CHAPTER SIX "Events Leading to the Horse Day Incident and its Bloody Aftermath"
On April 12, 1927 GMD [Guomindang] forces allied with the Shanghai underworld unleashed a major attack on the CPC [Communist Party of China] and affiliated organizations in Shanghai. About 400 people were killed and more hundreds wounded and imprisoned. The next day, after a general strike failed and protesters were shot down in the street (including many women and children from the textile factories), Chiang Kai-shek was in complete control of the city.
The CPC was taken by surprise by this attack, although evidence that Chiang was planning it was not that hidden had anyone been looking for it. Why hadn't the CPC leadership seen it coming? Short's answer is, "that, in 1927, the CPC was so wedded to the alliance with the bourgeoisie that it could not conceive of a revolution without it." This doesn’t seem to be confined to 1927, nor to China.
On April 12 Mao and Wang Jingwei (1883-1944) were in Hankou on GMD business. Wang, an old ally of Sun Yat-sen, was the top civilian leader of the GMD and a rival of Chiang, he was also a friend of Mao. Mao was working with the GMD Land Committee and getting ready for the Fifth Congress of the CPC (Short barely mentions the Fourth Congress which took place in early 1926). Short also says a new Comintern rep was also on the scene [M.N.Roy 1887-1954], one "more sympathetic to the agrarian revolution" than previous reps, especially Borodin [M. Borodin 1884-1951, rehabilitated 1964]. The CPC leader, Chen Duxiu was soon to arrive in Hankou as well.
On the afternoon of the 12th the news from Shanghai arrived causing an existential crisis. The party's Central Bureau was in session for the next six days trying to figure out what to do. Borodin and Roy "gave radically differing advice."
According to Short, Borodin and Chen Duxiu wanted to put the struggle against Chiang on hold, make a "strategic retreat" and start up the Northern Expedition again (the military attacks on the non-GMD warlords) by joining with GMD forces that were getting a lot of Soviet aid. After getting rid of the warlords and with a beefed up allied GMD military command Chiang could then be reckoned with.
Roy rejected his fellow Comintern rep's plan. Short quotes him as saying it was "a betrayal of the peasantry, of the proletariat... and the masses." The Revolution "will either win as an agrarian revolution or it will not win at all." Borodin's plan was equivalent to "collaborating with the very forces of reaction that are betraying the revolution at every step." The idea of collaborating with reaction (capitalists) now in order to get progress later is widespread on the left.
How could two reps of the Communist International take such contrary positions? Short says it was because Stalin's program for China had been contradictory. Borodin represented the view that the communists had to be allied with the "progressive" bourgeoisie [always an elusive beast] and Roy, newly arrived, supported the new emphasis on the agrarian revolution.
Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) and others had different plans. Some felt they should attack Chiang with help from sympathetic "left" GMD forces. The meetings were going nowhere. The Bureau finally sided with Roy, but Borodin then went to the GMD leader Wang Jingwei and Wang proclaimed that the Northern Expedition would start up again.
Meanwhile Mao, who supported Roy, wasn't even at these meetings. Chen Duxiu had broken relations over the Hunan peasants reports and Mao was no longer on the CC. He tried to pass a resolution when the Fifth Congress met, in favor of his agrarian revolution theories, but it was defeated. He was also replaced as Secretary of the CC Peasant Committee but allowed to stay as a member.
Meanwhile the right-wing GMD forces were gaining in strength and consolidating their power. This provoked countermeasures and fighting and riots were breaking out all over the place between the right and left.
Short says that on May 21, 1927 ("The Day of the Horse" on the traditional calendar) the military commander in Changsha took action. Reaction had come to Hunan. By the end of May and the beginning of June over 10,000 people had been killed. The violence spread to neighboring provinces. The White terror was rampant throughout China. Over 300,000 died by the time the violence ended. Peasants were beheaded, disemboweled, had their eyes and tongues ripped out, women were wired together through pierced breasts and hacked to bits. This was all done by the landlords and gentry to the peasants in the villages. This may explain the excesses later on when the peasants finally got the landlords in their power.
The "Horse Day Incident" and its aftermath was, Short remarks, "a turning point" for the CPC. A lesson was learned and never forgotten. It boiled down to violence must be met with violence.
Now two major new events happened. Stalin sent orders to the CPC telling it to step up the agrarian revolution, to raise an independent army, and to restructure the GMD Central Executive Committee. In the new situation in China none of these proposals could be carried out. As Short says, Stalin's orders "might as well have come from another planet."
Both Borodin and Roy, as well as a third Comintern agent (G. Voitinsky 1893-1953, ostensibly a news reporter) all concluded that Stalin's ideas would be impossible to carry out.
Roy then made a big mistake. He showed Stalin's missive to the left wing GMD leader Wang Jungwei, perhaps hoping it would make him more radical in order to secure Soviet aid and more CPC support. It had the opposite effect. It drove him back into the arms of Chiang Kai-shek.
Yet, Stalin's telegram to the CPC had one lasting effect. The leadership realized that an independent military force was necessary. GMD generals couldn't be trusted. Stalin had "sowed the seed from which, in the months that followed, the Chinese Red Army would grow." That army is arguably still today the largest military force in the world that is independent of the control of international monopoly capitalism.
By July 1927 the CPC leadership was at its wit's end. It felt the GMD-CPC "united front" was about to end, yet it could not think of what to do about it. It passed resolutions affirming the leading role of the GMD and offering to serve under GMD supervision. Short calls this a "craven resolution." Two lines emerged: one, the communists would join the GMD army to show they were not a threat to the unity policy [this was just asking for it] and two, go hide up in the mountains and build an independent military force.
Meanwhile, Stalin was upset that Chen Duxiu had rejected his orders as "impractical" and Chen was forced out of the leadership. By the end of the summer, however, the CPC-GMD united front was at an end, the Russian advisors to the GMD had been sent packing, Mao and the other leaders were underground, the Comintern agents were gone. By the end of 1927 the left-GMD was also kaput and Wang Jingwei was an exile in Europe. Things were looking pretty good for Chiang Kai-shek and the rightists. By year's end Mao turned 34 years old.
Next Up: Chapter Seven "Out of the Barrel of a Gun"
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.