The Chinese Communist Party 1937-49 – The Unfolding of Historical Necessity: China’s Great Revolution – Part Six

If, by 1937, the war of national liberation against Japan was the immediate goal and cause of the mass movement of Chinese workers and peasants around the CCP, then the agrarian revolution was its true, final cause.

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It was the promise of real change in their lives represented by the slogan ‘Land to the Tiller’ which enabled the CCP to continually recruit the thousands of self-sacrificing peasant soldiers that kept the CCP alive. For all their narrow political horizons and disorganised, crude methods, the peasantry was still motivated by the desire to put an end to the barbaric system of landlordism under which they suffered, even if they could not have formulated a political programme to this effect by themselves.

It is very important to understand the role land reform played in the CCP’s movement after it united with Chiang in the Sino-Japanese war. This economic component to their rural struggle against Japan provides the link to the subsequent civil war with the Guomindang in which the CCP was victorious. As elsewhere, we find that the CCP’s fortunes stand in clear contradiction to their political programme and leadership in the land reform movement. To a great extent, the CCP’s success was thanks to the extremely favourable objective conditions for revolution, and not its actual political line, which arguably hampered, delayed and distorted the revolutionary movement on which it sat.

The Moderate Land Policy

As we have seen in the previous series of articles, the CCP felt the need to moderate significantly its programme of land reform in the areas it had taken control of in the late 1920s/early 1930s. This was because it lacked the urban, industrial centres’ productive capacity, as well as the political power of the working class, and so had to base itself on the landowners’ more productive land and links to the cities to keep the economy going. A revolutionary workers’ government, centred in the industrialised cities, could have expropriated the large tracts of land owned by big landowners and turned them into voluntary collective farms equipped by modern technology produced in the factories. The smaller farms belonging to poorer farmers would have been freed from debt or rent and given the option of joining one of these larger collective farms. Lacking this urban basis, the CCP had instead learnt that it had to preserve landlordism in its bases.

The alliance with the Guomindang from 1936 onwards only strengthened this tendency to the detriment of poor peasants. As Guillermaz notes, “to maintain the united front and save the mediocre, fragile economy from total ruin, the communists observed a fairly liberal economic policy in the areas under their control. This was particularly obvious in their agrarian measures. As early as the summer of 1937 confiscation and redistribution of land stopped, except in the case of absent pro-Japanese collaborators” (Guillermaz, A History of the Chinese Communist Party 1921-1949, p339). In doing so, the CCP violated Marxist theory by asserting it was able to guarantee the property, civil and political rights of both landlords and the peasants whom they exploited! (Brandt, Schwartz & Fairbank, A Documentary History of Chinese Communism, pp275-6). Perhaps the Party could also support a strike whilst defending the boss’ right to sack the striking workers?

In the Decision of the Central Committee on Land Policy in the Anti-Japanese Base Areas from January 1942, we read that “the policy of the Party is only to help the peasants in reducing feudal exploitation but not to liquidate feudal exploitation entirely...the collection of rent and interest are to be assured...we must guarantee the landlords their civil liberties, political, land and economic rights in order to ally the landlord class with us in the struggle against the Japanese.” The same document urges ‘both sides’ of the rural class struggle to “bow to the overall interests of national resistance”. In this respect, the peasants must understand that they “are obliged to pay rent and interest” to their landlords - or presumably face punishment from the Red Army.

An elementary understanding of Marxism would teach that there is no way the class struggle can be cancelled, postponed or put aside for the mythical ‘national interest’. This is the language the ruling class speaks to the masses so that the latter is pacified whilst the former continues to wage class warfare unimpeded. We must be honest and say that in this programme the CCP was doing exactly that - pacifying the peasantry, for it could not pacify the rich landlords, as they held the economic levers on which the Soviet bases depended. This is why this same document asserts that the Peasant Association for National Salvation’s only task is to assist the CCP government in “mediating rural disputes” and “increasing agricultural production” - in other words, to control and limit the peasant’s appetite for land so that the landlords may continue producing.

This class-collaboration was justified not only by referring to the need for national unity against Japan, but also by the apparently Marxist assertion that “the capitalist mode of production is a relatively progressive mode of production in present-day China. The rich peasants are the capitalists of the rural areas and are an indispensable force; their work must be encouraged” (Decision of the Central Committee on Land Policy in the Anti-Japanese Base Areas).

But as Trotsky proved in his theory of ‘Permanent Revolution’, the capitalist class in colonial countries such as China did not represent a break with the past, but were in reality an outgrowth of it and an obstacle to ending feudal relations. Chiang’s bourgeois government had already proven this by actually strengthening the position of regional warlords and landlordism. It had no modern, bourgeois prop with interests distinct from the landlords. Indeed, the wealthy merchants were interchangeable with the landlords. Most merchants were from landlord and noble families, and studies have shown that most rich landlords interested in preserving China’s antiquated land relations “became wealthy originally through trade, money lending or as officials. They then purchased land” (Myers, The Agrarian Systemin Cambridge History of China volume 13, p241). Myers cites a study that shows that as far back as the 19th Century, 60% of rich landlords had formerly been (and still were), merchants.

The reality is that the Chinese capitalists were weaned on corruption, speculation and extracting middle-man profits from imperialist enterprises trading in China. They had no independence from this unproductive behaviour from which they were born. Capitalism was not an alternative to landlordism, but was its dark crown. The reason Mao clung to this mechanical theory that capitalism was the only step forwards for China was that the CCP, in its role as governor of large rural districts in isolation from urban industry (instead of being a political tendency in the urban workers’ movement before coming to power), was dependent on the rich landlords/merchants for production and trade. The CCP actually abolished commercial taxes for merchants willing to trade with or in their Soviet bases. It is ironic that by adapting to capitalism in this way, the CCP was unconsciously proving Marx’s principle that ‘social being determines consciousness’.

Fight Japan with the Agrarian Revolution

The bourgeois academic mindset is wont to approach the war against Japan from an abstract point of view, whereby it is imagined as something standing alone from other seemingly unrelated problems. From that strictly technical point of view, on which the CCP’s argument for allying with the bourgeoisie was based, it naturally makes most sense to combine the military forces of the Red Army with the Guomindang army to fight Japan, and to put off other questions such as giving land to peasants. Seen in this way, land for peasants is something entirely different from the military-technical question of the war, and pushing for it would surely only complicate matters.

This was also precisely the argument of the Stalinists in the Spanish civil war only a few years previously. Revolutionary measures such as expropriating the land of landlords for the peasants were seen as a distraction from the more urgent need of winning the war against Franco, and would only alienate wealthier allies in that war.

It is obvious that war is a profoundly political question, carried out on both sides for political reasons. War is never abstract nor conducted for the sake of it, but to achieve political ends - and for Marxists it is elementary that politics resolves itself into a question of class interests. Thus, Japan’s invasion of China was done to take raw materials and cheap or even slave labour to boost Japanese capitalism, and naturally therefore it found an (unstable) ally in the Chinese bourgeoisie, who could participate in this exploitation as a junior partner. From this point of view Chiang’s frequent capitulation to the Japanese makes perfect sense - he’d rather concentrate on fighting an enemy that really threatened his class’ interests - the Communists.

Similarly, a struggle against Japan would have to be waged politically. The only way to effectively fight Japan would be through the mass mobilisation of millions of workers and peasants, to make their occupation impossible through constant guerrilla warfare and strikes. Every Chinese person could become a potential covert soldier sabotaging the Japanese behind the lines. But there is a political prerequisite for mobilising and organising millions of Chinese on this basis, and that is to make such a life-and-death fight worthwhile for them, which cannot mean risking one’s life for the sake of re-establishing the old order of poverty, debt and exploitation.

In this respect the most powerful and fundamental arrow in the CCP’s quiver wasn’t simply their anti-Japaneseness but its investment with revolutionary social content. As we have explained elsewhere, the CCP only went half-way on this point, straying dangerously into a political no-man’s land. The compromised land reform programme we have just mentioned actually went no further than that of the Guomindang’s. In this respect they risked losing their basis of support in the poor and risked being driven out of their rural bases - just as they were driven from their Jiangxi base in 1934 partially by the dwindling of active peasant support for their presence.

However, unlike the Guomindang, the CCP actually implemented their land reform programme. As modest as it was, it not only represented the only alternative to the Guomidang’s wretched warlordism and corruption, but was also tangible, as the CCP really held power in parts of the country. This was the CCP’s chief weapon not only in its - now repressed - struggle against the Guomindang, but also the Japanese,

“a 1939 Party survey of a township near Yenchuan, about 50 miles northeast of Yenan, stated that only one of the 134 Party members who had joined the Party between 1927 and 1939 had done so primarily to fight Japan, while the rest had joined chiefly to push the land revolution in the township...a resolution on political work in the Shen-Kan-Ning Border Region similarly stated that 90% of the communist cadres at the subdistrict and township levels were the products of peasant revolutionary struggles.” (Harrison, The Long March to Power, pp272-3)

According to Bianco and Lloyd, those peasants rallying to the CCP banner “were seeking not so much the liberation of the country per se as protection against local insecurity” (Bianco and Lloyd, Peasant Movements in Cambridge History of China volume 13, p323). In other words, peasants were motivated to join the CCP not out of a sense of patriotism but because of the way the war interacted with their poverty and insecurity.

Proving the inseparability of the war against Japan and the war against landlordism, the CCP itself admitted in January 1942 (in the same above quoted document that assured the sanctity of rent and landlordism) that “where rent and interest rate reductions have been carried out more extensively, more rigorously, and more thoroughly, together with the guarantee of rent and interest collections[!!], the enthusiasm with which the local people have participated in the anti-Japanese struggle and in democratic reconstruction has been higher than elsewhere” (Decision of the Central Committee on Land Policy in the Anti-Japanese Base Areas). The document goes on to complain that in other areas of CCP rule rent and interest reductions (let alone abolition) has not even been carried out, and consequently “the enthusiasm of the masses cannot be developed and consequently they cannot be effectively organised to form an active base for the struggle against the Japanese.”

There is no doubt that the war with Japan was objectively a revolutionary one. The ruling class of oppressed nations are no more progressive than those of imperialist ones, and usually are the latter’s agent. It was no different for China. The almighty effort involved in standing up as a nation could not be done without rattling and even breaking the internal chains of its millennia old class system, and this was proven by the need to give peasants land before they could be organised and enthused to fight Japan.

The Way to Wage War on the Guomindang was through a Social and Revolutionary Programme

It is proven further still by the immediately ensuing class war which engulfed China upon Japan’s defeat. Ultimately Japan was defeated by forces external to China, and so we will not dwell on the details of that here. But a nation which is brought to its feet, as China was by the invasion of Japan (and the revolution preceding this in the 1920s), will never be the same again. There is nothing more dangerous for the ruling class than the oppressed masses gaining the appetite for struggle. Despite their compromising, the CCP was associated with the struggle for land rights, and once this cat was out of the bag not even the CCP could put it back. If the gain of lower rents and the promise of future land were the subtext of the Red Army’s campaign against Japan, then they became the explicit, overarching narrative of the subsequent civil war with the Guomindang,

“Moderate land reform, however, led inexorably to more radical steps. Even under the ‘rent and interest reduction’ campaigns of the anti-Japanese war, the Party had authorised the seizure of land of ‘stubbornly unrepentant traitors’ who collaborated with the Japanese, while the peasants frequently went on to seize the holdings of absentee landlords, disregarding Party policy. After 1945, in the ‘liberated areas,’ the peasants increasingly took over the lands they tilled, regardless of the wartime status of the owners, and thereby spontaneously, though often with the support of local Communists, accelerated Party Central’s timetable for moving to the more radical ‘land to the tiller’ policy.
“One of the more valuable accounts of the period eloquently describes the intensification of the land revolution in Lucheng County, Shanxi...What had begun in late 1945 as a chaotic but intense ‘anti-traitor movement’ to ‘settle accounts’ with Japanese collaborators of all classes, soon developed into a concentrated attack on the entire landlord class. Local Communists and peasants therefore seemed far more radical than the Central Committee, which still called for ‘rent and interest reduction’, although ‘demands for land kept coming from below’. As had been the case with the Northern Expedition in 1926, war had revolutionised the peasantry of North China: “The arming of the people for resistance had placed the peasants in a position to challenge the landlords and usurers in the countryside, and not even the tremendous prestige of the Communist Party or the critical situation in the country and the world could prevent this challenge from breaking out in one form or another and carrying with it many lower echelon cadres and Party committees.” (Harrison, op cit., pp408-9).

This was a revolution, a mass movement for fundamental change and power. The real force behind the CCP-Guomindang war that was about to unfold was not the CCP but the revolutionary force of the masses that they had semi-consciously helped to vocalise. From 1945 onwards there was an irresistible force pushing from below for a radical land programme, and in 1946-7 the Party began to buckle to this. The Party line shifted further and further to the left, and in September 1947 the Party formally changed its position to be in favour of complete abolition of landlordism and the cancellation of peasant debt. It encouraged peasant organisations to take land and distribute it equally regardless of age or sex. It was this upsurge from below and the changed land policy at the top that won the CCP the civil war.

This is the programme the Party should have adopted all along. Outside of the cities, which it had catastrophically lost, its only reliable base of support and the only force with an interest in taking society forwards, was the impoverished peasantry. All along it had resisted supporting them for fear of alienating the ruling class; in the end, the ruling class could never forgive the Communists their name and the peasants their very nature. Even in 1946 the Party was still apologising for the ‘excesses’ of the peasants in taking land, and its new 1947 programme was clearly imposed onto the Party by objective events it had failed to anticipate or understand. This is yet another example of the CCP’s long and entirely fruitless search for a progressive ally in the ruling class. In the 1947 land programme, and in the coming to power in 1949, the CCP had belatedly recognised the reality of the class struggle they were founded to lead. The party was dragged into a revolutionary policy by the masses.