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


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.

mao[Note: Unfortunately, due to a technical error, this part of the series was not published before we published Part Seven. We apologise to our readers for this. November 2013]

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.

 [To be continued...]

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