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

The First Chinese Revolution: Early Years of the Chinese Communist Party

1.1 Introduction

This chapter describes the conditions under which the Chinese peasants had lived for centuries and explains why they were the most rebellious on the planet. It also describes the development of the Chinese working class and how a group of dedicated revolutionaries inspired by the October Revolution and aided by the newly formed Communist International (Comintern, CI) founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The role of the Comintern is key to the history of the CCP because its representatives determined when and how the CCP was launched and what its structure, programme, strategy and tactics should be. They did this supported by the prestige of the October Revolution, the authority of Lenin, and the provision of substantial funds.

The Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) under Zinoviev’s leadership assessed the Kuomintang (KMT) as the most revolutionary of the bourgeois forces struggling against imperialism for national unity and independence. The ECCI accepted at face value, reports from China that the KMT had mass popular support and that the overwhelming majority, nine-tenths of the KMT rank and file, were workers and peasants ready to march hand-in-hand with the CCP. The ECCI concluded that working with the KMT could give the CCP ready access to those masses.

Only under severe pressure from the Communist International did the small group that was the emerging CCP agree to enter the KMT. Lenin had insisted that Communists active in national democratic revolutions must retain their political and organisational independence, but the CCP soon found that to follow the instructions of the ECCI and remain within the KMT, they had to sacrifice their political freedom.

1.2 Conditions for the Chinese Peasants

Typically the traditional Chinese village was dominated by a small number of families. In many villages the major landlord or his agent (‘dog leg’) was the nominal chief, and an unelected village government had the responsibility for collecting taxes, supplying labour for public works and keeping the peace with the right to arrest, try and punish (even execute) offenders. The rest of the population was kept subservient by the inculcation of Confucianism and a vigilante group (ming tuan) comprised of the sons of the gentry and hired thugs, both of which insisted on deference to one’s betters. Such an arrangement allowed the rich to evade all responsibilities. The village head would also, naturally, be a merchant and money lender.

Collective punishment and near universal misery was the norm. If a landlord clashed with one of his peasants then the peasant and his family – possibly even his extended family – would be thrown off the land to starve. Thus, only the most severe and life threatening provocation would overcome the peasants’ reluctance to act against their landlords. At the same time, the intransigence of the landlords could, under extreme conditions, make revolution the only means of survival.[1]

The absolutist regimes that had existed in China for over a thousand years were inherently corrupt. Tax officials sent Beijing its due and their own incomes came from what they collected over and above that; in 1927/28 in the province of Hupeh 77% of the monies collected were pocketed in this way.[2]

Tawney pointed out a major difference between China and Europe; there was no landed aristocracy in China in the sense it existed in Europe. The laws of inheritance required the land to be divided equally amongst the sons. With the head of the family siring as many sons as possible there were severe practical restrictions on the size of landed estates. It meant the lack of a hereditary land-owning nobility so the land question did not have the characteristic of serf against feudal lord, or nobles standing in opposition to the bourgeoisie as seen in the West. Instead the peasant stood against a coalition of interests that reached from the local landowner and moneylender, via state officials to the capitalist entrepreneur and the international financier. In the specific conditions existing in China, land could not be taken by the peasant without overturning all existing property relations. The native bourgeoisie could not carry thorough the agrarian reform necessary for an ‘anti-feudal’ revolution since that would be a revolution against itself.[3]

The local bureaucrats ensured their own and their family’s continuing privileges by squeezing as much as possible out of the peasants and becoming part of the local gentry. The easiest way was to seize land for non-payment of taxes. This widespread land seizure was important in undermining social order, systematically driving the peasants into violent uprisings to save themselves from starvation. In extreme cases the uprising would succeed in overthrowing a dynasty, the peasants’ land rights would be re-established and corrupt, self-seeking mandarins would be replaced by radical officials devoted to the ideals of the new regime – after which the cycle started again.[4]

But oriental despotism had an important characteristic that made the position of the Chinese peasant significantly different from that of the European serf. Due to climate and territorial conditions (especially large deserts), artificial irrigation was the basis of Oriental agriculture. Canal systems were created and maintained by co-ordinated labour on a mass scale. In China these public works required huge armies of labourers organised by the government. Social stability depended on local villages being largely self-sufficient, able to rely on their own agricultural and handicraft production – but as each dynasty decayed, the irrigation projects fell into disrepair causing widespread hunger and famine, with the armies of labourers forming seedbeds of rebellion.[5]

These factors combined to make the Chinese peasants rebellious on a scale dwarfing anything seen in Europe. Peasant armies of hundreds of thousands composed largely of the lowest layers rose in revolt. These rebellions were more successful than any in Europe, violently overthrowing governments and setting up new regimes; two of the great dynasties in China, the Han and Ming, were founded by commoners as the result of peasant uprisings.[6] But the new regimes singularly failed to re-structure the social order because these peasant rebellions were hopeless attempts revert society to an imaginary and idealised past.[7]

Marx described the process in an article on the Teiping rebellion:

“Oriental empires always show an unchanging social infra-structure coupled with unceasing change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe to themselves the political super-structure … The (rebels) are not conscious of any task, except the change of dynasty. They have no … germ of a new formation.”[8]

Nevertheless, a collective memory of past rebellions was a living tradition in the minds of the peasants which provided support for example, for the Taiping rebellion and, later, the rural strategy of the CCP.[9]

China remained comparatively untouched by Europe until the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) when the British bombarded Chinese ports and massacred Chinese people to ensure the continuance of the opium trade, a major source of revenue for the British East India Company. These wars forced China to import opium, imposed vast sums as indemnities and opened up Chinese ports to British trade in perpetuity. The indemnities were paid by borrowing from British banks and increasing taxes on the peasantry to pay off the loans. The drain of silver to pay for opium and the loans, coupled with the progressive ruin of the Chinese handicraft industry by cheap British imports, especially cotton goods, crippled the country and put an end to village self-sufficiency. The closed nature of the communal system which had been the mainstay of Chinese social stability was coming to an end, and the greater the loss of self-sufficiency, the greater the poverty of the peasants and the greater the resulting political unrest.[10]

The Taiping Rebellion that swept through China from about 1849 to 1863 threatened the overthrow of the Qing dynasty thanks to the popularity of its programme which included national integrity in the face of imperialism, radical agrarian reform, suppression of the opium trade and the abolition of foot binding. Its support came from the lowest layers of urban artisans and peasants both devastated by the impact of cheap goods produced in Britain. But for the upper reaches of society this rebellion had a profoundly conservative effect – they discovered they could rely on British cannons to keep them in power and maintain the mutually profitable status quo.[11] Russia, France, Japan, and then America joined the plunder and supplied (at a good rate of interest) the military and financial support needed to prop up the Qing emperor.

The forces of European capitalism neither wanted to, nor could, erase the archaic social relations that existed in China. Just the opposite. The agents of capitalism that arrived in China sought to assimilate pre-capitalist forms and exploit them for their own profits. Direct or indirect, capitalist exploitation gradually extended to the great majority long before capitalist relations were established in Chinese society. In the process, existing social forms were gradually given a different content.

When R H Tawney arrived in China he found a country with less than 56,000 km (35,000 miles) of gravel or tarmac roads. Some provinces (e.g., the south western province of Kweichow [Guizhou]) had no roads at all, not even sufficient for ox carts or any wheeled vehicle (even though the Chinese had invented the chariot), and all goods were transported on human shoulders because their labour was cheaper than that of animals. The recurrence of local famines was inevitable since a surplus in one area could not be transported to offset deficiency in another. Such lack of transport also meant that peasants had no choice where to market their goods, and were tied hand and foot to local dealers who cornered the market and fixed prices. With no financial reserves and loaded with debt, the vast majority had to sell their produce immediately after harvest when prices were at their lowest.[12]

It was common practice for rich peasants to form an important link in the chain of exploitation and engage in commerce, running small stores and peddling farm produce – buying when prices were low and selling when prices were high (Mao’s father was one such).[13] Naturally, these activities extended into lending at usurious rates. The rich peasants also made sure they had responsibility for managing common land which thus became yet one more means of exploitation. The adobe castles of the landlords surrounded by the miserable huts of the peasants were a visual representation of the divisions within the villages.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it became common practice for land-owners to move to the city for a more pleasant life-style, and their interest in their lands became more exclusively the extraction of rent and debt payments. The nearer to a great city, the higher the proportion of tenant farmers, between 85% and 95% in the case of Canton (Guangzhuo) in Kwantung (Guangdong) province.[14] This did not mean that landlords ignored the possibility of making profit from other sources, but the proportions were low, in Kiangsu 10% of landlords owned small handicraft factories meeting local needs but only about 3% held shares in large modern plants.[15]

Everywhere, population growth and pressure of peasant numbers enhanced land values and made landlordism an ideal form of investment with the small size of the peasant farms an indication of an economy in which the landlords were not concerned with efficient food production but in parcelling out the land to maximise rents.

The well-to-do formed companies to buy up land and sub-let. As the peasants became ever more impoverished, those exploiting them resorted to increasingly brutal techniques. By the 1920s in the rich rice-farming country between Canton and Hong Kong, the peasants were the “landlord’s slaves …. Rent was collected with the aid of ropes, chains, whips and other instruments of torture.”[16] It was a common sight on rent collection days to see wives and/or children lined-up for sale to offset family debts.

The local gentry sent their sons to participate in the highly lucrative foreign trade using the massive profits to buy additional land and/or lend at usurious rates. The growth and integration of merchant capital with imperialism, the coming together of local gentry with native capitalists, compradors and Western capitalists combined to produce an unholy amalgam which was buying vast tracts of land, renting them out at extortionate rates backed by an extensive system of loans and heavy-handed debt collection. Chinese capitalism as a whole was tied to imperialism and though it would, on occasion, attempt to gain a greater share of the spoils for itself, it was unable to play any independent progressive role in the economic development of China.

Of the Chinese population, roughly 80% were driven by one of the most consistent and powerful of revolutionary forces in all history – the hunger of starving peasants for land.[17] The continuous expropriation of the small peasants due to very high rates of rent, usury and taxes ended in the concentration of property in the hands of the village chiefs, usurers, and merchant-usurer-compradors and it was not rare to find landlords possessing 20,000 mow (about 1,500 hectares, nearly 4,000 acres) or more. Ten percent of the agricultural population of China possessed as much as two-thirds of the land. In the province of Shansi, 0.3% of the families possessed one quarter of the land. In Chekiang, 3.3% of the families possessed half the land, while 77% of the poor peasants possessed no more than 20% of the land. And in Kwangtung where 2% of the families possessed over half the land, 74% possessed only 19% of the land. These figures explain why the land hunger of the peasant became transformed into a class hatred of the landlord and all those allied with him.[18]

Those lucky enough to be tenants paid from 25-66% of their crop to the landlord for the use of the land. Given the small land areas involved, this meant perpetual hunger for the great mass of peasants who found it impossible to accumulate any reserve fund. Any natural disaster or poor harvest and the tenant would be unable to pay his rent and taxes, with the consequence he was obliged to borrow money from his landlord or a member of his landlord’s family. In fact, tenants were often obliged to borrow to pay for seed for the coming season or even food in order to feed their families a meagre diet of millet. Tenants who had to borrow inevitably lost their land. A good money-lender charged only 25% per annum, but rates of 40-80% were more typical with 150% not unknown. These interest payments to the money-lenders on top of all the other debts were the principal cause of the ruin of peasant families.[19]

Surveys of the livelihood of Chinese peasants,[20,21] found even the more prosperous peasants lived near the margin of subsistence. The families of small peasants could not support themselves on what their farms produced. The gap was made up by working on the lands of rich peasants, or wives and daughters who undertook handicraft manufacture – which traditionally had earned as much, or even more, than labouring but was being hard hit by Western imports giving Chinese peasants one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world.[22] The poverty of the peasant masses was such that an entire strata of the rural population was reduced to the condition of animals, but poorly fed and badly treated animals at that. The result was a life expectancy of about 35 years.[23]

Landless peasants who were about one third the total were in an even worse situation. These semi-slaves were forever hungry and their clothes were rags. A family would have one pair of trousers shared between them, when the father went out he left his wife naked. Belden estimated that in a bad year, a family of seven could expect three or four of its members to starve to death.[24]

The nature of the Asiatic state proved to be a problem for the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy. In the Asiatic state the officials had no inheritance rights to their positions; they were appointed, promoted/demoted and discharged by a ‘supreme’ authority. Chinese officials, just like Soviet bureaucrats, owed their privileges to their position in the state apparatus and not to their property, and so did not form a possessing class. Analysing and describing this fawning and corrupt bureaucracy was a sensitive issue for the Soviet regime and so it was excised from the analysis of China. In 1931, at a conference held in Leningrad, it was officially denied that Marx had ever recognised a special ‘Asiatic mode of production’; and the history of the Orient was explained in Western terms as a development of feudalism.[25]

Hence, the ECCI emphasised that the national democratic revolution in China was a struggle against feudalism. This concept distorted the thinking of the CCP even after its taking power to the extent that the major banking conglomerates were declared feudal because of their links to the leaders of the KMT and their involvement in the practice of usury.

1.2.1 Women in Pre-Revolutionary China

“The degree of emancipation of woman is a natural standard of the general emancipation” and “the changes in a historical epoch can always be inferred from the comparative freedom of women.”[26] In China a peasant woman was lucky in the sense she had not been strangled at birth or put on one side to die. The widespread suicides of wives and daughters were convincing proof of the degraded state of women in China.

Women were denied social contact outside their family a position reinforced by physically deforming girls through the practice of foot binding. Women were confined to the home and handicraft work, and over large areas of China women did not work the land. That was done by men only. Folklore reinforced patriarchy and the restriction of women to the home by such sayings as: “potatoes planted by women won’t sprout” and “melons planted by women are bitter.”[27]

The woman’s sense of isolation and vulnerability was enhanced by having the young bride marry outside her natal village after which she might never see her parents or siblings again. The marriages were arranged by family heads and neither groom nor bride had any say. Because women were seen by their birth family as temporary residents who left home as soon as they were productive, they were denied the right to own property and little or nothing was invested in their education; rather daughters (and wives) were sold as cheap labour and/or concubines to meet family debts.

In China the groom’s family paid a ‘body price’ to the bride’s family, implying they were paying not for a young woman but a chattel. On entering her husband’s home a bride would find herself examined by curious neighbours who pawed her, felt her arm muscles, turned her this way and that, examining her to see if she were worth buying. Peasant women lived in semi-slave conditions, often on a level with the domesticated animals owned by the family.

The practice of wife-beating by the husband and his mother was both accepted and almost universal. Many wives were crippled or died as a result of these beatings. The position of the wife was reinforced at every turn by such customs as the husband’s family eating first and the wife eating what little food was left over. Widows were not allowed to re-marry and an ‘exemplary wife’ committed suicide to show loyalty to her dead husband. In reality, this was a mechanism for killing off older women before they became a burden on family resources.

The inequality of women was deeply reflected in Chinese philosophy and religion in which it was a law of nature that woman should be inferior to man and, before the arrival of the CCP, Chinese society accepted its horrendous treatment of women as natural. Confucianism was the ideological basis of this oppression, as this decreed that a woman should live her life subject to her father’s authority, after marriage her husband’s, and after the husband’s death, her sons. It is said that there is not one line in all that Confucius wrote which praises women.

The lowly position of Chinese women not only had a terrible effect on the women themselves, but also succeeded in degrading all human relations within Chinese society.[28] Little wonder that the reaction of many a woman whose landlord husband was killed by militia or villagers was not grief but joy. So badly were wives treated in the more conservative sectors of society that the death of the perpetrator was an occasion for celebration. One can imagine, then, the impact of the ‘scandalous behaviour’ of young Communist women who cut their hair short, were able to walk freely, and spoke in public to those who were not members of their immediate family.

The subjugation of women, their misery and degradation, was an essential prop for Chinese society. Jack Belden has described how, in agrarian China, rich peasants with more than one wife and numerous concubines had many sons to act as their ming tuan. Belden gives the example of one landlord who used his 68 strong family to control nearly 1,000 small holdings. Any genuine attempt to emancipate women was revolutionary because it threatened the whole rotten social pyramid.[29]

All the more praise, then, to women such as the anarchist HeYin Zheh who helped found Natural Justice, a feminist journal which carried the first Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto. It is said that He Yin, who died in her mid-30s, would often claim that feminism brought Marxism to China not the other way round.

1.3 Industrial Development in China

Industrially, China was a country of enormous contradictions. For example, railways had developed rapidly after its defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war, as the military saw their enormous strategic advantage, but as late as 1925 there was still only about 12,300 km (7,500 miles) of track. Nearly all railways were in the eastern half of the country and used for military purposes or by foreign imperialist interests to service industrial and mining complexes. Five provinces had no railways at all and many only a few miles.

Goods produced by the world’s most developed technologies flooded into China and pauperised many of the rural population, creating a pool of cheap labour, ideal for exploitation by industry. After 1905, Chinese cities grew rapidly. By 1919 the population of Shanghai had reached over 1.9 million. In the four years from 1919 to 1923 Beijing grew from around 600,000 to over one million. Other cities such as Canton and the Wuhan complex grew into major urban centres.

The new working class was composed largely of peasant immigrants. Industrialisation offered the peasant not only additional income but the chance for an independent existence outside of a large family unit. This separate existence undermined the absolute authority of the head of the family and with it obedience to officialdom, leading to greater receptiveness towards new and revolutionary ideas – a process that had much in common with the growth and radicalisation of the Russian working class some fifty years before.[30]

The Great War of 1914-1918 had an enormous and sudden impact on China; Chinese-owned factories, mills and shipyards based on the latest capitalist technology and methods developed in places like Shanghai and Canton – a modern working class was being created. Nationally, industrial workers grew rapidly to two million in 1922 with another two million miners, railway workers and seamen, and an additional ten million or so handicraft workers. In Shanghai in 1923, 57 factories employed between 500 and 1,000 workers each, and another 49 employed over 1,000 workers each – by 1927 the number of factory workers in Shanghai was estimated to be about a quarter of a million.[31] Of the 12 million non-agricultural workers in China, around three-quarters worked in large enterprises employing more than 500 workers.

Nearly half of Shanghai’s workers were women, in silk, yarn, and cigarette factories but at this time the CCP tended to see them as a factor lowering the militancy of the workforce, rather than as an ally in the liberation struggle.[32] In the Shanghai cotton mills women between 14 and 19 years of age made up over half the work force. These women were, if possible, treated worse than the men, gang masters took 40% of their earnings, they slept 30-40 in a room, they could be beaten for errors in their work, they could be locked in cages on public display for infringements of discipline. This was the alternative to forced marriages or being sold into slavery by starving parents. It is understandable that the major complaints of these workers were not about pay but the conditions in which they worked and lived.[33]

The rise of Chinese production brought aspiring Chinese capitalists into collision with entrenched foreign interests. The national bourgeoisie faced serious problems due to the domination of foreign capital made worse by the concession whereby foreign goods paid no duty while Chinese goods did. Foreign capital owned nearly all the railways (either outright or as mortgages), more than half of the shipping in Chinese waters, and almost all merchant shipping. Foreign capitalists had a stranglehold on Chinese industry, sucking it dry. In such a situation the more entrepreneurial sections of the national bourgeoisie were prepared to support anti-imperialist parties which called for revolution.[34]

Once above a certain minimum number, the specific weight of the working class in a social revolution is the dominant factor and there was a general equivalence between Russia in 1917 and China in 1927. Although relatively small proportionally – a few million in a population of over 400 million – these concentrations of proletarians had two qualities that, given the correct political leadership, would be decisive in national democratic and socialist revolutionary struggles; they were located in the cities and they were the only social group which could offer the peasants a solution to the land question.[35]

1.4 The First Chinese Revolution: Sun Yat-sen and Nationalism

From 1840 it was increasingly clear to all sections of Chinese society that something in China was fundamentally wrong and big changes were required. By the beginning of the 20th century, dissatisfaction with the old regime and demand for change were reaching boiling point. It was increasingly apparent that the old regime could not reform itself but was determined to cling to its power and privileges. Organisations with the goal of the revolutionary overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of a national bourgeois Chinese republic proliferated, especially in the South and East of the country centred on Canton and Shanghai.[36]

Between 1905 and 1912, Sun Yat-sen built a political movement for the military overthrow of the Qing regime. Sun’s prestige came from his successful merging of small revolutionary groups into a single larger party providing a more effective base for the nationalist struggle. Sun was dedicated to the bourgeois democratic revolution, and between 1900 and 1908 he led or organised no fewer than five failed uprisings. In early 1911 another Sun attempt in Canton failed, but on 10 October 1911, soldiers in Hubei province rebelled and proclaimed a republic. This did not ignite any popular response but coming as it did from within the military-bureaucratic apparatus, this ‘tap’ was sufficient to knock over a thoroughly rotten structure.

Politically, Sun Yat-sen was a petty-bourgeois who presented socialism as a vague state of well-being rather than a social and economic system. His famous Three Principles for the liberation of Chinese society from imperialism specifically exclude the idea that this might require a class struggle; instead the concept of “people” was used to obscure the idea that China might have different classes with different interests.

With the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty, Sun’s supporters in Nanjing (capital of Jiangsu province) declared themselves a National Assembly and elected him President of a loosely federated Republic of China. In this capacity he did a deal with the representative of the old dynasty (General Yuan Shikai [Yüan Shih-k’ai] a warlord from the North, with large forces at his disposal), offering him the presidency if he arranged the permanent departure of the Manchus.[37] Rather than mobilise the masses throughout the country on a social programme to overthrow the regime, Sun Yat-sen – in a classic example of the Asiatic mode of rebellion – simply changed the personnel at the top. The party of the liberal bourgeoisie and national democratic revolution entered into a reactionary compromise with the counter-revolution.[38]

After the Taiping rebellion, the authority of the emperor had been more nominal than actual with real power held by the provincial governors. The Republic in 1911 finally severed any remaining loyalties to the emperor and the provincial governors representing themselves alone assumed both military and civil power. These regional warlords corresponded closely to the spheres of interest of the Great Powers, and the incessant civil wars reflected the conflict of interests between those powers. In Manchuria, Japan supported Chang Tso-Lin while Britain supported Wu Pei-Fu in Northern China, and Sung Chan-Fang in Central China.[39] Despite the disintegration of the country, the Beijing government remained the symbol of China’s national sovereignty and thus its capture continued to be the goal of Sun Yat-sen and the nationalists.

The failure of the 1911 revolution (known as the First Chinese Revolution) demonstrated the weakness of the national bourgeoisie. Forming a stable national government, creating a national market, and carrying through radical land reform were beyond the capacities of this social group on its own. Sun Yat-sen bowed to reaction with the result that two years after 1911, the party of the revolution found itself outlawed and Sun forced to seek asylum in Japan. Confusion, disorder and turmoil would now be the order of the day until the CCP victory in 1949.

After the First Chinese Revolution, the situation of the national, middle, and small bourgeoisie became ever worse due to disintegration of the country and continuous civil wars. The previous general hatred of the monarchy was now directed at the warlords and their backers, the imperialists. The energy that had previously gone into peasant revolt now fuelled a nationalist movement of tremendous force for reunification of the country and against imperialism.[40]

1.5 The Communist International 1919-1923

At the 2nd World Congress (19 July-7 Aug 1920), the CI addressed the three major problems faced by Communists in “colonial and backward countries”; how to avoid adopting conciliatory and opportunist positions with respect to the national bourgeoisie, how to avoid ultra-leftism, and what should be their general strategic approach. Lenin published Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, to guide and educate the young and often ultra-left leaders of the emerging Communist Parties in a non-sectarian approach towards Social Democracy, parliamentary elections, existing trade unions, and nationalist parties in the colonial world.[41]

It was at this Congress that the CI adopted a centralised structure and agreed that the International’s strategic line would be binding on its member parties, but the national section would be free to determine its implementation, particularly tactical and day-to-day activities. Lenin may have seen October 1917 as a model for future revolutions but he stressed that concrete events in each specific country had primacy in day-to-day struggles.[42]

1.5.1 The United Front Strategy

A major development in the strategic orientation of the CI was the adoption of a United Front strategy at the 3rd World Congress (June-July, 1921). The concept of the United Front had been advanced by Paul Levi, leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) based on the lessons of the Kapp putsch. On the morning of 13 March 1920, a brigade of soldiers led by Wolfgang Kapp marched into Berlin and declared the German SD government to be overthrown. Not a shot was fired, the government simply fled. The putsch was challenged instead by the workers. Karl Legien a right wing leader of the main trade union federation issued the call for a general strike. At first the KPD vacillated but the great mass of workers threw themselves unhesitatingly into the struggle. By 15 March the strike was solid, and faced with united action by trade unionists, social democrats and communists, the putschists gave up and fled.[43]

We should note that the United Front was not a new concept; it was certainly present in Lenin’s writings as early as February 1905.[44] Here Lenin called for a United Front of all revolutionary forces to prepare the uprising, on the basis of the slogan “march separately and strike together” but, as in all his other articles on this topic, he emphasised the absolute necessity of maintaining the complete political independence of the working class party. A well-known and classic example of Lenin’s United Front stratagem in action was in September 1917 when General Kornilov at the head of a White Army was advancing on Petrograd. Despite the counter revolutionary and repressive nature of Kerensky’s Provisional Government (in July it had attempted to outlaw the Bolsheviks), it was necessary to participate wholeheartedly in the struggle against the open forces of reaction represented by Kornilov. Throughout 1917 Lenin’s strategy was to attack the main enemy, the landlords and capitalists, and the reaction, not directly attacking the reformist leaders but outflanking them, demonstrating in practice that the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were incapable of acting decisively in the interests of the workers and peasants.[45]

A United Front had defeated reaction both in Russia and Germany, and Levi, supported by the majority of the CC of the KPD, issued an Open Letter on 8 January 1921, proposing a new strategy for winning the mass of workers to communism. The Open Letter called for a United Front, on a limited number of concrete demands (including wage increases and amnesty for political prisoners), with other left parties and the trade unions, and was approved by Lenin.[46]

Zinoviev and Bukharin (both advocates of the theory of the offensive – European capitalism was so weak it needed only a good push to collapse) sharply attacked the Open Letter and without Lenin’s intervention the ECCI would have issued a public condemnation.[47] Zinoviev, using the ECCI, sent emissaries to Berlin who by, demanding loyalty to the CI and blocking with the ultra-lefts, removed Levi from the leadership and had the KPD agree to launch an armed revolt.[48]

The first step in the insurrection was for the KPD to call a nationwide general strike. Ill-prepared, the strike was limited to KPD members and close supporters who made the classic ultra-left mistake of attempting to close factories not by gaining a majority vote but by fighting with those workers going to work. The strike was a fiasco which allowed the SD trade union leaders to indignantly denounce the splitting tactics of the KPD. Thousands of militants were thrown in prison, tens of thousands lost their jobs, and the membership of the KPD fell from nearly 400,000 to less than 150,000.[49]

Events in Germany convinced Lenin and Trotsky of the need for a discussion on strategy and tactics as a major topic at the 3rd World Congress of the CI. After much heated debate, Lenin and Trotsky obtained a majority for the policy of the United Front but with the supporters of the theory of the offensive unrepentant.[50,51]

This policy signified a new approach toward Social Democrats and nationalists. Common actions should be proposed where it was possible to reach a minimum agreement on practical measures. In this way, communists hoped to demonstrate to the masses that they were in the forefront of the class struggle and stood for the long-term interests of all the working masses. For such a strategy to be successful there had to be in place a leadership sufficiently mature not to succumb to either impatience (ultra-leftism) or to bend to opportunist pressures. Another precondition of any United Front was the independence of the Communist Party. Any agreement which restricted CP freedom of criticism and agitation was “absolutely unacceptable.”[52]

1.5.2 Collaboration with National Revolutionary Movements

National liberation struggles in the countries of the east, particularly China, were of major concern to the Communist International, and Lenin spent considerable time and effort in developing a general strategy for Communists participating in anti-imperialist United Fronts in colonial and semi-colonial countries.[53]

In November 1919 and again in June 1920, Lenin described how feudal oppression in Russia was ended after the proletarian revolution overthrew the bourgeoisie, after the proletariat had demonstrated in practice that as a government they would complete the agrarian revolution.[54,55] The agrarian revolution might be the motor force for the peasants’ revolutionary struggle against imperialism but only the dictatorship of the proletariat, supported by the poor peasants, could fully satisfy the peasant’s three most heartfelt demands: for land, for cancellation of mortgages and debts, and for an end to feudal oppression as expressed in, e.g. corvee labour.[56]

This analysis was presented to both the CI and Communist Organisations of the East and Lenin meant it to be taken seriously as the strategic basis for the International’s orientation towards the peasant masses in the colonial countries and as guide to action in, e.g., China. Despite being a backward semi-feudal country, Russia had a sufficiently strong and politically advanced proletariat to drive the revolution to success under Bolshevik leadership. How could the same perspective be proposed for countries such as China where the proletariat, while growing rapidly, had not reached the social or political weight it had in Russia in 1917?

Lenin’s answer was twofold. The national liberation struggles were an integral part of the world proletarian revolution. Each national revolution had to be seen in the international context which had “transformed the present stage of capitalist development into an era of proletarian socialist revolution.”[57] The second part of his answer was that it had been demonstrated in the most remote and “backward” of the former Tsarist colonies, that even with no proletariat but with the help of the Soviet Union, peasant Soviets could exist and govern without passing through a capitalist stage.[58] It was the duty of the national CPs to propagandise and organise Soviets suited to local conditions as soon as practicable. Lenin emphasised: “The idea of Soviet organisation is a simple one, and is applicable … to peasant, feudal and semi-feudal relations.”[59]

At the 2nd CI Congress, 11 countries from Asia were represented. The discussions on the agrarian, national and colonial questions were dominated by Lenin’s personal interventions. Lenin urged the young communist parties in the colonial countries to actively participate in the emerging national revolutionary movements, but specifically warned of:

“the need for determined struggle against the attempt to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends … the Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in colonial and backward countries, but must not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even in its most embryonic form.”[60]

Maring (‘Henk’ Sneevliet) expanded on Lenin’s report[61]and explained that opposition to imperialism required the “overthrow (of) the rule of the landlords … Only an agrarian revolution can arouse the vast peasant masses.” It was emphasised that the struggle against patriarchy and backwardness was an essential component of the struggle against imperialist domination and such struggles greatly assisted the Soviet Union and the proletarian revolution in the West.[62]

The CI expected that the initial period of revolution in the colonies and semi-colonies (and China was included here) would be nationalist in character. During this initial stage, indigenous Communists could and should enter into temporary alliances but in the process found workers’ and peasants’ councils to address the aspirations of the broad masses of the peasants. In his report, Maring again emphasised the importance of the demand for the seizure and distribution of the land by the peasants to the peasants. The struggle to carry though these revolutionary measures would mean that, with the help and guidance of the Soviet Union and the CI, the national revolution could “progress to socialism without passing through a capitalist stage.”

The Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East held in September 1920 was definite that the poor peasants of the East did not have to pass through bourgeois democracy in order to acquire the capacity for self-government; did not have to pass through a phase of capitalist development before they could go over to a Soviet system. “The masses of peasants of the East should form revolutionary peasant Soviets with the poorest peasants as the leading elements and immediately destroy the system of landlordship.”[63] It was accepted that the Russian experience had shown that the middle peasants would support socialist revolution if the resulting regime approved the seizure of the landed estates and their distribution to the peasants by the peasants.

This strategy would never be applied in China but would, instead, be wilfully distorted by subsequent Soviet leaderships to meet the needs of the leading faction in the Russian Party in inner-party struggles.

1.5.3 May 4th Movement, Labour Radicalisation and the Founding of the CCP

In the horse-trading at the peace negotiations after World War I, the victors trampled on China’s sovereignty. Popular illusions in Anglo-American democracy were shattered and there was a widespread recognition that whoever won the war, imperialist exploitation of China and other colonial countries would continue. In such a situation the October Revolution became a topic of interest especially after the Soviet government relinquished the territories, rights and privileges that the Tsarist government had taken from China in the past. Such a stark contrast to the Versailles Treaty had a profound impact on Chinese radicals, students, and intellectuals.

The warlords were deeply unpopular, and their supine attitude when they acquiesced to the transfer of German concessions in Shantung province to Japan and the expansion of Japanese control over Manchuria, was the final straw in generating open mass opposition beginning with the May 4th Movement.[64] On 4 May, 1919 in Beijing, some 5,000 university students attacked the residences of those ministers particularly submissive to Japan. Documents seized by the students revealed that the Versailles decisions were based on prior agreements between the Beijing government and the Japanese. The next day students in Beijing as a whole went on strike, and students across the country followed.

China had sent over 150,000 workers to labour for the allied armies in France, Belgium, Mesopotamia, and Africa and these returned with experience of labour organisation. Radicalised by the May 4th Movement and with experience of trade unions, the returned workers played a key role in early June, when labour leaders declared a strike in Shanghai; it is claimed some 100,000 industrial workers participated.[65] In a few days the Beijing Government was compelled to remove the offending ministers and release those arrested.

The example of the workers in Shanghai was followed by workers throughout the country and was a turning point in the emergence of Chinese labour as an independent political force. The strikes placed the question of class at the centre of post-May 4th political thinking. The older, traditional radicals thought the arrival of the uneducated masses undermined the Chinese national revolution, the left of the KMT sought to integrate the workers’ upsurge into a corporatist strategy to render class struggle unnecessary (KMT thinking was, generally, that China’s backwardness meant the class struggle was a diversion from the national revolution), but the more radical saw class struggle as a means of freeing Chinese society from imperialism. In September 1919, the Chinese Returned Labourers’ Association was set up in Shanghai to fight for better wages, the right to hold meetings, and the right to make public speeches for promoting the welfare of workers, etc. Between 1919 and 1923 Shanghai would have over 450 strikes.[66]

The May 4th Movement was a mass crusade against imperialism, feudalism, and corruption. Its failure astounded and polarised the Movement into the gradualists and the radicals led by Chen Duxiu (Ch’en Tu-hsiu, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Beijing University). Chen had a national reputation gained from his founding of the radical quarterly magazine New Youth which was published in common speech not classical Chinese. The most politically advanced came to the conclusion that a revolutionary organisation was required to achieve the aspirations of the people, and turned to Leninism and Marxism.[67]

Impressed by the Russian Revolution, Chen decided to devote a special issue of New Youth to Marxism; it was published on 1 May 1919, with Li Dazhao (Head Librarian of Beijing University) as acting editor. At the University, Li had quietly and secretly organised a Marxist Study Society of which Mao Zedong was a member. The collaboration between Chen and Li had a profound effect on Chen who, soon after, declared himself a Marxist.[68] For distributing a leaflet critical of the Chinese president and prime minister, Chen was arrested by the Beijing authorities on 11 June and had to resign his post. He was released in November and moved to Shanghai the following January to become a full-time revolutionary.

In March 1920, Grigori Voitinsky chief of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern met with Li Dazhao to assess the possibility of launching a Communist Party in China. Upon Li’s recommendation, Voitinsky proceeded to Shanghai to meet with Chen Duxiu who had already formed a loose political grouping. By the end of May 1920, Voitinsky had persuaded Chen to formally found a Chinese Communist Party, had helped him draft a programme, establish a provisional Central Committee, and construct the first official Communist cell in Shanghai. Voitinsky participated directly in all phases and aspects of party formation and organisation and may, justifiably, be viewed as the architect of the CCP in its initial phase.[69]

The aid provided by the Comintern was essential for creating a disciplined Bolshevik organisation in such a short time. Chen Duxiu was from a family of wealthy government officials. Li Dazhao was from a peasant background. For both of them, the material and theoretical aid of the Comintern in establishing the CCP substituted for decades of theoretical studies, debate and practical party-building. The problems faced by Chen and Li were considerably heightened and the study of Marxism made more difficult because, for example, there was no Chinese equivalent for such terms as proletariat, which made expressing central Marxist concepts doubly problematic. Fairbank makes the point that this confusion in the translation of Marxist terms was given a particular slant by Mao to enhance the appearance of orthodoxy in his writings. For example, Mao translated the word ‘proletariat’ as ‘propertyless class’ in which he included landless labourers and very poor peasants who comprised the majority of the Chinese population, and in this way justified his so-called peasant orientation.[70]

China’s Communists celebrated May Day 1920 with great fanfare in Shanghai, Beijing, and a number of provincial cities. In August 1920, World of Labour, Voice of Labour, and Labourers were launched by the Communist groups in Shanghai, Beijing, and Canton respectively to spread Communism among workers, explain the causes of their oppression and exploitation, and urge them to organise labour unions.[71] In November 1920, the Shanghai group made New Youth its official organ and established a clandestine monthly, The Communist, the first publication in China devoted to the propagation of Communism. Soon, other Communist groups were established in Wuhan, Changsha, and Canton. A Socialist Youth Corps was founded by, amongst others, Peng Shuzhi (P’eng Shu-tse).[72] The CCP did take the decision to launch a daily paper in Beijing (Far East Daily) but immediately realised that the Party’s strength was insufficient to maintain such an enterprise and instead launched The Guide Weekly.[73]

Thirty-eight years of age, Maring had been a leading member of the Indonesian Communist Party (initially the ISDV and later PKI) from its founding, and had been instrumental in persuading it to adopt an entrist strategy into the mass nationalist movement Sarekat Islam. Maring believed this was the root cause of the success achieved in building the ISDV and had vigorously promoted the same strategy for other countries at the 2nd Congress of the CI in July 1920. As Secretary to the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions he worked closely with Lenin, was elected a member of the ECCI and later delegated to represent the ECCI in China arriving in Shanghai on 3 June 1921 where he immediately began to promote the entry strategy.[74]

Maring initially concentrated on organising the 1st National Congress of the CCP. The party was constituted secretly in Shanghai in July 1921 with 12 delegates representing 57 people from seven local Communist groups in China and one in Japan. The Party Secretary was Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao was head of propaganda. The party programme that was adopted closely followed the Bolshevik programme and called for joining the Communist International.[75] The following month Chen became full-time Party Secretary, a post he would keep until July 1927.

The delegates at the 1st Congress discussed the nature of the Chinese Revolution, predicting it would be national democratic but that it was extremely unlikely that the KMT could carry it through successfully, implying that the CCP would take the lead of the bourgeoise democratic revolution much as had happened in Russia.[76] With his own perspectives in mind, Maring worked hard to tone down the more virulent anti-KMT statements to keep the door open for CCP-KMT co-operation.[77]

Communist nuclei around the country were soon organised into party branches: Beijing, Canton, Hong Kong, Hunan (where Mao Zedong was local leader and created the largest and best organised branch in the CCP), Jinan, Shanghai, Sichuan, Tianjin, and Wuhan. These branches operated at three levels: the illegal ‘small group’ of party members, the Socialist Youth Corps operating semi-openly, and the open Study Societies.[78] The CCP recognised that women were confronted with specific problems which made them the most oppressed section among the oppressed classes and the battle for women’s emancipation was closely tied to the battle for social revolution. The CPC set up a special Women’s Department at the 2nd Party Congress held in 1922 to organise and lead women in revolutionary politics. This department was directed by Hsing Ching-yu, one of Mao’s fellow student-activists from Hunan and the only woman on the Central Committee of the CPC.

The department produced a list of democratic demands, including: the right to self-determination in marriage, equal husband-wife relations, the right to vote, to hold office and to education, protection for female and child labour, and the abolition of all restrictions on women. With these demands, Hsing drew large numbers of women around the Party. The Women’s Department, with its limited resources, concentrated on supporting the industrial activities of women such as the first strike by women workers in the silk factories of Shanghai in 1922 for a 10-hour working day and 5 cents wage-increase per day. The first rally of women, under party leadership, was held on Women’s Day (8 March) 1924 in Canton, where a group of female students and women workers raised the slogans: Equal pay for equal work, Protection for child labour and pregnant mothers, Prohibit the buying of girl slaves, Equal education for all, No more child brides, Down with warlords, Down with imperialism.

1.6 Summary

The importance of the disciplined party, with a clear, implacable revolutionary position, was fully grasped by Lenin only as a result of years of experience so it is not surprising that Chen Duxiu, should not instantly come to the same conclusion based purely on his own experiences. The first Bolshevisation of the CCP which introduced the concept and practice of democratic centralism (e.g. accepting the authority of the CI) and which was widely welcomed by the CCP leaders, was carried through under the guidance of Maring.[79]

CCP Central Committee accounts and financial receipts show that before the establishment of the CCP, Chen Duxiu had found the funds needed for the functioning of his radical group from publications, sales and donations, but with the formation of the CCP there was a steep increase in outlay and a major shortage of funds. In 1921 expenditure reached the equivalent of almost 18,000 Chinese silver dollars. The CCP managed to raise only about 1,000 dollars and received 16,650 dollars from the ECCI. In 1922 it is reported that the CCP raised no money at all and expenses were met by 15,000 dollars donated from Moscow.[80] The Kremlin not only funded Chen Duxiu, whose monthly salary was 30 dollars, but also all the regional organisations of the party. Mao is reported to have received 60-70 dollars a month to support himself and his activities in Hunan. Thus, the ECCI representatives not had only the prestige of the October Revolution, the collective experience of the Bolshevik Party and the authority of the CI behind them, they were also the source of material resources which would be a major factor in the ongoing control that the CI exerted over the CCP.


TCQ - The China Quarterly
MIA - Marxist Internet Archive
U.P. - University Press
w.m.org - www.marxists.org
w.m.com - www.marxist.com
CLB - China Labour Bulletin

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[2] Chen Han-sheng, The Burdens of the Chinese Peasantry, Pacific Affairs, 1929 2(10)644-658.

[3] Pearce, B. Marxism and the Asiatic Mode of Production, Rev. Hist. 2002 Vol 8 No 2.

[4] Mandel, E. Ten Theses on the Social and Economic Laws Governing the Society Transitional Between Capitalism and Socialism, 1973, w.m.org.

[5] Marx, K. British Rule in India, New York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853.

[6] Harrison, J. The Communists and Chinese Peasant Rebellions, Victor Gollanz, 1970.

[7] Pantsov, A. The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919-1927, Curzon. 2000.

[8] Marx, K. 7 July 1882, CW 19:213-216.

[9] Chesneaux, J. Peasant Revolt in China 1840-1949, Thames and Hudson, 1973.

[10] McColl, R. The Oyuwan Soviet Area, Jnl of Asian Studies, 1961, 27(1) 41-60.

[11] Morley, D. 90 Years of the Chinese Communist Party. 2011, w.m.com.

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

[13] Pantsov, A. and Levine, S. Mao, Simon & Schuster, 2012, p17.

[14] Tawney, Op. cit.

[15] Chen Han-seng, The Present Agrarian Problem in China, , 5th Biennial Conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations, Banff, Canada, August 14 to 28, 1933.

[16] Fairbank, Op. cit.

[17] Endicott, M. Five Stars Over China, Toronto, 1953.

[18] Mandel, E. The Third Chinese Revolution, May 1950. www.marxists.org.

[19] Tawney, Op. cit.

[20] Buck, J. Land Utilization in China, Paragon, 1964.

[21] Chen Han-seng, Op. cit.

[22] Allen, R., et al., Wages, Prices and Living Standards in China 1795-1925, http://cei.ier.hit-u.ac.jp.

[23] Slee, C. Peoples’ Republic of China at 60, Green Left Weekly #811, September 23, 2009.

[24] Belden, J. China Shakes the World, Gollancz, 1951, p151.

[25] Wittfogel, K. Results and Problems of the Study of Oriental Despotism, Jnl of Asian Studies, 1969, 28(2)357-365.

[26] Marx, K., and Engels, F. The Holy Family, w.m.org.

[27] Samyorup, Women in the Chinese Revolution (1921-1950) New Vistas Publications.

[28] Belden. Op. cit. p311.

[29] Belden. Op. cit. p310.

[30] Franke, W. A Century of Chinese Revolution, 1851-1949, 1970, Blackwell, p95-99.

[31] Ho Kan-chih, A History of the Modern Chinese Revolution. 1960, PFLP, p12-15.

[32] Saich, T. The Origins of the First United Front in China, Brill, 1991, p116-117, p87.

[33] Conway, F. Women in the Chinese Revolution, Fourth International, 1951, 12(4)109-113).

[34] Basin, A. The Failure of the Chinese Communist Party 1921-27, MA Thesis. Montreal University, 1973.

[35] Morley, Op cit.

[36] Fairbank, Op. cit.

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

[38] Serge, V. The Class Struggle in the Chinese Revolution, 1927, Rev. Hist. 5(3)83.

[39] Jacobs, D. Recent Russian Material on Soviet Advisers in China: 1923-1927. The China Quarterly, No. 41, 1970, p103-112.

[40] Pantsov, The Bolsheviks … Op. cit.

[41] Lenin, V. Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, May 1920 CW 31:17-118.

[42] Riddell, J. The Comintern in Lenin’s Time, Socialist Voice Pamphlet, 2008.

[43] Brooks, M. The Kapp Putsch: the United Front in Action, 2010, w.m.org.

[44] A Militant Agreement for the Uprising, 1905, CW8:158-166.

[45] Woods, A. Bolshevism the Road to Revolution, 1999, w.m.com.

[46] Lenin, V. Remarks on the Draft Theses on Tactics … , June 1921, CW 42:319.

[47] Broue, P, The German Revolution 1917-1923. Brill, 2004, p473.

[48] Vatlin, A. International Communism and the Communist International 1919-43, MUP 1998, p120.

[49] Cliff, T. Lenin Vol. 3, Bookmarks, London, 1987.

[50] Lenin, V. Speech in Defence of the Tactics of the Communist International, July 1920, CW 32:470-473.

[51] Trotsky, L. First Five Years of the Communist International, New Park, p328.

[52] Chattopadhyay, K. The Marxism of Leon Trotsky, Progressive Publishers, India, 2006.

[53] Lenin, V. Report of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions, July 1920 CW31:240-245.

[54] Lenin, V. Address to 2nd Congress of Communist Organisations of the East, Nov 1919, CW 30:161.

[55] Lenin, V. Preliminary Draft Thesis on the Agrarian Question, July 1920, CW 31:152-164.

[56] Lenin, V. From a Publicist’s Diary, Aug. 1917, CW 25:278-286.

[57] Lenin, V. Revision of the Party Programme, June 1917, CW 24:469.

[58] Lenin, V. Report on the Commission … Op. Cit. p244.

[59] Ibid, p243.

[60] Lenin, V. Draft Theses on National and Colonial Question, June 1920, CW31:149-150.

[61] Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Question, 2nd Congress CI, w.m.org.

[62] Riddell, Op. cit.

[63] Report of 6th Session, Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, September 1920, www.marxists.org.

[64] Lewis, J. Peasant Rebellion & Communist Revolution in Asia, Stanford U.P. 1974.

[65] Chow Tse-tung, The May Fourth Movement, Harvard U.P. 1960.

[66] Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism O.U.P. 1989, p57 and 63.

[67] Morley, Op. cit.

[68] Alexander, R. International Trotskyism 1929-1985, 1991, Duke U.P. rosswolfe.files.wordpress.com.

[69] Dirlik, Op. cit. p153 et seq.

[70] Fairbank, Op. cit. p250.

[71] Dirlik, Op. cit. p149-150.

[72] Peng Shuzhi, Introduction to Leon Trotsky on China, 1976, Monad.

[73] Saich, T. The Origins … Op. cit., p116-117.

[74] Dov Bing, Sneevliet and the Early Years of the CCP, The China Quarterly, 1971, No. 48, p677-697.

[75] Saich, T. The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party, Sharpe, 1996 p11.

[76] Chang Kuo t’ao, The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party 192l-27, Lawrence, 1971, p136-152.

[77] Dov Bing, Op. cit.

[78] Pantsov and Levine, Mao, Op. cit. p121.

[79] Benton G. Bolshevising China: From Lenin to Stalin to Mao, 1921–1944. Leeds Univ., East Asia Papers No. 22, 1966.

[80] Pantsov and Levine, Mao, Op. cit.