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The Chinese Revolution of 1949 – Part One

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For Marxists the Chinese Revolution was the second greatest event in human history, second only to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Millions of human beings, who had hitherto been the beasts of burden of imperialism, threw off the humiliating yoke of imperialism and capitalism, and entered the stage of world history.

The first Chinese Revolution of 1925-7 was a genuine proletarian revolution. But it was aborted by the false policies of Stalin and Bukharin, who subordinated the Chinese working class to the so-called democratic bourgeoisie under Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese Communist Party was dissolved into the bourgeois Kuomintang (KMT), and Stalin even invited Chiang Kai-shek to be a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International.

This disastrous policy led to a catastrophic defeat in 1927 when the "bourgeois democrat" Chiang Kai-shek organized the massacre of the Communists in Shanghai. The smashing of the Chinese working class determined the character of the Chinese Revolution subsequently. The remnants of the Communist Party fled to the countryside, where they began to organize guerrilla war based on the peasantry. This fundamentally changed the course of the Revolution.

Rottenness of bourgeoisie

The Revolution of 1949 succeeded because of the complete blind alley of landlordism and capitalism in China. The bourgeois nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, who seized power in 1927 over the mangled bodies of the workers of Shanghai, had two decades to show what he could do. But in the end, China was as dependent on imperialism as ever, the agrarian problem remained unsolved, and China remained a backward, semi-feudal and semi-colonial country. The Chinese bourgeoisie, together with all the other propertied classes, was entangled with imperialism, forming a reactionary bloc opposed to change.

The rottenness of the Chinese bourgeoisie was exposed when the Japanese imperialists invaded Manchuria in 1931. During the struggle to defeat the Japanese invaders, the Chinese Communists offered a united front to the bourgeois-nationalists of the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek. But In reality the level of actual cooperation between Mao’s forces and the KMT during World War II was minimal. The alliance of CPC and KMT was a united front in name only.

China’s struggle against Japan merged with the general conflagration of the Second World War. The Communists assumed the lion’s share of the fighting against the Japanese. The KMT forces were always far more concerned with the fight against the Reds. In December 1940, Chiang Kai-shek demanded that the CPC’s New Fourth Army evacuate Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces. This led to major clashes between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chiang’s forces and there were several thousand deaths. This signified the end of the so-called united front.

Hu Yanan 1946Hu Yanan 1946 The Second World War ended with the enormous strengthening of US imperialism and of Stalin’s Russia, and the inevitable conflict between them was already evident before the end of the War. On August 9, 1945, Soviet forces launched the impressive Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation to attack the Japanese in Manchuria and along the Chinese-Mongolian border. In a lightning campaign the Soviet army smashed the Japanese army and occupied Manchuria. 700,000 Japanese troops stationed in the region surrendered, and the Red Army conquered Manchukuo, Mengjiang (inner Mongolia), northern Korea, southern Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands.

The rapid defeat of Japan's Kwantung Army by the Red Army is not mentioned by anybody nowadays, but it was a significant factor in Japan’s surrender and the termination of World War II. It was also a significant element in Washington’s calculations in Asia. The US imperialists feared that the Soviet Red Army would march straight through China, and enter Japan itself, just as it had previously advanced through Eastern Europe. Japan finally surrendered to the USA after the US air force dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The main purpose of wiping out these Japanese cities was to show Stalin that the USA now possessed a new and terrifying weapon in its arsenal.

Under the terms of the Japanese unconditional surrender dictated by the United States, Japanese troops were ordered to surrender to Chiang’s troops and not to the Communists in the occupied areas of China. The reason why the Japanese forces in Manchuria surrendered to the Soviet Union was simply that the KMT had no forces there. Chiang Kai-shek ordered the Japanese troops to remain at their post to receive the Kuomintang and not surrender their arms to the Communists.

After the Japanese surrender, US President Truman was very clear about what he described as "using the Japanese to hold off the Communists". In his memoirs he writes "It was perfectly clear to us that if we told the Japanese to lay down their arms immediately and march to the seaboard, the entire country would be taken over by the Communists. We therefore had to take the unusual step of using the enemy as a garrison until we could airlift Chinese National troops to South China and send Marines to guard the seaports".

Stalin and the Chinese Revolution

What was the position of Moscow in all this? Initially the Red Army allowed the PLA to strengthen its positions in Manchuria. But by November 1945, they reversed their stance. Chiang Kai-shek and the US imperialists were terrified at the prospect of a Communist takeover of Manchuria after the Soviet departure. He therefore made a deal with Moscow to delay their withdrawal until he had moved enough of his best-trained men and modern material into the region. KMT troops were then airlifted to the region in United States aircraft. The Russians then allowed them to occupy key cities in North China, while the countryside was left under the control of the CPC.

In reality, Stalin did not trust the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and did not believe that they could succeed in taking power. The Moscow Bureaucracy was more interested in maintaining friendly relations with the government of Chiang Kai-shek than supporting the Chinese Revolution. After the Revolution, Mao complained bitterly that the last foreign ambassador to take leave of Chiang Kai-shek was the Soviet ambassador. Stalin urged Mao to join a coalition government with the Kuomintang, an idea that Mao originally accepted:

“While the war continued, Mao Tse-tung had been demanding that the Nationalists agree to the establishment of a coalition government to replace their one-party rule, and Stalin and Molotov had been saying that the two Chinese sides should get together. On August 14, 1945, the Soviet Union went one step further. It negotiated with Chiang Kai-shek’s government a Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance. Subsequently Stalin advised the Chinese Communists that their insurrection ‘had no prospect’ and that they should join Chiang’s government and dissolve their army.

“On the same day that the Nationalists concluded their treaty with the Soviet Union, Chiang Kai-shek – at the urging of General Hurley – invited Mao Tse-tung to visit Chungking for joint discussions.” (Edward E. Rice, Mao’s Way, p.114, my emphasis, AW)

Mao in 1946Mao in 1946 In the end, as was inevitable, the negotiations broke down and the civil war resumed. The Soviet Union provided quite limited aid to the PLA, whereas the United States assisted the Nationalists with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military supplies and equipment. General Marshall admitted that he knew of no evidence that the PLA were being supplied by the Soviet Union. In fact, the PLA captured a large number of weapons abandoned by the Japanese, including some tanks. Later, large numbers of well trained KMT troops surrendered and joined the PLA, taking their weapons with them. These were mostly produced in the USA.

The Soviet forces used the time to systematically dismantle Manchuria’s industrial base (worth up to 2 billion dollars), shipping back whole factories to the USSR. The fact is, as we have already seen, that Stalin was skeptical about the prospects for Mao’s success, and was trying to keep on good terms with Chiang Kai-shek, as Schram points out: “The pattern continued to be obscured both by Stalin’s preoccupation with the security of the Soviet state, and by his lack of enthusiasm for a dynamic revolutionary movement which he might not be able to control.” (Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-Tung, p.239.)

Thus, the seeds of the Sino-Soviet conflict were already present from the beginning: not an ideological conflict, as has been often claimed, but merely a conflict of interest between two rival bureaucracies, each jealously defending “its” narrow national interests, territory, resources, power and privileges. This narrow nationalism was in complete contrast to the courageous spirit of proletarian internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin stated on more than one occasion that he would be prepared to sacrifice the Russian Revolution if that were necessary to achieve the victory of the socialist revolution in Germany.

If Stalin and Mao had stood on the programme of Leninism, they would have immediately proposed the creation of a Socialist Federation of the Soviet Union and China, which would have been of immense benefit to all the peoples. Instead, their relations were based on narrow national interests and cynical calculations. This eventually led to the monstrous situation where the Russian and Chinese “comrades” conducted a “debate” in the language of rockets and artillery shells over an arbitrary frontier drawn up in the 19th century by a Russian Tsar and the Emperor of China.

USA helps Chiang Kai-shek

The Americans had the ambition of making China a US sphere of influence (in effect a semi-colony) after the War. But after all the sufferings of the Second World War, the American people would not have been prepared to support a new war to subjugate China. More importantly, the American soldiers would not have been prepared to fight such a war. The inability of US imperialism to intervene against the Chinese Revolution was therefore an important element in the equation.

Jinzhou in 1948Jinzhou in 1948 In these conditions the US imperialists were compelled to manoeuvre and intrigue. Washington sent General George C. Marshall to China in 1946, allegedly to arrange negotiations between Mao’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chiang Kai-shek. In practice, however, the aim was to strengthen Chiang by pouring in arms, money and equipment to build up the Nationalist forces in preparation for a new offensive. This manoeuvre did not fool Mao for an instant. He agreed to participate in the negotiations, but continued to prepare for a renewal of hostilities.

Although US imperialism was unable to intervene in the civil war of 1946-9, Washington gave huge amounts of money, arms and supplies to the Nationalists. The United States assisted the KMT with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new surplus military supplies. However, any of the arms sent by Washington were later used by the Vietnamese against the US army, since, almost all this military hardware was captured by Mao’s forces.

Since the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers of the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain in December 1945, the United States has adhered to a "policy of non-interference in China's internal affairs". This was, of course, a farce, just like the previous policy of “non-intervention” in Spain during the Civil War, when the “democracies” boycotted the Spanish Republic, while Hitler and Mussolini poured in arms and men to support Franco.

US imperialism supplied the Kuomintang with bombers, fighter planes, guns, tanks, rocket-launchers, automatic rifles, gasoline bombs, gas projectiles and other weapons for this purpose. In return, the Kuomintang handed over to US imperialism China's sovereign rights over her own territory, waters and air space, allowed it to seize inland navigation rights and special commercial privileges, and seize special privileges in China's domestic and foreign affairs. The US forces were guilty of many atrocities against Chinese people: killing people, beating them up, driving cars over them and raping women, all with impunity.

Agrarian revolution

In July 1946, with the active support of US imperialism, the Kuomintang plunged China into a huge civil war of unprecedented brutality. Chiang Kai-shek launched a counter-revolutionary offensive against the People's Liberation Army. He had made careful preparations, and at that time it had approximately three and a half times as many troops as the PLA; and his material resources were far superior. He had access to modern industries and modern means of communication, which the People's Liberation Army lacked. In theory, he should have had an easy victory.

In the first year of the war (July 1946 - June 1947) the Kuomintang was on the offensive and the PLA was forced onto the defensive. Initially, Chiang’s forces advanced rapidly, occupying many cities and areas controlled by the PLA. The KMT forces achieved what seemed to be a decisive victory when they seized the PLA’s capital of Yenan. This was taken by many observers to signify a decisive defeat for the PLA. But this appraisal was incorrect. In the face of overwhelmingly unfavourable odds, Mao decided to stage a strategic withdrawal. Mao took the decision not to try to defend the big cities with inferior forces, but instead concentrated on the rural areas where he had a solid base among the peasants, and from where he could regroup and concentrate his forces for a counterattack.

What the US imperialists and Chiang Kai-shek failed to realise was that the most effective weapon in the hands of the PLA was not guns and tanks, but propaganda. They promised the landless and starving peasants that by fighting for the PLA they would be able to take farmland from their landlords. In most cases, the surrounding countryside and small towns had come under the control of the PLA long before the cities. This was the origin of Mao’s theory of the countryside “surrounding the cities”.

When Stalin changed the line of the Communist International from the ultra-left policies of the “Third Period” (1928-34) to the opportunist policies of popular frontism, Mao revised his agrarian programme, abandoning the previous radical policy of “land to the tiller” in favour of a more moderate one of rent reduction. He had the idea of winning the support of “progressive landlords” (!). But after 1946 he changed the policy again:

“The agrarian policy followed was more radical than that of the 1937-45 period, which had involved interest and rent reduction rather than immediate land reform, but the tactics were to be gradual and adapted to local conditions. Mao still intended to include the ‘patriotic gentry’ in the ‘very broad united front’ he was determined to maintain. Only after several years of Communist control in a given area would all land be re-distributed; for the moment the reform should not affect more than ten per cent of the population. Mao also caused to be reissued the ‘three rules of discipline’ and the ‘eight points for attention’; these, in one form or another, had expressed for nearly twenty years a respect for the civil population and abstinence from plunder which distinguished the Red Army from all the armies which the Chinese peasantry had seen in the past, and contributed greatly to winning the support of the population.” (Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-Tung, p.242.)

In every village the PLA distributed land to the peasants, but they always left a number of plots unoccupied – for the soldiers in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. KMT soldiers who were captured were not killed or ill-treated, but fed and given medical care and then given political speeches, which denounced the corrupt and reactionary regime of Chiang Kai-shek. Then the prisoners were sent home to spread the message among the peasants and other soldiers that the PLA was for the distribution of the landlords’ land to the peasants.

By promising land to the peasants, the PLA managed to mobilize huge numbers for use in combat as well as provide logistic support. This proved to be highly effective. Chiang’s army had probably the highest rate of desertion of any army in history. This meant that despite suffering heavy casualties, the PLA was able to keep fighting, with a constant supply of fresh recruits. During the Huaihai Campaign alone they were able to mobilize 5,430,000 peasants to fight against the KMT forces. Stuart Schram points out the dramatic increase in the size of the PLA:

“During 1945 the military forces under the command of the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army had expanded from a total of about half a million to a total of about one million men. The Kuomintang forces were approximately four times that size. By the middle of 1947, after a year of large-scale civil war, the proportion had shifted from one in four to one in two.” (Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-Tung, p.242.)

The final offensive

Clausewitz made the celebrated remark that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Politics play a very important role in every war, but this is especially true of a civil war. Although the Americans (as always) maintained the fiction that this was a war between “communism and democracy”, in fact, their Chinese puppet Chiang Kai-shek was a brutal dictator. Probably under pressure from Washington, however, Chiang pretended to introduce a number of “democratic reforms” in order to silence his critics at home and abroad.

He announced a new constitution and a National Assembly, from which the Communists, of course, would be excluded. These “reforms” were immediately denounced as a fraud by Mao. The mass of the population were more concerned with the rampant corruption in government and the political and economic chaos, especially the massive hyperinflation that led to a collapse in living standards. There were mass nationwide student protests against US imperialism.

In the areas controlled by the Nationalist forces, a regime of White terror reigned. Chiang adopted the very same tactic used previously by the Japanese invaders: burn, loot, rape and kill. Millions of men and women, young and old were slaughtered. This earned them the hatred of the population and strengthened support for the PLA.

In theory, the Nationalists still had a big advantage over the PLA. On paper, they enjoyed a clear superiority in both numbers of men and weapons. They controlled a much larger territory and population than their adversaries, and enjoyed considerable international support from the USA and Western Europe. But that was only in theory. The reality on the ground was very different. The Nationalist forces suffered from a lack of morale and rampant corruption that greatly reduced their ability to fight, and their civilian support had collapsed.

The demoralized and undisciplined Nationalist troops were melting away in the face of the irresistible forward march of the People's Liberation Army. They surrendered or fled, leaving their weapons behind. The capture of large numbers of KMT troops provided the PLA with the tanks, heavy artillery, and other combined-arms assets needed to prosecute offensive operations south of the Great Wall. It was able not only to capture the Kuomintang's heavily fortified cities but also to surround and destroy strong formations of Kuomintang crack troops, a hundred thousand or several hundred thousand at a time. By April 1948 they took the city of Luoyang, cutting the KMT army off from Xi'an.

The PLA was able to pass onto the counteroffensive, forcing the Kuomintang to abandon its plan for a general offensive. Having captured large quantities of arms from the enemy, it was able to improve its military potential, forming its own artillery and engineer corps and a mastering the tactics of storming heavily fortified points. Prior to this, it had possessed neither aircraft nor tanks, but once it had formed artillery and an engineer corps superior to those of the Kuomintang army it was able to conduct not only mobile warfare but positional warfare as well. According to Mao’s own estimate:

“[…] each month [the PLA] destroyed an average of some eight brigades of the Kuomintang regular troops (the equivalent of eight present-day divisions).” (Carry the Revolution through to the end, December 30, 1948, Mao, SW, volume IV, p. 299)

The transformation of the military situation was really incredible. The PLA, which for years had been outnumbered, by July-December 1948 finally gained numerical superiority over the Kuomintang forces. These are the figures given by Mao at the time:

“In the first year, 97 brigades, including 46 brigades entirely wiped out; in the second year, 94 brigades, including 50 brigades entirely wiped out; and in the first half of the third year, according to incomplete figures, 147 divisions, including 111 divisions entirely wiped out. In these six months, the number of enemy divisions entirely wiped out was 15 more than the grand total for the previous two years. The enemy front as a whole has completely crumbled. The enemy troops in the Northeast have been entirely wiped out, those in northern China will soon be entirely wiped out, and in eastern China and the Central Plains only a few enemy forces are left. The annihilation of the Kuomintang's main forces north of the Yangtse River greatly facilitates the forthcoming crossing of the Yangtse by the People's Liberation Army and its southward drive to liberate all China. Simultaneously with victory on the military front, the Chinese people have scored tremendous victories on the political and economic fronts. For this reason public opinion the world over, including the entire imperialist press, no longer disputes the certainty of the country-wide victory of the Chinese People's War of Liberation.” (Carry the Revolution through to the end, December 30, 1948, Mao, SW, volume IV, p. 299)

There is no reason not to believe that this estimate is substantially accurate. All the bourgeois historians accept that by this stage, Chiang’s forces were retreating in disarray and that the PLA was rapidly gaining in strength.

London, October 1, 2009

Part two »

History & Theory » Historical Analysis » Other revolutions in the 20th century