CHAPTER 11 "Yan'an Interlude: the Philosopher is King"
In the summer of 1937 the leadership of the CPC had settled down in its new HQ at Yan'an in Shensi province. Here it would remain for the next ten years. Short tells us that "the myth of 'the Yan'an Way'" [i.e., the type of communist theory that Mao developed there] along with the Long March would become "one of the most enduring emblems of the system [Mao] was to create." He had two major tasks, according to Short. First, he had to build up his power as a leader and, second, he had to develop his own version of Marxist thought, or at least put his "personal stamp" on Marxist theory.
There doesn't seem to be anything objectionable in Mao's theoretical work at this time, as reported by Short. Back in 1925 "he had called for 'an ideology produced in Chinese conditions'." This appears to be a reasonable demand. In 1935, at Wayaobu he got the PB to support a flexible sort of Marxism to be applied "to 'specific, concrete Chinese conditions', and condemned 'leftist dogmatism', meaning slavish adherence to Moscow's ideas." Again, this seems quite sound.
In early 1936 he maintained the CPC ought to, in his words, "run things by itself, and have faith in its own abilities." Short writes that he declared "Soviet and Chinese policies coincided... 'only where the interests of the Chinese masses coincide with the interests of the Russian masses.'" There should not, I think, be a contradiction between the two interests. The Soviet masses have since been abandoned by the old CPSU and now live under capitalism.
Later in the Fall of 1936 in "Problems of Strategy in China's Revolutionary War," he maintained that mechanically copying the Soviet experience ("cutting the feet to fit the shoes") would lead to defeat. Short says Mao, by "affirming the primacy of indigenous experience" was "consciously laying the groundwork for the idea of Marxism in a national form." Even so, dialectics should tell us that there is no necessary contradiction between internationalism and nationalism within the communist movement. Contradictions are due to deviations from Marxist principles.
Short gives Mao credit for breaking "new ground" by "arguing that the particular and the general were 'interconnected and inseparable', which later provided a theoretical basis for contending that general Marxist principles must always exist in a particular national form."
At this time his two famous essays "On Practice" and "On Contradiction" were also written. "On Practice" can be "summed up in the aphorism, 'Practice is the criterion of truth'." This is nothing new, it goes back to Engels at least.
In "On Contradiction" he argued "it was necessary in any given situation to determine what was the principal contradiction, and which was its principal aspect." [In practice this has proved very difficult to do!]
Short thinks that Mao "cut loose from Stalinist orthodoxy" when he maintained that the superstructure can independently also react on the economic base and the productive forces and is not totally determined by them. Mao said, "In general, the material determines the mental. [But] we also, and indeed must, recognize the operation of mental on material things." But this is perfectly orthodox and can be found in Marx and Engels, especially in some of their letters.
1937 wasn't just spent on philosophy. Political and military battles were also being fought. Wang Ming (1904-1974) the Soviet trained leader, was pushing Stalin's line that the Japanese must be opposed by CPC unity with the GMD. Mao's view was that cooperation was possible without co-optation but Wang and other Soviet trained members of the PB were not concerned with the problem of co-optation. They seemed to favor unity at any cost.
Meanwhile the Japanese invasion continued unabated. Mao now wrote two works (1938) that have become classics. He argued in his "Problems of Strategy in Guerilla War' that when a small powerful nation attacks a weak large one, then most of the territory of the weak nation will be overrun. This was the case with Japan and China.
Just recently the opposite happened in Iraq. There a powerful large nation invaded a weak little nation (a specialty of the US military which only seems able to win against countries the size of Panama or smaller) but it controlled almost nothing outside of the Green Zone, a few streets, sometimes, in Baghdad and some out lying sparsely populated areas. It in fact, got bogged down. The same US military was defeated both in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
This can be explained by the theory put forth by Mao in his second work: "On Protracted War" in which he said the fight against the invader would be long and difficult but, as Short put it, Mao thought the "people's determination to fight for their homes, their culture and their land would ultimately prevail." It did in China, as we know, and also in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Both the Japanese, and now the US, seem covered by this quote from Mao's work:
“The so-called theory that 'weapons decide everything' [is]
...one sided... Weapons are an important factor in war, but,
not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are de-
decisive. The contest of strength is not only a contest of
military and economic power, but also a contest of human
power and morale….”
Wang Ming, again angling for power, rejected Mao's tactics. This split the PB down the middle. The issue was the defense of Wuhan from Japanese attack. Mao wanted to disperse to the countryside because he thought the city could not be held. Wang Ming wanted to hold the city and called on the population to defend it. However, the struggle between Wang and Mao would soon be over and Mao would be the winner. A Comintern statement in September 1938 settled the issue: "in order to resolve the problem of unifying the Party leadership, the [CPC] leadership should have Mao Zedong as its centre." It was signed by Dimitrov. Wuhan fell to the Japanese the next month.
The Sixth Plenum of the CPC was also held at this time. Mao gave several speeches, quoted by Short. The following are, I think, particularly interesting ideas that Mao put forth:
"[The] sinification of Marxism-- that is to say, making sure that its every manifestation has an indubitably Chinese character-- is a problem which the whole Party must understand and solve without delay." [The Party is still working on this one!]
"Every communist must grasp this truth: 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.' ... We are advocates of the abolition of war ... but war can only be abolished through war. In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun." Dialectically the Unity of Opposites.
Does that sound Orwellian? Or is it dialectics? Mao, Short says, understood the world by means of "reasoning by opposites, analysing the innate contradictions which, in his words, 'determine the life of all things and push their development forwards.'" Mao was also trying to reconcile Marxist dialectical thinking with some traditional forms of Chinese philosophy.
In November of 1938, due to increased attacks from the Japanese, Mao et al moved to the caves at Yangjiaping some three miles to the north of Yan'an. It was at this time he also married the last of his wives-- Jiang Qing (of Gang of Four fame).
Over the next few years the struggle against the influence of Wang Ming intensified. This struggle became known as the Yan'an Rectification Campaign. This campaign was to inculcate the notion that Marxism must be adapted to Chinese reality, failure to do so was labeled as "Subjectivism." "By the time it ended," Short says, "Mao would no longer be the first among equals. He would be the one man who decided all-- a demiurge, set on a pedestal, towering above his nominal colleagues, beyond institutional control." Always a bad sign, or at least almost always.
This is, however, a bit too much. No one is that powerful without the support of, and the ultimate possibility of, "institutional control." If Mao had too much power it speaks of the backward social conditions in China at the time, the lack of a democratic culture, and the difficulties of a two pronged attack on the Party coming from the GMD and the Japanese.[Similar conditions explain Stalin's power as well.] The CPC intrusted Mao with so much authority because his policies had proved to be correct where others claiming leadership had failed miserably. Short himself says that by 1941 under Mao's guidance the Party was prospering, while under the guidance of Wang Ming and his faction "it had come to the brink of destruction."
Mao also had the right idea in this 1941 campaign, i.e., to rectify subjectivism by fighting wrong ideas, not the people holding the ideas. That is, to fight the sin not the sinner. Mao was for "curing the sickness to save the patient" not "the harsh struggle and merciless blows" of the past. Good intentions, but not always lived up to.
Mao was against "book learning" Marxism. He stressed the importance of being able to read and practically apply Marxism-Leninism to the concrete conditions of China. Reading Marxist books and reciting "every sentence from memory" of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin was worthless. It's too bad he didn't remember this before the Little Red Book was disseminated!
"We have some comrades who have a malady," he wrote, "namely that they take foreign countries as the centre and act like phonographs, mechanically swallowing whole foreign things and transporting them to China." This is still a problem. Many Maoist sects today do just this, mechanically applying the ideas of Mao, which were in large measure historically conditioned by time as well as place (i.e., mid 20th century China), to the problems of the world today.
An important issue arises out of the Rectification Campaign. In the past the CPC had used fear and repression to make sure its line was adhered to. Mao realized that this was an incorrect policy for Marxists. As Short puts it, Mao adopted Confucius’ view of "the force of virtuous example" as the proper way to influence people to follow the party line. "The masses are the real heroes," Mao wrote.
This contrasted, however, with Confucius who said the mass of the people "may be made to follow a course of action, but they may not be made to understand it." The dialectic between these two views explains a lot of the turmoil and violence of revolutions.
"All correct leadership," Mao wrote, "is necessarily 'from the masses, to the masses.' This means : take the ideas of the masses [raw, unfiltered?] [and] then through study, turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas, then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and ... test [their] correctness in action ."
Lenin thought that the ideals of socialism had to be imported into the masses from the outside. This agrees with Confucius. But he also thought the masses could understand them as well. Mao agrees with this ["through study", etc.]. Whence the Gulag? Either large segments of the masses have failed to understand and embrace the imported ideas (Stalin) or the party has failed to propagate and explain properly (Mao). But in practice both Mao and Stalin fell back on the "enemy agents and class enemies" explanation. This was the serpent in the garden of Marxism: only for Marxists the Fall was the result of not eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The case of Wang Shiwei (1906-1947) is instructive. The Rectification Campaign called for inner party debate to correct problems. Wang, all the evidence shows that he was a loyal party member, wrote a satire about the privileges that party leaders had (better food, etc.,). This was a very popular essay, but the leadership didn't appreciate it. Wang ended up denounced as a GMD spy and he and his supporters were imprisoned. Also 40,000 members were expelled from the party and thousands were tortured and made to confess that they were enemy agents. It was all a farce. Mao's theories may have been correct but the "people" turned out to mean "the leaders." This may be the fate of revolutions in historically underdeveloped regions (and not only there).
Wang was an intellectual and there was a great deal of hatred towards his "class" among the leadership with a peasant background. Mao ordered no killing this time around (not wanting a repeat of the AB-tuan fiasco of 1930). Mao ordered that Wang not be freed and not be killed. He stayed in jail from 1942 until 1947. In 1947 the communists left Yan'an. Before they left the local leader He Long (1893-1969) had Wang killed with an ax. Revolution is not a tea party.
History is so unpredictable. As Short points out, in 1943 Chiang Kai-shek brought out his book, "China's Destiny". The author, seeing himself as the true ruler of China, didn't foresee his ending up only ruling Formosa (Taiwan.) The same year Stalin abolished the Comintern (to please his allies in W.W. II). This meant that the CPC was now an independent party. This year also gave birth to the term "Mao Zedong Thought" and to Mao's "Selected Works." Mao's personality cult was also growing, evidenced by the song "The East is Red":
The East is Red, the sun rises.
In China a Mao Zedong is born.
He seeks the people's happiness.
He is the people's Great Saviour.
It would have been impossible, I believe, while Lenin was alive, for such a song about the leader to have been circulated in the Soviet Union.
Short tells that by 1944 W.W.II was nearing its end-- Italy was out of it and Germany and Japan were in retreat before the Soviets and Americans respectively. On July 22 of that year "the first and last overt attempt (until the early 1970s) to establish official lines of communications with the Chinese communists took place." This is when the "Dixie Mission" began with the landing of a US plane at Yan'an.
The purpose of the mission was to broker an agreement between the GMD and the CPC. The CPC was willing to cooperate and be moderate. Mao had already put forth the ideals for a "New Democracy" stating that the "immediate goal was not Soviet-style communism, but a mixed economy." Mao even thought about dropping the word "communist" because he said, "it might be more appropriate to call ourselves a Democratic Party." This was because he thought that, as Short says, "the United States was 'the suitable country' to aid China's modernization."
Stalin, by the way, had earlier told the US that the Chinese were "margarine communists"-- a view he held as he doubted the CPC represented real communism and he doubted that Mao's views were "orthodox." Short says his opinions also "fitted well with his efforts to further a" peace accord between the GMD and CPC.
Meanwhile, at Yalta the US and the USSR decided China should be a "buffer" between their two spheres of influence-- the Pacific Ocean on the one hand, and North-East Asia on the other. This is what Short says, ( two "dominated" areas) but if China is a "buffer" what is left of "North-East Asia"-- just territory that is already part of the Soviet Union in the first place (plus Korea). So Stalin is really putting China as a "buffer" between the USSR and the growing American Pacific "Empire" which will be centered in Japan. The real point, however, is that the Dixie Mission was put into play because Stalin agreed not to give any aid to the CPC in its fight with the GMD. This was all before the USSR declared war on Japan.
The CPC agreed to try and work things out peacefully with the GMD, but Mao was skeptical about Chiang's real sincerity. He might have been taking Oliver Cromwell's advice: "Trust in God but keep your powder dry."
On August 9, 1945 the USSR declared war on Japan. Zhu De ordered all the Red Army forces to take the surrender of Japanese forces who tendered it. Chiang, however, demanded that the Japanese should only surrender to GMD forces. Mao and the CPC naturally called upon Stalin for some support against Chiang's position.
What happened next caught the CPC off guard. On the 15th of August, just a few hours before the surrender of Japan, Molotov and the GMD "signed a treaty of alliance." Stalin, Mao thought, not for the first time, had stabbed the CPC in the back with respect to the GMD. The CPC had been sold out, says Short, "for Russia's national interests." Those two A bombs on Japan may have had something to do with it.
By November the Civil War was waging again, due to the GMD's unquenchable desire to get rid of the CPC, and with US backing. Stalin was now worried about his relations with the US, Short says, and decided to try and make a good impression on Washington.
The Soviet Union now told the CPC it "must withdraw from all major cities and communications routes within a week." In north China where there was now a Russian military presence, Peng Zhen (1902-1997) the CPC leader in the area was told by a Russian commander, Short quotes him,"If you do not leave we will use tanks to drive you out." Communists that were trying to stop the advance of the GMD forces by sapping the rail lines were told they would be disarmed by the Russians if they did not stop. The Sino-Soviet split may have its origins a little earlier than the 1960s it seems.
Peng Zhen was furious: "The army of one Communist Party," he said, "using tanks to drive out the army of another? Things like this have never happened before." They would happen again-- most notably when the Chinese Army in the 1970s actually attacked the Vietnamese (and was repelled). Russian tanks were also used against the Hungarians and the Czechs. Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. But this time there was nothing the CPC could do. They obeyed the Russians.
Mao was stuck. The USSR-Chiang Treaty blocked the war to overthrow the GMD while the GMD could still attack the CPC and left him trying to get approval for actions the Soviets did not want to support. What to do?
President Truman to the rescue! The US Congress did not want to get involved in a Chinese civil war and wanted Truman to withdraw. Congress had grit in those days and Presidents were concerned about following the Constitution. Truman's new policy was to halt the hostilities between the CPC and the GMD and to get the Soviets out of Manchuria (which they occupied after the Japanese surrender.)
Under US pressure a ceasefire between the GMD and CPC was signed on 1-10-1946. The Soviets had agreed to turn over their areas in Manchuria to the Chinese government's troops and Chiang called a political conference of all the Chinese parties to work out future policies. But things didn't go Chiang's way. The Communists, moderate GMD elements, and other liberal groups had a majority and Chiang lost control of the conference. The conference then proposed a coalition government with the CPC , in which the GMD could have no more than 50% of the ministers, and an elected national assembly. Hmmmm. Communists and Capitalists working together as equals for the good of the people. Not possible! One side has got to outflank the other.
Mao, however, was happy and said that "a new era of peace and democracy has arrived." He rebuked the comrades who doubted that oil and water could mix. Mao gave a banquet and toasted Truman for contributing to "Chinese-American friendship."
It is interesting to note how Mao appeared to an AP reporter who was present, John Roderick. Roderick thought Mao had "an air of self-confidence and authority just short of arrogance" and gave an impression of leadership "which must have emanated from men like Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Lenin." He forgot Caesar.
Meanwhile, Chiang had no intention of sharing power with the CPC. The Cold War had begun, Churchill had given his "Iron Curtain" rant in Fulton, Missouri and Chiang persuaded Truman that the GMD must expand its territory to prevent a Communist takeover. The GMD attacked and the civil war was on again.
By the spring of 1947 the GMD forces were closing in on Yan'an and Mao and his forces had to flee. But Mao wasn't worried. They could have Yan'an, he said and then quoted Confucius (The Analects): " 'If a thing comes to me, and I give nothing in return, that is contrary to propriety.' We will give Chiang Yan'an. He will give us China."
Next Up: CHAPTER 12 "Paper Tigers"
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.