely these defeats that laid the basis for his eventual total control of the Party in 1935.

The weakness of the party in the major cities and the lack of funds from Moscow forced the Party Central leadership to move into the Jiangxi Soviet from April 1931 through to 1933. This fact in itself proves the capitulation to rural tendencies and the jettisoning of the ‘proletarian’ line of the party.

However, the immediate effect of this was to weaken Mao as the rural leader, since he no longer had the rural base to himself but was joined by the official and Moscow backed party leadership. However, Mao’s superior understanding of the rural and military struggle ensured that over time he would win a total victory over Party Central, since they were now fish out of water in the countryside. The coincidence of this period with Chiang Kai-shek’s most determined campaign to destroy the Red Army meant that Party Central’s more ‘revolutionary’, ‘proletarian’ line would be put to the test and found wanting. That explains why Mao was able to take power in 1935.

The first ‘Encirclement Campaign’ against the Jiangxi Soviet took place from late 1930 to early 1931, to be followed by the second one in April and May 1931, and the third from July to September 1931. The CCP defence of the base was led by Zhu De and Lo Ming according to Mao’s intelligent guerrilla tactics, which were adapted to the fact that in each campaign the Guomindang commanded between three and ten times as many forces. Mao’s famous slogans “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue” and “our strategy is to pit 1 against 10, but our tactic is to pit 10 against 1” eloquently sum up how their technically inferior forces were able to repel each of these assaults with evasion and the clever use of geography.

But the fourth and fifth encirclement campaigns coincided with the entry of Party Central into Jiangxi. Although Mao dominated the election to the First National Congress of the Chinese Soviet Republic in late 1931, he was second fiddle to Party Central upon its arrival. Before these two campaigns took place, Party Central leaders such as Zhou Enlai (later to be Mao’s Premier for 26 years after the revolution) severely criticised Mao’s ‘conservative’ guerrilla tactics of ‘luring the enemy in deep’. He stated that the Red Army’s strategy must not allow the enemy to occupy ‘one inch of territory’. To showcase their new strategy, they ordered several attacks on nearby Guomindang held towns, but these were largely unsuccessful.

Mao was then excluded from the Politburo elected in January 1934. His opponents were strengthened by the relative success of their tactics in the Fourth Encirclement Campaign of early 1933, in which, by using aggressive positional warfare, their 70,000 odd troops managed to defeat the 500,000 or so Guomindang troops.

Despite this, Mao was re-elected chairman of the Soviet Republic in February 1934 (only one month after failing to get onto the Politburo) which demonstrated his real base of support in the Soviet movement. The final encirclement campaign put Party Central’s tactics to their first real test, since Chiang Kai-shek now had amassed roughly one million troops and had converted to a more intelligent strategy of attrition. This campaign lasted much longer, from September 1933 to October 1934.

The effect was devastating on the CCP. When Party Central continued to maintain the need to doggedly hold onto all territory with the slogan ‘victory or death’, Mao proposed an alternative plan of breaking up the Red Armies to lead a complex escape plan. Initially ignored, his proposal was suddenly taken up in a panic after their own plans spectacularly failed, leaving no other option but to flee the base.

In this way Mao’s eventual control of the party takes place within the context of the nationalist degeneration of the Comintern. The failure of the Comintern’s policies had put the CCP under such strains that it is no surprise that a home-grown leader would eventually come to power against the wishes of Moscow. Moscow also dug its own grave by encouraging the rural experiment, for this isolation detached the Party from Moscow, as Guillermaz summed up,

“[In the Jiangxi base] the Chinese communists had a territorial base and its population to organise and administer... After the Li Lisan adventure, fewer and fewer attempts were made to apply policies inspired by Moscow and formulated in secret meetings of the Central Committee in Shanghai. The Party’s planning now began to recognise the limitations imposed by time and place. The whole Party hierarchy was concerned with practical considerations, particularly Mao Zedong and Zhu De, whose only hope was to make their troops last as long as possible against the Guomindang, and to safeguard their development against the Central Committee”. (Guillermaz, op cit.)

For those who want to understand the reasons for the later Sino-Soviet Split, it is necessary to study its origins in Moscow’s monstrous bureaucratic mishandling of the CCP and Mao’s independent power base deep in the Jiangxi mountains.

The Price of Jiangxi

Mao’s emergence as the outstanding leader of the CCP as a guerrilla movement is in a sense well deserved. But it is important to note that the power struggle was based around technical, tactical and organisational questions, not political ones. Both contending factions accepted Moscow’s insistence that the revolution be continued by the CCP in the absence of any participation from the masses. And both factions fought out the battle in a bureaucratic, rather than political and democratic manner.

Despite Mao’s genius for guerrilla warfare, from a Marxist perspective the Jiangxi Soviet experiment can only be summed up as a gigantic failure which the party was lucky to survive. The relentless assault from the Guomindang army, which was inevitable in the establishment of a rural Soviet, led to unbearable sufferings for the local population (Guillermaz, op cit), who as we explained were never consulted about this adventure. Such a situation was entirely predictable. This allowed the Guomindang to successfully organise the local population against the CCP in the final encirclement, essentially bribing them with food (Ibid).

The local population were also alienated by the CCP who relied upon them for their intensive recruitment campaigns. These campaigns became ever more intense towards the end of the Jiangxi base as the CCP had by now lost half the membership it had in 1930, thanks to defections and war casualties. The Party had overstayed its welcome and, even with Mao’s superior tactics, sooner or later the Party would have been driven out of Jiangxi. Clearly it was a mistake in the first place to submerge the party in this work.

In one siege of the Fifth Encirclement Campaign the Red Army lost 60,000 troops, and in total one million people were killed in the retaking of Jiangxi from 1930-34 (Snow, op cit.). We must salute the incredible heroism, self-sacrifice and suffering that these hardy Communists endured, but must also recognise what a tragically unnecessary waste of political talent this was. The toll on the political strength of the Party is impossible to measure, but by now, with the combination of the massacres in the 1927 defeat and the endless military losses in the Soviet period, it can only have been devastating.

What is remarkable is that the Party survived all this in any form at all.

The flight to the countryside forced upon the leadership the need for flexibility and self-sacrifice at the expense of political foresight and influence in the working class. Similarly, the desperate way in which the Long March was begun as a daring escape from certain destruction really brought out all the tactical genius of the party and in particular of Mao Zedong.

The Long March

Facing annihilation there could be no democratically agreed plan on how to conduct this march. There could be no vote on whether it was the correct course of action and where it was to end up. The rural conditions meant that the CCP leadership had to devote all its thinking to the tasks of bare survival, never mind the political costs. In this way the organisational genius that brought the CCP to power is in inverse proportion to the strength of its level of political foresight.

Prior to the true beginning of the Long March several similar expeditions from some of the other Soviet bases had taken place, which demonstrates the necessity to leavethe wider Jiangxi area following years of Guomindang harassment. One of these, starting out with a very small force, was more or less destroyed; however the forces of the legendary general Xu Haidong were trailblazers for this epic expedition. They left their E Yu Wan base (a separate, more northerly base to Mao’s Jiangxi one) about one month earlier than the main force and successfully reached the end point in Shaanxi before anyone else, after spending just over a year at a base in Sichuan.

Breaking Free

Between 16th and 19th October 1934 the main force of 90,000 began the Long March with a fearsome drive through the Guomindang blockade. The Red Army concentrated its forces at one point, staying true to Mao’s maxim of ‘pitting 10 against 1’ and succeeded with a combination of daring, surprise, luck and willingness to make harsh sacrifices. They gained the crucial element of surprise precisely due to their daring and willingness to sacrifice – the Guomindang never expected the CCP to leave its beloved commune and march tens of thousands into the unknown, but they did it.

They brilliantly tricked Chiang’s forces by leaving behind several thousand fighters to confuse the Guomindang and delay their realisation of what was going on. Although almost everyone in the 14 (small) bases left behind in Jiangxi was eventually killed, the tactic was an undoubted success as the Guomindang took almost a full month to really understand what the main army was doing. Without that time the Long March would likely have been intercepted in its earliest stages and abruptly ended, along with the CCP as a party. The success of the march always depended on the CCP’s ability to stay one step ahead. The tactics of surprise, audacity and sacrifice with which the CCP broke out of the stranglehold would remain their key tactics and advantages against the Guomindang throughout the march.

The CCP’s main military force in the Long March was the First Red Army, which departed from Jiangxi in mid October as described above. It was led by Mao Zedong and Zhu De and as described started the march with around 90,000 (the majority, but not all, were soldiers). The route they took and the legendary escapades they performed represent the Long March as it is commonly understood.

However, there were two other core armies leading similar marches for the same reasons, and at various points coalescing with the other armies, despite starting from different places. The Second Red Army was led by He Long and left from a smaller Soviet located to the West of Mao’s main Central Soviet in Jiangxi. And the Fourth Red Army was led by Zhang Guotao, composed of elements that had been based in the more northerly E Yu Wan Soviet. He commanded a force of just under 20,000 when leaving their base in 1932, and reached a meeting point with the First Red Amy in Sichuan Province before Mao’s forces. Xu Haidong’s smaller force, the XXV Corps, also led their own Long March from E Yu Wan as mentioned above, leaving one month prior to Mao’s First Red Army and also arriving in Shaanxi one month before.

The first real event of note in the Long March is the crossing of the Xiang River as the First Red Army moved westwards from Jiangxi into Hunan. This was part of the vague plan to move westwards through Hunan and Guizhou into Yunnan, a relatively remote and densely forested province in the South Western extreme of China, far from the clutches of Nanjing. The general idea was to then turn north into Sichuan, where there was already a base established by Zhang Guotao’s Fourth Red Army.

Moltke, the great German strategist, made a very profound statement when he said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The crossing of the Xiang River sums up the precariousness of the CCP’s existence in the Long March and the imperative to switch tactics at a moment’s notice. Having correctly read their line of movement by mid-November, the Guomindang moved troops into Hunan to meet them. They struck at the weakest point in the First Red Army’s line of march, that is at the Xiang River crossing bottleneck. The crossing must have been extremely inefficient since it took four days to cross. According to Pinckney Harrison, by the time the crossing was completed at the end of November, the First Red Army had lost one third of their comrades as casualties and desertions. By now, the First Red Army had been whittled down to 30,000 soldiers and 5,000 political cadres – down from 90,000 only one month earlier. This dire situation forced Mao’s army to change course.

The Zunyi Conference

Just over one month later, on 5th January 1935, the First Red Army captured the town of Zunyi, in the northern extreme of Guizhou Province, then close to the border with Sichuan, but now near the municipality of Chongqing.

The very next day an ‘enlarged conference of the Political Bureau’, better known as the Zunyi Conference, took place. All the contradictions between the official Party Central leadership (responsible for the disastrous aggressive line in the Fifth Encirclement Campaign) and reality, as represented by Mao, were brought into the open.

Grievances were suddenly and sharply expressed as the immense burdens of the Long March showed their toll. “Peng Dehuai first criticised the leadership of the Long March”, “Mao Zedong then broadened the attack to include Communist tactics against the fifth Encirclement Campaign, and during the Long March.” Then “Liu Shaoqi extended the criticisms to ‘white’ area policies, which had been so ‘leftist’ as to make urban work impossible, and demanded a general policy review.” As a result of this tirade, “Chief of Staff Liu Bocheng reversed his earlier stand to support criticisms made by Peng Dehuai, Mao, and Liu Shaoqi, and when Zhou Enlai admitted his participation in many errors of judgement, it became possible for Zhang Wentian and others to promote a compromise solution” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

The nature of this compromise was the passing of a resolution incorporating many of these criticisms. Although the resolution pulled its punches and declared the current leadership to be generally correct, it is clear that the incorporation of these criticisms represents a mortal blow to the Moscow favoured leadership. After this conference they never regained their authority and Mao, despite not being officially made chairman, was now the ‘dominant personality’ in the leadership, and was listed first in the Politburo when its membership was read out to the Comintern leadership later that year.

The political capital the ‘Party Central’ leadership derived from Moscow’s support had now exhausted itself; Mao’s momentum, built up from his superior tactics and rural foundation, had propelled him to pre-eminence. The period of turmoil in the Party leadership in the wake of the catastrophic failure of 1927, with all its repercussions, had come to an end, and the Party had finally found a leader in harmony with its new rural, guerrilla self. Mao would not relinquish rule in the Party until his death 41 years later.

Luding Bridge

The First Red Army departed their temporary base in Zunyi in early February 1935. In the manoeuvres the army carried out in the next few months we find the daring, ingenuity and heroism of the Long March at its peak.

The rest period of roughly one month in Zunyi lost the CCP the head-start it had relied upon, and so the provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan were by now infested with hundreds of thousands of Guomindang troops waiting for them at every turn. Chiang Kai-shek had time to draw up plans and ensure that all strategic points, such as river crossings, were heavily fortified. The CCP could therefore rely only on their greater capacity for self-sacrifice and hardship, based as they were on politically committed troops rather than poorly paid and poorly treated conscripts.

To escape Guizhou, “a series of distracting manoeuvres” with “two columns, and sometimes as many as four columns, engaged in a series of baffling manoeuvres”, were used “so that it became more and more difficult for Nanjing planes to identify the day-by-day objective” (Snow, op cit.). The lengthy tracks traced by the Red Army to escape the clutches of the Guomindang in Guizhou took four months to complete, during which they destroyed five enemy divisions, recruited 20,000 and called numerous mass meetings amongst the people (Ibid).

Following this an even more dazzling dummy manoeuvre was employed to allow the main army to escape to a dangerous Yangtze river crossing unnoticed, when a few troops visibly broke off and marched towards the capital of Yunnan. This cunning plan worked, with Guomindang troops pulled out of Guizhou in pursuit of the dummy whilst the bulk of the Red Army slipped away!

But that was not all. Once spotted, it was obvious that the main army, not marching to the capital, could only be marching to one of the key crossing points for the Yangtze River in Yunnan. Therefore the initial diversion was not enough, as Chiang would (and did) ensure that the crossing to which they were clearly marching was well covered – according to Snow’s account, all the boats at the crossing were taken to the far side of the river (from the point of view of the Red Army) and burnt.

Once certain that they had fully convinced Chiang Kai-shek (by pretending to build a bridge with which to cross the river), a battalion suddenly upped-sticks and inconspicuously marched at a pace of 85 miles in 24 hours, reaching an alternative crossing of the Yangtze which was too far for Chiang to have considered worthwhile defending. Once again, the Guomindang was outdone by the Red Army’s superior determination, cunning and morale. No conscripted army could possibly be expected to suddenly reverse direction, after spending days carrying out what was merely a dummy manoeuvre, and cover 85 miles in a day.

Crossing was now easy, with only a handful of government troops to defend the actual crossing. Knowing the route to the real crossing was safe, within a day or two the remaining troops left the original crossing to reach the safe one. According to Snow, this unorthodox move, probably too circuitous to be considered by most generals, resulted in the successful crossing of the Yangtze without a single life lost. Ironically mimicking Chiang’s tactics, the Red Army forces now burnt the boats they had used to cross the river, leaving the confused Guomindang troops with both nearby crossings destroyed.

If we are to take the legends at face value, then all this was merely a warm up for the far more spectacularly heroic crossing of Luding Bridge on the Dadu River in Sichuan. At the end of May, after days of hard marching along the treacherous banks of the Dadu River, the Red Army once again successfully pulled away from their pursuers thanks to taking shorter and less frequent rests, and finally reached Luding Bridge.

According to the legends this rickety chain bridge, swinging precariously over the rapids below and spanning 100 yards, was like something from a Hollywood adventure movie after the Guomindang removed most of the wooden planks. On the other side lay a Guomindang position with machine-gunners in place to shoot down any communists fool-hardy enough to try to cross. Once again, the Red Army challenged certain death and 30 soldiers were chosen for the suicide mission. They overcame the lack of planks by crawling under the bridge, hanging from its chains, which had the additional benefit of providing some cover from the volleys of machine-gun fire. Nevertheless most of these dare-devils were killed in the crossing, and we can only admire the astonishing bravery of these nameless heroes,

“Probably never before had the Sichuanese seen fighters like these – men for whom soldiering was not just a rice bowl, and youths ready to commit suicide to win. Were they human beings or madmen or gods? Was their own morale affected? Did they perhaps not shoot to kill? Did some of them secretly pray that these men would succeed in their attempt? At last one Red crawled up over the bridge flooring, uncapped a grenade, and tossed it with perfect aim into the enemy redoubt.” (Ibid)

Once one was across, the game was up, and the machine-gun nest surrendered, with some of the forces joining the Red Army. This is the remarkable story of how the Red Army crossed the river Dadu. For millions of Chinese it encapsulates the decades-long sacrifice of the Chinese people as they struggled against Japanese and Guomindang oppression.

Unfortunately, the truth is probably somewhat more mediocre. Deng Xiaoping, the Chairman of the CCP and President of China who led the capitalist restoration from 1978 onwards, was a participant in these events. According to the US Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Deng confirmed suspicions that this unverifiable account was greatly exaggerated for propaganda purposes when he told him,

“Well, that’s the way it’s presented in our propaganda. We needed that to express the fighting spirit of our forces. In fact, it was a very easy military operation. There wasn’t really much to it. The other side were just some troops of the warlord who were armed with old muskets and it really wasn’t that much of a feat, but we felt we had to dramatize it.”

Of course, this anecdote should be taken with just as large a pinch of salt as the official story, for they are both equally unverifiable and equally useful as propaganda. Whether or not it was fabricated, the daring involved in the story does encapsulate the incredible hardship, suffering, bravery and self-sacrifice that the Red Army really did depend on throughout the Long March. The figures for the number of casualties alone prove this, as do the routes taken through mountain passes, river crossings and swamps, which cannot be exaggerated and did take place.

After crossing the Luding, the First Red Army was obliged to ascend over 5,000m to continue, as they were now on the borders of Tibet. No human being can live permanently above roughly 5,000m, for the air is too thin. Far more of those who died on the Long March perished due to the severe conditions, such as the thin air, cold, lack of food and waterlogging.

Unhappy Reunion in Sichuan

If rural conditions tend to dissolve the political unity of a party, then the Long March through half of China pushed this to its absolute extreme. This was exhibited in the general uncertainty as to where the Long March would end up, which was decided on as they went along, but particularly in the fact that the Long March essentially comprised three separate marches, each with tens of thousands of CCP comrades, and each equally uncertain as to where and when they would meet up.

The First Red Army lost contact with the rest of the Communist International for the entire 12 month duration of the march, and so had no idea of its decisions and political perspectives. The all-important conference in Zunyi, which had determined the fate of the leadership after the testing first few months of the Long March, was not and could not have been representative or constitutional. Note how the conference had to take place at a moment of military convenience, not one of political necessity.

Because the rural work and the Long March had broken up the Party into militarily sealed off areas, such political meetings claiming to determine the party line could only involve one or another section of the Party. Thus the Zunyi conference involved only those in the First Red Army, and it is therefore unsurprising that Mao, who led that division, should come out on top. Mao’s emergence owed a great deal to luck.

The Fourth Red Army, under Zhang Guotao’s and Xu Haidong’s leadership, was equal in size to the First Red Army but could not participate in the Zunyi conference due to geographical separation. What would their opinion have been on the proceedings at Zunyi? How would that conference have turned out had they been there? The comrades of the First Red Army would now find out, as following the crossing of Luding Bridge and their arrival in Sichuan, they were reunited with the comrades of the Fourth Red Army (who had been in Sichuan since 1933) at Fupien.

Both armies had felt the toll of the Long March, which was coming towards its end. When they arrived in their Sichuan base in 1933, the Fourth Red Army was reduced to around 3-4,000 from the 20,000 they had left with (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). When they joined the Fourth Red Army in mid-June 1935, the First Red Army was down to about 10,000 members; down from the roughly 90,000 when they left Jiangxi only eight months previously.

Nevertheless, Zhang’s forces were significantly militarily stronger when the two armies met, as they had had two years of recovery time, with plenty of time to recruit in their Sichuan base. Estimates of their size vary between 40 and 80,000 in mid-1935. Therefore, when the two armies met, Zhang Guotao’s forces were between four and eight times as large as Mao’s, and much better rested. And yet thanks to the Zunyi conference, from which Zhang Guotao’s forces were excluded by an accident of geography, Mao and his comrades were now the leaders of the party. Zhang and his comrades had had no say in this decision and would now take the opportunity of this reunion to impress their numerical and military superiority on this ‘upstart’ leadership, as it appeared to Zhang.

According to Pinckney Harrison, a key component in the clash between Mao and Zhang that would take place over the course of their meeting in Sichuan was the fact that Zhang and his associates from the much stronger Fourth Front Army were completely under-represented in the party leadership. Although the decision was not taken to give Zhang’s faction a majority in the leadership in proportion to their military superiority, one can see in this tension once again the dangerous tendency towards the subordination of Marxist political leadership to military strength and technical considerations. It would be tempting to capitulate to military strength and name the leader of the strongest army as the leader of the party, irrespective of their political quality. That sets of leaders of the party rarely met in this period (and when they did, their meetings had a fortuitous character) and each commanded massive, independent armies, obviously gave a huge impetus to damaging factionalism.

Moreover, Zhang was correct in arguing that the outcomes of the Zunyi conference, so favourable to Mao, were invalid. He pointed out that “only a plenary session of the Central Committee was supposed to have that authority [to reorganise the leadership]” and that anyway “only about half the Political Bureau (but all members of the Standing Committee except Xiang Ying) had been present at Zunyi” (Ibid). The outcome of this new clash was another victory for Mao, but it must be added that once again, this meeting lacked any formal democratic basis, was called ad-hoc and without any participation from the Second Red Army.  It is unclear on what political basis Mao defeated Zhang’s leadership challenge.

The Home Straight

The conflict between the two factions continued for the remainder of their mutual stay in Sichuan, and the nature of the conflict is worthy of note, again because of its exclusively organisational/technical character. Rather than debating the perspectives for the development of the class struggle in China, the two factions were utterly absorbed, as one would expect, in the question of which route to pursue. Ultimately, such a debate was based on guesswork, turning around matters of whether this or that area had enough food, whether the local tribes would be hostile or not. Party debates focusing on such issues to the detriment of analysing the class struggle in China can only have had a detrimental effect on the political level of its membership, and reflect a fugitive party in a state of desperation.

Given the lack of any objective basis with which to determine the safest route, the decision finally taken in acrimony was that the two factions should once again geographically separate. This was either to hedge the Party’s bets or to keep the feud at a safe distance. Zhang’s Fourth Red Army, with a few of the more exhausted Corps from the First Red Army, would march Westwards towards Tibet, and Mao’s forces, bolstered with many of Zhang’s troops, would march North-Easterly into Shaanxi.

Unfortunately for Zhang, his favoured route turned out to be a fatal dead end. Starting out with roughly 60,000 troops, a brutal Guomindang assault reduced the army to 40,000 at the end of 1935. They attempted to sustain themselves by recruiting from the local nomadic Tibetan population, but failed. It is likely that this was down to the nomadic and extremely backward character of Tibetan society – whereas the Red Army could recruit successfully from the Lolo tribes by appealing to them on class lines as common fighters against the rich and powerful, such efforts would have fallen on deaf ears when given to independent nomads, who were removed from the Chinese class system. Zhang’s soldiers were reduced to having to steal food to survive.

Half his troops then split off after the rest failed to cross the Yellow River. Those who succeeded in crossing were utterly destroyed, and the remaining 15,000 or so who failed to cross were by now reunited with the almost destroyed Second Red Army. They were forced to abandon their plans to establish a more Westerly base. Instead they chased after Mao’s by-now-established Shaanxi base with their tails between their legs in November 1936.

The First Red Army, hero of the long march, left Sichuan on 1st August 1935. They arrived triumphantly at what would become the base of the Red Army for the next twelve years on October 20th 1935, almost one year to the day after departing Jiangxi, with 20,000 survivors, having started with 90,000. Of those 20,000, some were taken from the Fourth Red Army in Sichuan, others were recruited along the way, so it is reasonable to assume that more than 70,000 perished in this most testing of adventures. Of course, many more died in the other armies.

Geographically similar to the Jinggangshan base in its mountain remoteness and poverty, the Red Army managed to stay here partly thanks to the area’s irrelevance in the eyes of Chiang Kai-shek, and partly due to his being distracted by the war with Japan, which as we shall see was beginning to put Chiang under enormous strains.

A Lucky Escape

There is no doubt that the accomplishment of the Long March is like a monument to the awe-inspiring self-sacrifice of millions of Chinese communists who perished in the course of the Chinese revolution. Its staggering statistics sum up the heroism of the toiling masses in their heroic struggle against oppression,

“There was an average of almost a skirmish a day, somewhere on the line, while altogether fifteen whole days were devoted to major pitched battles. Out of a total of 368 days en-route, 235 were consumed in marches by day, and 18 in marches by night. Of the 100 days of halts – many of which were devoted to skirmishes – 56 days were spent in north-western Sichuan, leaving only 44 days of rest over a distance of about 5,000 miles, or an average of one halt for every 114 miles of marching.


“The Reds crossed eighteen mountain ranges, five of which were perennially snow-capped, and they crossed twenty-four rivers. They passed through twelve difference provinces, occupied sixty-two cities and towns, and broke through enveloping armies of ten different provincial warlords, besides defeating, eluding, or out-manoeuvring the various forces of Central Government troops sent against them.” (Snow, op cit.)

Although it is true that the Long March was not planned in advance as part of a political strategy, but was embarked upon at the last minute out of military necessity, the CCP did correctly use it for political purposes. It was “the largest propaganda tour in history”, which “passed through provinces populated by more than 200,000,000 people” and “called mass meetings, gave theatrical performances, heavily ‘taxed’ the rich” (Ibid). This was all carried out by thousands of comrades, many of whom lost their lives in doing so, with a degree of determination that would ensure their final victory fourteen years later.

But the political legacy of the Long March was that it cemented the Bonapartist, Stalinist and petty-bourgeois character of the CCP. Nine-tenths of those who engaged in the Long March died. The mass meetings and education given out to the peasants, whilst well meaning, could be no substitute for the sustained mass participation of millions of urban workers and a stable cadre base in the party. Those fleeting visits to illiterate districts could only scratch the surface of the immense social and cultural problems in China’s vast countryside. And how could an army of CCP comrades constantly on the move, with no time to educate itself and of whom 90% died within a year, possibly hope to exercise any meaningful democratic control over the party? Trotsky brilliant anticipated at this time what the political consequences for absorption in the rural environment would ultimately be,

“The commanding stratum of the Chinese “Red Army” has no doubt succeeded in inculcating itself with the habit of issuing commands. The absence of a strong revolutionary party and of mass organizations of the proletariat renders control over the commanding stratum virtually impossible. The commanders and commissars appear in the guise of absolute masters of the situation and upon occupying cities will be rather apt to look down from above upon the workers. The demands of the workers might often appear to them either inopportune or ill-advised.” (Trotsky, Peasant War in China and the Proletariat, September 22nd 1932)

The CCP and Japanese Imperialism

The latter phase of the revolution, leading up to CCP victory in 1949, is inseparable from the Japanese invasion of China, which rather than uniting all China against Japan, actually served to bring into sharp relief all the class antagonisms of Chinese society. In the first half of the twentieth century, imperialism did not confront China as an utterly alien force, but rather was an integral part of Chinese society. It was impossible to tell where the Chinese ruling class ended and the imperialists began. This was no more the case than when it came to their attitude to the Chinese masses and the communist movement, to which both were equally opposed. Therefore the CCP’s attitude toward the Japanese invasion of China is fundamental to understanding both the course of the revolution and the CCP’s fortunes in it, as well as the alternative ways the revolution could have developed.

Japan’s emergence as a force on the world market was announced with the First Sino-Japanese War 1894-5, which was fought over control of Korea. China had dominated Korea (as well as East Asia in general) for centuries, so the Japanese victory in this war marked a qualitative change in East Asian politics, brought about by the more successful introduction of capitalism into Japan. Ten years later there followed the Russo-Japan war, a nakedly imperialist war fought as it was over control of the Chinese Eastern Railroad. This railroad was central to trade routes in the wider region and as such was also the scene of the main Sino-Japanese war in the 1930s and 40s. Japan’s victory over Russia represented the first ever Asian victory over a European power in the modern era, and should be seen as the beginning of Asia’s long march to global capitalist pre-eminence.

The Mukden Incident

The Mukden Incident marks the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese war and spelt the doom of the Guomindang in mainland China. On September 18th 1931 Japan carried out a classic diplomatic manoeuvre of imperialism by staging an ‘attack’ on the Chinese Eastern Railroad (which it owned, as an imperialist power) in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, North-eastern China (then known as Mukden, Inner Manchuria). Some Japanese officers planted (pathetically weak, so as not to actually damage their railroad!) explosives on the line, declared it to be an attack from Chinese nationalists, and then invaded the city and subsequently the whole province, which they secured control of in five months.

From the point of view of the CCP, Japanese aggression was a huge opportunity and a lifeline for the Party. To some extent Japanese aggression diverted military resources from attacking the Soviet bases, however as we shall see, Chiang Kai-shek minimised this outcome with his policy of non-resistance to Japan. But that policy was sharply in contradiction with the objective needs of Chinese society, which was brutally oppressed and whose development was violently held back by Japanese fascism. Therefore the more Chiang refused to resist Japan to focus on attacking the CCP, the more he provoked mass opposition in China and sympathy for the CCP. This was therefore a ‘win win’ situation for the CCP – if Chiang attacked Japan, it took all the pressure off its shoulders. If he attacked the CCP, he undermined his power.

The corruptness of the Chiang Kai-shek regime pushed it in the direction of making a deal with Japan to crush the CCP. That certainly was Chiang’s perspective. But the extreme reactionary character of the regime and of Japanese imperialism constantly increased the potential support for the CCP (seen as the only force opposing Japan) and therefore pushed sections of the ruling class into opposing Chiang Kai-shek, massively weakening the political leadership of Chinese capitalism. Fascism is an expression of the acute crisis and dead-end of capitalism, hence its viciously reactionary character. The combination of the semi-fascism of Chiang Kai-shek and the imposition of Japanese fascism in China did not signify the strength of the ruling class in China and Japan, but rather their dead-end.

It is indubitable that the crisis provoked by Japan was the most direct contributing factor to the CCP’s victory. The question is to what extent the CCP capitalised on this, and how? One can kick down a rotten door very quickly and effectively, or one can spend days chipping away at its frame so that when the door is opened, it is kept intact. This is not a pedantic point. The way in which the CCP opposed Japanese aggression and the Guomindang’s capitulation to it was at times designed to bring the CCP to power without smashing the Guomindang and its rotten state apparatus. Moscow did not want a huge revolution led by the Chinese masses on its doorstep; it wanted to bureaucratically arrange a friendly Chinese state.

However the initial response of the CCP to Japanese aggression was along the right lines. If they had followed this policy through, the CCP could have been brought to power far earlier and on the basis not of military victories but a mass uprising.

The CCP immediately responded to the Mukden incident with a resolution stating that “the Chinese Communist Party considers the Japanese attack in Manchuria as an imperialist attack”. From this moment onwards the Party never wavered in condemning the hated Japanese imperialism, and won a great deal of support for doing so. The task was to rebuild the Party in the cities on the basis of such a militant opposition to Japanese imperialism and the Guomindang’s sell-out, and to look for points of support in the army.

Thanks to the popular revulsion Chiang’s stance invited and the CCP’s correct statement against it, the CCP made an immediate and very significant gain when 20,000 Guomindang soldiers defected to the Red Army in the Ningdu Uprising of December 1931.

At this time the Comintern was pursuing its ultra-left ‘Third Period’ policy, which was a bureaucratic overreaction to cover up for its previous opportunist sins, as Trotsky said. However a positive by-product of this policy was that it actually encouraged the CCP to take a revolutionary line in relation to the Japanese invasion. In September 1932 the Comintern leadership passed a resolution insisting that the CCP pursue,

“the tactic of the united front from below in the anti-imperialist struggle...organising the masses under the slogan of a revolutionary national liberation war for the independence, unity and territorial integrity of China against all imperialists, for the overthrow of the agent of imperialism – the Guomindang.” (quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit.)

This was followed up in January 1933 with the correct call for military groups to join the CCP in a fighting alliance on condition that they “halt any participation in the Fourth Nationalist Offensive then in progress against the Soviet areas; that there be an immediate guarantee of democratic rights and freedoms; and immediate arming of the masses for war against Japan” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

Although many of the military groups breaking away from the Guomindang over the question of resistance to Japan would have been bourgeois/feudal in their origins and leadership, this policy from the CCP correctly anticipates the fact that all such movements would have represented a split away from Chiang Kai-shek along class lines. The demand for arming the people against Japan in this call for an alliance brings this class character to the fore and would put the bourgeois leadership of such groups under pressure. If combined with skilful tactics on the CCP’s part, they could have then broken these groups away not just from Chiang but also from their own bourgeois leaders, or converted those leaders to the communist cause, as happened with the Ningdu Uprising.

The Rural Burden

How could the CCP use the war with Japan to build an effective revolutionary opposition the Guomindang as well as Japan? How could it shore up and develop its base of support in this new and dangerous situation?

These questions could only be answered with a sober and materialist analysis of the war situation and its effect on the class struggle in China. All the questions boiled down to one – would the invasion push the proletariat into the arms of the ruling class in a fit of anti-Japanese patriotism, or would it exacerbate the class divisions? If it were the latter, it would be vital for the CCP to re-establish a strong urban basis as soon as possible.

Trotsky considered (correctly) that “there are grounds to think that the war will produce a feverish revival of industry...especially if the war will be financed by Great Britain, the U.S., or the Soviet Union.” A more mechanical Marxist might conclude that this would thereby blunt the class antagonism; however Trotsky again correctly drew the opposite conclusion:

“The dependence of the army and the government on internal production will immeasurably raise the role and importance of the Chinese industrial workers...this circumstance opens wide opportunities for economic struggle of the workers. The government will have to be more careful in its repressions in order not to break down the tempo of war industry. Of course, the scoundrels of the Guomindang and the no lesser scoundrels of the Stalinist party will cry that an economic struggle in time of war is ‘antipatriotic’. However, the working masses will hardly sympathise with this advice, especially if the real revolutionaries will be able to expose the tremendous profits of the capitalists and the rapaciousness of the bureaucrats.” (Trotsky, A Discussion on China)

It therefore followed from this understanding that the Chinese Communists (he was writing to his supporters in China, but all his recommendations would apply equally to the CCP itself) must begin with the classic work of a Marxist organisation – building in the factories and trade unions,

“It appears to me that it would be much more correct to try to create ‘war’ organisations on a class basis, for the carrying out of the work which, in a corresponding situation, the trade unions would carry out. For example, if in a given plant, several workers went off to war, it would then be necessary to organise a group for keeping connections with them and for rendering them and their families material and moral aid...demands for workers’ control over industry, especially over war industry, have such a tremendous significance – not only to ‘control’ profits but to make it hard for the capitalists to furnish the army with bad products of poor quality...It is necessary that [workers’] organisations have before them, though, a narrow but fully concrete programme, tied to the interests of the army and the workers.


“The most important preparation for war is to create trade union committees and a party organisation: a systematic propaganda for the liberation from all imperialisms, in the first place Japanese imperialism, not by diplomatic manoeuvres, capitulations, but by a revolutionary military struggle, by a war of the Chinese people against the imperialists. What is important is to create a point of support which in time can become the basis for the mobilisation of the people


“The task of the vanguard consists in that, basing itself on the experience of the war, it is to weld the workers around the revolutionary vanguard, to rally the peasants around the workers”. (Ibid)

But it would remain impossible for the CCP to carry this out on the basis of rural isolation and absorption in a daily battle for bare survival. They could not establish effective contact with the urban movement, which would at moments explode in various forms throughout the 1930s. The CCP was too far away to participate in these movements, too politically distanced to understand the build-up of frustration and to raise concrete demands to connect with them.

The first example of this phenomenon is the student movement against Japan beginning in 1931 in response to the Mukden incident. Despite the CCP’s bold anti-imperialist stance on this matter, they failed to connect to this movement of tens of thousands due to their physical and political isolation from it, and therefore the movement fizzled out.

In early 1932 a five week war over control of Shanghai took place. This was the first major test of the CCP’s ability to influence the struggle against Japan in the all-important urban centres, especially since the crisis it engendered led to a mass mutiny in Chiang’s army with revolutionary implications.

Basing itself on its ‘extraterritorial concession’ in Shanghai – the existence of which was already an act of Japanese imperialism – the Japanese once again staged various ‘anti-Japanese’ attacks in the city. This they used as an excuse for a rapid build-up of Japanese military hardware in and around the city, to ‘protect Japanese citizens and property’. Then suddenly the city was bombed and invaded on foot.

However in contradistinction to Chiang Kai-shek’s pathetic stance of non-resistance in Manchuria, Cai Tingkai led the Guomindang’s 19th Army into a heroic battle with the Japanese invaders. Although unsuccessful, this bold act of defiance inspired millions of Chinese suffering from decades of imperialist insults and colonial indignity to begin the resistance. Correctly “the communists encouraged anti-Japanese demonstrations wherever they could, trying at the same time to direct them towards condemnation of governmental ‘weakness’” (Guillermaz, op cit.)

Certainly there was a basis to break away such movements from any ‘patriotic’ support for the government, since everyone understood that the government was the chief obstacle in defending China. Cai Tingkai was essentially defying orders by defending Shanghai. Chiang’s subservience to imperialism was so humiliating that Cai Tingkai (and many after him) was compelled to openly defy him even up to the point of launching a revolutionary government.

This was the Fujian rebellion, one of the most interesting developments in this period. It seems to encapsulate all that the period of war with Japan involved. In particular the class character of this movement could not help being brought to the surface. As with all the breakdowns in Guomindang authority in the 1930s, we see the question of the revolution and the CCP casting its long shadow.

Following their heroic and massively popular resistance to the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, the 19th Army and Cai Tingkai enjoyed enormous prestige and effectively had a local base of support, giving the army political independence from Chiang Kai-shek. When he ordered them to attack the CCP in their Jiangxi Soviet in November 1933, the army rebelled, disgusted at being ordered to attack the only group openly resisting Japan (other than themselves). Instead they turned on Chiang.

On November 22nd they called an ‘Extraordinary People’s Assembly’, in which they announced the establishment of a ‘People’s Revolutionary Government’ in Fujian Province, and named their army the People’s Revolutionary Army. Amongst their vague plans for social justice in Fujian, they publicly declared the intention to begin the militant fight against Japan and for the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek. They also declared their desire to establish close political relations with the CCP’s Jiangxi Soviet and the Soviet Union in an effort to collaborate in the struggle against Japan. In other words, this huge rebellion met every single one of the CCP’s 1932 criteria for forming a united front against Japan and the Guomindang.

Indeed Cai’s army had begun negotiations with the CCP for a united front in the spring of 1933, before the Fujian Rebellion took place. By October they had agreed to cease warfare against one another and to establish economic relations. When the Fujian government was established, they agreed to release all political prisoners (i.e. CCP members in gaol) and to support the CCP’s revolutionary actions against the Guomindang and Japan.

Inevitably Chiang’s forces led an immediate counter-attack, with three groups as well as the navy attacking within days under direct orders from Chiang Kai-shek (Guillermaz, op cit.). This was the decisive test for the CCP’s revolutionary anti-imperialist strategy. There was no time to waste. Politically speaking, the situation was a gift for the CCP, an open goal. The only popular army in the Guomindang had just launched an open rebellion to Chiang’s authority, and declared itself in favour of establishing relations with the CCP. What’s more, the situation immediately exposed the government and eroded whatever slim credibility it retained, since it now attacked its own forces with far more vigour than it defended China against the Japanese.

But the CCP did the worst of all things – it vacillated. It revealed itself as indecisive at the very moment when a clear revolutionary opportunity emerged. Why?

Zhou Enlai and other leaders were in favour of sending immediate military assistance to Fujian, but they were overruled by the Moscow controlled party leadership (this was still before Mao’s ascent to power) as well as Mao, who feared the uncertain military repercussions and did not trust a movement over which they had had no control. Instead they argued that the 19th Army should march out of Fujian (thus betraying their own call for a ‘People’s Revolutionary Government’), through unknown countryside and into the Jiangxi Soviet, where they would merge with the Red Army. It was felt that the Red Army could thereby absorb and control this movement the more easily (Ibid).

As a result, Red Army troops were sent from Jiangxi, but stopped halfway. The rebels were besieged by the Guomindang. None of the other Guomindang anti-Chiang factions came to the rescue (as had been hoped), in some cases citing the revolutionary character of the movement as an obstacle. Thus the Fujian Rebellion, at first glance a question of nationalism, quickly revealed itself to be a class question. The CCP could be the only force to offer support and to help in extending the struggle around the country. But thanks to the Party’s preoccupation with rural survival their political horizons had been narrowed. Rather than seeing the movement as a confirmation of their class struggle perspectives, they looked upon it as a difficulty and an upsetting of their plans. By mid-January 1934 this brave rebellion was defeated.

This further underlines the fact that rural isolation had placed the Party outside of the crux of China’s class struggle. As soon as the movement developed in the cities, as it surely always would, they had no basis with which to intervene. Had the Party concentrated on building a solid base in the trade unions they could have launched a nationwide Fujian solidarity campaign, with strikes and appeals to the rank-and-file of the Guomindang military. Even had the government in Fujian still been crushed, this would have left a lasting effect on class relations in China and served to massively increase the CCP’s standing in the working class.

The Creeping Invasion

The Japanese had been testing China since 1931, gauging the new regime’s powers of resistance. By now it was obvious that the regime had none, and from the point of view of Japanese imperialism they would have been foolish not to rapidly take advantage of this fact.

Just before the five weeks war in Shanghai had ended in March 1932, the then province of Jehol (which straddled what is now Hebei, Liaoning and Inner Mongolia) was invaded and annexed to Manchukuo, the name for Japanese controlled Manchuria. The Japanese then used this base to force the evacuation of Chinese troops from East Hebei. In 1934 Japan affirmed special rights and interests in all of China in the ‘Amau Declaration’, just like the US declared all of Latin America to be its permanent sphere of influence with the infamous Monroe Doctrine.

Finding its powers of resistance lacking due to its crippling fear of mobilising the Chinese masses (with their communist sympathies), the Chinese government admitted its ‘nationalist’ name was a fraud when it agreed to Japanese demands for their troops to leave all Hebei and Chahar in mid to late 1935.

This allowed Japan to declare the laughingly titled ‘Autonomous Government of Inner Mongolia’ as well as the ‘East Hebei Autonomous Anti-Communist Zone’. The choice of name for the latter and the Guomindang’s complicity in approving it reveal the real division in this war – the Chinese masses and communists versus the Chinese and Japanese ruling classes. The clearest proof of this came when “strikes in the Japanese mills of Shanghai, partly in patriotic protest against the Japanese invasion of Suiyuan [in Inner Mongolia], were also broken up with considerable violence by the Japanese, in cooperation with the Guomindang” (Snow, op cit.).

This was followed up with a cringe-worthy Japanese attempt at ‘defence’ when it declared the ‘Anti-Comintern Pact’ in November 1936 and claimed the whole of North China as a buffer zone against the USSR. But this stance of ‘defence’ could not cover up the blatant, naked imperialist looting of China which the war really was,

“China had lost to Japanese invaders about a fifth of her national territory, over 40% of her railway mileage, 85% of her unsettled lands, a large part of her coal, 80% of her iron deposits, 37% of her finest forest lands, and about 40% of her national export trade. Japan now controlled over 75% of the total pig iron and iron-mining enterprises of what remained of China, and over half of the textile industry of China.” (Ibid)

Moscow’s Return to Class Collaboration

A good example of this is Zhang Xueliang and his army. Zhang was the warlord of Manchuria after his father was assassinated by the Japanese in 1928. Although a member of China’s ruling class, the enormous headwinds in favour of revolution and the CCP pushed him to break with Chiang Kai-shek and seek an alliance with the CCP. After thousands of his Dongbei troops defected to the CCP (whom they had been sent to destroy) and were inspired by their commitment to fighting Japan, they returned to Zhang to convince him to break with Chiang Kai-shek and ally with the Red Army. He entered into negotiations with the Soviet base, ceased all hostilities, and opened his army up to political agitation and education by the CCP.

This example demonstrates the mood in China at the time and how fruitful a campaign amongst the masses to fight Japan was for the CCP. A united-front with the rank-and-file of the Guomindang armies and with any generals prepared to break with Chiang and solidarize with the CCP was the way forward.

The Popular Front

But the reader will appreciate by now that the Comintern would never let things be that easy. The harsh reality of the victory of fascism in Germany shook the Comintern out of its ultra-left ‘Third Period’ binge, and as always the Russian bureaucracy’s empirical response was to swing to the opposite extreme. It “began to seek allies against Hitler, turning to Western Europe with offers of pacts. The Communist parties were ordered to parallel the pacts between states by new pacts between classes, the so-called People’s Fronts, whose prime purpose and policy was the support of alliances between their respective countries and the Soviet Union” (Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution).

In China this meant the resumption of the one-sided ‘alliance’ with Chiang Kai-shek (clearly a bastion of anti-fascism). In 1933 Moscow had resumed diplomatic relations with the Guomindang, the CCP’s arch enemy, over the heads of the CCP. The opportunist policy of the ‘People’s Front’, in which the various Communist Parties were to subordinate their politics to this or that bourgeois party, was formalised as Comintern policy at the July 1935 meeting of its Executive Committee. The order for the CCP to then include none-other than Chiang Kai-shek in its ‘United Front’ was now given, and the CCP formally adopted this policy around Christmas 1935.

For Moscow, Chiang Kai-shek seemed to be “the only leader capable of uniting China in the immediate future” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). This despite his role in continually disuniting China! Tellingly, the CCP called this the ‘United Front from above’ strategy, as opposed to their earlier ‘United Front from below’ position. Understandably this policy provoked persistent opposition from within the ranks of the CCP (Guillermaz, op cit.)

The first casualty of this grossly mistaken policy was the CCP’s class analysis of China and the war with Japan, which the ultra-left madness of ‘Third Period’ Communism had at least encouraged the Party to adopt. At the meeting in which the CCP agreed to the new ‘United Front from above’, Mao (now the de-facto leader of the CCP) was obliged to give theoretical justification for this about-face. Thus he declared in December 1935 that the “Japanese invasion has altered the class relations in China and it is now possible not only for the petty bourgeoisie but also for the national bourgeoisie to join the anti-Japanese struggle” (quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

One might argue that all Mao meant by this was the possibility of forming military alliances with bourgeois generals in order to win over their soldiers on a class basis; however his emphasis on the fact that the bourgeoisie is equally anti-Japanese would imply a policy of obscuring the class issues. This is proven by the practical outcomes of this new position. The class-based (but relatively moderate) agrarian policies of the rural soviets were to be abandoned in the hope this would facilitate military cooperation with the warlords and the Guomindang, who were fearful of the revolutionary land programme. And yet despite making overtures and concessions to the government, it remained staunchly anti-CCP and committed to the latter’s destruction.

In tandem with this, Mao changed the name of the rural Soviet government from ‘the workers’ and peasants’ republic’ to the ‘people’s republic’ (this is where China’s present name comes from) to remove it of class content. “The ‘people’s republic’ will respect property, and regulate the relations between capital and labour” (Guillermaz, op cit.). The CCP’s ‘Ten Great Policies for Anti-Japanese Resistance and National Salvation’ (note the emphasis on the whole ‘nation’) of 1937 called for the whole of China’s military forces as they were to begin the fight against Japan, without making any distinction between the rank-and-file and the warlord tops of these armies. Indeed, they begged these warlords to join with them, using the ‘carrot’ of ending the CCP’s agrarian reform. At this time the CCP constantly offered to suspend its independent existence, to dissolve its Red Army and Soviet bases and place itself under the unified command of Chiang Kai-shek.

Mao covered his back from those critics within the Party by arguing against ‘closed-door sectarianism’, accusing them of wanting the revolution to be ‘pure’ and a ‘straight line’. Of course sectarianism and revolutionary purism are errors, but only in relation to the various tendencies within the workers’ mass organisations. Revolutionaries must be ‘closed-door’ to the bourgeoisie, who in China had proven that they were thoroughly counter-revolutionary, but not to the masses, since being ‘open-door’ to the bourgeois means being ‘closed-door’ to the workers and the revolution.

There is a great deal more evidence that the door was opened to the Guomindang in Moscow rather than Shaanxi, forcing the CCP to follow suit. For example, in a repeat of Cai Tingkai’s revolt against the non-resistance policy, the south-western Guomindang generals Li Zongren, Bai Chongxi and Chen Jitang decided to start fighting the Japanese in June 1936, again underlining the tendency for the Japanese invasion to split the ruling class. Mao correctly praised this development, but Moscow outrageously undermined his position by condemning the uprising “from the outset as an intolerable attempt to split the nationalist movement” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). But the entire point was precisely to split the nationalists along class lines!

Such utopian talk of national unity was an error because the chief purpose of a Marxist organisation is to raise the class consciousness of the working class and to free them from their imagined dependence on the ruling class. Appealing, pleading even, with the ruling class to join in the movement only does the opposite.

Subordination to Imperialism

This error was compounded with the CCP’s new proposal of a ‘mutual assistance pact’ with all ‘peaceful countries’, a position straight out of the Comintern copybook, as Moscow was now constantly on the search for bourgeois allies against Hitler. According to Mao “Japanese imperialism is not only the enemy of China...especially it is the enemy of those peoples with interests on the Pacific Ocean, namely, the American, British, French...we hope that they will actively help China” (Snow, op cit., our emphasis).

Rather than telling the truth to the Chinese and world working class, i.e. that those countries such as the USA, Britain and France were only opposed to Japanese imperialism insofar as it stepped on the toes of their exploitation of China, under pressure from Moscow (who wanted to secure its alliance with these countries) Mao painted them in bright colours. They were now referred to not as imperialist powers, but as ‘anti-war’ nations.

These new categories, invented in Moscow, were utterly unscientific and un-Marxist. The vague term of ‘anti-war’ only obscured the internal class dynamics of these nations. While the British and American workers of course were genuinely anti-fascist; their ruling classes were thoroughly pro-fascist when it meant crushing the German workers. The notion that Britain was an ‘anti-war’ nation is laughable, for Britain had been making war with and ruthlessly exploiting half the world (including China!) for the past century.

The logic of this appeal to Britain, America etc. is very revealing. How did they attempt to convince them to help? By appealing to the British ruling class’ hatred of war and fascism? No, the Comintern was too realist to believe in their own propaganda! Instead Mao argued that “those powers that help or do not oppose China...should be invited to enjoy close friendly relations with China...with friendly powers, China will peacefully negotiate treaties of mutual advantage...when China really wins her independence, then legitimate foreign trading interests will enjoy more opportunities than ever before” (Ibid, my emphasis).

Mao was arguing on the basis of a bourgeois regime, as all of these points about ‘trading interests’ assumed a hypothetical CCP-Guomindang ‘democratic republic’ which he proposed, with no mention of socialism. Thus not only was the CCP, under pressure from Moscow, subordinating its position to the Guomindang in the hope of thereby making a deal with it, it was also subordinating China to the trading interests of imperialist powers. This was not a case of playing one power off another for the benefit of the Chinese people, but of offering up terms of trade favourable not to China but to American and British capitalism, which as far stronger economies would always benefit to the disadvantage of China in any such deal.

Missed Opportunities

There were many more urban based revolts against the Guomindang throughout the 1930s. Although in some cases it did manage to make gains from these, taking a leading position in the ‘National Salvation’ movement that sprung up in 1935-6 for example, the CCP could not take full advantage of them. Its isolation from the urban centres combined with the now opportunist policy towards the Guomindang hindered the Party from developing concrete demands to advance the consciousness of the workers and students. How could the party advance the slogan of a national worker and student strike to bring down the Guomindang and defeat Japan when their position was to seek a military alliance with the former?

A few separate incidents illustrate this problem very clearly. The student movement developed in 1936 in opposition to Song Zheyuan’s economic concessions to Japan, Song being the leader of the Guomindang in North China. Instead of intervening in and encouraging this movement by giving it adequate slogans and organisation, the CCP declared “that the students were disrupting ‘national unity’ by demonstrating against Song Zheyuan. They told the students that Song was obliged to make concessions to Japan because the people did not give him sufficient support. This killed the movement. Students were heard to declare: ‘If the communists will not lead us, who will?’” (Li Fujen, A Discussion on China).

General Ho, under the command of Song Zheyuan, was so incensed at the concessions to Japan that he became another in the long line of generals to rebel and seek communist assistance – except that in this instance he sought the help and advice of Chen Duxiu. His honest searching for a solution to this crisis led him to read a great deal about social science and resistance, as a result of which he “decided to invite a number of young revolutionaries to carry out political education among his troops. It was during his search for suitable candidates for such a mission that he came into contact with Chen Duxiu.” (Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary). Had the CCP been in favour of such activity they could have easily won Ho and his army to their ranks.

Again misunderstanding the class dynamics of the war against Japan, a CCP representative addressing striking workers apparently “declared that the foremost task of the Chinese proletariat was to ‘save the country’ from Japanese imperialism [with the implication that the strike did the opposite, and must therefore be stopped. They used the slogan ‘Don’t strike in Chinese-owned factories’]. A worker replied: ‘It seems to me that our first task is to save ourselves – we are starving’” (Li Fujen, op cit.).

The only conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that the Moscow imposed ‘People’s Front’ strategy delayed, hindered and distorted the Chinese revolution and the war against Japanese fascism.

The Xian Incident

One instance in this period exemplifies the crisis of Chiang’s regime and the opportunities spurned by the CCP under Moscow’s orders more than any other. The Xian Incident of December 1936 is a turning point in the history of the war with Japan and of the CCP’s rise to power. In particular, it expresses the irresistible objective impulse behind the CCP as the representative of the long needed revolution. Despite, as I hope to show, grossly mishandling this marvellous opportunity, the crisis of Chiang’s regime this represented was so severe that its outcome was still beneficial for the CCP.

Yang HuchengYang HuchengAs mentioned above, the Manchurian warlord Zhang Xueliang had established very close ties with the CCP now that it was nearby in Shaanxi. It is true that his intentions for doing so were most likely not principled; instead he probably saw the CCP as a very useful and stubborn ally against Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang’s orders for him to concentrate on attacking the CCP and not the Japanese were in extreme contradiction with the fact that Japan had invaded his and his soldiers’ homeland and undoubtedly killed many soldiers and family members.

Zhang may not have been particularly bothered about this fact in itself, but as a warlord he naturally cared about maintaining his own power, and Chiang’s policies were so humiliating that they would seriously undermine Zhang’s authority amongst his own soldiers and citizens were he to carry them out. In this way the objective needs of the struggle against Japan and Chiang forced him to ‘join the revolution’.

The existence of this powerful impetus is proven both by Zhang’s persistent public requests for Chiang to start fighting Japan, and by the outbreak of massive student demonstrations on the anniversary of the anti-Japan student movement. As he arrived in Zhang’s headquarters in Xian on 9th December 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was met by thousands of protesting students demanding a ‘united resistance to Japan’. At the same time some of Zhang’s ‘Dongbei’ soldiers were openly disobeying orders, so desperate were they to fight Japan. The Xian Incident unfolded not due to intrigues among generals but due to mass popular pressure in the cities (such as Xian) and the army, a mood which was there for the CCP’s taking.

Fixated on his ‘old enemy’ and blind to the real situation, Chiang decided to ignore all this and press on with the war against the CCP. This in fact was why he had arrived to meet Zhang in Xian. Sparing no thought for Zhang’s credibility before his own troops, Chiang now told Zhang that it would be his 170,000 strong army whose entire focus would be to wipe out the apparently invulnerable Red Army. He had no idea that the Dongbei and Red Armies had been fraternising for some months.

This was the breaking point. With the probable encouragement of Mao, on the night of 11th/12th December Zhang organised the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek as he slept. The kidnapping itself was pretty simple, other than the rather amusing brief escape of Chiang into the nearby mountain, where he was found “clad only in a loose robe thrown over his nightshirt, his bare feet and hands cut in his nimble flight up the mountain, shaking in the bitter cold, and minus his false teeth” (Snow, op cit.).

Rather than shooting him there and then, as apparently Chiang himself requested, Zhang’s forces merely demanded that he carry out a policy of ‘national salvation’ and divert all anti-CCP troops to fight the Japanese.

Literally overnight, the joint Dongbei-Red Army forces found themselves in a position of almost terrifying strength. According to Snow, “a joint meeting was called between the Dongbei, Xibei [another rebellious warlord] and Red Army delegates, and the three groups became open allies. On the 14th an announcement was issued of the formation of a United Anti-Japanese Army, consisting of around 130,000 Dongbei troops, 40,000 Xibei troops, and approximately 90,000 troops of the Red Army.”

In addition to this “Donbei troops under General Yu Xuezhong had on the 12th carried out a coup of their own against the Central Government officials and troops in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province [immediately to the West of Xian], and had disarmed the Nanjing garrison there. In the rest of Gansu the Reds and the Manchurian troops together held control of all main communications, surrounding about 50,000 Nanjing troops in that province, so that the rebels had effective power in all Shaanxi and Gansu” (Ibid, my emphasis).

Had the CCP understood the immediate necessity to re-establish a city base in order to connect with the proletariat, they would have taken this opportunity to establish Xian as the centre of their power and connect with the workers and students there. Instead, they moved into Yenan, an obscure rural town, thereby proving the conversion of the party into a rural guerrilla force.

What should the CCP have made of this embarrassingly strong position they now found themselves in? The obvious thing to do would be to execute this war criminal and vicious despot there and then, to base the party in the urban centre of Xian and issue a call for the working class and peasantry to support them in forming a revolutionary government dedicated to the expulsion of Japan. The Guomindang would have attempted to regroup and form a new government, seeking military aid from its real ally Japan in this hour of dire need.

The boldly revolutionary CCP could have unmasked these attempts, further exposing the Guomindang as an agent of Japanese imperialism and strengthening its struggle for a revolutionary government. To an extent it is true that the CCP may have been too weak to do so, being isolated from cities beyond Shaanxi province and recovering from the Long March. But that only proves that the flight into the countryside was holding the Party back from its real potential.

Guillermaz argues that the execution of Chiang Kai-shek would have been a mistake, as it would have led to political instability and the likelihood of an even more pro-Japan Guomindang government. But that is the whole point. As if China were not already wracked by severe instability thanks to Japan’s invasion and Chiang’s fractious government. The instability created would only be the realisation of the Guomindang’s inevitable doom, and any new rightwing regime would be much weakened and more susceptible to CCP overthrow.

Of course to do so would require political independence from the Guomindang and the bourgeois, which under Moscow’s ‘Popular Front’ orders the CCP no longer had. Another objection to the execution of Chiang would be that Zhang Xueliang and other rebellious Guomindang generals would also be opposed. The evidence suggests that Zhang wanted to use this escapade to get Moscow to make a deal with him to be the new leader of China. So had Moscow been in favour of his execution Zhang may also have supported it, but this is beside the point.

It is beside the point because the aim of the CCP in this situation should have been to openly declare itself against Chiang Kai-shek, who was a national traitor. It should therefore have linked his removal to the need for a war against Japan and a new Chinese revolution to overthrow the Chinese ruling class, who had demonstrated that all they could achieve was national disintegration, corruption and subservience to Japan. If they had done this and Zhang then came out against such a plan, he would effectively be placing himself in Chiang Kai-shek’s camp, defending him and his non-resistance against the CCP.

His troops were practically begging the CCP to win them to the Red Army by breaking entirely with the Guomindang. Edgar Snow, who’s account of the Red Army was if anything too biased in their favour, painting a rosy picture of the rural soviets, could not help but admit that in the Xian Incident the CCP played the role of Chiang’s shield against the masses,

“Was Chiang Kai-shek’s life ever really in danger? It appears that it was. Not from the Young Marshal [Zhang], and not from the Reds...most certainly from the radical young officers of the North-Eastern and North-West armies, from the discontented and mutinous soldiery, and from the organised and arming masses, all of whom demanded a voice in the disposal of the Premier. Resolutions passed by the young officers called for a mass trial of ‘Traitor’ Chiang and all his staff. The mood of the army decidedly favoured the Generalissimo’s immolation. Curiously enough, it fell to the lot of the Communists to persuade them that his life should be saved.” (Ibid, my emphasis)

This proves that the task of the CCP in these circumstances was to place itself at the head of this popular mood. If it had seized this opportunity, it could have united under its command a huge chunk of Zhang’s massive army, one of the key military components of the Guomindang regime. Indeed Chiang had been relying on it to wipe the communists out – winning a chunk of this force would have put paid to any ability of the regime to attack the Red Army, without the CCP having to make any deal with Chiang Kai-shek. The outcome would have been a hugely strengthened Red Army, and not just numerically – they would have strengthened themselves by taking a powerful political stand, sending out a clear message to the masses that they were prepared to take decisive action to fight imperialism. The tens of thousands of troops won to their banner would not just have been any old soldiers but politically radicalised masses. And the CCP could then have taken control of all the key cities in Shaanxi and Gansu.

But rather than understanding that the key task is winning the political confidence of the masses for revolution, the CCP laboured under Moscow’s narrow and short-sighted goal of winning a bourgeois ally in China. Thus instead of winning these enraged soldiers to a revolutionary banner, the CCP alienated them by making deals at the top, which can only weaken a revolutionary party, whose strength never lies in deceitful bourgeois diplomacy but in arousing the masses. Apparently Zhou Enlai, the chief CCP negotiator, was denounced by Zhang’s Dongbei soldiers as a traitor for not having Chiang killed. So intense was the desire to finish Chiang and his regime, that following Chiang’s release Zhang had to fly back with him to Nanjing in order to prevent the plane being shot down by Dongbei soldiers taking matters into their own hands!

Chiang was saved by Moscow

Chiang Kai-shek in 1940Chiang Kai-shek in 1940Although it is of course very difficult to determine with any certainty, most sources agree that Mao and the leading CCP comrades were delighted at Chiang’s capture and sought to have him executed. This certainly was the logical decision to take considering not only that he represented the class enemy in a time of civil war, but also the support for this move by Guomindang troops.

And yet after a few days Chiang was released without a scratch, and with only verbal assurances that he would cease to wage war on the Red Army and would fight the Japanese. Absolutely no economic policies were wrung from him. In fact in securing his own release Chiang managed to exchange his ending of hostilities with the CCP for an agreement that the CCP would dissolve the Red Army into the Guomindang’s army, place itself under the latter’s command and agree to suspend all attempts to overthrow the government. The CCP was also to suspend all land-redistribution in the areas they controlled, thus betraying the peasants under their administration. All to secure the alliance of a man universally hated, dedicated to their destruction, representing the class enemy and utterly at their mercy!

Although organisationally strengthened by the Xian Incident, which did give the CCP more room for manoeuvre (it is solely on these grounds that the CCP and Comintern justified their actions), the CCP undoubtedly emerged politically weakened, that is to say it served to undermine their political programme and independence. Thanks to this new cross-class alliance, Guomindang leaders were now invited into the Soviet bases to give speeches to mass rallies, which the CCP organised for them. Pictures of Marx were paraded in the bases next to the image of Chiang Kai-shek. Talk about discrediting Marxism!

Not only did the CCP cease to confiscate landlords’ land, they also ceased to make anti-Guomindang propaganda. CCP comrades were allowed to stand for political office, but only if they were not publicly known as communists, in other words they were to be prisoners of the Guomindang dictatorship. “Communist slogans became these: to support the Central Government, to hasten peaceful unification and Nanjing, to realise bourgeois democracy, and to organise the whole nation to oppose Japan” (Ibid).

Defenders of these actions will say that in truth, the CCP never surrendered independence from the Guomindang, and that this is proven by their subsequent military victory in 1949. Again, this is true from a purely organisational point of view – they kept their own secret structures and never really put themselves fully under Guomindang command. But the point is that they publicly declared they were doing so. They publicly supported and propped up the Guomindang bourgeois dictatorship. They deflected popular anger away from Nanjing, and thus made themselves incapable of mobilising the masses for a political overthrow of the regime.

Why did all his occur? Purely and simply because the Moscow bureaucracy was terrified that it might find itself on the receiving end of Japanese imperialism. In their eyes, if Chiang was killed and the Guomindang fell apart, this would weaken China and allow Japan to cut through it and reach the USSR more quickly. This was false, for the deposition of Chiang would have massively strengthened the Chinese resistance, inspiring the whole country to rise up and make the Japanese occupation an impossibility. It also displays the way in which Moscow constantly used the CCP as little more than a bargaining chip in their diplomatic intrigues. Their strategy did not proceed from the needs of the Chinese and world revolution, but the maintenance of their own position.

Moscow culpability is proven by the fact that, before Zhou Enlai could even begin negotiations, without consulting the CCP the Comintern outrageously printed in Pravda and Izvestia a denunciation of the capture of Chiang, painting Chiang as somehow China’s chief protector against Japan. Mao was furious at this undermining of the CCP, which amounted to betrayal, and wanted to ignore it. But Zhang of course learnt of this development and no longer had the confidence to finish off Chiang. Lacking the backing of Moscow and any perspective of mobilising a mass campaign amongst the Dongbei troops (and the Chinese working class in general) for Chiang’s removal, Mao and Zhou inevitably folded and did as Moscow pleased.

The Aftermath

It is true that the immediate outcome of this incident was a lessening of hostilities between the CCP and Nanjing. The Soviet base and Red Army were able to grow in size. But the class struggle cannot be cancelled. If the leadership of the oppressed class surrenders, that does not secure the appeasement of the ruling class. And so it was after Xian.

Chiang’s subsequent ‘resignation’ was nothing but a ruse: upon leaving, he “requested the highest organ of the Guomindang to do four important things: to hand over to the Military Affairs Commission (of which he was still chairman) the punishment of Zhang Xueliang”. All his recommendations were obeyed in exactly the same manner as if he were still in change. Zhang Xueliang was placed under house arrest for 50 years and all his generals were executed!

In the first meeting of the Nanjing government following Xian, the meeting refused to even formally acknowledge a telegram from the CCP. Chiang Kai-shek gloated about how he had refused to sign any pledge to do what the CCP wanted whilst captive, and claimed to have managed to convert them to his point of view. Following this, “in a very offhand and contemptuous manner” he submitted “the rebels’ eight demands to the session. Reiterating its complete confidence in the Generalissimo, the Session rejected his resignation, condemned Zhang Xueliang, and just as casually and contemptuously rejected the impertinent [CCP] demands” (Ibid). Rather than releasing the masses of political prisoners as he had promised, Chiang now insisted that only those ‘who repented’ would be released. Then, on 21st February 1937, Chiang had the arrogance to unveil a manifesto denouncing the CCP.

Chiang was now able to take the initiative, and took the opportunity to transfer the rebellious Dongbei army away from the CCP into Anhui and Henan Provinces, breaking up the ‘bloc’ between the CCP and Zhang, who was now under house arrest.

The only reason the Red Army was now afforded more breathing space is thanks to those rebellious troops who pushed Zhang into kidnapping Chiang. The hatred of the masses for this arch-capitulator meant that he lacked the political strength to send in troops to crush the Red Army. In truth Chiang emerged massively strengthened from the whole affair thanks to the laughable blunders of the Comintern, when he should have been dead.

In every way, the Moscow inspired policies of class collaboration, from the tragedy 1925-7, through to the Xian Incident, are a litany of errors. The young CCP was tossed around by short-sighted Soviet foreign policy as though it were so much loose change in one’s pocket. That it still survived is testament to the heroic self-sacrifice and determination of the Chinese masses, who time and again defended, fought for and joined the CCP, if only because they needed a revolutionary instrument with which to transform society and their own lives. Unfortunately, gross errors of leadership (or lack of) in Moscow would condemn these soldiers of revolution to another twelve years of life-and-death struggle before their party would take power.

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