The mass indignation caused by the Japanese invasion, and the hatred of the Chiang Kai-shek regime’s compliance, spelt an epoch of ever greater shifts to the left in Chinese society in the 1930s. The tide was flowing in the CCP’s favour. [part 1]
Moscow’s Return to Class Collaboration
A good example of this is Zhang Xueliang and his army. Zhang was the warlord of Manchuria after his father was assassinated by the Japanese in 1928. Although a member of China’s ruling class, the enormous headwinds in favour of revolution and the CCP pushed him to break with Chiang Kai-shek and seek an alliance with the CCP. After thousands of his Dongbei troops defected to the CCP (whom they had been sent to destroy) and were inspired by their commitment to fighting Japan, they returned to Zhang to convince him to break with Chiang Kai-shek and ally with the Red Army. He entered into negotiations with the Soviet base, ceased all hostilities, and opened his army up to political agitation and education by the CCP.
This example demonstrates the mood in China at the time and how fruitful a campaign amongst the masses to fight Japan was for the CCP. A united-front with the rank-and-file of the Guomindang armies and with any generals prepared to break with Chiang and solidarize with the CCP was the way forward.
The Popular Front
But the reader will appreciate by now that the Comintern would never let things be that easy. The harsh reality of the victory of fascism in Germany shook the Comintern out of its ultra-left ‘Third Period’ binge, and as always the Russian bureaucracy’s empirical response was to swing to the opposite extreme. It “began to seek allies against Hitler, turning to Western Europe with offers of pacts. The Communist parties were ordered to parallel the pacts between states by new pacts between classes, the so-called People’s Fronts, whose prime purpose and policy was the support of alliances between their respective countries and the Soviet Union” (Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution).
In China this meant the resumption of the one-sided ‘alliance’ with Chiang Kai-shek (clearly a bastion of anti-fascism). In 1933 Moscow had resumed diplomatic relations with the Guomindang, the CCP’s arch enemy, over the heads of the CCP. The opportunist policy of the ‘People’s Front’, in which the various Communist Parties were to subordinate their politics to this or that bourgeois party, was formalised as Comintern policy at the July 1935 meeting of its Executive Committee. The order for the CCP to then include none-other than Chiang Kai-shek in its ‘United Front’ was now given, and the CCP formally adopted this policy around Christmas 1935.
For Moscow, Chiang Kai-shek seemed to be “the only leader capable of uniting China in the immediate future” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). This despite his role in continually disuniting China! Tellingly, the CCP called this the ‘United Front from above’ strategy, as opposed to their earlier ‘United Front from below’ position. Understandably this policy provoked persistent opposition from within the ranks of the CCP (Guillermaz, op cit.)
The first casualty of this grossly mistaken policy was the CCP’s class analysis of China and the war with Japan, which the ultra-left madness of ‘Third Period’ Communism had at least encouraged the Party to adopt. At the meeting in which the CCP agreed to the new ‘United Front from above’, Mao (now the de-facto leader of the CCP) was obliged to give theoretical justification for this about-face. Thus he declared in December 1935 that the “Japanese invasion has altered the class relations in China and it is now possible not only for the petty bourgeoisie but also for the national bourgeoisie to join the anti-Japanese struggle” (quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).
One might argue that all Mao meant by this was the possibility of forming military alliances with bourgeois generals in order to win over their soldiers on a class basis; however his emphasis on the fact that the bourgeoisie is equally anti-Japanese would imply a policy of obscuring the class issues. This is proven by the practical outcomes of this new position. The class-based (but relatively moderate) agrarian policies of the rural soviets were to be abandoned in the hope this would facilitate military cooperation with the warlords and the Guomindang, who were fearful of the revolutionary land programme. And yet despite making overtures and concessions to the government, it remained staunchly anti-CCP and committed to the latter’s destruction.
In tandem with this, Mao changed the name of the rural Soviet government from ‘the workers’ and peasants’ republic’ to the ‘people’s republic’ (this is where China’s present name comes from) to remove it of class content. “The ‘people’s republic’ will respect property, and regulate the relations between capital and labour” (Guillermaz, op cit.). The CCP’s ‘Ten Great Policies for Anti-Japanese Resistance and National Salvation’ (note the emphasis on the whole ‘nation’) of 1937 called for the whole of China’s military forces as they were to begin the fight against Japan, without making any distinction between the rank-and-file and the warlord tops of these armies. Indeed, they begged these warlords to join with them, using the ‘carrot’ of ending the CCP’s agrarian reform. At this time the CCP constantly offered to suspend its independent existence, to dissolve its Red Army and Soviet bases and place itself under the unified command of Chiang Kai-shek.
Mao covered his back from those critics within the Party by arguing against ‘closed-door sectarianism’, accusing them of wanting the revolution to be ‘pure’ and a ‘straight line’. Of course sectarianism and revolutionary purism are errors, but only in relation to the various tendencies within the workers’ mass organisations. Revolutionaries must be ‘closed-door’ to the bourgeoisie, who in China had proven that they were thoroughly counter-revolutionary, but not to the masses, since being ‘open-door’ to the bourgeois means being ‘closed-door’ to the workers and the revolution.
There is a great deal more evidence that the door was opened to the Guomindang in Moscow rather than Shaanxi, forcing the CCP to follow suit. For example, in a repeat of Cai Tingkai’s revolt against the non-resistance policy, the south-western Guomindang generals Li Zongren, Bai Chongxi and Chen Jitang decided to start fighting the Japanese in June 1936, again underlining the tendency for the Japanese invasion to split the ruling class. Mao correctly praised this development, but Moscow outrageously undermined his position by condemning the uprising “from the outset as an intolerable attempt to split the nationalist movement” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). But the entire point was precisely to split the nationalists along class lines!
Such utopian talk of national unity was an error because the chief purpose of a Marxist organisation is to raise the class consciousness of the working class and to free them from their imagined dependence on the ruling class. Appealing, pleading even, with the ruling class to join in the movement only does the opposite.
Subordination to Imperialism
This error was compounded with the CCP’s new proposal of a ‘mutual assistance pact’ with all ‘peaceful countries’, a position straight out of the Comintern copybook, as Moscow was now constantly on the search for bourgeois allies against Hitler. According to Mao “Japanese imperialism is not only the enemy of China...especially it is the enemy of those peoples with interests on the Pacific Ocean, namely, the American, British, French...we hope that they will actively help China” (Snow, op cit., our emphasis).
Rather than telling the truth to the Chinese and world working class, i.e. that those countries such as the USA, Britain and France were only opposed to Japanese imperialism insofar as it stepped on the toes of their exploitation of China, under pressure from Moscow (who wanted to secure its alliance with these countries) Mao painted them in bright colours. They were now referred to not as imperialist powers, but as ‘anti-war’ nations.
These new categories, invented in Moscow, were utterly unscientific and un-Marxist. The vague term of ‘anti-war’ only obscured the internal class dynamics of these nations. While the British and American workers of course were genuinely anti-fascist; their ruling classes were thoroughly pro-fascist when it meant crushing the German workers. The notion that Britain was an ‘anti-war’ nation is laughable, for Britain had been making war with and ruthlessly exploiting half the world (including China!) for the past century.
The logic of this appeal to Britain, America etc. is very revealing. How did they attempt to convince them to help? By appealing to the British ruling class’ hatred of war and fascism? No, the Comintern was too realist to believe in their own propaganda! Instead Mao argued that “those powers that help or do not oppose China...should be invited to enjoy close friendly relations with China...with friendly powers, China will peacefully negotiate treaties of mutual advantage...when China really wins her independence, then legitimate foreign trading interests will enjoy more opportunities than ever before” (Ibid, my emphasis).
Mao was arguing on the basis of a bourgeois regime, as all of these points about ‘trading interests’ assumed a hypothetical CCP-Guomindang ‘democratic republic’ which he proposed, with no mention of socialism. Thus not only was the CCP, under pressure from Moscow, subordinating its position to the Guomindang in the hope of thereby making a deal with it, it was also subordinating China to the trading interests of imperialist powers. This was not a case of playing one power off another for the benefit of the Chinese people, but of offering up terms of trade favourable not to China but to American and British capitalism, which as far stronger economies would always benefit to the disadvantage of China in any such deal.
There were many more urban based revolts against the Guomindang throughout the 1930s. Although in some cases it did manage to make gains from these, taking a leading position in the ‘National Salvation’ movement that sprung up in 1935-6 for example, the CCP could not take full advantage of them. Its isolation from the urban centres combined with the now opportunist policy towards the Guomindang hindered the Party from developing concrete demands to advance the consciousness of the workers and students. How could the party advance the slogan of a national worker and student strike to bring down the Guomindang and defeat Japan when their position was to seek a military alliance with the former?
A few separate incidents illustrate this problem very clearly. The student movement developed in 1936 in opposition to Song Zheyuan’s economic concessions to Japan, Song being the leader of the Guomindang in North China. Instead of intervening in and encouraging this movement by giving it adequate slogans and organisation, the CCP declared “that the students were disrupting ‘national unity’ by demonstrating against Song Zheyuan. They told the students that Song was obliged to make concessions to Japan because the people did not give him sufficient support. This killed the movement. Students were heard to declare: ‘If the communists will not lead us, who will?’” (Li Fujen, A Discussion on China).
General Ho, under the command of Song Zheyuan, was so incensed at the concessions to Japan that he became another in the long line of generals to rebel and seek communist assistance – except that in this instance he sought the help and advice of Chen Duxiu. His honest searching for a solution to this crisis led him to read a great deal about social science and resistance, as a result of which he “decided to invite a number of young revolutionaries to carry out political education among his troops. It was during his search for suitable candidates for such a mission that he came into contact with Chen Duxiu.” (Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary). Had the CCP been in favour of such activity they could have easily won Ho and his army to their ranks.
Again misunderstanding the class dynamics of the war against Japan, a CCP representative addressing striking workers apparently “declared that the foremost task of the Chinese proletariat was to ‘save the country’ from Japanese imperialism [with the implication that the strike did the opposite, and must therefore be stopped. They used the slogan ‘Don’t strike in Chinese-owned factories’]. A worker replied: ‘It seems to me that our first task is to save ourselves – we are starving’” (Li Fujen, op cit.).
The only conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that the Moscow imposed ‘People’s Front’ strategy delayed, hindered and distorted the Chinese revolution and the war against Japanese fascism.
The Xian Incident
One instance in this period exemplifies the crisis of Chiang’s regime and the opportunities spurned by the CCP under Moscow’s orders more than any other. The Xian Incident of December 1936 is a turning point in the history of the war with Japan and of the CCP’s rise to power. In particular, it expresses the irresistible objective impulse behind the CCP as the representative of the long needed revolution. Despite, as I hope to show, grossly mishandling this marvellous opportunity, the crisis of Chiang’s regime this represented was so severe that its outcome was still beneficial for the CCP.
As mentioned above, the Manchurian warlord Zhang Xueliang had established very close ties with the CCP now that it was nearby in Shaanxi. It is true that his intentions for doing so were most likely not principled; instead he probably saw the CCP as a very useful and stubborn ally against Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang’s orders for him to concentrate on attacking the CCP and not the Japanese were in extreme contradiction with the fact that Japan had invaded his and his soldiers’ homeland and undoubtedly killed many soldiers and family members.
Zhang may not have been particularly bothered about this fact in itself, but as a warlord he naturally cared about maintaining his own power, and Chiang’s policies were so humiliating that they would seriously undermine Zhang’s authority amongst his own soldiers and citizens were he to carry them out. In this way the objective needs of the struggle against Japan and Chiang forced him to ‘join the revolution’.
The existence of this powerful impetus is proven both by Zhang’s persistent public requests for Chiang to start fighting Japan, and by the outbreak of massive student demonstrations on the anniversary of the anti-Japan student movement. As he arrived in Zhang’s headquarters in Xian on 9th December 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was met by thousands of protesting students demanding a ‘united resistance to Japan’. At the same time some of Zhang’s ‘Dongbei’ soldiers were openly disobeying orders, so desperate were they to fight Japan. The Xian Incident unfolded not due to intrigues among generals but due to mass popular pressure in the cities (such as Xian) and the army, a mood which was there for the CCP’s taking.
Fixated on his ‘old enemy’ and blind to the real situation, Chiang decided to ignore all this and press on with the war against the CCP. This in fact was why he had arrived to meet Zhang in Xian. Sparing no thought for Zhang’s credibility before his own troops, Chiang now told Zhang that it would be his 170,000 strong army whose entire focus would be to wipe out the apparently invulnerable Red Army. He had no idea that the Dongbei and Red Armies had been fraternising for some months.
This was the breaking point. With the probable encouragement of Mao, on the night of 11th/12th December Zhang organised the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek as he slept. The kidnapping itself was pretty simple, other than the rather amusing brief escape of Chiang into the nearby mountain, where he was found “clad only in a loose robe thrown over his nightshirt, his bare feet and hands cut in his nimble flight up the mountain, shaking in the bitter cold, and minus his false teeth” (Snow, op cit.).
Rather than shooting him there and then, as apparently Chiang himself requested, Zhang’s forces merely demanded that he carry out a policy of ‘national salvation’ and divert all anti-CCP troops to fight the Japanese.
Literally overnight, the joint Dongbei-Red Army forces found themselves in a position of almost terrifying strength. According to Snow, “a joint meeting was called between the Dongbei, Xibei [another rebellious warlord] and Red Army delegates, and the three groups became open allies. On the 14th an announcement was issued of the formation of a United Anti-Japanese Army, consisting of around 130,000 Dongbei troops, 40,000 Xibei troops, and approximately 90,000 troops of the Red Army.”
In addition to this “Donbei troops under General Yu Xuezhong had on the 12th carried out a coup of their own against the Central Government officials and troops in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province [immediately to the West of Xian], and had disarmed the Nanjing garrison there. In the rest of Gansu the Reds and the Manchurian troops together held control of all main communications, surrounding about 50,000 Nanjing troops in that province, so that the rebels had effective power in all Shaanxi and Gansu” (Ibid, my emphasis).
Had the CCP understood the immediate necessity to re-establish a city base in order to connect with the proletariat, they would have taken this opportunity to establish Xian as the centre of their power and connect with the workers and students there. Instead, they moved into Yenan, an obscure rural town, thereby proving the conversion of the party into a rural guerrilla force.
What should the CCP have made of this embarrassingly strong position they now found themselves in? The obvious thing to do would be to execute this war criminal and vicious despot there and then, to base the party in the urban centre of Xian and issue a call for the working class and peasantry to support them in forming a revolutionary government dedicated to the expulsion of Japan. The Guomindang would have attempted to regroup and form a new government, seeking military aid from its real ally Japan in this hour of dire need.
The boldly revolutionary CCP could have unmasked these attempts, further exposing the Guomindang as an agent of Japanese imperialism and strengthening its struggle for a revolutionary government. To an extent it is true that the CCP may have been too weak to do so, being isolated from cities beyond Shaanxi province and recovering from the Long March. But that only proves that the flight into the countryside was holding the Party back from its real potential.
Guillermaz argues that the execution of Chiang Kai-shek would have been a mistake, as it would have led to political instability and the likelihood of an even more pro-Japan Guomindang government. But that is the whole point. As if China were not already wracked by severe instability thanks to Japan’s invasion and Chiang’s fractious government. The instability created would only be the realisation of the Guomindang’s inevitable doom, and any new rightwing regime would be much weakened and more susceptible to CCP overthrow.
Of course to do so would require political independence from the Guomindang and the bourgeois, which under Moscow’s ‘Popular Front’ orders the CCP no longer had. Another objection to the execution of Chiang would be that Zhang Xueliang and other rebellious Guomindang generals would also be opposed. The evidence suggests that Zhang wanted to use this escapade to get Moscow to make a deal with him to be the new leader of China. So had Moscow been in favour of his execution Zhang may also have supported it, but this is beside the point.
It is beside the point because the aim of the CCP in this situation should have been to openly declare itself against Chiang Kai-shek, who was a national traitor. It should therefore have linked his removal to the need for a war against Japan and a new Chinese revolution to overthrow the Chinese ruling class, who had demonstrated that all they could achieve was national disintegration, corruption and subservience to Japan. If they had done this and Zhang then came out against such a plan, he would effectively be placing himself in Chiang Kai-shek’s camp, defending him and his non-resistance against the CCP.
His troops were practically begging the CCP to win them to the Red Army by breaking entirely with the Guomindang. Edgar Snow, who’s account of the Red Army was if anything too biased in their favour, painting a rosy picture of the rural soviets, could not help but admit that in the Xian Incident the CCP played the role of Chiang’s shield against the masses,
“Was Chiang Kai-shek’s life ever really in danger? It appears that it was. Not from the Young Marshal [Zhang], and not from the Reds...most certainly from the radical young officers of the North-Eastern and North-West armies, from the discontented and mutinous soldiery, and from the organised and arming masses, all of whom demanded a voice in the disposal of the Premier. Resolutions passed by the young officers called for a mass trial of ‘Traitor’ Chiang and all his staff. The mood of the army decidedly favoured the Generalissimo’s immolation. Curiously enough, it fell to the lot of the Communists to persuade them that his life should be saved.” (Ibid, my emphasis)
This proves that the task of the CCP in these circumstances was to place itself at the head of this popular mood. If it had seized this opportunity, it could have united under its command a huge chunk of Zhang’s massive army, one of the key military components of the Guomindang regime. Indeed Chiang had been relying on it to wipe the communists out – winning a chunk of this force would have put paid to any ability of the regime to attack the Red Army, without the CCP having to make any deal with Chiang Kai-shek. The outcome would have been a hugely strengthened Red Army, and not just numerically – they would have strengthened themselves by taking a powerful political stand, sending out a clear message to the masses that they were prepared to take decisive action to fight imperialism. The tens of thousands of troops won to their banner would not just have been any old soldiers but politically radicalised masses. And the CCP could then have taken control of all the key cities in Shaanxi and Gansu.
But rather than understanding that the key task is winning the political confidence of the masses for revolution, the CCP laboured under Moscow’s narrow and short-sighted goal of winning a bourgeois ally in China. Thus instead of winning these enraged soldiers to a revolutionary banner, the CCP alienated them by making deals at the top, which can only weaken a revolutionary party, whose strength never lies in deceitful bourgeois diplomacy but in arousing the masses. Apparently Zhou Enlai, the chief CCP negotiator, was denounced by Zhang’s Dongbei soldiers as a traitor for not having Chiang killed. So intense was the desire to finish Chiang and his regime, that following Chiang’s release Zhang had to fly back with him to Nanjing in order to prevent the plane being shot down by Dongbei soldiers taking matters into their own hands!
Chiang was saved by Moscow
Although it is of course very difficult to determine with any certainty, most sources agree that Mao and the leading CCP comrades were delighted at Chiang’s capture and sought to have him executed. This certainly was the logical decision to take considering not only that he represented the class enemy in a time of civil war, but also the support for this move by Guomindang troops.
And yet after a few days Chiang was released without a scratch, and with only verbal assurances that he would cease to wage war on the Red Army and would fight the Japanese. Absolutely no economic policies were wrung from him. In fact in securing his own release Chiang managed to exchange his ending of hostilities with the CCP for an agreement that the CCP would dissolve the Red Army into the Guomindang’s army, place itself under the latter’s command and agree to suspend all attempts to overthrow the government. The CCP was also to suspend all land-redistribution in the areas they controlled, thus betraying the peasants under their administration. All to secure the alliance of a man universally hated, dedicated to their destruction, representing the class enemy and utterly at their mercy!
Although organisationally strengthened by the Xian Incident, which did give the CCP more room for manoeuvre (it is solely on these grounds that the CCP and Comintern justified their actions), the CCP undoubtedly emerged politically weakened, that is to say it served to undermine their political programme and independence. Thanks to this new cross-class alliance, Guomindang leaders were now invited into the Soviet bases to give speeches to mass rallies, which the CCP organised for them. Pictures of Marx were paraded in the bases next to the image of Chiang Kai-shek. Talk about discrediting Marxism!
Not only did the CCP cease to confiscate landlords’ land, they also ceased to make anti-Guomindang propaganda. CCP comrades were allowed to stand for political office, but only if they were not publicly known as communists, in other words they were to be prisoners of the Guomindang dictatorship. “Communist slogans became these: to support the Central Government, to hasten peaceful unification and Nanjing, to realise bourgeois democracy, and to organise the whole nation to oppose Japan” (Ibid).
Defenders of these actions will say that in truth, the CCP never surrendered independence from the Guomindang, and that this is proven by their subsequent military victory in 1949. Again, this is true from a purely organisational point of view – they kept their own secret structures and never really put themselves fully under Guomindang command. But the point is that they publicly declared they were doing so. They publicly supported and propped up the Guomindang bourgeois dictatorship. They deflected popular anger away from Nanjing, and thus made themselves incapable of mobilising the masses for a political overthrow of the regime.
Why did all his occur? Purely and simply because the Moscow bureaucracy was terrified that it might find itself on the receiving end of Japanese imperialism. In their eyes, if Chiang was killed and the Guomindang fell apart, this would weaken China and allow Japan to cut through it and reach the USSR more quickly. This was false, for the deposition of Chiang would have massively strengthened the Chinese resistance, inspiring the whole country to rise up and make the Japanese occupation an impossibility. It also displays the way in which Moscow constantly used the CCP as little more than a bargaining chip in their diplomatic intrigues. Their strategy did not proceed from the needs of the Chinese and world revolution, but the maintenance of their own position.
Moscow culpability is proven by the fact that, before Zhou Enlai could even begin negotiations, without consulting the CCP the Comintern outrageously printed in Pravda and Izvestia a denunciation of the capture of Chiang, painting Chiang as somehow China’s chief protector against Japan. Mao was furious at this undermining of the CCP, which amounted to betrayal, and wanted to ignore it. But Zhang of course learnt of this development and no longer had the confidence to finish off Chiang. Lacking the backing of Moscow and any perspective of mobilising a mass campaign amongst the Dongbei troops (and the Chinese working class in general) for Chiang’s removal, Mao and Zhou inevitably folded and did as Moscow pleased.
It is true that the immediate outcome of this incident was a lessening of hostilities between the CCP and Nanjing. The Soviet base and Red Army were able to grow in size. But the class struggle cannot be cancelled. If the leadership of the oppressed class surrenders, that does not secure the appeasement of the ruling class. And so it was after Xian.
Chiang’s subsequent ‘resignation’ was nothing but a ruse: upon leaving, he “requested the highest organ of the Guomindang to do four important things: to hand over to the Military Affairs Commission (of which he was still chairman) the punishment of Zhang Xueliang”. All his recommendations were obeyed in exactly the same manner as if he were still in change. Zhang Xueliang was placed under house arrest for 50 years and all his generals were executed!
In the first meeting of the Nanjing government following Xian, the meeting refused to even formally acknowledge a telegram from the CCP. Chiang Kai-shek gloated about how he had refused to sign any pledge to do what the CCP wanted whilst captive, and claimed to have managed to convert them to his point of view. Following this, “in a very offhand and contemptuous manner” he submitted “the rebels’ eight demands to the session. Reiterating its complete confidence in the Generalissimo, the Session rejected his resignation, condemned Zhang Xueliang, and just as casually and contemptuously rejected the impertinent [CCP] demands” (Ibid). Rather than releasing the masses of political prisoners as he had promised, Chiang now insisted that only those ‘who repented’ would be released. Then, on 21st February 1937, Chiang had the arrogance to unveil a manifesto denouncing the CCP.
Chiang was now able to take the initiative, and took the opportunity to transfer the rebellious Dongbei army away from the CCP into Anhui and Henan Provinces, breaking up the ‘bloc’ between the CCP and Zhang, who was now under house arrest.
The only reason the Red Army was now afforded more breathing space is thanks to those rebellious troops who pushed Zhang into kidnapping Chiang. The hatred of the masses for this arch-capitulator meant that he lacked the political strength to send in troops to crush the Red Army. In truth Chiang emerged massively strengthened from the whole affair thanks to the laughable blunders of the Comintern, when he should have been dead.
In every way, the Moscow inspired policies of class collaboration, from the tragedy 1925-7, through to the Xian Incident, are a litany of errors. The young CCP was tossed around by short-sighted Soviet foreign policy as though it were so much loose change in one’s pocket. That it still survived is testament to the heroic self-sacrifice and determination of the Chinese masses, who time and again defended, fought for and joined the CCP, if only because they needed a revolutionary instrument with which to transform society and their own lives. Unfortunately, gross errors of leadership (or lack of) in Moscow would condemn these soldiers of revolution to another twelve years of life-and-death struggle before their party would take power.