Part 01: The Long March to Victory

Chapter 01: The Workers' Revolution

In 1921, when the Chinese Communist party was formed, China was in a state of grave crisis. The collapse of the old empire in 1911, the cumulative effects of foreign penetration (by Japan, Britain, France and the United States), the impact of the First World War and the Russian revolution, all posed severe problems and released new social forces. On the one hand, the old ruling order could not re-establish its power. Local warlords, petty gangsters and landlords filled the vacuum, dominating the countryside; foreigners controlled the great cities of the eastern seaboard. On the other, the nationalists – the Kuomintang, under their leader, Sun Yat-sen – could not mobilize sufficient military power to overcome local and foreign contenders for China’s territory. The war had vastly expanded China’s industry, which was heavily concentrated in the maritime cities. [1] By 1917, a new force was making its appearance – the Chinese working class.

In 1919, the Versailles treaty transferred Germany’s holdings in China, not to the weak Peking government, but to the new imperialist power, Japan. The student agitation against the treaty – known as the May 4th Movement – rapidly drew into its ranks workers, merchants and businessmen, and spread to attack the privileged and dominating position of foreigners in China. It was the first anti-imperialist movement the country had seen.

The twelve founding members of the Communist party were active participants in the May 4th Movement. The Russian revolution was a powerful inspiration. Not only had the overthrow of the old Tsarist empire produced a régime confident and strong enough to defeat Russia’s white “warlords”, the new Soviet government had repudiated the Tsar’s claims on China’s territory and promised to return all his thefts of the past. The Russians had also pledged their support to all oppressed peoples in the struggle for national independence.

The new Chinese Communist party set as its task the creation of a mass working-class party which would champion the cause of China’s national independence. To achieve victory, the party leadership acknowledged that it would have to displace the Kuomintang and give up the illusion that independence could be secured simply through military conspiracy. The party, though ambitious, was but a small group of intellectuals who lacked support among China’s workers. Harried in the north by warlords and the satraps of foreign powers, the Communists were struggling for political identity against the currents of anarchy and bourgeois nationalism. In 1921, the party claimed fifty-seven members; and 432 in 1923.

Despite its small size, the party participated in the strike wave of the early 1920s which led to the first great Hong Kong strike of 1920-21. The party also experienced the sudden downturn of 1923, when employers and warlords inflicted massive repression to win back control of the workplace. Unused to the rise and fall of popular struggle, the party was plunged in gloom. Without military security and guaranteed civil rights, it seemed, the labour movement could not be built.

The strike wave had other effects. The success with which workers paralysed the British colony in Hong Kong impressed the Kuomintang leadership, who had their headquarters in neighbouring Canton. They contributed to strike funds, encouraged the workers to use Canton as their base of operations, and welcomed the labour leaders under the Kuomintang banners.

The strike wave and the Kuomintang response also impressed the local representatives of the Communist International, the international party set up by the Russian Bolsheviks in 1919. Maring (alias Sneevliet) visited Sun Yat-sen in Canton during the Hong Kong strike. His report to Moscow stressed that only a popular nationalist force was capable of standing up to the warlords and foreigners. The Kuomintang, already famous throughout China, was just such a force. It was, Maring said, the instrument not of a particular class, but a bloc of four classes – intellectuals, overseas Chinese capitalists, soldiers and workers. But it was a loose organization, and could be influenced by the Communist International from without and the Chinese Communists from within.

By August 1922, the Communist International seems to have been urging the Chinese Communist party to enter an alliance with the Kuomintang. But the alliance was not to be a tactical collaboration between two separate organizations; Communists were to join the Kuomintang as individual members, while the Soviet Union provided material assistance and advisers to the Kuomintang leadership. The Executive Committee of the International (ECCI) changed its evaluation of the Kuomintang. It was now a “national revolutionary group”, based “partly on the liberal democratic bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, partly on the intelligentsia and workers”. Nonetheless, the Chinese Communists were instructed to preserve their independence and build a mass party “under its own colours”. China’s revolution would not, the ECCI said, be proletarian, but bourgeois democratic, with the peasantry therefore playing the main role.

In fact, the Kuomintang was not much more than the personal following of Sun and his associates. Its declared aims were Sun’s “Three People’s Principles” – Nationalism, Democracy (people’s rights) and Socialism (people’s livelihood). No concrete proposals gave content to these vague abstractions. The real aim was military power and it was the offer of Soviet military aid which attracted Sun towards the idea of an “alliance”.

Chiang Kai-shek, one of the more energetic young leaders of the Kuomintang, was despatched to Moscow to study Russian military affairs, and a team of Russian advisers under Borodin arrived in Canton. Borodin set about a swift reorganization of the Kuomintang on the model of the Soviet Communist party. [2] This entirely changed the position of the Communists. At the first Kuomintang Congress in January 1924, the Communists pledged individual loyalty to the Three People’s Principles and the Kuomintang leadership. In return, they secured three seats on the twenty-four-man Executive; one Communist became chief of the Kuomintang organization bureau,

Russian military assistance – the first arms shipments steamed up the Pearl river to Canton in October 1924 – brought the real rewards of the alliance. The Russians sponsored a new military academy at Whampoa and Chiang was made director. Sun’s military forces were now substantial enough for him to propose a Northern Expedition in preparation for the conquest of China.

By late 1924, all the actors in the drama were in place. Already a mass peasant movement was under way. Through the winter of 1924-5, the agrarian movement spread with great rapidity in Kwantung, Hunan, Hopei and Shantung. The Russian advisers had transformed the Kuomintang from a civilian clique of aspirant politicians into a serious contender for national power, a centralized party with an increasingly professional army. As the Kuomintang grew in strength, so it attracted new support from those who feared for their property and calculated, rightly in retrospect, that the Kuomintang was their best hope for the future. The Kuomintang Right-wing grew.

The May 30th Movement

In 1925, Chinese workers returned to a phase of intense activity. Early in the year, thirty to forty thousand workers in Japanese-owned mills struck in protest at sackings. A rash of strikes followed that spread from the Shanghai area to Wuhan and Canton in the south. On 15 May, a Japanese foreman killed a millworker. The Shanghai memorial meeting on 24 May was attended by some 5,000 people. On 30 May, a further protest demonstration was attacked by the police; ten demonstrators were killed and fifty wounded.

The May 30th Movement was born. Unlike the May 4th Movement, this was an overwhelmingly working-class reaction to foreign domination. On 1 June, a general strike against foreign capital was called by the newly founded General Labour Union (the leadership included a number of prominent Communists; in particular, Li Li-San and Liu Shao-ch’i). By the 13th, some 130,000 workers were out, and many of them remained on strike until July. The foreign authorities in Shanghai declared a state of martial law, and twenty-six gunboats were moved up the river to the city.

The movement spread. Three hundred thousand demonstrated in Peking, and other protests were launched in all the main cities. In Shanghai, the Communist-Kuomintang alliance led to the creation of a Shanghai Workers’, Merchants’ and Students’ Federation. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce refused to join the Federation, but nevertheless, prominent businessmen and even warlords made donations to the strike fund and, where appropriate, provision for their workers to participate in the protests. It seemed that the political alliance of employers and workers against foreign capital fitted the mood of the momept.

However, even in June, Shanghai business opinion was becoming nervous. Workers in Chinese enterprises discovered, from talking on the streets with their brothers from foreign-owned factories, that their pay and conditions were frequently worse. [3] The Kuomintang leadership might stress that the Chinese workers had a quarrel only with foreign capitalists, but in battle, capitalism did not seem to wear different national faces. [4] On 25 June, the merchants withdrew from the Federation. On 6 July the foreign-controlled Municipality cut off the electricity supply to Chinese firms; the generators had been kept running by the workers so that Chinese capital would not suffer in the agitation.

By August, foreign and Chinese business had decided on a common front against “anarchy”. On the 22nd, gangsters ransacked the headquarters of the General Labour Union. The strikes continued, but the workers tired as the tide of police, gangster and military violence rose. In mid-September, the military banned all trade union organization. In the factories, the employers had built up private armies to intimidate the workforce.

The setback was temporary. The link between the first and the second waves of activity in Shanghai was the revolt in Hong Kong. There, on 19 June, the General Federation of Labour called a protest strike over the deaths in Shanghai. Seamen, telegraph workers and printers responded, and demonstrated in neighbouring Canton with the support of the Kuomintang. The demonstrators marched past the British and French concessions in Canton, Shameen Island, and the watching foreign police opened fire, killing fifty two and wounding over one hundred marchers. A general strike broke out in Shameen, and this spread into an overall boycott of Hong Kong and British goods. By July, 50,000 workers were on strike. The Hong Kong authorities reacted with violence, and the workers flocked out of the city to the sanctuary of Canton. By mid-July, some 80,000 had fled.

The strike and boycott lasted fifteen months. It was a disaster for the Hong Kong economy. As the historian E.H. Carr concludes, the boycott “proved by far the most effective weapon wielded by the nationalists in their struggle against British imperialism; and the Kuomintang could hardly do other than applaud and support it”. [5]

The movement was extremely well organized. The strike was directed by a committee of thirteen, responsible to a delegate conference of

800 (in a ratio of one delegate to fifty strikers), meeting twice a week. The committee supervised the feeding, housing and entertainment of the strikers. It requisitioned gambling and opium dens in Canton as dormitories, rest rooms and education centres. It published a weekly newspaper. Strikers were organized to undertake voluntary work, which included building a road from Canton to Whampoa. By April, the strikers had set up a Workers’ College with eight extra-mural schools for adult workers and eight primary schools for their children. These activities were financed by donations, fines and the sale of seized merchandise. To police the boycott, the committee maintained a force of several thousand uniformed and armed pickets and set up courts to deal with those breaking the regulations. It also maintained a fleet of twelve gunboats to apprehend river smugglers. Furthermore, strikers spread to the villages to raise support for the boycott and advance the movement for agrarian reform.

The strike committee was indeed – as it was called – a “Government Number Two”. It maintained an administration apparently more powerful and of greater ho

nesty, parallel to the Kuomintang régime of Canton. In essence, it was the first Chinese workers’ soviet, one side of a system of “dual power”.

For the merchants and businessmen of Canton, however, the strike committee was a monster. They initially applauded its assault on British capital, no doubt calculating that what British capital lost, Chinese capital would gain. But as the committee’s power grew, business was increasingly constrained. The strike caused a slump in both Hong Kong and Canton; armed pickets prevented Chinese businessmen reaping the reward. Taxes, fines for evading the regulations, confiscation of contraband, and the burden of dole payments weighed heavily on Chinese capitalists. In 1924, Cantonese businessmen, aping their Shanghai brethren and with British support, set up a paramilitary vigilante force to combat the pickets of the strike committee. The “Merchant Volunteers”, as they were called, demanded the government give them arms to maintain “law and order”. The government dithered, but finally agreed. However, the Whampoa cadets refused to relinquish arms from the armoury. The Merchant Volunteers counter-attacked and, at one stage, the government was obliged to flee to the sanctuary of Whampoa, defended by the cadets, the worker pickets and Chiang’s troops.

The alliance under strain

Businessmen were not alone in being compelled to reassess worker participation in the nationalist movement. In August 1924, Sun’s political heir, a well-known member of the Kuomintang Left, was assassinated, apparently at the instigation of the Kuomintang Right. In November, a substantial section of the leadership, calling itself the Sun Yat-sen Society (Sun had died earlier), met outside Peking, proclaimed itself the Kuomintang Executive and expelled all Communists from the Kuomintang (but nonetheless affirmed the Kuomintang’s undying “friendship” with the Soviet Union and its arms supplies).

The International was also nervous that worker militancy might drive Chinese employers into the arms of foreign business. It instructed the Communist party to restrain the workers, to prevent “excesses”. The Communist party leadership was equally alarmed, but its reaction was quite different; it proposed to end the alliance. However, Stalin – now supreme in the Russian party – was not prepared to jeopardize the considerable Russian investment in the Kuomintang and its future role in safeguarding the eastern flanks of the Soviet Union: certainly not for a wild gamble on the possibility of workers’ power. The movement had to submit to the demands of the Kuomintang and its business allies. [6]

Perhaps a policy of restraint would have worked, albeit with severe damage to the popular movement. But the Kuomintang’s commitment to a Northern Expedition upset all calculations. While the Kuomintang felt it needed popular support, it needed the Communists, now heavily involved in the leadership of the worker and peasant movements. But as its military power expanded, it could afford to dispense with these allies, particularly if the allies appeared to threaten Kuomintang power itself. The Northern Expedition contained the threat of substituting military prowess for social revolution.

It was not surprising that the Communists and the Russian advisers viewed the Kuomintang’s military ambitions with suspicion. The Northern Expedition, they argued, was premature; it required first, complete security in the south, and second, sufficient power to deter foreign military intervention. Not all were agreed – for example, the senior Russian military adviser, General Blücher, was an ardent supporter of the Expedition; it is said that Mao was also a supporter. [7]

Chiang Kai-shek, who had assumed great prominence, seemed likely to inherit supreme military command. This perhaps consoled the Russians, for he was seen as their nominee in the leadership. However, Chiang was wary of rising Communist influence in the Kuoinintang. He was instrumental in securing, at the second Kuomintang Congress in January 1926, an obligation by the Communists to limit their membership of Kuomintang committees to one-third, and to submit a list of Communists in leading Kuomintang positions to the leadership.

If the Communists were worried, none of their fears were permitted public expression. The Soviet party’s message to the Congress was all euphoria: “To our Party has fallen the proud and historic role of leading the first victorious proletarian revolution of the world ... We are convinced that the Kuomintang will succeed in playing the same role in the East.” [8]

On such an assessment, the Chinese Communist party had apparently no role.

The first coup

On 20 March 1926, Chiang Kai-shek took the first step to establish command. On the pretext of a Left-wing plot to kidnap him, he introduced martial law and arrested his Russian and Chinese Communist advisers and staff (including the fifty Communist delegates to his military units). The Communists were caught completely off guard, and Chiang swiftly ended all opposition to the Northern Expedition.

At the same time, Chiang arrested the strike committee, the “Government Number Two”, and eliminated the trade union movement in Canton. (The strike was officially called off on 10 October, without any of the original demands being won.) The Communists gave no lead in opposition, for they had been instructed to preserve the alliance. Indeed, they retreated. They promised not to criticize the Three People’s Principles, to divulge full membership lists to the Kuomintang Executive, to submit all Comintern instructions to the Kuomintang for permission to implement them, and to remove all Communists heading Kuomintang departments. Finally, on the instructions of the delegate from the Communist International they made a formal apology to Chiang for their “misdemeanours”.

The weakness of the Russian advisers and the Chinese Communists was revealed. The Russians had only one card to play – the termination of military aid – and they were not prepared to play it. The power of the Communists lay in the worker and peasant movements. But to use it entailed breaking the alliance. The party proposed this to Stalin, but it was reproved as “ultra-leftism”. Instead, Moscow despatched a new Communist International delegate, Voitinsky, to correct “ultra-leftist”, anti-Kuomintang tendencies in the party.

The Comintern banned any news suggesting a rift between Chiang and the Communists. The rumours that circulated in the Western press were denounced as imperialist fabrications, maliciously put about to wreck the “revolutionary alliance”. [9] The Politburo of the Soviet party did not discuss Chiang’s coup, nor was it mentioned in the long resolution considered by the Seventh ECCI in November. Secrecy had become vital, even though it disarmed the labour and peasant movements in China. It was not simply a result of the need to preserve the alliance in China. Indeed, it had little to do with China at all. To admit Chiang’s coup was for Stalin to admit that the criticisms of the opposition in the Russian party, and above all the brilliant critique of policy by Trotsky, were correct. [10]

On 4 June, the Kuomintang leadership ratified the plans for the Northern Expedition and vested’ supreme power in the hands of Chiang. The coup had purged the Kuomintang and begun to roll back the workers’ movement. It was a practice run for what was to happen a year later. It was also a signal to Chinese businessmen and landlords that Chiang was a man to be trusted. Kwantung’s landlords now launched squads of armed men to dismember the peasant associations. The Communists appealed to Borodin for Russian arms to defend themselves. He refused, answering curtly but accurately that “the present period is one in which the Communists should do coolie service for the Kuomintang”.

The Northern Expedition

Chiang might control the leadership of the popular revolt, but not the revolt itself. Communists fanned out before his advancing troops, raising revolt in village and town to greet them. Workers in Hong Kong flocked to the army, to distribute propaganda, to assist in the creation of trade unions and peasants’ associations. In Changsha, the trade unions seized the city. Railwaymen captured the Yueh-Han line to carry nationalist troops, and sabotaged the Hupeh section to block the movement of hostile forces. At the Wuchang arsenal, workers stopped production to prevent arms reaching the enemy.

A host of “second governments” appeared in Hupeh and Hunan, with their own militia and administration. In January, spontaneous strikes behind the Kuomintang lines in Hankow and Kiukiang even forced the British to abandon their concessions there. The Kuomintang reproved the workers for “excesses”, but happily took credit for this defeat of British imperialism. The Communists reproved the workers also; they appealed to the peasants to ally with the “good gentry”, the landlords whose sons were now officers in the Kuomintang army. [11]

The ECCI affirmed that there was to be no confiscation of land except as a penalty for “reactionaries, militarists and compradores and those landlords and gentry who are waging civil war against the Kuomintang National Government”. The Communist party leadership thus had the contradictory task of supporting the Kuomintang and its new officer class of landlord sons, and championing a peasant revolution against the landlords.


By the autumn of 1926, the labour movement was once more in the ascendant. The Communists prepared for the arrival of Chiang’s armies. Forward military units reached Hangchow by February 1927, and then Kashing, only fifty miles from Shanghai. The General Labour Union launched a general strike to greet the army. Three hundred and fifty thousand workers joined in and there was street fighting. The Communists loyally persisted in looking to the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” to lead the struggle, and proposed therefore the creation, not of workers’ soviets, but of Citizens’ Assemblies to represent all classes. Insurrection was proposed for 22 February to coincide with Chiang’s arrival.

However, Chiang had been advised by the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” to keep his troops out of the city lest they be infected by the Bolshevik virus. In the interim, warlord troops, police and sundry gangsters blunted the edge of worker militancy. For a whole month Chiang’s troops delayed while warlord soldiers endeavoured to master the city. A foreign correspondent noted the paradox: “Many people were arrested because they carried handbills which read: ‘Welcome, Chiang Kai-shek, gallant commander of the Cantonese’. They were found guilty and executed on the spot.” [12]

On 20 March, forward Kuomintang troops reached Lunghua on the edge of the city and halted to negotiate with the warlord troops in occupation. On 21 March, the General Labour Union again called a general strike. This time, between half and three-quarters of a million people responded, protected by a 5,000-man militia armed with only 150 pistols. Street-fighting broke out, but now the pickets seized the police stations and military posts and helped themselves to arms. The troops fled for protection to the foreign-controlled districts, the International Settlement. The General Labour Union set up a Provisional Municipal Corporation and, on the basis of this apparent victory, ordered the workers back to work.

On 26 March, Chiang entered the city. On the 27th, he imposed martial law, arrested Communists and Kuomintang Left-wingers, and banned trade union and student organizations. For the communists, it was not entirely unexpected, since Chiang had followed exactly the same procedure wherever his troops had taken over. In Kiangsi, his armies eliminated the labour and peasant movements as soon as they had secured control. But news of these events had been suppressed in the press lest they jeopardize the “alliance”.

The General Labour Union was shut down and, on 12 April, Chiang launched his counter-attack, arresting, killing and disarming the pickets. The leadership of the Union again called a general strike, demanding the return of the arms and punishment for Chiang’s underlings. Too late and too little. For the party still refrained from appealing to its known sympathizers in the Kuomintang armies, which would have blown the “alliance” apart. One hundred thousand responded to the strike call, but Chiang’s troops were now ready and machine-gunned the crowds. Some 5,000 were slaughtered, many of them publicly executed on street corners.

The leadership of the strongest centre of the Chinese working class had been decapitated. In Moscow, as in the first coup, rumours of the disaster were denied. Stalin insisted that the “alliance” was still to be maintained: “Chiang Kai-shek is submitting to discipline. The Kuomintang is a bloc, a sort of revolutionary parliament, with the Right, the Left, and the Communists. Why drive away the Right when we have a majority and when the Right listens to us? The peasant needs an old worn-out jade as long as she is necessary. He does not drive her away. So it is with us. When the Right is of no more use to us, we will drive it away ... Chiang Kai-shek has perhaps no sympathy for the revolution, but be is leading the army and cannot do otherwise than lead it against the imperialists ... (the Right) have to be utilized to the end, squeezed out like a lemon and then flung away.” [13]

In Shanghai, it was not necessary to look far to see who had been “squeezed out and flung away”.

Moscow did not give up so easily. A split occurred in the Kuomintang between the strong military centre (finally located under Chiang in Nanking) and the weak remnant of the civilian politicians (in Wuhan). The Communists were directed to “ally” with the Wuhan government, but now on much weaker terms. It was a brief and ignominious episode, governed by the terror of “excesses”. By July it was over, and the Communists were ejected.

Between 1926 and 1927, party membership fell from 57,900 to 10,000. Between April and December 1927, some 38,000 militants were killed, and 32,000 imprisoned. Trade union membership contracted sharply.

The alliance in retrospect

Events in China between 1925 and 1927 confirmed Lenin’s estimate of the revolutionary capacity of a working class in a backward country. The labour movement developed with such speed because the later a backward country began industrialization, the more rapidly a new working class was concentrated in large-scale production, and the more rapidly the great cities grew. Workers were not snared in the conservative traditions of older working classes; the social structure contained relatively few of the middle classes, and so ideological control of the masses was weak. However, converting militant workers into political cadres depended upon the role of the small Communist party. In the China of the mid-twenties, as in Russia a decade earlier, both objective and subjective conditions for a workers’ revolution briefly coincided.

Yet the workers’ movement was disastrously defeated. Chinese workers never again played an important political role before the Communists came to power. The destruction of the workers’ movement permitted a similar destruction of the peasant movement. It was not the balance of forces which determined the defeat, but the tactics and strategy of the Communist party – or rather, the tenacious loyalty of the Communist International to the Kuomintang, and of the Communist party to the International. The Comintern endlessly repeated the need for the Communists to be independent, yet rendered independence impossible by subordinating the party to the Kuomintang.

The very word “alliance” became mystifying. In Russia, the alliance was between classes, not parties. The Bolsheviks did not organize the peasants, nor lead them in struggles against the landlords, nor even ally with the leading peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries. The alliance entailed that workers seize the State and so defend the spontaneous seizure of the land by the peasants; what Marx much earlier described in Germany as a “peasant war”. After the October insurrection, the Bolsheviks adopted the agrarian programme of the Social Revolutionary party. [14]

In China, “alliance” meant something different. It was not a relationship between social classes, nor was it an alliance of the parties of the exploited, the workers and peasants. There were no institutions to make possible such an alliance, no workers’ soviets or national peasant federations. It was an agreement to subordinate a party which aspired to lead the working class to a party which aimed to lead Chinese capital and landlords. In 1925, these twin aspirations were transformed into reality – real social content, like a gale, filled the sails of the Communist craft. Compromise between the interests of the exploiters and those of the exploited became impossible.

Left to themselves, the Communists would almost certainly have ended the alliance. The Russian government, led by Stalin, decreed otherwise. It was the Russian government which transformed the Kuomintang into an organization which corresponded to the Russian Communist party in structure but without a Bolshevik programme. It supplied the arms and advice, which made it possible for Chiang Kai-shek to win the hegemony of China. Through the Comintern, it directed the Communist party to limit mass endeavours to what was acceptable to the Kuomintang. Finally, when it was obvious that the Kuomintang would sooner or later destroy the Communist party, it protected Chiang to the last by censoring all reports of what was happening.

Throughout, it invented labels to justify its strategy by describing the Kuomintang, in Stalin’s words, as a “workers’ and peasants’ party”, which thereby rendered the Communist party obsolete. [15] The Kuomintang was whatever the tactics of Stalin required.

Stalin subordinated the Chinese Communists to the interests of the Soviet State and Russian foreign policy. To do so, he required a theoretical justification. The form this took was that China faced a “bourgeois revolution” which must – contrary to Lenin’s formulation in Russia – be led by the Chinese bourgeoisie. In Russia, in March 1917 when Stalin advanced a comparable formulation concerning the Provisional Government, it was described as Menshevism. But in China, no April Theses reversed the dominant party position. As a result, the party was compelled to accept the doctrine of “stages” – first came the defeat of imperialism and feudalism, then the development of independent socialist forces. The task of the workers’ movement could not be fulfilled until after the Kuomintang had won power. Until then workers must be “restrained”. The act of popular self- emancipation was detached from the conquest of State power and indefinitely postponed. Yet in Russia in 1917, the act of seizing power was the seizure of the State, the workers seizing the factories and the peasants the land. The revolution was a mass action, not something undertaken by a special political or military group on behalf of the masses.

The Communists slipped further from the leadership of the popular movement as it developed. It was leadership by default, bending all its efforts to curb the militants. The leadership was obliged by the alliance not to champion the most advanced demands, but to fight against them, to reserve the right to decide what popular interests were tolerable. The party’s verbal demands – for example, “Land to the Tillers” – were rhetoric, not to be taken seriously; in practice it meant no more than a twenty-five per cent reduction in rent, and government confiscation of the land of “wicked landlords”. Yet in conditions of revolution, it was the slogan which caught popular imagination, not the fine print. Then the slogan bounced back like a bomb into the middle of the alliance.

It could not be claimed that Stalin and the leadership of the international lacked adequate information. Trotsky had far poorer information than Stalin, yet he identified the impending catastrophe as flowing necessarily from the conjuncture of the alliance’ and a popular revolution. The whole experience of 1917 stood as an object lesson of the need for the independence of the workers’ movement and party. Stalin did not make an error. He pursued a strategy totally at variance with the declared aims of the International. As a result, what Lenin identified as the role of the Soviet Union in the world revolution – “making the greatest national sacrifices for the overthrow of international capitalism” [16] – became reversed; the Chinese party was required to “make the greatest international sacrifices for the preservation of Russia’s national ‘socialism’.” [17]


1. On China’s early industrial history, see John Chang, Industrial Development in Pre-Communist China, Chicago, 1949; on the labour movement, see Jean C. Chesneaux, The Chinese labour movement, 1919-27, Stanford, 1968. The most outstanding political account of the period is Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, London, 1938 edition

2. See his explanation of frictions with the Communists – they were jealous of Russian military aid – in A Documentary History of Chinese Communism edited by Conrad Brandt, Benjamin Schwartz and John K. Fairbank, New York, 1967, p.63

3. “Exploitation in [Chinese-owned] enterprises was generally greater than in foreign-owned industries; the technically backward and relatively undercapitalized Chinese firms were able to compete only by such methods”, Israel Epstein, Notes on Labour Problems in Nationalist China, New York, 1949 mimeo

4. Sun Yat-sen, 1924 May Day speech: “The difference between the Chinese workers and foreign workers lies in the fact that the latter are oppressed only by their own capitalists and not by those of other countries ... The Chinese workers are as yet not oppressed by Chinese capitalists ... They are oppressed by foreign capitalists”. Cited by Isaacs, op. cit., p.71

5. Cited by E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-26, London, 1964, III, p.751

6. Zinoviev, then president of the Communist International, reported to the 14th Congress of the Soviet Communist party in December that “The Chinese party received a directive proposing a certain putting on of brakes” – cited by Carr, Socialism, op. cit., p.761 [The reference is missing in the book. I have placed it in what seems to be the most logical position – EO’C]

7. General V.V. Blücher (Galin), Sep. 1925, Prospects for 1926, translated CQ35, Jul.-Sept. 1968, p.23

8. Inprecor, 7 January 1926

9. See Inprecor 53, 5 April 1926, reprint from the Berlin Rote Fahne, 28 March 1926. The Tass Peking correspondent specifically denied the allegations, 30 March despatch, cited Isaacs, op. cit., p.111

10. For example, see Leon Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution (documents); translated and published, New York, 1932

11. Circular letter of the Central Committee, CPC, 7 August 1927 in A Documentary History, op. cit., p.102 passim

12. New York Herald Tribune, 21 February 1927

13. Unpublished speech, cited by Vuyovitch as a challenge to Stalin at the 8th Plenum of the ECCI, May 1927. Stalin did not deny he made the speech, nor that it was in the terms quoted, but the official transcription was never published; cited by Isaacs, op. cit., p.185, from Documents de l’Opposition Française, pp.36, 64, and included as second appendix to Trotsky, op. cit., pp. 376-90. At the 8th Plenum, Stalin affirmed that events in China had “proved the line laid down was correct” – Questions of the Chinese Revolution, Inprecor, 7/27, 28 Aprril 1927 (from Pravda 90, 21 April 1927)

14. Lenin,CW31, p. 72

15. Problems of Leninism, Moscow, n.d. (written 1926), p. 264

16. From Lenin’s Theses on the Colonial Question, 2nd Congress, Communist International, in Jane Degras (ed), The Communist International 1919-1943, London, 1971, I

17. Isaacs, 1938, op. cit., p.51

Chapter 02: From Defeat to Victory

(i) The “Third Period”

The defeat of 1927 was severe. For the Kuomintang the terror of revolution rang down the years, exaggerated by world economic crisis, Japanese invasion and the onset of a new World War. As Trotsky had predicted, the Kuomintang became an unstable coalition of warlords, capitalists and landlords, preserving its power by compromising with the imperialists. In the fight against Japan, Chiang substituted intrigue for defence. The 1933 T’ang-ku agreement was part of the continuing efforts by Chiang to accommodate Japanese depredations. Chiang formally recognized the Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo, in return for promised Japanese aid to consolidate Kuomintang power in China.

The victory of the Kuomintang in 1927-8 reversed all the gains made by workers in the preceding three years. Wage cuts followed the coup in Shanghai. Rising inflation robbed real wages, and unemployment rapidly increased in the wake of the world slump. With Chiang’s patronage, gangsters created “alternative trade unions”. They acted as employment agents, strike breakers, traders in child labour and opium, taking a cut from workers’ pay and contributions from employers. [18]

However, workers continued to defend themselves. Even the corrupt unions, called “yellow unions” by the Communists, were obliged to fight limited battles on behalf of their members. For example, there was a major post office strike in 1928, and 300,000 Kiangsi porcelain workers followed suit. In 1930, the number of workers who struck reached some sixty per cent of the 1926 level, and in 1935, the numbers were even higher. [19] Such action produced successive government “reorganizations” of the unions.

The workers’ actions were defensive, more often limiting defeat than making a positive advance. The tactics Communists should follow in such a situation had been outlined at the third Congress of the Communist International in 1921. The party should try to take up the limited material interests of workers through established trade unions, no matter how corrupt their leadership, to build a defensive “united front” of all workers in order to restore their confidence in their capacity for collective action. In Tsarist Russia, the Bolsheviks had survived defeat by such methods. [20]

The Chinese Communist party could not follow suit, however, because the International did not permit it. The defeat of 1927 coincided with a premature rehearsal of what became known as the “Third Period”. Stalin maintained that, in China, there had been no defeat. The movement might be temporarily checked, but the Chinese revolution was ascending. Armed insurrection, the very final point of revolution, was now on the “order of the day”. Communists must therefore prepare for armed uprising. They must have no truck with the established unions, but form their own, Red, unions. Modest demands for the defence of basic conditions were “reformist” obstacles to the revolution. Every strike movement must be converted into a mass strike and the conquest of State power.

Such a programme related in no way to the defensive tactics open to a defeated labour movement. Third Period slogans terrified the mass of workers, since they portrayed every defensive action as a challenge to the State, a provocation to the police. The Communists necessarily isolated themselves and demoralized their most loyal supporters. The party in the industrial cities shrank with great speed. What Chiang’s police and soldiers could not accomplish, the International did for them. It rendered it impossible for the Chinese party to re-establish roots in the Chinese working class.

The party leadership committed itself wholeheartedly to implementing the tactics laid down by the International. When it failed, it was purged. As a result, not only did the party lose its social basis, its leadership was decimated.

In 1927, the men who had led the party from its formation were obliged to bear the responsibility for defeat and were sacked. The new leadership then launched itself upon a wave of insurrection. In every case, the party was defeated. The following year, the party leadership was dismissed by the International. The new leadership – the most prominent member of which was Li Li-san – had longer to prepare. But in the insurrection of July 1930, it achieved no more than the leadership it had replaced. In November, Li was dismissed, accused of a sensational list of crimes against the International. Those who succeeded him carried out yet another purge, but by now the party was so small, there was no possibility of an armed uprising.

The only force which survived intact was the partisans, operating in areas remote from the cities. In the autumn of 1932, the Central Committee finally accepted the impossibility of reconciling Third Period slogans with the survival of the party. It fled from Shanghai to join the partisans, now based in a small republic in Kiangsi.

The Red Partisans

In origin the partisans were no more than the armed wing of a mass movement about to conquer power. The mass movement and the prospect of power disappeared. As a result, the partisans became the centre of the strategy, and the party came to argue that only after armed struggle would it become possible to create the mass movement of which the partisans were supposedly the instrument. As Mao put it in 1930: “Only after wiping out comparatively large enemy units and occupying the cities can we arouse the masses on a large scale and build up a unified political power over a number of adjoining counties. Only thus can we arouse the attention of the people far and wide.” [21]

It followed that urban workers became no more than ancillary. The militants of the labour movement were now required to leave the cities as recruits for the partisans. The supposed vanguard became a rear-guard. [22]

Rural guerilla warfare imposed its own constraints. It was not a form of struggle open to a settled working class. To participate, a worker was obliged to become a professional soldier. For guerilla warfare, secrecy and surprise were essential, not open political debate. The mode of struggle determined the type of contender. The party in the cities could advance Third Period slogans only at the cost of its survival. The partisans alone could advance those slogans with impunity where they possessed military power; but the slogans did not secure their power, only their arms did that. Thus, Third Period politics in China made necessary the partisans and so identified a different social stratum to propagate them, those who were socially rootless, members of the intelligentsia, workers who had abandoned their place of work and rural vagrants (yu-min). [23]

If China was, as Stalin argued, on the verge of revolution, there was no need for an agrarian programme that compromised with the most advanced demands. The elimination of landlords and rich peasants, and land nationalization were to be the immediate aims.

However, reality was as obdurate in the countryside as in the cities. The peasant revolution of 1925-7 had died away by the time the partisans arrived, as Mao discovered in contrast to his earlier Hunan experience: “wherever the Red Army goes, it finds the masses cold and reserved”. [24]

When the partisans were able to settle in one area, they discovered the severe limits imposed by circumstances on the implementation of their programme. Land, in the backward and impoverished areas where they operated, was extremely scarce. Collectivization required, for full peasant confidence, reasonably permanent military security which the partisans could not guarantee. Indeed, the presence of the partisans invited attack by the Kuomintang and warlord armies. Furthermore, they required feeding from the exiguous food surplus of the peasants, and they took peasant sons into the forces. [25]

The economic blockade of the Kuomintang imposed severe hardships upon the partisans. Indeed, at one stage, Mao had doubts as to the capacity of the soldiers to withstand the economic strain. [26] Necessarily, immediate survival took precedence over the programme, particularly when it was the better-off cultivators who produced the surplus product which fed the army and, when marketed, permitted the import of goods from the cities (salt, cloth and arms). Furthermore, the richer farmers supplied the bulk of fighters for the enemy. Mao and his associates solved the contradiction between the programme and the actual material circumstances in which they operated by not implementing the demands. As he later expressed it: “Because the number of rich peasants was very small, we decided in principle to leave them alone and to make concessions to them. But the ‘leftists’ did not agree. They advocated ‘giving the rich peasants bad land, and giving the landlords no land’. As a result, the landlords had nothing to eat and some of them fled to the mountains and formed guerilla bands.” [27] Hypocrisy closed the gap – the party proclaimed radical agrarian transformation in the areas controlled by the partisans, but refrained from implementing the programme. [28]

Such a step implied that the interests of the landless labourers be restrained: “Owing to the alliance with the rich peasants, the interests of the agricultural labourers were sacrificed ... We feared the counter-revolutionary turn of the rich peasants and consequently asked the agricultural labourers to lower their demands.” [29] It entailed also that the rich peasants continue to play a disproportionate role in the administrative organs of the Soviet districts. [30]

In the Kiangsi Soviet (created from six separate areas in November 1931), the partisans received their most promising chance to establish a stable administrative area. In power, the Red Army undertook a range of social reforms in education and welfare. It was an impressive military feat to survive against an enemy five to six times larger (the Kuomintang launched five massive assaults on the Kiangsi republic). The sheer weight of arms, however, finally told. In 1934, the Kuomintang’s Fifth Encirclement Campaign, employing half a million men, extinguished the Kiangsi republic. The party fled, setting out without clear destination on what became justly celebrated as the heroic exploit of the Long March. If 1927 had, to the party members, seemed to destroy the possibility of the urban working-class strategy, the destruction of the Kiangsi republic seemed to have destroyed the partisan alternative.

Between 1928 and 1935 Mao Tse-tung rose to a position of supreme leadership in the party. Retrospectively, it has been suggested that he fashioned an alternative strategy to that of the official party leadership which, after 1935, led to victory. However, this is not at all evident from the record. Most of his writing – for example, as editor of the Kuomintang journal Political Weekly – has disappeared or been heavily edited. As an individual, he clashed with the party leadership on numerous occasions (he was three times removed from office and eight times reprimanded), but never on the scale which afflicted his colleagues. On his later accounts, he apparently wholeheartedly supported the politics of the alliance with the Kuomintang up to l927. [31] Whatever his private doubts, thereafter he acted as a loyal party member. None of the opposition factions in the party between 1928 and 1935 claimed Mao as member or inspiration.

Thus, if Mao had a separate political strategy, it cannot be detected in these years. His actions conformed to a combination of Comintern policy and the tactics of its implementation in small, isolated and backward districts of rural China. The result had some important features:

The party was obliged to assume that it was the proletariat of China. The peculiar circumstances of partisan warfare became the norm. As a result, the party implied it had no need of a continuing organic relationship to China’s industrial workers. [32] The class struggle was not what workers did in the factories, but what the party, and in particular, the partisans, did. Thus, the essence of the class struggle became the contest to secure military dominance. Only after military victory did the old sort of “class struggle”, workers fighting employers, become possible.
Because military power became the decisive factor, the party programme was in practice relegated to winning support by propaganda work, rather than stimulating the independent initiative of the population. The slogans became part of the party’s public relations work, and subordinate to the main questions of power and military strength. One aspect of this was the combination of radical slogans with relatively conservative practice. On the one hand, “Land to the Tillers” and “Down with Landlordism”; on the other, a limited administrative reform rather than a popular seizure of the land.

These were not peculiarly Chinese Communist inventions. They reflected the changes impelled in the International by its Russian patron. The same points emerged in the writing and speeches of Stalin. But Stalin was not making a revolution; he was using the State to industrialize backward Russia. Material force backed his words. By contrast, the Chinese party was struggling for survival against extremely threatening forces. Its temporary foothold in Kiangsi was far too small to constitute a political alternative. For that, it needed a political case that simultaneously appealed to a mass audience but was not inconsistent with the imperatives of the International. After 1934, that became possible as the result of events quite outside the party’s power.

(ii) The United Front

From 1932 to 1933, the Russian leadership became increasingly alarmed at the drift of the world powers to war, and at Russia’s diplomatic isolation. Russian foreign policy became directed to securing alliances with leading powers against Nazi Germany, and in 1934 it entered the League of Nations, a body once described by Lenin as “the League of Imperialist Bandits”.

In the Far East, policy became preoccupied with preventing an alliance between Kuomintang China and Japan. To this end, the Soviet Union recognized the Chiang government in Nanking and concluded a non-aggression pact. The International was similarly instructed to bend all efforts to securing Russia’s safety. Communist parties in industrialized countries must now reverse the slogans of the Third Period, and enter Popular Fronts with the parties of the bourgeoisie against the threat of fascism. In Asia, the aim must be a united front with all patriotic forces against imperialism.

The change of line occasioned some embarrassment. The Chinese delegate to the Comintern, Wang Ming, baldly repeated the Third Period imperative in 1933: “the overthrow of the Kuomintang as government of national betrayal and national disgrace is a condition of the successful prosecution of the national revolutionary war against the Japanese and other imperialists”. [33] But, by 1935, he was indignantly denouncing the idea that Communists call for the overthrow of the Kuomintang as “an absolutely false and unfounded legend spread by pro-Japanese elements ... a slander, a provocation”. [34] On the contrary, the Communists called for an alliance of all forces opposing the Japanese.

The Chinese party reflected the change. It appealed for a “united front from below” against the Kuomintang leadership and the Japanese invasion. In April 1932 the Kiangsi Soviet declared war on Japan, a symbolic gesture but of great significance for nationalist opinion. By 1935 and the Seventh Congress of the International in Moscow, the Russian leadership was urgent in its demands for a new alliance. Mao resisted, and in particular was reluctant to accept the implication that the party give up slogans which might jeopardize the Kuomintang’s social basis (notably, the attack on landlords). As late as July 1936, Chou En-lai could still promise Edgar Snow that any real war on Japan would destroy Chiang Kai-shek. [35] When in December two rebel Kuomintang generals interned Chiang in Sian, while the Russian press denounced them as traitors, Mao cabled his congratulations. [36]

However, the party’s rebellion was brief. Mao despatched Chou Enlai to Sian to secure the release of Chiang. In February of the following year, the party agreed to end its programme of agrarian reform and once more to embrace Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles. In sum, Mao promised: “We have already accepted a decision not to confiscate the land of rich peasants, and if they come to us to fight against Japan, not to refuse to unite with them. We are not confiscating the property and factories of the big and small merchants and capitalists. We protect their enterprises and help them to expand so that the material supply in the Soviet districts, so necessary for the anti-Japanese campaign, may be augmented.”

Furthermore, the events of 1927 were rewritten to highlight “the glorious history of collaboration between the Communist party and the Kuomintang”. [37] Chiang himself, the former “butcher of Shanghai”, received a facelift: “The Chinese Communist party has placed unquestioning confidence in Chiang Kai-shek’s fixed policy of conducting a war of resistance. No one else can lead the war except Generalissimo Chiang.” [38]

What was initially a short-term tactic became part of the party’s principles. By 1937 Chou En-lai was denouncing those party members who saw the united front as simply a tactic. [39] In 1939, Mao summed up the party’s politics in the following form: Our eighteen years of experience show that the united front and armed struggle are the two basic weapons for defeating the enemy. The united front is a united front for carrying on armed struggle. And the party is the heroic warrior wielding the two weapons.” [40]

Thus, unlike 1927, the party now had two weapons, of which its independent military force was the decisive one. On that basis, Chou En-lai and other Communist representatives joined Chiang’s Supreme National Defence Council, subsequently renamed the People’s Political Council. The Red Army became the 8th Route Army, and the Chinese Soviet governments were renamed as local authorities of the Kuomintang government.

The alliance in no way impeded the Japanese advance. On 7 July 1937 Japanese and Chinese forces clashed in the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, and the Japanese attack on China proper began. Chiang’s forces rapidly evacuated the area. In August, Japanese troops invaded Shanghai, and in November, the Kuomintang abandoned its capital at Nanking while the Japanese were still 150 miles away. Undeterred by any serious opposition, the Japanese forces pillaged the city and inflicted one of the most barbarous massacres of modern times upon the citizens. The Kuomintang similarly abandoned its refuge in Wuhan and Chiang fled far west to Chungking.

Kuomintang China

The united front was justified by the Communists as a response to the threat of the Japanese. The threat was such, it was argued, that the class interests of workers and peasants must be subordinated to the national issue. Only in this way could there be a united national opposition to the invader.

However, under the impact of Japanese attack, the Kuomintang became increasingly tyrannical, its corruption a byword. Japanese forces purchased the Kuomintang evacuation of Shanghai without a fight. It is said that, in return for 80,000 dollars, the Kuomintang general thoughtfully provided petrol reserves for the use of Japanese trucks landing at the wharves. In Chungking, army officers and government officials moved into business – the State became the main employer – and used it to line their pockets. Finance Minister H.H. Kung is said to have made his fortune in this way. Mrs Chiang dealt in military aircraft contracts. United States military assistance, beginning in 1938, provided further opportunities for gain (comparable to the fortunes made by a few in Saigon twenty-five years later).

Kuomintang troops – five million in the field, and ten million in reserve – were cruelly mistreated. Officers and NCOs sold their equipment, clothes and even foodstuffs. In battle, units were abandoned, and the wounded left to the mercy of the enemy. Only terror could force them to face Japanese arms. Not even the Communist party could persuade them that Chiang’s China was worth defending.

Yet the soldiers were better off than the mass of the population. After fleeing to the west, the Kuomintang lost its labour force in the east. It press-ganged villagers into the army and to forced-labour projects on highways, railways and airfields. There was, occasionally, fierce opposition. As the war proceeded, so the burden of arbitrary taxes, appropriations and bribes grew. No political force championed the interests of the cultivators, nor showed how the defeat of the Japanese would alleviate their condition.

In the cities, it was scarcely any better. There was tight military control of the labour force to prevent revolt. Inflation and wage controls produced a disastrous decline in real wages. The Chungking retail price index (1937: 100) reached 5,304 by March 1942, and 10,000 in 1944. [41] Real wages were halved in a year. Strikes were outlawed in 1937, and the death penalty decreed for those who disobeyed.

Yet the Communists continued officially to support the government and did not raise even elementary demands either at a popular level or directly with their “allies”. As a supporter of the party notes: “The Communists in 1937-45 opposed strikes as detrimental to the war effort, and undertook no independent organization of labour (or the peasants) in Kuomintang administered areas.” [42] The result was to increase the power of the Kuomintang and to weaken the resistance of the mass of the population to the Japanese, the supposed justification for the united front.

Chiang was no fool, and while independent Communist military forces existed, they were a perpetual threat to his power. There were armed clashes between Communist and Kuomintang forces through 1939, and a major battle in January 1941. An uneasy stalemate persisted through much of the war. Yet even this did not prompt the Communist leadership to end the alliance. To have done so would have been to betray the Russian government and its most prominent member, Joseph Stalin, now seated at the high table of allied power with Roosevelt and Churchill. Furthermore, in China itself, the Communist leadership endeavoured to win United States support away from Chiang. From 1942, the party persistently raised the question of US aid to their forces at Yenan (and succeeded in winning a visit from a US military delegation in June 1944). [43] The Communist political credibility turned upon the fact that it was a more determined advocate of national unity than the Kuomintang. Chiang, with splendid effrontery, threatened Washington that, if the US used its military aid to force the Kuomintang into coalition with the Communists, he would turn to the Soviet Union for aid.

Peasants, workers and the party

The years of the Second World War consolidated the party’s policies. Before the war, the party had gone some way to reconcile itself to landlordism. During the war, “anti-Japanese” landowners became “landlords who do not oppose fighting Japan”. Reforms must be introduced, the party argued, but not reforms which affected the basic material interests of the dominant classes. In sum, the party aimed at balance between existing classes rather than tilting the balance. As Mao put it: “The workers have been advised not to put up demands which may be in excess of what can be granted by the enterprise in question. In the non- Soviet districts, it is our intention not to accentuate the anti-capitalist struggle.” [44]

The politics of balance were difficult to apply. Mao was obliged to overcome the confusion of the cadres. He stressed that reforms were needed to “arouse enthusiasm” for the war effort, but arousing enthusiasm always tended to spill over into land confiscation. To avoid this, the reforms must be modest: “this is not the time for a thorough agrarian revolution ... On the one hand, our present policy should stipulate that the landlords shall reduce rent and interest, for this serves to arouse enthusiasm of the basic peasant masses for resistance to Japan, but the reductions should not be too great.” [45]

Or again, and more bluntly: “Recognize that most of the landlords are anti-Japanese, that some of the enlightened gentry also favour democratic reforms. Accordingly, the policy of the party is only to help the peasants in reducing feudal exploitation but not liquidate feudal exploitation entirely, much less to attack the enlightened gentry who support democratic reforms ... The policy of liquidating feudal exploitation should only be adopted against stubbornly unrepentant traitors.” [46]

The party reserved the right to administer the “class struggle” as a punishment for moral failings. Only the most incorrigibly eccentric landlords could have favoured the Japanese in the Liberated Areas. (i.e. under Communist authority).

If the attack on feudalism – and so any attempt to improve the condition of the landless – was muffled, capitalism became positively desirable [47]: “Recognize that the capitalist mode of production is the more progressive method in present-day China, and that the bourgeoisie, particularly the petty bourgeoisie, represents the comparatively more progressive social elements and political forces in China today.” [48] They should be encouraged, and State activity curbed, to stimulate private enterprise. In like fashion, foreign investment was to be welcomed in the new China. [49]

In the Liberated Areas, life was hard but ordered, austere but adequate, in striking contrast to the squalid corruption and barbarities of the Kuomintang areas. The land revolution might be postponed, but nonetheless, party rule ended famine and oppression, and improved educational and health facilities. For those who escaped Kuomintang or Japanese rule, these were tangible benefits.

In Yenan, the party grew for the first time since 1927 into a significant political force. From its claimed membership of a few thousand, and forces numbering 20,000 at the end of Long March (the party claimed 300,000 troops at the beginning), it attained a membership of 40,000 in 1937, 800,000 in 1943, 1.2 million in 1945, and 3.3 million in 1950. The central cadre was quite small – Mao estimates that only 800 members survived from the early 1930s to 1945. [50] The seventy leading figures in the party were overwhelmingly drawn from the respectable classes, the hsüeh-cheng (“students from families of small farmers, merchants and even aristocratic official families”). [51]

The party was a qualitatively different organization to that of 1927. In late 1944, it was estimated that ninety-three per cent of party members had joined since the outbreak of war, and ninety per cent of the recruits were of peasant origin. By 1945, the party had acquired a distinctive style, with a recurrent stress on education, rectification through cultural reforms and manual labour in the villages, continual campaigns against bureaucracy, authoritarianism, arrogance, and a growing cult of Mao Tse-tung thought.

Civil war and victory

The end of the world war found both contenders for China’s national power poised to race eastwards to establish their claims. The first phase of hostilities ceased on American initiative in January 1946. By March of the following year, the pause – and the united front with the Kuomintang – was over, and civil war broke out in earnest.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States had endeavoured to create a coalition between the two forces, while offering main support to the Kuomintang. In August 1945, the Soviet Union signed a new treaty with the Kuomintang which restored Russian rights in Manchuria. Privately, Stalin advised the Chinese Communists to “join the Chiang Kai-shek government and dissolve their army”. [52] The victories of the People’s Liberation Army received no mention in the Russian press until the last year of hostilities. Indeed, in May 1949, when it was already clear that the People’s Liberation Army was about to win the whole of China, the Russians renewed one of their treaties with the Kuomintang government. When Nanking fell on 2 February, the Russian ambassador, N.V. Roschin, was the only diplomatic representative to the Kuomintang government to flee with Chiang Kai-shek to Canton.


Despite the end of the alliance, agrarian policy remained strikingly conservative between 1937 and 1945. Enthusiasm required rent reductions for the peasants, but the landlords must be permitted to make a living or they would join the Kuomintang. Furthermore, Mao said, without rent reductions, “the masses in the newly liberated areas will not be able to tell which of the two parties, the Communist party or the Kuomintang, is good and which is bad”. [53]

In the north-east, the party confiscated and redistributed Japanese land. It encouraged landlords everywhere to move their assets out of land into urban industry, operating a tax policy and denationalizing some government assets to encourage them. [54] When peasants challenged this as a manoeuvre to escape retribution, Mao instructed the party to defend the urban properties of landlords.

Rent and interest reductions were invariably described as “solving the land problem”. However, in May 1946, the party proposed a scheme to purchase the “excess” land of landlords (landlords were permitted fifty per cent more acreage than middle peasants, and one hundred per cent if they had been active in the war against Japan), and sell it at half price to peasants with the funds to buy it. [55] At the end of the year, a draft law was issued for the compulsory purchase of “excess” land in the Shensi- Kansu-Ninghsia Border Region (of which Yenan was the capital), indicating that in an area held by the Communists since 1935, the land had not already been redistributed.

In October 1947 a quite different land law was published. This decreed, for the first time, “the confiscation of all properties of the landlords and all the surplus properties of the rich peasants, the assignment of supreme power in the disposition of confiscated properties to poor peasants and labourers, and the overthrow of the landlord class without mercy”. [56] However, the cadres were to retain the power of confiscation; the poor peasants and labourers were restricted to distributing the land. Nonetheless, the new law was a revolutionary step.

The moment was brief. There were too few cadres to curb the peasant masses in Hopei. The party was so slow in administering the act, the poor moved into direct action. Through the winter of 1947-8, peasant associations sprang up in the province, launching indiscriminate attacks on landlords, rich peasants and some of those officially classified as “middle peasants”. Naïvely, they thought they knew who the landlords were without needing party instruction, and that their actions constituted “the overthrow of the landlord class without mercy”. The party’s conflicting and confused classification of the rural population was blown aside. [57] When the cadres loyally attempted to restrain the movement, they too were overturned. The peasants demanded complete equality in the countryside and the right to supervise the party itself. They seized all the land of those identified by the party as rich peasants, pursued and assaulted them, and marched to the towns to seize the urban, industrial and commercial properties of the rural rich.

The party leadership swung hard to the Right. Only three months after the introduction of the law, Party leader Jen Pi-shih demanded an end to redistribution until the peasants had been properly educated. [58] Six days later, Mao himself weighed in against “Left excesses”, urging that “new rich peasants” in the old Liberated Areas should be treated as “middle peasants”, that former landlords and rich peasants could be reclassified, that no one should pursue landlords into the towns, that poor peasant associations should be compelled to admit rich peasants, landlords and the “enlightened gentry”: “there has been an erroneous emphasis on ‘doing everything as the masses want it done’, and an accommodation to wrong views existing among the masses, one-sidedly propagating a poor peasant-farm labourer line ... that the democratic government should listen only to the workers, poor peasants and farm labourers, while no mention at all was made of the middle peasants, the independent craftsmen, the national bourgeoisie and the intellectuals”. [59]

In the spring of 1948, Mao himself arrived in Hopei to unite the war command again. He stressed that there was no urgency about introducing agrarian reforms; they could be left for “one, two or three years”. There were three conditions: the enemy must have been wiped out, the masses must demand it, and the “Party cadres must be adequate both in numbers and quality to grasp the work of land reform and must not leave it to the spontaneous activity of the masses”. [60]

Officially, policy returned to the promise of rent and interest reduction. The peasant war was not to contribute to the defeat of the Kuomintang or any popular revolution. It was postponed until after power had been won by military conquest. The party, perforce, must tolerate rich peasant and even landlord predominance in sections of the party. [61] We do not know whether some of the enormous numbers of bandits’ destroyed by the People’s Liberation Army were in fact the landless attempting to persist in the land revolution begun in 1947. [62]

The workers

The labour movement in the cities revived as the Japanese relinquished control. Strikes increased rapidly. Workers in Japanese factories seized the plants as the Kuomintang armies approached Shanghai. Once in power, the Kuornintang attempted to restore its former labour laws, but did not succeed in curbing the strike wave.

Post-war slump exaggerated the effects of the civil war. Hyperinflation, large-scale lockouts, sackings and pay cuts afflicted workers, but few presented a political alternative. If they saw hope in the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army, they did not (as in 1926-7 with the arrival of the Northern Expedition) seize the city to welcome the New Fourth Army.

To have seized the city, or even a factory, would have been to risk the displeasure of the Communist party leadership. Mao instructed workers to “co-operate with the capitalists, so that maximum production can be attained”. [63] Many of the cadres who went into the cities, however, found this a difficult policy to argue, given the great excitement and hopes of city workers. They fell into what Mao called a “relief standpoint”: “the one-sided and narrow-minded policy of ‘relief’ which purports to uphold workers’ welfare but in fact damages industry and commerce and impairs the cause of the people’s revolution”. [64] The real task, he stressed, was to secure the co-operation of workers and capitalists in order “to do everything possible to reduce costs, increase output and stimulate sales”. [65] Party leaders condemned the Labour Maintenance Law of October 1945 because it set wages too high, introduced “excessive” labour welfare measures and reduced incentives to work. [66] They complained – in conditions of considerable unemployment – that too many people were employed, too many cadres promoted themselves without experience or competence in production, and wages were excessive.

The policies attacked had been encouraged when the People’s Liberation Army held cities only temporarily. Then “Left excesses” produced “enthusiasm” which left a legacy of goodwill among workers that might encourage them to emigrate to the Liberated Areas or support the party in other ways. But by 1948, the party was no longer a temporary urban visitor. It was about to inherit the cities. It needed to take them seriously. As in the agrarian field, policy moved to the Right, and maintaining existing production took priority. The wage system then became, not a method of “raising enthusiasm”, but of making people work harder. Mao warned the cadres: “Do not lightly advance slogans of raising wages and reducing hours. In wartime, it is good enough if production can continue and existing working hours and original wage levels can be maintained. Whether or not suitable reductions in working hours and increases in wages are to be made later will depend on economic conditions, that is, on whether enterprises thrive.” [67] Where possible, working hours should be increased, holidays reduced, staff pruned, politics not permitted to impede production, and the public sector used to assist the private.

The same standpoint covered all reforms in the cities. Mao adjured the cadres: “Do not be in a hurry to organize the people of the city to struggle for democratic reforms and improvements in livelihood. These matters can be properly handled in the light of local conditions only when the municipal administration is in good working order, public feeling has become calm, surveys have been made.” [68]

And if the poor, not daring to hope for revolution, might yet think they would at least be fed: “Do not raise the slogan, ‘Open the granaries to relieve the poor’. Do not foster among them the psychology of depending on the government for relief.” [69]

The scale of the war was vast. Despite initially much smaller forces, the People’s Liberation Army inexorably drove back the Kuomintang forces. The long years of isolation, of living off an impoverished land, constantly fighting against a more powerful enemy, now began to tell. By 1949, the outcome was clear. In January, Peking peacefully surrendered. On 1 October, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. The “protracted struggle”, in terms of numbers and terrain the most gigantic struggle for national liberation in history, had reached victory. Now, at long last, the party was free to do as it chose, free of the tactical feints imposed upon it by the International.


18. See Five years of Kuomintang Reaction, China’s Forum, Shanghai, 1932. See also Lowe Chuan-hua, Facing Labour Issues in China, Shanghai, 1933, p.50. On the situation in the immediate aftermath of the 1927 coup, see Lo Chao-lung, The Chinese Trade Union Movement in 1928, China Tomorrow, Shanghai, 20 February 1929

19. Nym Wales, The Chinese Labor Movement, New York, 1945, pp.166-7

20. For example, the Moscow district party, with 5,320 members in May 1906, declined under police repression to 180 in 1908, and in 1910 ceased to exist – cited by Tony Cliff, Lenin, London, 1975, I, p.240. As late as 1914, Krupskaya could complain: “The illegal organization is cut to ribbons. There are no solid regional centres. The local organizations are cut off from one another, and in the majority of cases everywhere, there are only workers in the organizations, the professionals have vanished long since”, cited from Istoricheskii Archiv, 1957, 1, p.26, by R. H. McNeal, Bride of the Revolution, Krupskaya and Lenin, London, 1973,p.145

21. Mao, January 1930, in Selected Works, Vol.1, p.123 (SW; cf. Notes to Reader for explanation of edition employed)

22. Compare Manuilsky of the ECCI: “Hitherto, we have regarded the partisans as the rearguard fight of a revolution in the course of a general retreat. Today, their character has changed. They form a constituent of the upsurge and one of the most important signs of the rising tide of revolution”, Inprecor, 10 Mar. 1930, p.267. By the autumn, the partisans had become evidence that the working class had a Red Army and a State even before the final victory of workers and peasants – Inprecor, 1930, p.1065; cf. also Kuchynov, in Communist International 8, 6, 1 March 1930, p.166, cited J.P. Harrison, The Li Li-san Line and the CCP in 1939, 11, CQ15, Summer 1963, p.154

23. See Mao’s observation: “When we started to fight battles, we depended on vagrants becaused they dared to die. There was a time when the army wanted to weed out the vagrant elements, but I opposed it”, Forum on Central Committee Work, 20 December 1964, in Miscellany, op. cit., II, p.421. For other sources, cf. Stuart Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, London, 1963, pp.196, 200. The first efforts in the Chingkang Mountains obliged Mao to collaborate with two bandit chiefs, Wang Tso and Yuan Wen T’sai. cf. Snow, Red Star over China, London, 1937, p.165

24. See comment by leading party member: “When we say that we must distribute the land among the poor peasants and soldiers, this sounds good. But all of the available land is already being worked, and after it has been distributed, it will as before be worked by the same tenants. In such a case, where can one take the land for distribution among poor peasants and soldiers?”, cited by Yun Taiying, in L. P. Deliusen, Agrarno-krestianskii vopros v politike KPK, 1921-28, Moscow, 1972, Chapter VII, pp.326-75, translated in Chinese Studies in History, Summer 1974, VII/4, p.41

25. In two districts of the Kiangsi Soviet, Mao claimed that between eighty and eighty-eight per cent of the males in the age group sixteen to forty-five years were serving in the Red Army – Report to the Second Chinese National Soviet Congress, Juichin, Kiangsi, 22 January 1934, London, Sept. 1934

26. Mao: “not only is such economic strain intolerable to the intermediate class, but some day it will prove too much even for the workers, peasants and Red Army men” – SW I, p.89

27. In Mao Unrehearsed, Talks and Letters, 1956-71, edited by Stuart Schram, London, 1974, p.97. See also On Policy, 25 December 1940, SW II, p.441, and The present Situation, Dec. 1947, SW IV, p.169

28. The Hsinkuo hsien agrarian law is included in Liu Kung, Reference materials for the study of the Agrarian Reform Law, Shanghai, 28 June 1950, and cited in Chao Kuo-chün, Agrarian policy of the Chinese Communist party, 1921-59, Bombay, 1960, pp.67-9; the Kiangsi Land Law is included in A Documentary History, op. cit., pp.224-6; see also Hsiao Tso-liang, The Land Revolution in China, 1930-34 (Documents), London, 1969

29. Central Committee resolution, August 1929, cited Isaacs, 1938, p.416

30. In 1933, Mao alleged that the rich peasants dominated “80 per cent of the area of the central district, affecting a population of more than two million”. The re-examination of land distribution in the Soviet districts is the central task, Red Flag, 21 August 1933, cited Isaacs, ibid., p.420; see also A Documentary History, p.219

31. See the Chinese version of Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party, Appendix to: Our study and the current situation, SW III, cited by John E. Rue, Mao Tse-tung in Opposition, 1927-35, Stanford, 1966, p.13

32. See Nym Wales’s comment: “the Chinese Communists seem to consider their party itself equivalent to direct participation by the proletariat”, in Inside Red China, New York, 1939, p.221

33. Thirteenth Plenum, ECCI, December 1933, in Revolutionary China, Peiping, 1933, p.33

34. Communist International, 14/10, October 1937; see also the call for an “All-China United People’s Government of National Defence” in Revolutionary Movements in the Colonial Countries, Seventh Congress, Communist International, New York, 1935, pp.15, 20-21

35. Random Notes on Red China, Cambridge, Mass., 1968, pp.56-7

36. And a proposal for a national conference in Nanking on “the problem of how to dispose of Mr Chiang Kai-shek”, text in Kuo, Chinese Communist Party, pp.272-3, cited by Gregor Benton, The Second Wang Ming Line, CQ61, March 1975, p.61

37. Letter to Chang Nai-chi and others, in Mao Tse-tung et al., China: the March Towards Unity, New York, May 1937, p.75

38. United Press interview with Po Ku, Chungking, 8 November 1938; cf. the slogan, “Let us support General Chiang to lead in the anti-Japanese war”, cited in China Today, Shanghai, July 1937

39. “Comrade Chang Hao’s error at that time [during a course of lectures at Yenan University, February 1937] was to consider the national anti-Japanese front to be a temporary tactical change whereas the Central Committee of the Party definitely views it as a revolutionary strategic change during a historical phase”, Chieh-fangpao 36, 29 April 1938, pp.11-12, cited L.P. Van Slyke, Enemies and Friends, the United Front in Chinese Communist History, Stanford, 1967, p.60, from Inprecor 16, 10, p.377

40. SW II, p.295, also p.445

41. Nym Wales, 1945, op. cit., p.120

42. Epstein, op. cit.

43. See US Relations with China, US Department of State, included in Strengthening the Forces of Freedom, Washington, 1950, pp.2378-80; and Yalta Papers, Hurley to Roosevelt, 14 January 1945, pp.346-51; both cited by John Gittings, The Origins of Chinese Foreign Policy, in D. Horowitz (ed.), Containment and Revolution, London, 1967, p.182ff.

44. China. the March, op. cit., p.76

45. On Policy, 25 December 1940, SW II, p.446

46. SW II, p.278

47. “In the matter of raising wages and improving the living conditions of the workers in the rural areas, we must especially not make excessive demands on their behalf, or the peasants would protest, the workers would lose their jobs, and production would decline”, SW II, p.446

48. Decision of the Central Committee on Land Policy in the anti-Japanese base areas, 28 January 1942, in A Documentary History, p.278

49. Mao: “We welcome foreign investments, if such are beneficial to China’s economy and are made in observance of China’s laws ... we shall be able to absorb vast amounts of foreign investments”, A Documentary History, p.312; the passage is omitted from the version in SW III, p.304

50. Miscellany II, op. cit., p.341

51. Nym Wales, op. cit., p.335

52. Reported by Vladimir Dedijer, Tito, New York, p.322

53. Policy for work in the Liberated Areas for 1946, inner party document, 15 Dec. 1945, SW IV, p.76

54. Report, Hsueh Yuah in New International, December 1949, p.329

55. This measure is omitted from SW, although referred to – SW IV, footnote 4, p.118

56. Struggle for the purification of the organization of the party, cited by Chao Kuo-chün, op. cit., p.90

57. Mao repeatedly strove to restore the classification – see for example, 13 January 1948, SW IV, p.239; on the confused and contradictory nature of the classification, see Ygael Gluckstein, Mao’s China, London, 1957, pp.85-9

58. Some problems in land reform, 12 January 1948, cited Chao Kuo-chün, op. cit., p.84

59. Correct the “Left” errors in land reform propaganda, 11 February 1948, SW IV, p.197; on protecting landlord urban interests, see also ibid, p.203

60. Tactical problems of rural work, 24 May 1948, SW IV, pp.251, 255; see also The work of land reform, 25 May 1948, ibid.

61. See “Many landlords, rich peasants and riffraff have seized the opportunity to sneak into our Party ...”, SW IV, footnote, p.166. Another party leader, Nieh Yung-jin, observed that: “Those elements occupy most of the positions in our party ... considered in the light of agrarian reform, our policy appears to reflect the views of the landlords and the rich peasants”, Renewal of our Ranks, 1948, cited Hsueh Yueh, op. cit., p.328

62. For example: “Everywhere we are making great progress in the work of exterminating bandits in central China. In Hunan province, during the past year [1948-9], about 38,700 bandits were killed, captured alive or forced to surrender. In Hupeh province, during the three months of May, June and July, the total number of bandits exterminated was more than 12,000” - New China News Agency (NCNA), Hunan report, 20 August 1949

63. United Press correspondent, citing Peking Radio broadcast by Mao, 4 June 1949; see also SW IV, pp.397-8, 247

64. 27 February 1948, SW IV, p.203; also ibid., p.219

65. Ibid., p.203

66. See Ch’en Po-ta et al., On Industrial and Commercial Policy (Kuan-yu kung-shang-yeh te Cheng-tse), NCNA, Hong Kong bureau, Oct. 1949, pp.65-7, cited by Kenneth Lieberthal, Mao versus Liu? Policy towards Industry and Commerce, 1946-9, CQ49, July-September 1971, p.497

67. 8 Apr. 1948, SW IV, p.248

68. SW IV, p.248

69. Ibid., p.248