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

From the Canton “Commune” to the Jiangxi “Soviet”

6.1 Introduction

For the Chinese Communist Party the leadership of Ch’u Ch’iu-pai and the ECCI representatives, Lominadze and Neumann, meant objectivity and realism went out of the window. Each set-back was hailed as an advance: Chiang Kai-shek’s coup of March 1926 had elevated the revolution to the higher stage of the Shanghai massacre of April 1927, which in turn had raised the revolution to the still higher stage of the Wuhan debacle, and this had advanced the revolution to the insurrectionary plane.[1]

This Alice in Wonderland approach was the basis for a series of attempted uprisings each of which proved disastrous, but from which the CC of the CCP deduced that conditions were ripe for an immediate uprising across an entire swathe of China and, in particular, in Canton. It is important to assess the reality of these “uprisings” because, in a truly Stalinist manner, the CCP has prettified these events, re-written history, and today presents them as the start of a new, carefully considered and successful strategy largely due to the efforts of Mao Zedong.[2]

The disasters engendered by its policies did not weaken the ECCI’s hold on the CCP; rather they gave it greater control. Almost the only source of support for CCP members (food, clothing, accommodation and travel) was the monies supplied by the Comintern which quite coldly used the situation to advance its control over the Party. Those who demonstrated their pliability obtained material help and thus, to a certain extent, they and their families were protected from the terror. Critics such as Peng Shuzhi found themselves with no job, denied living expenses, and in constant danger of being arrested and shot. Stalinist organisational norms were promoted: as a known oppositionist, even though a member of the CC, Peng was denied access to Party meetings for fear that his criticism of the adventurist actions of the Party would infect others.[3]

Chinese events were a foretaste of Stalinism’s “Third Period”, which was formally adopted at the 6th World Congress of the CI in the summer of 1928. It was accepted that world capitalism had begun to disintegrate and a revolutionary wave would soon engulf the capitalist world. For Communists active in the trade union movement, for example, this meant establishing separate, radical, so-called red unions under CP control. Even if it had been successful, such a move could only have resulted in splitting the very weak workers’ movement that existed in China. Worse, the CI imposed a programme and strategy for these red unions that demanded offensive actions at a time when even being a member of a union could mean being badly beaten or shot.[4]

In China the adventure with the red unions would finally destroy the Party’s remaining proletarian base, assisting Pavel Mif, Wang Ming, and the 28 Bolsheviks to take control of the CCP. With the virtual extinction of the Party in the cities, the CC would move from Shanghai to the peasant “Soviet” in Jiangxi in south-central China and the CCP would become overwhelmingly peasant in composition and petty-bourgeois in politics.

6.2 Autumn Harvest Uprisings

Under ECCI direction, the CCP planned a large-scale programme of peasant uprisings for the autumn harvest time when the class struggle would normally be most acute in the rural districts. The term ‘uprising’ was a complete misnomer. There were no uprisings, armed detachments made a military assault on a town and then invited support from local workers and peasants (those familiar with subsequent Maoist guerrilla activities in Latin America and elsewhere will recognise the tactic).

It was agreed that conditions were not ripe for a nationwide insurrection so the uprisings were limited to the four provinces of Hupeh, Hunan, Jiangxi, and Kwangtung, with particular emphasis on Hunan, where the peasant movement was considered the most radical.[5] Unfortunately, Hunan had been subject to a particularly vicious cleansing and the peasant associations, previously the most radical and effectively organised in the country, had been smashed by white terror. Such armed uprisings as did occur were often initiated by cadres who had been hiding out in the hills and countryside, and generally resulted in their deaths and the deaths of many peasants, for no gain.

However, there were immediate and serious obstacles in the way of such a change in perspective. Events in Shanghai had had a debilitating effect on Party members, workers and peasants generally. CCP members had been mis-educated for years into accepting opportunist methods and perspectives, and were now expected to make a sudden and abrupt volte-face and lead armed insurrections. The CCP would discover, too late, that its own personnel were not up to the task of engineering insurrection.[6] CCP members themselves had been continuously dampening the revolutionary sentiment of the masses and Communists were widely distrusted as opponents of peasant seizure of the land. This distrust surfaced when orders to begin the uprisings arrived, and the support promised by the peasant associations evaporated.

Attempting uprisings in such unsuitable conditions would only weaken the Party and increase its isolation from the masses. However, the CC believed, like so many ultra-lefts before and since, that they were administering a shock treatment that would immediately correct the opportunism of the past.

The first uprising under the new policy took place on 1 August 1927 at Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province, about 250 km (160 miles) south-west of Wuhan, under the overall direction of Lominadze but with Ch’u Ch’iu-pai and Li Lisan in command on the ground. The attack was a purely military affair by a force of up to 20,000 soldiers drawn predominantly from mutinous KMT units, many of which had been commanded by Communist officers. The town was taken easily as the garrison was heavily outnumbered.[7]

Once taken, the town was placed under a Revolutionary Committee of twenty-five members which included both KMT and Communists. The nonsense of an uprising against the KMT made under the KMT banner was demonstrated by the inclusion on the Committee of the General (Chang Fah-kwei) who at that very moment was rushing to crush the uprising.[8] The town was evacuated by 5 August to avoid any serious engagement with KMT troops.

What was quite clear was that no uprising occurred either in Nanchang or in the surrounding areas despite the CCP announcing that “Agrarian reform shall be carried out.” Only estates of more than three hectares (about eight acres) which did not belong to the families of NRA officers were to be seized, meaning it was unlikely that many local landlords were affected.[9] But the lack of support amongst the peasants had deeper roots – the track record of the CCP.

During the remaining months of 1927 the Communists were to stage two more equally unsuccessful insurrections: an ineffective attack on Changsha (Mao Zedong arrived too late to participate) and an attack made by the remnants from the Nanchang uprising on the treaty port of Swatow (Shantou) which was defeated.[10] During this period the Communist Party continued to march under the blue and white banner of the Left KMT, further mis-educating CCP members in the principles and organisation of a Leninist party. Worst, it presented to the peasant masses the appearance that the fighting was limited to a fight between the left and right of the KMT.[11]

In all areas the uprisings were defeated after a day or two of ‘success’. The uprisings were little short of fiascos, a series of military mis-adventures with little or no peasant support. The few CCP military forces that remained after the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution were being destroyed by blind adventurism. When it became clear that these putsches had failed to spark a revolution, responsibility was pinned not on Stalin, the ECCI or its agents or even Ch’u Ch’iu-pai, but on Tan Pingshan who was denounced and expelled for promoting illusions in the Left KMT.[12] On 19 September 1927, the Politburo of the CCP finally announced: “uprisings can under no circumstances take place under the Kuomintang banner”, and formally laid to rest the stinking corpse that had been the bloc within.

Otto Braun describes how individuals and small groups of rank and file troops who survived these adventures fled to isolated rural areas such the Chingkan mountains on the border between Hunan and Jiangxi, often taking up a semi-bandit existence in order to stay alive.[13]

6.3 The Canton Uprising and its Aftermath

Pravda of 30 September 1927 reported: “After the southern revolutionary army had achieved important successes, it became perfectly clear that there would be a new revolutionary élan in China.” The Communist-led troops which had occupied Nanchang and marched on Swatow were routed the very night the Pravda article was published. The original plan had been for these forces to proceed from a Communist-controlled Swatow to Canton to participate in a major urban uprising. This warning of the strength of the reactionary forces was, of course, ignored.

In one last attempt to correct the ultra-left policy and abandon the proposed Canton uprising, Peng Shuzhi and Chen Duxiu wrote to the CC on 26 October 1927 arguing that the situation in China was no longer revolutionary and that the correct and key slogans for drawing the masses into action were democratic demands such as the eight-hour-day, the confiscation of land, with the governmental slogan “Convoke a National Assembly”. Such slogans would bring the broad masses into activity again and prepare the ground for raising revolutionary slogans, in particular to establish Soviets.[14] The proposal was summarily rejected. Later Liu Shaoqi (Liu Shao-ch’i) when making an overall assessment of the work of the CCP, would conclude that the question of government had, indeed, been the “central practical question among the masses” and (indirectly) admitted that democratic slogans were what had been required. He explained that the CCP had condemned the use of legal means as “rightist” and had done its best to encourage adventurist activities … “the losses we have suffered on this account are countless.”[15]

The CC of the CCP met in enlarged session 7-14 November 1927 to assess the outcomes of the programme approved at the August Conference. However, as Li Ang, the corresponding secretary of the Party would later admit, “The Comintern sent telegrams daily urging the CCP to bring about uprisings in Canton and other large cities. These telegrams were all extremely emphatic in tone and allowed no room for argument.”[16] Obediently Ch’u Ch’iu-pai (and Lominadze) blindly accepted that the rising revolutionary wave was continuing and demanded more dramatic actions by the CCP. Scorning the evidence that China had entered a counter-revolutionary period, the sequence of bloody failures was taken not to be the result of an erroneous political line but due to the personal inadequacies of those involved. For example, Mao’s late arrival and consequent non-participation in the attack on Changsha resulted in his being kicked off the Politburo.

Without any sign of a peasant rising, with the urban masses still reeling from the Shanghai massacre, with thousands of Kuomintang soldiers in and near Canton, the Communist International insisted that the CCP lead the workers in an attempt to seize the city. The insurrection (11-14 December 1927) was timed to coincide with the 15th Congress of the Russian Party, and its primary purpose was to allow Stalin to claim a victory in China, the better to denounce the Russian Oppositionists. Elleman has described how the dates of insurrection and Congress were juggled so that the Canton insurrection would have greatest impact in Moscow. To enable the uprising to meet the timetable set by the ECCI, the call for a general strike, an essential prerequisite of any communist insurrection if the urban masses are to be roused to action, was omitted. Over 7,000 workers paid with their lives to provide a smokescreen to hide Stalin’s mistakes.[17]

The Canton uprising was heroic in the conduct of Party members, criminal in the adventurism of the leadership. It was immediately clear that the revolt had little mass support. Yeh Ting, the Communist officer in de facto charge of the insurrection later said:

“The masses took no part in the insurrection. … The workers of the power plant cut off the light, and we had to work in the dark. … The river sailors placed themselves shamefully at the service of the Whites. The railway workers of the Hong Kong and Canton-Hankou line transmitted the telegrams of the enemy and transported their soldiers. The peasants did not help us by destroying the tracks and did not try to prevent the enemy from attacking Canton. The workers of Hong Kong did not display the least sympathy for the insurrection.”

By 14 December, the last of the defenders of the Canton Commune had been wiped out and the reign of terror had begun. This latter news, of course, never reached the Russian Congress.

During the four days in which the Communists controlled the city, Pravda did indeed claim that “a Soviet government had been established in Canton.” But this “Soviet” was a handful of unelected individuals (Blick claims 16 persons in a city of millions), each of whom had been handpicked by the ECCI representative acting under Stalin’s direct instructions. The workers of Canton knew nothing of its existence until the uprising was well under way.[18] The ‘Canton Soviet’ or ‘Canton Commune’ was a Stalinist fiction, a smokescreen to conceal a failed putsch.

During the Wuhan debacle the concept of the Soviet had been distorted to avoid its implementation. Now in this perverse application it was being mangled further and turned into a tool of the bureaucracy instead of organiser and expression of the exploited. A Soviet is above all, a body elected by the widest franchise from workers, peasants, and soldiers. In times of tremendous revolutionary upheavals, Soviets emerge organically from the mass movement: from strike committees, action committees, peasant leagues and other representative bodies. Soviets bring into action the broadest sections of the masses and directly express their will. The self-activities of the Soviets educate the masses by direct action, providing a training ground that can carry the masses through revolution to the capture of governmental and state power. This concept of the Soviets disappears under Stalin and the CCP. Instead, Soviets appear by bureaucratic decree only on the very threshold of the capture of power.

The educational dimension and representative nature of the Soviet were entirely excluded. The confidence of the masses in the Soviet gained by testing it out over a period of time (both when advancing and retreating), was missing. The CCP put on the uniform of the Soviet after the insurrection had begun but its role was that of spectator watching a doomed adventure. The sad fact was that by the time of the Canton insurrection, the movement was in a downturn, too debilitated both politically and numerically to launch Soviets.

The ECCI and CCP had a stagist perspective for China, which was to first complete the bourgeois democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism, and then at some later date to carry through the socialist. This made it necessary to distort the concept of the Soviet to make it a tool of the party rather than have it as the most democratic mass organisation possible. If, during 1926-27, Soviets had genuinely existed to represent the wish of the majority then those Soviets would have demanded seizure of the land. But this could only have been effected against those the CCP had designated the leaders of the revolution, and would have inevitably have posed the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Lominadze was in China between July and December 1927, faithfully following Stalin’s orders and being largely responsible for the Canton disaster – which he reported to the 15th Party Congress of the RCP as a victory confirming Stalin’s analysis and inaugurating an era in which the Chinese workers and peasants would struggle directly for state power. For that he was elected a candidate member of the CC. Later, Lominadze was bitterly assailed by Pavel Mif, Stalin’s new man in China, who inherited the mess he had left behind. Lominadze soon fell out of favour and committed suicide in 1935 rather than be a defendant in the forthcoming show trials. Mif was executed three years later.

The Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party, in its resolution The Significance and Lessons of the Canton Uprising, adopted on 3 January 1928 declared:

“Only cowardly opportunists can call such an uprising a premature act, a putsch … The Canton uprising in mid-December was an inevitable outgrowth of the development of the class struggle as a whole and the conjuncture of the objective conditions … This analysis was completely in accord with the facts.”[19]

In flagrant contradiction of every fact before them, it was declared that the revolutionary forces had not diminished but were uninterruptedly growing and that the question of armed insurrection was still “directly on the order of the day.” The general situation, it was claimed, made Soviet power a practical and immediate question.

As the CCP was pushed ever harder to adopt an increasingly unrealistic assessment of the situation in China, Moscow’s domination became ever more obvious. But, of course, Stalin could not be associated with the disasters that followed. A smokescreen of lies was published in the international Communist press. On 7 February 1928, Pravda wrote:

“The Chinese Communist Party is heading toward an armed insurrection. The whole situation in China speaks for the fact that this is the correct course. … Experience proves that the Chinese Communist Party must concentrate all its efforts on the task of the day-to-day and widespread careful preparation of the armed insurrection.”

The Communist, March 1928, carried an article by British Communist Ralph Fox[20] which described an immense (but entirely fictitious) wave of peasant insurrections following on from Canton, that had established “Soviet Governments” in

“eastern Kwantung, between Canton and Swatow, the districts of Hai Fong, Lu Fong, Pulin, Hoyuan … the island of Hainang … in Hunan province the Tsalin, Kwitong and Lincheng districts have Soviets; in western Kiangsi, in Tsuichuan and Hailing districts; … and in eastern Hupeh.”

The 9th Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI (9-25 February 1928) foresaw the imminent approach of a new revolutionary upsurge which posed before the CCP the “practical task of organizing and carrying out the armed uprisings of the masses … (and) the overthrow of the present power. … The Party must consider as its principal task the preparation of general and combined actions in the cities and in the countryside in several adjoining provinces.” The ECCI approved a policy of irresponsible adventurism which meant the destruction of the best revolutionary elements in new adventures, further separating the CCP from the masses, and further weakening the Party.

The same 7 February issue of Pravda had the effrontery to write:

“The provincial armies fought undivided against Red Canton and this proved to be the greatest and oldest shortcoming of the Chinese Communist Party, insufficient political work decomposing the reactionary armies.”

But one year previously, just a month and a half before the Shanghai massacre, the Communist International, central organ of the Comintern had written:

“The Chinese Communist Party and the conscious Chinese workers must not under any circumstances pursue a tactic that would disorganise the revolutionary armies ….”[21]

Chiang Kai-shek was, of course, already actively planning the Shanghai massacre; we now know that given the weaknesses in his forces, to have ‘disorganised’ the NRA (as proposed by the Opposition) would have placed the Shanghai workers in a much stronger position, and with Hsueh Yueh’s and Yeh Ting’s troops, would almost certainly have tipped the balance in their favour.

Two months after the Shanghai massacre the same journal would state:

“The best illustration of the nonsense of the arch-left line of the Opposition is in the slogan for soldiers’ deputies as one of the forms of the dual power. … To proclaim it now for the army fighting for the Wuhan Government would be consciously to seek to decompose this army.”[22]

As it turned out, decomposing this army was just what had been required. Instead, the CCP paid little or no attention to the concerns of the rank and file soldiers nor made any attempts to form links between the soldiers, workers, and peasants. Now these armies crushed the Canton insurrection.

6.4 The 6th Congress of the CCP

The 6th Congress of the CCP (18 June-10 July 1928) was held in Moscow not only because the situation in China was so dangerous, but also to allow the ECCI to better stage-manage the proceedings for public consumption. The Congress took place on the back of a series of policy failures of disastrous proportions and of major changes in international policy.

Internationally the Third Period line had been adopted at the 9th Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI (February 1928) and confirmed at the 6th World Congress (17 July-1 September 1928) which decreed that a revolutionary mass armed uprising was imminent in China, and outlined a revolutionary programme based on urban revolts similar to the abortive Canton insurrection of the preceding December.[23] These ideas naturally flowed into the 6th Congress of the CCP and meant the CCP placed an anathema on democratic demands and rejected any meaningful united front activities. The CCP had to immediately and consistently advocate seizure of state power, organise Soviets as organs of insurrection (à la Canton), expropriate landlords and big property owners, and expel the foreign imperialists.

There were two serious problems with this perspective. The first was that the movement was in a severe downturn and proposals of this nature simply alienated any remaining support amongst the urban masses. The second was that the goal of the armed insurrection was given as the overthrow of the Kuomintang and its replacement by … the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. Another cycle of betrayal was in the making.

In political terms, and for the healthy development of the CCP, the Congress was a disaster. The Congress resembled a bear pit with accusations flying in all directions (except at Stalin!) as the different trends vied for Moscow’s support.

The defeats suffered had been the result of the policies accepted and enacted by the CCP itself. But the Congress did not attempt to come to grips with the fundamental errors underlying the defeats – the mistaken assessment of the revolutionary role of the national bourgeoisie in China, and the need for a truly independent Communist Party. From these had flowed the mistakes of failing to support the formation of workers’ and peasants’ Soviets, and of submitting to the discipline of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians of the KMT.

At the Congress, Bukharin’s nine hour speech heaped the blame for the Party’s defeats on those who had implemented Moscow’s instructions, Chen Duxiu and Ch’u Ch’iu-pai (appointed less than a year before).[24] Within the Party those who attempted to objectively review events were expelled.

The new style ‘Bolshevisation’ which had begun with the 7 August Conference advanced significantly during the 6th Congress when the delegates accepted Stalinist-style self-criticism as acceptable behaviour. Lenin’s democratic centralism meant the minority was required to accept the decisions of the majority and then allow the test of events to determine who was right. Such a procedure could not be tolerated under the bureaucracy because the desired outcome was not a political line best matching events but a policy that best protected the bureaucracy. Indeed, a political line matching reality would have meant the end of the bureaucracy. The new style Bolshevisation meant any minority had not only to enact the majority line, it had to publicly confess and repent its ‘errors’, promise to expunge its ‘erroneous’ thoughts and swear unquestioning loyalty to the majority (bureaucratic) line. This self-flagellation became accepted procedure within the CCP and would grow into the rectification campaigns extensively used in Yenan and later.

Having to defend Stalin’s line and cover up the mistakes of the recent past meant the CCP sank into a self-contradictory mess: it formally condemned putschism, but endorsed the continuation of the policy of isolated uprisings; it formally endorsed the need for a democratic programme for China while its ultra-left activities prevented united actions. It condemned the call for a national assembly as an opportunist error and so lacked a central focus for democratic demands. By default the call to establish Soviets, intended as a propaganda slogan to be actioned at some indeterminate time in the future, became the governmental slogan of the Party at just the time when the proletariat needed defensive slogans.[25]

The Congress defended the policy which produced the Canton tragedy. A resolution declared that “the Nanchang insurrection, the Autumn Harvest uprising, and especially the Canton Commune, did not constitute adventurism”; rather “the Canton Commune opened the Soviet period” in the Chinese Revolution while simultaneously (and contradictorily) being a “heroic rear-guard action”. The CCP formally accepted Stalin’s view that Soviets should only appear “when the solid victory of the uprising is assured” but warned that allowing elections in these Soviets would give a voice to “petty bourgeois democratism” which would be dangerous (for the leadership of the Party).[26] Given the history of the CCP, free discussion was anathema and so was classified as petty-bourgeois and a threat to the revolution. That the CCP believed it had the authority to decide when and how to launch Soviets and who would be elected, starkly revealed how far its bureaucratic and anti-democratic views had developed, and was an open warning of how Soviets in the base areas being set up by the Red Army would be managed.

The 6th Congress chose a forty-year old labourer, Hsiang Chung-fa as new General Secretary because of his proletarian background, a dedicated but not overly clever man. The real authority within the Party would soon lie with Li Lisan as head of the Propaganda Bureau aided by Zhou Enlai as head of the Organisational Bureau. During the 6th Congress, Li Lisan was called to the Kremlin to be interviewed by Stalin and it was on that basis that he was given the leadership.[27] We can be confident that Stalin assessed how loyal Li Lisan would be to him personally and the new ultra-left Third Period line.

The Congress agreed that work amongst the peasantry was essential but its general outline was determined by events in the Soviet Union not what was happening in China. Over the summer of 1928 the struggle between Bukharin’s Right Opposition and the Stalinists had not been finally resolved; thus the 6th World Congress of the CI and the 6th Congress of the CCP agreed that the Party should “unite with the petty-bourgeoisie and rich peasants (kulaks) to oppose all reactionary forces.” In June 1929 the struggle against the Right Opposition was over and the political line of the CI changed to one of resolute struggle against the kulaks for leadership of the peasant masses.[28] These changes were transmitted into the CCP and caused considerable friction between those such as Mao who favoured the softer line, and others who would try to force the adoption of the more radical.

The Congress, with ECCI guidance, adopted a long resolution On the Organisation of Soviet Political Power,[29] which declared the central issue in the peasant movement was the need for an amalgam of the CCP, peasant Soviets, and the Red Army to establish military-style bases in the countryside which would grow to encircle the cities and give an impulse to the rising tide of revolution. Interpretation of this resolution would lead to differences between those who emphasised the building of bases in the countryside (Mao) against those (Li Lisan) who wanted to use the Red Army to attack urban centres sparking an urban, proletarian revolution. Mao’s defining strategy, which would later be paraphrased as ‘from the periphery to the centre’, originated with the ECCI and was, to a degree, a desperate attempt to hide the failure of the CI and CCP to win the urban proletariat.

The CCP was in disarray everywhere, communications between groups, cells and individuals was difficult and slow. Mao, thus largely freed of central direction, took advantage of the situation to push his own perspective. In April 1927 he persuaded Zhu De to join forces with him to set up a Communist-controlled area in the border region between Jiangxi and Hunan. Subsequently, Mao would claim that nearly 20,000 ‘fighters’ had joined him. This move was approved by the local Party committee and, later, by the 6th CCP Congress. In his absence, the Congress elected Mao Zedong a full member of the CC as a “representative of the tendency that demanded the prompt carrying out of an agrarian revolution.”[30]

Certainly up until the end of 1928, the Red Armies generally did not remain in one place for long enough to be able to carry out the CCP’s agrarian policy. Mao had attempted it in the Jiangxi/Hunan border area but had been driven out and moved south to the even more remote area of the Jiangxi/Fujian border. However, during 1929 the CCP was able to begin effecting land distribution in a number of areas, thereby gaining a social significance that it had lacked previously. In line with the resolution passed at the 6th Congress, the land confiscated was limited to that of the larger landlords and public land. It will be shown that the benefits of this distribution often went to the better-off peasants who rushed to join the Red Army and staff the administrative apparatus in the territories controlled by the CCP.[31]

Mao’s land programme sounded radical and revolutionary; the old tax offices were destroyed and many tax collectors, KMT officials, military men, gentry and missionaries were killed. The policies of ‘No rent (to the landlords), no taxes (to the KMT authorities), and no debts (to the usurers)’ were implemented. All deeds, land titles, debt registers, tax rolls of the old regime were completely destroyed.[32] By allocating ownership of the land to the peasants who had previously farmed it, the policies remained within bourgeois democratic limits. We should not, however, belittle the progressive nature of these measures as far as the individual peasants were concerned. For many it represented a significant improvement in their lives and the basis of their support for the CCP.

In the meantime, Chiang had captured Nanjing, boastfully declared it the capital of a unified China, announced an all-China government had been established, the aims of the revolution achieved, and an end to military rule!

6.5 The Li Lisan Line

Li Lisan had a genuine base within the Party because of his heroic role in a number of workers’ struggles,[33] and with the support of Moscow came the support of the ECCI representatives and those such as Zhou Enlai who followed every twist and turn of the Moscow line. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the so-called Li Lisan Line was the Chinese version of Third Period Stalinism. Ultra-left and adventurist policies were pursued which further isolated the Party from the proletariat and effectively destroyed the CCP in the major urban centres.

Shanghai had brought to an end the period of rapid Party growth. With the Wuhan and Canton massacres, the prestige of the Party plummeted and workers turned their backs on it. The exodus of Party members turned into a flood with the policy of putschism, launched not to match Chinese circumstances, but to maintain Stalin’s prestige in Russia.[34]

On 8 February 1929, the ECCI sent a letter to the CC of the CCP claiming that a new revolutionary wave was clearly detectable in China. The June 1929 plenary session of the CC of the CCP formally endorsed Stalin’s line of the collapse of capitalism and confirmed Li Lisan’s leadership.[35] On 26 October 1929, the ECCI sent another letter to the CC, announcing “the beginning of the revolutionary wave” in China. The Party was to take over the leadership of this new revolutionary wave by overcoming its “petty bourgeois waverings”. The Comintern reinforced this view by declaring that “rightism” was the most dangerous trend internationally and in the CCP.

The CCP responded by adopting resolutions on 20 December 1929 and 11 January 1930 that fully accepted the Comintern’s position and hailed the arrival of a “fresh revolutionary upsurge” in China.[36] Li Lisan affirmed that China was in an immediately revolutionary situation and that insurrection by any means at any cost was the order of the day. Preparatory work organising and mobilising the masses was not considered necessary, a mistake that proved fatal for many CCP members in the urban areas.[37]

Opposition to Li Lisan’s overly optimistic estimation of the “revolutionary high-tide” was led by members of the Party Committee for Jiangsu Province and the Shanghai-based National Labour Federation, both of which had their headquarters in Shanghai. This opposition was overcome only when the June 1929 Second Plenum of the CC reformed the Jiangsu committee and expelled several “Trotskyites” including Peng Shuzhi.[38]

One of the first victims of the attack on rightism was Chen Duxiu who was expelled from the party in late 1929. He was denounced viciously for his “Trotskyite”, “liquidationist” and “rightist” tendencies. Given his enormous prestige his conversion to Trotskyism had created a crisis in the Party and – in true Stalinist fashion – a major purge was launched. Chen Duxiu had been a staunch defender of internal democracy and he warned Party members that the suppression of dissident views would lead to a regime of bureaucratic centralism. He was proved correct immediately as the Party marked his expulsion by formally implementing the resolution banning factions, (i.e. democratic discussion and debate) passed at the 6th Comintern Congress. Chen himself was finally excluded from the party on 15 November 1929, after which the leadership then expelled hundreds of members who supported him. This was a great purge ‘in the Russian manner’. Oppositionists were cleared out. Every week the Party newspaper, The Red Flag, published a long list of the latest to be excluded.[39]

Strike figures for 1928 and 1929 reported to the 16th Congress of the AUCP(B) by the Chinese delegate, made it clear that there was an upsurge in union activity largely due to an economic upturn. The CCP, with the correct tactics, could have made contact with these workers and re-established itself amongst the proletariat. But the Party had abjured democratic slogans such as “For the eight hour working day” when posed as part of a defensive programme. Instead the CCP attempted to set up red trade unions, actively dividing the working class, just as was being done in Germany in the face of the Nazis. Party members in the urban areas worked hard, intervening in every labour dispute, e.g., on 13 May in Shanghai about 300 strikers urged on by Party militants, attacked and disabled trams on Ferry Road – but a total of about 100 were arrested, most of whom were badly beaten.

At the end of 1929 and the start of 1930, there were numerous small-scale violent skirmishes between groups of workers and the police, for example police in the French concession had openly attacked striking women mill workers who fought back (and went on to win their strike). The ultra-left Li Lisan saw enough activity to justify his belief in an approaching revolutionary situation. Li had a very simple plan: the objective situation was directly revolutionary so the Party would increase agitation from May Day up to the glorious anniversary of 30 May when a CCP-initiated general strike would start the revolution.

“At that time, in order to co-ordinate and if possible hasten the ‘imminent nation-wide high tide of revolution’, we frantically searched everywhere for the slightest sign of a struggle. Sometimes top-level conferences would be called, with members of the CC, the District Committee and the Provincial Committee, to discuss some trifling altercation between shop owner and employees. … From early morning to late at night we searched high and low for ‘the spark to light a prairie fire’, keeping ourselves in a state of artificially induced tension. … We would get up at the crack of dawn and hurry down to talk to the shop workers before business started. Then we would hold a meeting, rush around making contacts, and so on until the early hours of the following morning.”[40]

The public actions taken by CCP members required a high degree of heroism, some historians have described such displays as “suicidal” and put the fall in membership in Shanghai, in particular, down to the resulting arrests and executions.[41] The outcome of this frenetic activity was not the expected general strike but the wholesale arrest and imprisonment of CCP members and, in many cases, their immediate execution in the Longhua barracks.[42] Despite the setback experienced in May, which clearly demonstrated that the workers were not in in a revolutionary mood, Li continued to push the line that world capitalism was on the brink of collapse … and that any incident could start “the great fight”.[43] How could Li Lisan have been so blind to the results of his policies? Probably because, as with so many ultra-lefts, he knew his analysis was right, the membership just wasn’t trying hard enough.[44]

Looking for ways to recapture its influence in the cities, the leadership decided to use the undoubted (relative) successes of the Party in the countryside. This was spelled out in the Politburo resolution of 11 June 1930 entitled The New Revolutionary High Tide and an Initial Victory in One or More Provinces, which proposed Wuhan be seized as a part of a military take-over which was predicted to grow rapidly into the Chinese socialist revolution.[45]

The revolutionary years had trained quite a few rural local leaders, and the counter-revolution had not succeeded in eliminating them all. Also, a significant number of revolutionary workers hid in the countryside from the militarists. Quantities of small arms had been obtained by the peasants, and guerrilla bands (calling themselves “Red Army units”) had been organised by soldiers who deserted to the side of the peasants, individually, in groups, and sometimes in whole companies. Thus, even after the defeat of the revolution, peasant rebellion continued in a number of areas often with Communists at the head, to the extent that in isolated areas, armed peasant bands drove out local landlords, usurers and rich peasants. For example, the remnants of the troops defeated at Swatow formed the very first Chinese Soviet in Hailufeng in Guangdong province.[46] Li Lisan believed these forces could be combined to spark the proletariat into activity.

To implement his scheme Li determined to take more direct central control of the armed struggle. To counteract this threat to his position Mao called his own conference of Red Army delegates in December 1929 which approved the building of rural bases and made substantial (though implicit) criticisms of Li Lisan. This undermining of Li was couched in terms that appeared in complete harmony with the declared aims of the CC: against egalitarianism, for tighter organisational discipline, for correcting mistaken ideas in the Party, and for the subordination of personal interests to the political needs of the Party.[47] Mao’s pamphlets at this time made great show of endorsing the decisions of the 6th Congress of the CCP and claimed to enact ECCI directives. Without naming Li, Mao criticised his strategy by emphasising the positive gains to be made from establishing base areas in the countryside and the risks of attacking urban centres.[48]

Mao had already made a name for himself as a military strategist and was well known for his four tactical principles:

  1. When the enemy advances, we retreat.
  2. When the enemy halts and encamps, we harass him.
  3. When the enemy wants to avoid battle, we attack him.
  4. When the enemy withdraws, we pursue him.

Braun insists that these principles represented Mao’s interpretation of the Treatise of the Art of War by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general of antiquity. Braun also pointed out that Mao’s famous eight rules for the good behaviour of Red Army troops, which won them so much support from a peasantry used to mercenary troops that pillaged and raped as a matter of course, were an updated version of the rules of the T’ai-p’ing Rebellion of the nineteenth century.[49]

To counteract Mao’s manoeuvres, to establish better central control over the disparate groups that made up the Red Armies, and to present his strategy for implementing the Politburo resolution The New Revolutionary High Tide and an Initial Victory in One or More Provinces, Li Lisan called a conference of delegates from the Red Armies in Shanghai in May 1930. Despite difficulties of terrain and distances, Li wanted the disparate forces of the Red Army to prepare for the new strategy by combining into four Armies, and to be prepared to move from guerrilla and bandit tactics to mobile warfare and capturing of urban centres.[50] Mao Zedong and Zhu De showed their opposition by failing to attend.

In June 1930 the Political Secretariat of the ECCI wrote to the CCP appraising Li’s proposals.[51] There was no suggestion that Li Lisan was deviating from either ECCI general policy or practical strategy and the letter was taken as an endorsement of the Li Lisan Line. With the apparent support of the ECCI, Li now called a National Conference of the CCP and its front organisations in Shanghai on 18 July and informed them that the immediate task was armed uprisings to seize political power.

The initial focus was the Wuhan complex. As the Red Armies converged on Wuhan it was expected that there would be urban uprisings in the central Yangtze area which would spark a nationwide series of revolutionary strikes which would turn into a civil war and link the Chinese and world revolutions. Accordingly, after victory at Wuhan, uprisings would take place in Beijing, Canton, Hong Kong, Nanching, Shanghai, and numerous other cities.[52]

International Press Correspondence reported “that in all the big towns, such as Shanghai, Hankou and Hong Kong, workers’ defence corps were being founded in preparation for an armed revolt.” “The preparation of the ‘Fourth Insurrection in Shanghai’ has become the general slogan of the workers of the town.”[53] This nonsense was used to deceive workers all round the world as to the success of Stalin’s Third Period line. Li Lisan knew there were only 200 Party members and 150 members of the Red Trade Union in the Wuhan area on which to base any military organisation of armed workers in the three cities. The baselessness of the Li Lisan strategy was emphasised when the call: “The time for insurrection has come! Organise yourselves!” was issued; in all of Shanghai, for example, only 125 persons came forward to enlist in the Red Guard.[54]

The 5th Red Army Corps was given major military responsibility for carrying out the attack on Wuhan. This was a small but experienced army of about 10,000 men of whom possibly 7,000 were armed. It left its bases in the Hunan-Jiangxi-Hupeh border region and seized the small town of Yochow on 5 July, after which it marched to take Changsha (capital of Hunan) prior to moving on Wuhan.[55]

On 28 July 1930, Changsha was captured. The gains made were magnified totally out of proportion to justify the strategy. The International Press Correspondence boasted:

“Changsha, the capital of the province of Hunan, one of the most important provinces in the heart of China, was captured on the 28th of July by the victorious Fifth Red Army of the Chinese Soviet territories. Supported by insurgent workers and peasants in town and country and by the mutiny of some of the government soldiers, … the red workers’ and peasants’ army was able, after heroic fighting, to achieve a tremendous victory … In a surprisingly short time the whole of Changsha was covered with a sea of red flags … The Soviet Power, the power of the workers, peasants and soldiers was proclaimed … The capture of the three sister towns (Hankou, Wuchang and Hanyang), the largest industrial towns of Central China, is the aim of the Red Army … All around Wuhan there already exist Soviet districts. The Red Army is endeavouring, with the aid of the insurgent peasants, to extend its field of operations more and more to the centre and to encircle Wuhan …”[56]

Initial reports completely divorced from reality boasted of the largest mass meeting ever held in Changsha with 100,000 of its half million inhabitants attending. It was later admitted by Li Lisan that only about 3,000 had attended; the masses had not rallied to support the Red Army or CCP. Similarly, the claim that within three days 50,000 workers were organised into trade unions was fiction. The CC of the CCP on 30 September 1930, would admit: “there was insufficient connection between the attack of the Red Army and the mass struggle in Changsha.” This was especially damaging because the reception given to the Red Army and CCP was fundamental to the success of the Li Lisan Line. Without active popular support, the campaigns could never be more than military adventures. The passivity of the urban population had again demonstrated unambiguously that ‘the line’ would not succeed, but Li Lisan blindly stuck to his predictions that, given a proper chance, his adventures would rally the masses to the revolution.[57]

The 5th Red Army (now joined by Mao’s 4th Army to form the 1st Front Army) withdrew from Changsha on 3 August to avoid being surrounded by KMT forces which, on entering the city, killed some 5,000 of the local inhabitants for being too friendly with the Reds. Moscow strongly condemned the withdrawal but not the attack and ordered Li Lisan to instruct the Red Army to attack Changsha again, but it was unable to retake the city and that was the end of the adventure. At no time did Red Army forces come close enough to pose a threat to Wuhan. The Changsha episode bared the fatal weakness of the whole project: the military forces had no connection with the workers in the cities. The attack on Changsha was such a disaster it was the end of Li Lisan as leader of the CCP, the only question was how and when to deal the coup de grace.[58]

The ECCI had Ch’u Ch’iu-pai and Zhou Enlai investigate the reasons for the defeat. But Ch’u and Zhou found that Li Lisan had made only tactical mistakes in the application of Comintern policies in the attack on Changsha. They did not ask the CC to remove him, but merely to criticise him for having “overestimated the tempo” of the revolution. They stated his general line was “in complete harmony with the Comintern”[59]

Such a conclusion was unacceptable because it linked Stalin too directly to failure. Ch’u Ch’iu-pai and Zhou Enlai were side-lined, and in the spring of 1930 Pavel Mif was delegated to be ECCI representative to the CCP.[60]

Pavel Mif prepared to remove Li Lisan and enthrone Wang Ming and the ‘returned students’ group. This group, the 28 Bolsheviks, would be significantly different from all previous appointments; they had no independent base within the CCP and relied totally on Mif for their positions, they were completely Moscow’s creatures. Steeped in Stalinist methods and ideology, they had proved themselves loyal to the Stalinist bureaucracy by being prepared to spill the blood of fellow Chinese students for personal advancement. Wang Ming’s opposition to Li Lisan had little to do with politics. Prior to arriving in China, Wang Ming’s publications showed no significant differences from Li Lisan and, after assuming leadership, the line proposed by this group differed in few, if any, significant ways from that of Li Lisan.[61]

In October 1930, the ECCI made a devastating attack on Li Lisan raising the stakes by labelling him “anti-Comintern” and a “semi-Trotskyite”. The CCP Politburo declared its solidarity with the Comintern on 25 November and Li Lisan resigned in disgrace. Mif arrived in China in mid-December and proposed that the CC be convened as soon as possible so the leadership of the CCP could be re-organised.

The Plenum was held in Shanghai on 7 January 1931 and was dominated by Mif and Wang Ming who harshly condemned Li Lisan for betraying the correct instructions of the Comintern and bringing havoc to the party.[62] Wang was elected to the Politburo and two of the 28 Bolsheviks were elected as alternates to the CC. The nominal head of the Party continued to be the innocuous but esteemed Hsiang Chung-fa (until he was captured and executed in Shanghai in June), Zhou Enlai recanted his views, degraded himself in a way that was now a feature of Stalinist Party methods but, due to his organisational skills, vast experience and ‘knowing everyone’, managed to retain a top position. Mao was seen by Moscow as a rising star and the Far Eastern Bureau of the ECCI wrote to the Politburo of the CCP complaining that Mao was confined to military matters and suggesting that he be given a greater political role.[63]

Li was summoned to Moscow (where he remained in exile for some 15 years) leaving the field open for Wang Ming.[64]

6.6 Red Unions

In 1926 almost two-thirds of CCP members had been proletarian with only 5% peasants and 2% soldiers, but by the early months of 1930 the proletarian element had dropped to less than about 5%. After the Communists in Shanghai had handed power to Chiang Kai-shek, the Party suffered continual repression. Party membership in Shanghai had been around 8,000 in April 1927, no more than 2,000 in 1930, about 500 in 1932 and a mere handful in 1934. The errors of adventurism in a time when reaction was triumphant meant members deserted just to stay alive.

By 1930 the pressure on Li Lisan to correct this deficiency was compelling both because of his personal background of union work and because the CI was warning of the dangers of a “peasant mentality” and urging the Party to strengthen its work in the cities.[65] The organised labour movement was a shadow of its former self and the overwhelming majority of China’s industrial workers had no organisation of any kind. In the areas controlled by the Kuomintang “yellow” unions were grudgingly permitted. The Wang Jingwei group was in the leadership of most of these and was moderately successful in channelling and containing the democratic demands of a significant stratum of the petty-bourgeoisie and workers.

Li Lisan was assuming a Herculean task in seeking to rebuild a Communist base in the trade union movement. He was determined to successfully apply the Third Period policy of the CCP building its own red unions and was confident his own experience would be invaluable. However Li attempted this ultra-left policy at a time when the great mass of the workers had already turned their backs on the Party. In the end the red unions consisted of CCP members and a few close collaborators. In conditions of white terror, frightened workers turned away. The yellow unions preached class collaboration, compromise and submission but by disdaining to enter them and conduct a struggle from within, the CCP left the field clear to the Wang Jingwei group.

In 1928 a brief economic revival helped restore confidence and workers fought a number of battles for better wages and shorter hours. Strikers were arrested, beaten up and shot as a matter of course. They would have responded readily and positively to agitation for elementary democratic rights – freedom of assembly, of organisation, of speech – slogans flowing from their immediate needs and reinforced by every economic conflict. The slogan for a National Assembly, elected by universal suffrage, was a focus for such a programme and offered common ground to every section of the population oppressed and terrorised by the KMT military dictatorship.[66]

But the CCP failed to gain any ground either among the thousands organised in unions or among the millions of the unorganised. The Communists remained impotent because the Third Period method was “to transplant, in a wholesale fashion, our Party’s entire programme and basic slogans” into each and every leaflet effectively turning the small groups around the red unions into a second party. Abstract calls for “a general strike,” “support for the Red Army” and “Soviet power” fell on deaf ears.[67] On 8 November 1928, the CC received a report which stated: “The party does not have a single healthy party nucleus among the industrial workers.”[68]

So antagonistic were the workers to the CCP that Communist cadres often concealed news of an impending strike from the Party! “The work and influence of the red unions shrank to almost nothing and the masses were left under yellow union influence.”[69]

In the Stalinist Communist International it was quite impossible to accept that the Third Period line had been a disaster. For self-protection, Communist Party leaders made extravagant and preposterous claims in public as to their successes. It was standard practice to blame scapegoats for the failures; the ECCI blamed the Central Committees, the Central Committees blamed the Provincial Committees, the Provincial Committees would blame the local organisations and the local organisations would blame ….. and so on. As each new leadership was appointed it revealed the false claims of its predecessors. This went on year after year, the leaders continuously complaining that their followers were failing to carry out the ‘Party line’. It was never suggested that the ‘Party line’ was itself responsible for the stubborn unwillingness of the workers to follow the Party.

In February 1929, a letter from the Comintern stated “in most cities, even in great working-class centres like Wuhan, Tientsin, and Canton, no work has been done at all… . In the big and important enterprises there are no nuclei whatever.” The letter went on to say there were only 4,000 workers in the whole Party, 1,300 of them in Shanghai and the rest scattered elsewhere. In November 1929, the 5th National Labour Conference was held. It claimed to represent a mere 30,000 workers, about one hundredth of the number represented at the 4th Labour Conference in Hankou two years earlier. In September 1930, Zhou Enlai told the CC that the Party could claim only 2,000 factory workers.

The workers had turned their backs on the CCP which never re-established a foothold of any consequence in any of the great urban centres until after the end of the civil war. While the workers departed from the political arena, peasant revolt, which had burned brightly during 1925-27, continued to flare episodically. Putschist methods found more response in the countryside in areas where peasants were taking up arms or where mutinous soldiers were breaking from the armies of the KMT. The remnants of the Communist Party re-emerged from the 1927 debacle at the head of a scattered, diverse insurgent peasant movement largely confined to the least advanced areas of Central China. In just such an area it would establish the so-called Chinese Soviet Republic.

6.7 Wang Ming and the 28 Bolsheviks

The policies of both Li Lisan and Wang Ming were variations of the same ultra-left Third Period strategy. Li Lisan was an experienced militant while Wang Ming was a self-serving bureaucrat; Li Lisan had the courage to actively participate in carrying out his policies, whereas Wang Ming did it by telephone, telegram or radio. Despite all the name-calling and heat generated, the political policies of the two men were no different in matters of principle or ideology; the differences were who would carry the can for past mistakes and who was the more subservient to Moscow. In the eyes of the ECCI, a major crime of Li Lisan had been his “dangerous spirit” – he had dared to suggest that the Chinese were better placed to understand the local situation in China than those in Moscow.[70]

The appointment of Wang Ming and his adjutant Po Ku (Qin Bangxian) was part of the worldwide trend within the CI to have lap dogs leading the national CPs because, as their authority came from their Moscow links, they were quite prepared to act as tools of Soviet diplomacy. This ‘Bolshevisation’ was a classic Stalinist intervention intended to transform the Party and would have a lasting impact on its politics and internal regime. With Wang Ming’s accession, the CCP was no jot different in principle from the Stalinist Communist Parties of Italy, France, or Spain.

Wang Ming and the 28 Bolsheviks were not to supplement the existing leadership but to replace it. Wang was particularly grovelling; Li Lisan had spoken of China as the weakest link in world imperialism stating that a revolution in China would spark a world-wide class war. Wang’s criticism was that such an analysis made China the “centre of the world, denying the Soviet Union as that centre” and thus was in opposition to Stalin and the theory of “Socialism First in One Country”.[71] Could there be a clearer statement of abject submission to Moscow?

Either directly or through Po Ku (acting General Secretary between 1932 and January 1935), Wang Ming held power within the CCP for four years and, in accord with the analysis of the CI and with its approval, would take the CCP leadership from the cities to the relative safety of rural areas controlled by the Red Army.

Wang possessed all the necessary qualities for a Stalinist policeman, being personally ambitious, strong-willed and intelligent, but also narrow-minded and conformist and with a talent for manoeuvring. His ideological rigidity expressed itself as an absolute intolerance of the slightest stirring of intellectual curiosity or innovation, enforced by a regime of ruthless purges and absolute regimentation.[72]

In January 1931, the CC approved Wang Ming’s document The Struggle for the CCP’s Further Bolshevisation, also known as the Two Lines. This document, which extolled the Comintern’s direct intervention in CCP affairs, was a joint enterprise with Mif and had as a central feature, the replacement of experienced cadres with those loyal to Wang Ming (hence, so much opposition within the Party).[73] Pavel Mif and Wang Ming completely dominated the January plenum so it is interesting that Mao was elected a candidate member of the Politburo, and Zhu De as candidate member of the CC, at that meeting. Mao and Zhu obtained these positions largely because of Stalin’s support. Both had been extensively praised in the Russian press as “heroes” and the Far Eastern Bureau of the ECCI in Shanghai had recommended Mao for membership of the new CC and Chair of the Revolutionary Military Committee.[74]

After the CC meeting, a group drawn from the remnants of the trade union leaderships formed to oppose Wang Ming, calling his policies an extension of the Li Lisan Line. For this action they were expelled from the Party. On 17 January, the leaders of this group met in the International Settlement in Shanghai where it was raided by British police and over 20 executed. After these deaths the CCP “could be said to have lost its last concrete link of any consequence with the urban proletariat.”[75] Rumours persist that Wang Ming informed on the dissident trade unionists to remove a potentially embarrassing opposition, rumours that were strengthened when Wang Ming called for the death penalty for Chen Duxiu after his arrest by the KMT.[76] At that time all manner of vile slanders and provocations against Trotskyists were being put about by the CCP press to rob them of support, create confusion, and provide a cover should a Russian agent kill Chen or Peng.[77]

Within the Party the 28 Bolsheviks implemented what they had learned in Moscow. To ideologically remould the membership and eliminate dissent they began a Rectification Campaign of criticism and self-criticism which bore a striking similarity to the purge meetings at Sun Yat-sen University. This was accompanied by expulsions of dissident Party members. However, the effectiveness of these measures was greatly hampered by the hostility to the new leaders generated by their preoccupation with hierarchy and rank, bossing subordinates around, making others do their chores and refusing to take responsibility for the consequences of their own directives.[78]

In the Party there was considerable bitterness over the manner of the removal of Chen Duxiu, Li Lisan, and the trade union group, and it is reported that opposition to Wang Ming was so strong that as many as a quarter of the members were expelled on the pretext that those who opposed the Comintern’s representative opposed the Party, and those who opposed the Party should be expelled.[79] These expulsions were at the heart of Wang Ming’s ‘Bolshevisation’, after which the Party was as good an example of monolithic centralism as any.[80]

6.8 Peasant Soviets

The failures of the CCP in the urban areas and the relative successes of the Red Army (the 28 July attack on Changsha was highly influential), had their effect on the ECCI. The Resolution on the Chinese Question by the Political Secretariat of the ECCI (June 1930) again recommended the CCP to concentrate its efforts on the Red Army and Soviet government but now placed this as a “top priority”.[81] Any idea of immediate insurrection in the towns (as envisaged by Li Lisan) was abandoned. Trotsky’s statement to the 8th Plenum of the ECCI that the Chinese revolution would go forward in form of Soviets or not at all was being proved correct but as the antithesis of what he had intended.[82]

By the early 1930s, most of the cadres of the CCP were corralled in these Soviets which had a high degree of autonomy due to their isolated locations and the lack of an effective central leadership after the dismissal of Li Lisan. There were three Soviet areas in the Wuhan area of central China; the E-Yu-Wan Soviet to the north, the Xiang-Exi Soviet to the west and the largest and most important, the Jiangxi central Soviet, to the south of Wuhan. These soviets existed where the borders of two or more provinces came together, where administrative responsibility was unclear, where the KMT presence was weak or non-existent, in hilly or mountainous areas which were economically backward, considered not important and thus left alone.[83]

An ECCI letter of 16 November 1930 confirmed earlier instructions to concentrate the best forces of the Party into building the Red Army and establishing a Soviet government which, given the defeats in the cities, meant a peasant Soviet. The most important task for the CCP was to muster support for the Red Armies, in particular to recruit fresh troops. When Wang Ming and his allies followed these ECCI instructions they adopted a policy even more destructive than the red unions. Instead of seeking to build Party cells in the factories they transferred working class militants to the Soviet Areas in an attempt to proletarianise the Red Army. Industrial activities were used not to build the labour movement but to act as recruiting drives for the Soviet districts.[84]

The 28 Bolsheviks refused to shoulder any responsibility for the policies they proposed, and passed the buck by accusing Party members of abandoning, especially in the heavy industries, attempts to organise the red unions. In February 1931, the CCP admitted that “now there are no real red unions … They have been wiped out. All work has been abandoned.”[85] 1931 was the year of the Japanese invasion and there was a wave of protest strikes in factories with close ties with Japan, but the Party had to admit: “We have not succeeded in organizing a single anti-imperialist strike.”

For a short period (1932-33) after the Japanese invasion there was increased militancy amongst workers and a small but significant boost to Party membership. However, Wang Ming and his allies threw this opportunity away when they followed ECCI instructions and continued to call on working class militants to leave industry and move to the Soviet Areas.

The Politburo, CC, and Secretariat remained in Shanghai as long as possible but were forced to transfer to the central Soviet, a move that was complete by the spring of 1933. Many of the 28 Bolsheviks and all of the CC were elected to the Central Executive Committee of the new Jiangxi Soviet government.

In 1934 the Young Communist League noted:

“Our comrades are unaware of impending struggles in the factories. … As a result of this isolation we not only cannot lead the mass struggles but we cannot even grasp them by the tail!”[86]

Six years of red unions and Red Army recruitment had been six years of urban impotence. This policy so weakened the CCP in the cities that when the KMT made a series of arrests in March 1934 and again the following year, CCP activity in major cities such as Shanghai virtually ended.[87]

6.9 Summary

Peasant rebellion and partisan warfare has a long tradition in China and these traditions were alive in south and central China in the aborted revolution of 1925-7. The millions who stood up and made an effort to take the land for themselves were in direct line with those who had founded the Han and Ming dynasties and marched in the footsteps of the Long-Haired Taipings.

Yet the peasants who rose in 1926-7 could have succeeded where all their ancestors had failed. Out of a society dissolving under imperialist penetration, the elements of a new solution were taking form. The peasants, backward, scattered and socially-stratified could supply the motor force of change but play no independent role. The Chinese bourgeoisie was bound into the system by rent and usury. The new class of urban workers seeking to change society in its own interests could, by linking its fortunes to those of the agrarian workers and poor peasants, break through the vicious historical circle by leading the struggle for seizure of the land and its re-distribution to the peasants by the peasants.

Shortly after its founding, the CCP was confronted by great revolutionary questions. The immaturity of the leadership, the lack of grounding in Marxist theory or practice, combined with the speed of development of events, meant there was little possibility of it developing its own independent policy. The leadership of the CCP sincerely believed their only hope of avoiding very grave errors was the guidance of the Communist International. They subordinated themselves to the policies of the ECCI and in so doing surrendered the independence of the Party to the bourgeoisie.[88]

As a result of ECCI advice and instructions, the second Chinese Revolution (1925-27) was crushed in three distinct stages: Shanghai, Wuhan, and Canton. The completely opportunist line of the Comintern which was accepted by the majority of the CC of the CCP was expressed in five issues:

  • The question of the Party. An absolutely independent party of the proletariat is a first and decisive condition for communist politics. The CCP entered a bourgeois party and became subservient to it depriving the working class of its own party at the most critical period of the class struggle. Stalin and the ECCI considered the KMT to be a multi-class party, but no matter what the proportion of workers and poor peasants within the KMT, it was a party of the bourgeoisie because of its leadership and its actions.
  • The question of imperialism. It was quite correct for the CI to state that the agrarian feudal remnants in China were inextricably linked with imperialism, but the CI refused to accept that the fundamental interests of feudal elements, compradors, landlords, bankers, factory owners and business men were all linked together in a network based on usury and rent.
  • Of course the Chinese bourgeoisie conflicted with the most reactionary feudal militarists and occasionally with imperialism but such conflicts always took second place at the decisive moment to its irreconcilable antagonism towards the workers and poor peasants. The only hope for the success of the anti-imperialist revolution was for the proletariat supported by the poor and middle peasants to crush the bourgeoisie’s attempts to compromise with imperialism.
  • The question of the KMT. The Comintern leadership mistook the petty-bourgeois intellectuals at the top of the KMT for allies in the class struggle. However, these people were more closely linked to the bourgeoisie than the rural and urban poor, selling them out at the decisive moment to the big bourgeoisie. It was not a question of alliance with Wang Jingwei against Chiang Kai-shek, but of an alliance of the toiling masses against Wang Jingwei and Chiang Kai-shek.
  • The question of Soviets. Soviets can and must be created from the very first stage of a broad revolutionary upsurge. Soviets can arise from strike committees or peasant associations and then grow and extend their functions and increase their authority in the eyes of the masses. Finally, they become the organisations of a revolutionary uprising and, if victorious, they become the organs of revolutionary power.
  • When the revolution was on the rise, the Stalinists denied any place for Soviets in the democratic struggle and the CCP actively opposed their formation. Then, with the revolution in retreat, in a sudden and complete about-face, the CCP declared Soviets to be the immediate task of the Chinese Revolution and launched them, bureaucratically deformed and short-lived.
  • The Stalinists were completely out of phase with reality. An international smokescreen of lies and deception was used to conceal the fact that Stalin’s policies, especially regarding Soviets, had resulted in defeat for the Chinese Revolution.
  • What strategy to adopt in a counter-revolutionary situation? Trotsky proposed a defensive policy of democratic demands to preserve the revolutionary forces, unite and re-energise the masses. These would have been along the lines of demands for an eight hour day, freedom of speech and assembly, the right to strike, capped by the demand for a National Constituent Assembly elected by universal suffrage. Instead Stalin proposed as an “immediate practical task the preparation for and carrying through of armed insurrection as the sole path to the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution and to the overthrow … of the Kuomintang.”[89] Millions of peasants would die as a result of this directive (about a million in one encirclement campaign alone) not to mention the many millions of peasants left to the tender mercies of vengeful landlords.

The defeat of the revolution placed Chiang Kai-shek in power, and ushered in a period of counter-revolutionary terror, economic disintegration, impotence in the face of imperialism, and military invasion by the Imperial Japanese Army. In these circumstances the bourgeoisie were unable to develop democratic institutions, and could hold onto power only through brutal military dictatorship. Chiang Kai-shek adopted a policy of ‘non-resistance’ to the Japanese invasion but there was no policy of ‘non-resistance’ towards the Chinese masses; for them it would mean ruthless suppression of any attempt to organise resistance to the invasion, it meant extermination of whole sections of rebellious peasantry in central China, and it meant handing over large sections of the country to the Japanese imperialists. These were fruits of the defeat of the revolution of 1925-27.


[1] Political Resolution of the November Plenum of the CC., CCP, International Press Correspondence, January 26, 1928.

[2] Hofheinz, R. The Autumn Harvest Insurrection. The China Quarterly, No. 32 (Oct.-Dec., 1967), p37-87.

[3] Peng Pi-lan, The Chinese Revolution, Education for Socialists, SWP, 1972, p13.

[4] Deutscher, I. Stalin Pelican Books, London, 1984, p399/400.

[5] Hsiao Tso-Liang, Chinese Communism and the Canton Soviet of 1927, The China Quarterly. 1967 No 30 p49-78.

[6] Hofheinz, Op. cit.

[7] Guillermaz, J. The Nanchang Uprising, The China Quarterly, No. 11, 1962, p160-168.

[8] Schwartz, B. Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. Harper Torchbooks 1967 p92.

[9] Guillermaz, Op. cit.

[10] North, R. Moscow and the Chinese Communists, Stanford Univ. Press, 1963.

[11] Hofheinz, Op. cit.

[12] North, Moscow … Op. cit. p113 et seq.

[13] Braun, O. A Communist Agent in China 1932-1939, C. Hurst & Co., 1982.

[14] Chen Duxiu Appeal to All the Comrades of the Chinese Communist Party December 10, 1929, w.m.org.

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[89] International Press Correspondence, December 12, 1928.