Chapter Five "The Comintern Takes Charge"
In July 1921 Mao attended the founding congress of the CPC. There were three big problems to solve: what type of party, how to relate to the bourgeoisie and the two governments ruling from Beijing and Canton, and how to relate to the Communist International (Comintern).
Despite the objections of Li Hanjun (1890-1927) that the Chinese masses were too backward to understand Marxism and a long period of educational work would be necessary before they could be properly organized, the CPC, under the prodding of a representative of the Comintern [Hendricus Sneevliet (1883-1942), adopted a Bolshevik program calling for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the establishment of soviets.
Two other points upset the Comintern representative. They were one, the Congress decided to oppose both existing governments: Beijing as well as Canton. But Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) ( was running the Guomindang government in Canton which the Comintern considered "revolutionary". Lenin (1870-1924) had said that CPs in "backward countries" should, as Short writes, "work closely with national-revolutionary bourgeois democratic movements." Worse was two, "the delegates refused to acknowledge Moscow's supremacy." The new party wanted to be treated as an equal.
The Comintern rep did not make a good impression. Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) was elected leader and found that he was told to give weekly reports to the rep who was also giving directions to party members on his own. Chen put up with some of this because Moscow was providing seed money to the new party to help it grow.
Mao did not play a major part at this Congress. The CPC had at this time 53 members, only 10 of whom came from Hunan. In September 1921 the Hunan branch, with Mao in charge, was officially set up.
Mao was 29 years old in December of 1922 and his role as a party leader in Hunan (and labor union organizer) had been outstanding over the last year and three months. But what was true in Hunan was not true elsewhere. In other parts of China the warlords were becoming fed up with communist and union activity. On February 7, 1923 the warlords struck, perpetrating a massacre on communist led workers who were about to establish the General Rail Union.
"The February Seventh Massacre" took place in Beijing, Zhengzhou and Hankou. Short reports about forty people were killed and Mao's counterpart, the communist leader in Hankou, was publicly beheaded before the workers. Hunan fell to martial law a few months later, but Mao had already been called to Shanghai to serve on the Central Committee [CC] of the party.
Meanwhile the problem of the party's view of the Guomindang [GMD] was still brewing. The Comintern wanted the CPC to work with the GMD as allies. Far from seeing that organization as "progressive", the CPC viewed it as a reactionary throw back to patriarchal feudalism. Anyway, Sun Yat-sen was not all that impressed with the Marxists. He is quoted by Short has having said there is "nothing new in Marxism. It had all been said 2000 years ago in the Chinese Classics."
However, he changed his mind in the summer of 1922 when his allies turned on him and he was kicked out of Canton "in a palace coup." The CPC was also feeling more pressure to modify its views as well. So in July 1922 at the Second Congress of the CPC the party agreed to, Short quotes the document, "a temporary alliance with the democratic elements to overthrow... our common enemies." Le plus ca change, le plus ca le meme chose.
So now, with Soviet help, the GMD inched to the left and reorganized on what ended up being a Leninist model. However, many CPC members did not like this new arrangement with the GMD. Anyway, demoralization had set in after the February Seventh Massacre and the subsequent destruction of the union movements the CPC had built. To top it off, it looked like Li Hanjan had been right all along as the Comintern agents in China themselves said that the CPC had been "fabricated" and "the Soviet system cannot actually be introduced into China, because there do not exist here the conditions for the successful establishment of communism." Well, that turned out to be the case for the Soviet Union as well and we should bear it in mind as we progress through this book and the next 50 years of Chinese history.
At the Third Party Congress the Comintern demanded that all CPC members should also join the GMD. Mao and the Hunan delegates all voted against this but it passed by a slim margin. Mao said that while the GMD was the leading bourgeois "revolutionary democratic faction" the bourgeoisie could not lead the revolution. Nevertheless, the CPC could join it because as time went by the CPC forces would gain in strength. In the end the Congress stated that the GMD was the leading force in the revolution but the CPC should recruit its Left wing members into itself and push the GMD toward the USSR. At this Congress Mao was elected to the nine member CC.
The Third Congress was an educational experience. "Being forced," as Short says, "to accept Comintern instructions and to submit to the will of the majority had confronted [the members] for the first time with the principles of democratic centralism on which all Bolshevik parties had to operate." Following the "united front" line, Mao now joined the GMD.
By the middle of 1924 the CPC saw the GMD as existing in two wings, a right and a left. They would work with the left wing but struggle whole heartily against the right wing. This is not unlike the tactics practiced by many Marxist parties today.
By 1925 the CPC had 994 members. Short tells us up until this time the CPC did not pay much attention to the peasants. Lenin, in 1920, had said it was impossible for poor third world areas to have a workers revolution without an alliance of the peasants. The Second CPC Congress had even declared that they made up "the most important factor in the revolutionary movement" yet the CPC had no interest in leading the peasants. The job of the CPC was to lead the workers.
This was not good thinking! The workers were a speck compared to the mass of peasants, and leaving the peasants thrashing about without CPC leadership meant they were liable to be led by other forces-- not necessarily progressive.
By the Third Congress, under Russian pressure, the CPC had seen the light and now referred to the workers and peasants as the two classes the CPC represented.
Then, Short writes, on May 30, 1925 another country wide outbreak, similar to the May Fourth Movement of 1919, erupted. Japanese guards had shot and killed some strikers at a private plant and people all over the country protested. A British officer in the British Concession panicked and ordered his troops to shoot into a crowd, later in Canton 50 protesters were machine gunned: the fat was in the fire. The country was seething for months.
Mao went underground and did party building, including establishing night schools for peasants. Sun Yat-sen had died in March and out of the leadership struggle Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) emerged eventually as top dog in Canton-- with a left outlook (at this time), a powerful army, and Russian financing.
At this period, the CPC did not amount too much compared to the power of the GMD, so Mao did not push Marxism in his night schools. Instead, Short points out, "they taught Sun Yat-sen's 'Three Principles of the People'-- nationalism, democracy and socialism."
At this time Mao had no office in the CPC but was an alternate on the CC of the GMD. He went to Canton and became chief of the GMD Propaganda Department. "As a senior official," Short says, " Mao was a man of substance." For the next year and a half, according to the book, Mao worked on two big issues: solidifying the GMD left wing and "mobilization of the peasantry."
At this time he wrote an article advocating a real social revolution led by the GMD left as opposed to, in his words, a "Western-style, middle class revolution" favored by the GMD right wing. He thought all the objective conditions were in place for a revolution of the left except one: "a way to mobilise the masses." He also studied the composition of the population and decided 1% of the people were total enemies, 4% were enemies that could be converted, and 95% of the population were either neutral or pro revolution. The 95% represented the peasants. Where were the workers? This is just great: a proletarian party for a country without a proletariat! Short says that Mao "never wavered" from this analysis.
The middle class "revolution" seems to be the one that Chiang Kai-shek had in mind. The GMD got a lot of support, Short points out, from the landowning families and "violent overthrow of the existing rural order was not part of their agenda."
In March 1926 Chiang staged a "coup", arresting all CPC officers in the army in Canton and getting rid of the major left GMD leadership. Mao thought the CPC was strong enough to
thwart Chiang's gambit, but the Comintern rep Nikolay Kuibyshev (1893-1938) rejected any such move. He thought Chiang too strong: Kuibyshev was later shot in Stalin’s Purge and rehabilitated in 1956.
Back in October 1925 Mao seemed to be out of the loop. He still held his GMD post and had been out of touch with the CPC leadership (located in Shanghai) for almost a year and he was developing his own ideas about how the CPC should move forward, ideas out of sync with the leaders and the Comintern line. His idea, for example, of Marxism based "on Chinese conditions,” which would rally the rural masses, clashed with the official dogma that the "urban proletariat" should be the basis of the revolution. Sometimes the out of step comrades are the correct comrades.
By the first half of 1926 the CPC was trying to disengage from the GMD and function independently. Stalin (1878-1953) now running the China show from Moscow, had other ideas. He insisted, and the CPC complied, that the Russian-GMD cooperation be strengthened and the the GMD still be seen as the leading "revolutionary" force. The Comintern rep assigned to the GMD as an advisor (Mikhail Borodin 1884-1951) is quoted by Short as having said it was the fate of the CPC "to play the role of coolie in the Chinese revolution." Short says that until March 1926 the Russian advice to the CPC was "well-intentioned, well informed, and frequently more realistic than the views of the inexperienced [CPC] leaders in Shanghai. "But then the CPC became a pawn in the game being played in the CPSU between Stalin, Trotsky (1879-1940) and the moderate Bukharin (1888-1938, shot in Stalin’s Purge, rehabilitated 1988).
Meanwhile, Mao toiled away at his GMD job. In the summer of 1926 the GMD sent off a big expedition from Canton to go north and overthrow the warlords and unite all of China under the GMD. Mao published an article in a GMD journal in which he maintained that "the peasants had to be liberated and the power of the landlords smashed." He said the peasant struggle was the real revolutionary struggle while the class struggle of the urban proletariat was only centered on building trade unions. This opinion was so unorthodox, Short points out, that the article was left out of the Collected Works when they started coming out in the 40s and 50s.
As 1926 moved along the party was more and more conflicted about the 'United Front" with the GMD. The Russians insisted on it while the CPC thought it should be looking out for its own interests. But as the GMD armies started to achieve more and victories in their drive to unify China, victories fueled by the peasantry, the CPC leadership began to see the importance of the peasants for the future revolutionary transformation of China. Mao was called to Shanghai in November and made Secretary of the CC's Peasant Movement Committee.
In early 1927 Mao toured many rural areas studying the conditions of the peasantry, he then wrote one of his most famous articles: "Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan." It was, Short says, "a brilliant intellectual tour de force.... based on meticulous field research."
Mao defended the peasants, who were revolting against the feudal system, from criticism by the left GMD and some elements within the CPC who thought they were getting too violent. For those of us who go to bed every night with full tummies, Mao's report reminds us what is at stake in a revolution. "A revolution is not like inviting people to dinner... [it is] an act of violence whereby one class overthrows the power of another... If the peasants do not use extremely great force, they cannot possibly overthrow the deeply rooted power of the landlords, which has lasted for thousands of years... To put it bluntly, it is necessary to bring about a brief reign of terror in every rural area... the wrong [of feudalism] cannot be righted without doing so." Mao was about to begin riding the tiger.
Short writes that the lessons learned by Mao put forth in this report stayed with him all his life. "Revolution, he now understood, could not be micromanaged. In any revolutionary venture, there would always be excesses, just as there would always be those who lagged behind."
Short's bourgeois background begins to intrude in this section of his book and prevents him from grasping what is at issue. He says this analysis reflects "class hatred" that is "aimed at men who were enemies not because of what they did, but because of who they were." This is of course completely wrong. It is precisely because of their actions, brutalizing the peasants, overtaxing them, taking their crops and food to support themselves in luxury, in a word exploiting them beyond all tolerable limits, that provokes class hatred and drives men and women to the extreme that leads to revolutionary violence that, unfortunately, once unleashed, is hard to control.
Meanwhile, Stalin had changed his mind about the peasant struggle. In December the Seventh Plenum of the Comintern declared, "The fear that the aggravation of the class struggle in the countryside will weaken the antI-imperialist front is baseless...." It also described the past policy as "a profound mistake." [Too bad Chiang Kai-shek wouldn't agree.] The stage was set for a change of policy by the CPC. Mao's article appeared soon after. It was now early 1927 and Mao was 33 years old.
Up Next: Chapter Six "Events Leading to the Horse Day Incident and its Bloody Aftermath"
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.