CHAPTER SEVEN "Out of the Barrel of a Gun"
This chapter begins with the July 15, 1927 rupture between the CPC and the GMD. The new party leaders were tasked to construct a peasant army by orders that had come from Moscow. A new Comintern agent was on the scene to advise the Chinese comrades [Besso Lominadze, 1897-1935].
The party began to build its own military force and to plan for a big insurrection of the peasants in Hunan for the Autumn of 1927. There was a new de facto party leader, Qu Qiubai (1899-1935), Chen Duxiu was definitely out as leader, having been accused of "Menshevism" [ a term used, as Short notes, 'to denote any form of right-wing opposition or advocacy of class reconciliation.”] It is now arguably an outmoded term, as are "Trotskyism" and "Stalinism". All three terms now function as substitutes for having to think about complex political problems.
A major problem for the party was what the relationship should be between the newly established military force and the mass movement of workers and peasants. In August Mao put forth the following thesis. He noted that Sun Yat-sen relied on the military for his rise to power, while the CPC relied only on the mass movement of the people. Chiang Kai-shek "rose by grasping the gun." The CPC still had no real understanding of the importance of a military force although it was beginning to dawn on the leadership. Mao concluded, "From now on we should pay the greatest attention to military affairs. We must know that political power is obtained out of the barrel of a gun."
The Politburo [as the Central Bureau now called itself] thought that "gun-barrelism" "did not quite accord" with its views. "The masses," Short writes,"were the core of the revolution; the armed forces, at most, auxiliary." This doesn't really conflict with Mao's views. Without mass popular support guns are ultimately useless, as the US found out in Vietnam and has failed to learn in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Its future behavior will probably also reflect this learning disability inherent in the imperialist mindset.
Over the next few months the CPC planned an uprising of the peasants in south China. Mao was supposed to draw up plans for taking over Hunan and helping the revolt spread to other provinces. A ragtag army was put together around a nucleus of seasoned GMD troops who defected to the communists. Mao realized, however, that the forces were insufficient for such a large undertaking. He went against party discipline and focused on just taking Changsha, the capital of Hunan.
To make a long story short, all the attempts at insurrection, not only in Hunan under Mao, but in all the other south China locations, ended in fiascos. Mao led his forces further south to find a safe refuge. Other leaders in the field hightailed it to other locations (Zhou Enlai ended up in Hong Kong).
The Politburo met in Shanghai in November and purged itself. Mao was left on the CC but kicked out of the Politburo. Meanwhile the right GMD forces and hostile warlords (not all were hostile) killed thousands of party members. Short says so many were being killed that to "save bullets, groups of them were roped together, taken out to sea on barges and thrown overboard."
Nevertheless, the CPC became more and more sure that its theories regarding mass uprising were correct. Why did they become more radical and not more defeatist? Short says, "the underlying reason was frustration with the failed alliance with the Guomindang, which caught up the Party's leaders and rank and file alike in a furious spiral of ever-increasing radicalization."
The party that in May 1927 boasted 57,000 members now ended the year with about 10,000 left. It was a bad year for the communists. Four different power centers were now developing, each with its own concerns and agenda, yet all working for the same objectives. Short calls it "a quadrilateral struggle" between the Comintern and Stalin, the provincial party leaders, the Shanghai Politburo, and the communist military leaders out in the countryside. They conflicted "over two key issues: the relationship between rural and urban revolution; and between insurrection and armed struggle."
On September 25, 1927 Mao's ragtag army was attacked, the divisional commander was killed, and Mao found himself actually in charge. After the attack, what remained of the "army" met up at Sanwan, a village near the Jinggangshan mountains in the border region of Jiangxi and Hunan Provinces.
From what had been a division, Mao was able to salvage a single active regiment. Mao laid down two basic rules for his army which made it unique in the China of his day. First, it was to be a volunteer army solely (no impressment) and second, all civilians were to be treated with respect and humanity. The soldiers, Short writes, were ordered to "speak politely; pay a fair price for what they bought; and never take so much as 'a solitary sweet potato' belonging to the masses." No looting, raping, marauding, burning, killing, etc. This is how Mao thought an army should behave. Short remarks that, "this was a genuinely revolutionary concept." Who can doubt that Mao expressed real humanistic values (in so far as one can talk about such values respecting any military) at this time.
By early 1928 Mao had made contact with other bands of fighting men, mostly peasant militias, and increased his army to two regiments, and won a significant victory over a GMD battalion sent to take over Xincheng a town about eight miles north of Mao's base, at this time at Maoping, in Jiangxi Province. After the battle Mao astonished the GMD prisoners by giving them a choice: money to go home on or joining his army. Many, Short says, stayed. Once news of the battle, and the aftermath, got out the GMD decided Mao definitely had to go. Greater forces began to be collected to get rid of him.
Meanwhile, back in Shanghai, the party leader Qu Qiubai was supportive of Mao's activities, but Zhou Enlai, in charge of military affairs, was not. He thought Mao was too independent and that he relied on military actions more than mass mobilization. Zhou Lu, from the Hunan provincial leadership, was sent to tell Mao he was being removed as the leader in his area. Short points out, by the way, that the repression of the CPC was so intense, and so many senior experienced cadres had been wiped out, that leaders in the field, like Mao, often found themselves officially subordinate to inexperienced younger men who had no idea what was going on.
Zhou Lu arrived at Mao's base in March of 1928 and told him he had been removed from the Politburo, the Hunan Provincial Committee, and expelled from the party [this last was not true]. Mao remained as divisional commander of his forces but Lu now represented the party. To say that Mao was upset is to put it mildly.
While this was going on at Mao's base, another armed force, under the command of Zhu De [1886-1976], had relocated to SE Hunan. Zhu was attacked by GMD forces and Mao's troops came to the rescue. Zhou Lu was captured and executed by the enemy. The albatross around Mao's neck was gone.
By April Zhu and Mao were working together at their base area in Jinggangshan. By summer they controlled an area with a population of a half million people. The Zhu-Mao army was now 8000 strong. Zhu was commander of the army, Mao was the party rep. It began to be referred to as the "Red Army."
Mao had always advocated moderate military policies. The Shanghai leadership had removed him and sent out the ill fated Zhou Lu because they thought, following the views of Zhou Enlai, that Mao was not fighting enough. They thought "his work was 'too right-wing', he had been told. He was 'not killing and burning enough, [and] not carrying out the policy of the CPC.’”
Mao didn't agree at all with these kinds of policies. At a local congress which was called for the area where the Zhu-Mao army was in charge, he gave a speech in which he said: "in order to kill people and burn houses there must be a mass basis ... [not just] burning and killing by the army on its own." This seems like such common sense one wonders how Mao could ever have been condemned for such views. Unbeknownst to Mao, back in Shanghai, the Politburo had changed its mind and was now having similar thoughts. By June 1928 the party had accepted Mao's theories.
The Sixth Party Congress was held in Russia. The Congress decided that China was not experiencing a "revolutionary high tide." A war of attrition was what was needed, and in this period, it was the peasantry, not the workers, which was leading the revolution. Mao, who remained in his base area, thought this was the "correct theoretical basis" upon which to build the Red Army.
In October there was a local Congress in the base area. One of its statements was, "In the past the Party organs were all individual dictatorships, autocracies of the Party secretary; there was no collective leadership or democratic spirit whatsoever."
I must say, this was not a problem confined to the CPC or that time period, nor has it been completely overcome in some parties even today. The Congress said that Mao was "among the main offenders." Nevertheless he kept his position as chief political officer to the Red Army.
The military situation perked up towards the end of 1928 and the army was on the move. "A new kind of warfare began," Short says, "no longer the defense of fixed positions, but flexible guerrilla war."
For the first three months of 1929 Zhu and Mao were without any contacts with the rest of the party. Short says this allowed them to devise their own plans. Back in Shanghai after the Sixth Congress, the new General Secretary was a non-entity Xiang Zhongfa (1879-1931). The real de facto power lay with Zhou Enlai and Li Lisan (1899-1967).
The Shanghai leadership received negative reports about the conditions facing the Red Army and sent out orders that it should disperse into small units and hide out in villages in the countryside until better times. Mao and Zhu were told to come to Shanghai. But, by the time the orders arrived there had been a reversal of fortune and after some victories the Red Army was riding high. Mao and Zhu remained in the field. The sub text was more about the CC's desire to concentrate on the urban proletariat.
Things had looked bad for the Red Army ever since it had to leave its base in Jinggangshan and adopt guerilla techniques, but by mid 1929 things were looking up. Mao thought the GMD was about to be on the ropes in his area [Jiangxi and parts of Fujian and Zhejiang]. At this time Mao told the CC "the revolution in semi-colonial China will fail only if the peasant struggle is deprived of the leadership of the workers; it will never suffer just because the peasant struggle develops in such a way as to become more powerful than the workers."
The worse the better? I ask this because of Short''s following sentence. "Mao's personal belief in dialectics as the motive force of history, in which the blackest part of the night always comes just before dawn, had been strengthened in the traumatic months following the abandonment of Jinggangshan, when the Red Army had appeared on the verge of collapse, only to pull itself together and emerge from the ordeal stronger, and in a more favorable position, than before."
This will be a theme in Mao's life and in the struggle with comrades who will differ with his views in the future. It can, I think, be understood as the difference between a dialectical view of struggle, where reverses are natural, and a pragmatic outlook that aims towards incremental advancement of the struggle and fears setbacks (a mechanical outlook).
Now the Red Army was split into two groups. Mao thought it time to set up another base, Zhu wanted to continue guerilla tactics. A vote was taken and Mao won. However, more of his comrades began to think of him as an "autocrat" "Now", Short says, " as on Jinggangshan the previous autumn, complaints were heard about his 'patriarchal style of rule', "the dictatorship of the Secretary' and 'excessive centralization of power'."
In June of 1929 the Red Army had a Congress to try and work out the differences between Mao's way and Zhu's way. Most of the delegates were upset with both of them and Chen Yi [1901-1972] was elected to chair. The result was that the Front Committee (the body responsible for the running of the Red Army and areas it controlled) was reorganized. Zhu stayed as commander of the army, Mao as Party Representative, but Chen Yi became the Secretary. Mao was again, as Short puts it in "eclipse."
Mao basically retired to the sidelines after this, but by November, after much back and forth between the Politburo [hereafter PB, but Short causes confusion by still using the old term "Central Bureau" and PB interchangeably], the Front Committee, and a military fiasco that cost the Red Army a third of its forces, the Party decided they needed Mao back. Mao played hard to get because this time around he wanted his political authority to be more firmly based. Finally, after several entreaties, he returned as Front Committee Secretary.
Mao now proceeded to make the Front Committee over in his own image. A Conference took place on 29 December 1929. It began the first of what would later be called "rectification campaigns." The purpose was "to dig out the roots of different mistaken ideas, discuss the harm they had caused and decide how to correct them." Mao, Short writes, "had the main role in deciding which ideas were 'mistaken', and which 'correct'.
The main theme was directed against Zhu and his supporters. It was an important moment. What was at issue was the relation between the military power and the political power of the party. Mao thought the military had to be subordinate to the political leadership. Short quotes a slogan Mao came up with in 1938 but which aptly describes what this Conference was all about: "the Party commands the gun: the gun shall never be allowed to command the Party."
At this time, it seems to me, Mao was completely in the right. Zhu's army was positively feudal in some respects. Here is how Short describes Mao's complaints. There was "rampant" corporal punishment and brutality, men were beaten to death, three soldiers killed themselves due to the horrible conditions, prisoners were abused, deserters shot, and the Red Army abandoned its sick and wounded soldiers to die. All of this was totally against Party policy as Mao had outlined it when the army was first being set up. It is pretty obvious that Mao had every right to try and rectify this situation, one that Zhu De (a former warlord himself) had let get out of hand.
On the political front, Mao thought that the signs of revolution were everywhere in the air. The view was not shared (yet) by the PB back in Shanghai. Mao disagreed with them. He thought that the "contradictions in Chinese society in general, and between the warlords in particular, were growing so acute that 'a single spark can start a prairie fire' -- and this would happen 'very soon.'"
This was something the leadership didn't see. It would be like saying a Third Party would win the 2020 election and change forever the two party control of US politics, or that Bernie Sanders would be the next president because the American people are so alienated from the mainstream Republicans and Democrats over the war and domestic policies of the status quo. Still, as Short says, the PB was about to change its mind.
At about this time, the Russians had declared they thought there was "a rising red tide" in China. This allowed Li Lisan who at this time agreed with Mao's ideas, to get the PB to reverse itself and call for the kind of revolutionary actions sought for by Mao. Mao was very pleased when he got the news early in 1930.
There was a big problem, however, about all this. Li interpreted the "rising red tide" to mean revolution by the proletariat in the cities and Mao by the peasants in the countryside. The PB kept urging Mao and Zhu to draw up plans to attack and hold big cities. Mao and Zhu ignored the orders and continued to slowly build up their base area on the Jiangxi-Guangdong border.
Zhou Enlai went off to Moscow for several months leaving Li in charge in Shanghai. Here the "Li Lisan line" developed. Li proclaimed that, Short is quoting Li, the flexible tactics of guerilla war were "no longer suited to modern requirements ... now that we need to take key cities... [Zhu and Mao] must change their ways... using the countryside to encircle the city... [was] highly erroneous [and the idea that] rural work comes first, and urban work second" was wrong.
In sum, Li thought in terms of a national uprising to take over the whole country, Mao thought in terms of starting out with a few provinces and building from there. Li must have been smoking something for he sent off a CC missive stating that China "is the place where the volcano of the world revolution is most likely to erupt [and maybe] set off the world revolution and the final decisive class war worldwide....". It was Li’s socialist moment.
Li then ordered Zhu and Mao to take the capital of Jiangxi province [Nanchang] and march on to take Wuhan [ the capital of Hubei ]. They had to obey and march north. They knew this was a fool's errand. Short quotes a poem Mao wrote at the time:
A million workers and peasants rise eagerly together,
Rolling up Jiangxi like a mat, striking straight at Hunan and Hubei,
Yet the "Internationale" sounds a melancholy note,
A raging tempest falls upon us from the heavens.
They dilly dallied in the field and made symbolic gestures against Nanchang, knowing full well the GMD was still too strong to take on frontally.
Meanwhile Stalin had flipped out when he got wind of Li's plans and the Comintern sent Li a letter stating that "no nationwide revolutionary high tide had yet appeared [the CPC is not able] to overthrow the rule of the GMD and the imperialists... [But while] it cannot dominate China, it can take control of a number of major provinces." Mao 1, Li 0.
In late summer and early autumn the Zhu-Mao forces were joined by other units of the Red Army and had some major battles and successes in the field. They even managed to hold on to a mid-sized city for six weeks. They were becoming a bigger and better force.
Zhou Enlai and Qu Qiubai were back in Shanghai and Li was in deep trouble. Stalin found out in October that Li had thought about starting an insurrection in Manchuria to provoke a war between Russia and Japan, to hasten the world revolution no doubt. This was the last straw.
The Comintern said the Li Lisan line was "anti-Marxist, anti-Comintern, un-Bolshevik, [and] un-Leninist..." Time for Li to get a new job. He went to Moscow, repented his sins, and disappeared from the scene until 1945.
Now Chiang Kai-shek decided to wipe out the Red Army bases in Jiangxi by encircling them with the largest force of GMD troops ever used, up to that time, against the Red Army, 100,000.
On October 30, 1930 Mao explained his response to Chiang's threat at a Front Committee meeting. He "outlined for the first time the principle of 'luring the enemy in deep.'" This was protracted war. Mao said, "Lure the enemy deep into the Red Area, wait until they are exhausted and annihilate them."
By late December the Red Army had retreated deep into Jiangxi pursued by Chiang's forces. Chiang was in the capital Nanchang when suddenly the Red Army attacked and annihilated his 18th Division under Zhang Huizan (1884/85-1931), capturing Zhang in the process. Chiang's 50th Division saw what happened and tried to flee but was caught and trounced as well (January 3, 1931). As a present to Chiang, Zhang's head was floated on a board down the Gan River to Nanchang.
Mao was riding high, but Short says, "It was too good to last." The PB sent Xiang Ying (1895-1941) out to Mao's base to take charge. The CC wanted to be in control. The Front Committee was abolished and Xiang took over all Mao's posts. But Mao had the army behind him, so he retained most of his de facto power while Xiang "assumed the appearance of power." [Hmmm, what happened to the party will control the Army not the other way around? What did Zhu think?]
Meanwhile back in Shanghai Pavel Mif (1901-1939, rehabilitated 1956) Stalin's "China specialist" had arrived to "to expose and denounce the disgraced Li Lisan." [Being a party General Secretary has its risks.]. By the time Mif was through the Party leadership was reorganized. Short tells us the Gen Sec, Xiang Zhongfa, stayed put, as did Zhou Enlai ("not for the last time, by deftly switching sides-"- actually Zhou rides the tiger to the end. Qu Qiubai was out and Xiang Ying stayed in the PB but lost his big post on the Standing Committee which he had when he went out to Mao's base.
But "the key appointment" was a new actor on the stage-- 26 year old Wang Ming [1906-74] "who was catapulted to full Politburo membership without having previously been even a member of the Central Committee." He was the leader of a band of returned Chinese graduates from Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow. Mif had been the Rector. Other of these students were put in charge of various CC departments. They were known as "the '28 Bolsheviks', 'Stalin's China Section'., or simply the 'Returned Students'," they would be running the show for the next four years.
The news of all this reached Mao's base area in March of 1931. Mao was put back in control as Secretary of the new General Front Committee and as Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee. Zhu was still commander in chief. Short says all this happened not for love of Mao but for distrust of Xiang Ying because of his association with Li Lisan.
And then, Chiang Kai-shek was back. This time he had 200,000 troops and was still intent on encircling the Reds and wiping them out. But Mao and Zhu were on a roll. By the end of May 1931 Chiang's forces were in full retreat with 30,000 of his troops "put out of action." From now on the party gave Mao and Zhu "a free hand" with respect to military tactics.
Chiang was like Freddy Krueger-- he keeps coming back. By the end of June he was ready again, this time with 300,000 troops! Chiang was personally in command this time and, Short says: "In the next two months, the Red Army came close to total destruction."
One must note that Chiang had 300,000 troops against a Red Army numbering around 20,000. By a daring escape from encirclement the Red Army avoided destruction. Chiang was prevented from going after them again because rivals in the GMD had made an alliance with northern warlords and set up a government in Canton to rival his own in Nanjing. He had to pull his troops back and go after them, thus the Red Army would live to fight another day.
Japan then invaded Manchuria on September 18, 1931 further diverting Chiang's attention. "But," Short writes, "he had unfinished business in Jiangxi . He and the communists both knew that in due course he would return." Mao was now 38 years old.
Up Next: CHAPTER EIGHT "Futian: Loss of Innocence"
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.