Had the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) leadership been fully conscious of what their conquest in Shanghai in 1927 really meant, there would have been no stopping them. The example of Shanghai being taken by the organised working class, rather than the military forces of the Guomindang, could have been spread around the country through the CCP party structures and their network of commanders in the Northern Expedition from Guangzhou up to Wuhan, Nanchang, Nanjing and Shanghai.
In effect the workers of Shanghai had formed their own revolutionary government, and thus the call for Soviets to be built to put other cities such as Guangzhou and Wuhan under the control of the working class could have been launched. The CCP could have called on genuine left sections of the Guomindang and the army to join with them by forming peasant and soldier soviets as well. This would have taken the control of the revolution completely out of the hands of bourgeois leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek and Wang Jingwei.
In fact as Chiang Kai-shek approached the gates of Shanghai on March 26th 1927, an opportunity to realise this strategy presented itself to the CCP on a platter. Naturally the mass of the rank-and-file of the Northern Expeditionary armies, under the command of Guomindangists, were genuine revolutionaries like the CCP rank-and-file. They would not have understood the contradictions between the CCP’s class basis and the Guomindang’s, but upon entering Shanghai would inevitably have fraternised with the working class and been infected by the spirit of revolution there. After all, the working class was de facto in power.
Upon being ordered to attack the armed and revolutionary working class, this contradiction between the workers and Chiang Kai-shek would have made itself immediately apparent to these soldiers, and his cover would have been blown. Such soldiers could not be relied upon to follow Chiang’s orders. And so on entering the city Chiang ordered the First Division of his army, who had already been in the city amongst the workers for several days, to leave.
But this was already enough to expose Chiang in front of his armed bodies of men, and so their commander, Xue Yue, probably under pressure from below, visited the CCP Central Committee to inform them of Chiang’s manoeuvre and he then offered “to arrest and imprison Chiang on charges of plotting counterrevolution”, naively thinking that the CCP would take up this wonderful offer. According to Comintern representative Chitarov, who was in Shanghai at the time “[Xue Yue] was ready to remain in Shanghai and fight together with the Shanghai workers against the military overthrow that was in preparation.” (quoted in Isaacs, op cit).
By Xue Yue’s own proposal he was prepared to place his forces under the leadership of the CCP. But to break free from the Comintern imposed dogma in such a sudden and dramatic fashion was beyond the party leadership now. They hesitated and in the end betrayed Xue Yue by letting Chiang Kai-shek know that they knew of his plans. In fact several Comintern advisors, including Voitinsky, were apparently present at this moment and encouraged the fatal hesitation.
The CCP and Comintern now had to admit that Chiang, as a representative of the bourgeoisie, would ultimately break from the revolution. The excuse for not taking this opportunity to break with Chiang before he could break with them, was that the moment was too premature for a conflict with Chiang Kai-shek, despite the fact the he himself was obviously in the process of organising one. So Xue Yue’s forces were marched out of the city and replaced by the reactionary forces of a defecting Warlord general.
Similarly Chen Duxiu reports that the CCP’s appeal for the Comintern to “take 5,000 rifles out of those given to Chiang Kai-shek and Li Jishen, so that we might arm the peasants of Guangdong province” was refused by Borodin, under the excuse that “the armed peasants cannot fight... in the Northern Expedition, but they can incur the suspicion of the Guomindang and make the peasants oppose it.” (Chen Duxiu, Appeal to all CCP Comrades)
Following this slavish logic of appeasing Chiang to avoid a ‘premature conflict’, the Comintern ordered the workers to hide or bury all the weapons they had just taken at such heroic effort, again in order to prevent ‘premature conflict’. Chen Duxiu himself describes this farce thus: “the International telegraphed to us instructing us to hide or bury all the workers’ weapons to avoid a military conflict between the workers and Chiang Kai-shek” (Ibid).
So the Comintern voluntarily surrendered an armed conflict when they were in a position of strength, deliberately weakening themselves so that Chiang could launch such a conflict in full confidence. Just as Chiang was putting all his pieces in place for a coup against the workers in Shanghai, the workers were sending away sympathetic divisions of the army and burying their weapons! This shows that Stalin implicitly understood the existence of class contradictions and the likelihood of armed conflict, and that in this conflict he sided with the Chinese bourgeoisie. The only problem was that the Chinese bourgeoisie did not side with him!
There were no more than 17 days of dual power in Shanghai following Chiang’s entry to the city on 26th March. He used the stalling of the CCP and of the de facto workers’ regime to find time to meet and make deals with the leading Western and Chinese businessmen – as we said, Shanghai was the national centre for comprador bourgeois/imperialist power. He actually arrived in Shanghai via the foreign concession areas, which no other nationalist Chinese leader had ever been granted access to. He was welcomed not only by direct representatives of imperialism but also by the Chinese leader of the French gendarmerie police, ‘pockmarked Huang’, who also happened to be a leader of one of the most violent and powerful organised crime gangs in China.
Three days after his arrival on March 26th,
“more than fifty leading banks and firms and commercial associations banded together into a federation under the leadership of...one of Chiang’s old friends...A delegation of the new body waited the same day on General Chiang, “who very cordially received them.” Their spokesman “conveyed the greetings of the Chinese merchants of Shanghai and emphasised the importance of immediately restoring peace and order in this city. They assured him of the whole hearted support of the merchants. General Chiang responded in a few fitting remarks and took full responsibility upon himself for the protection of life and property, both Chinese and foreign, in Shanghai. He also assured the delegation that the relation between capital and labour will soon be regulated.” (Ibid, our emphasis).
The very next day the GLU headquarters at Hangzhou (just outside Shanghai) were broken into and several workers killed. Due to the militant response of the workers to this crime the Hangzhou GLU was ordered by Chiang to be closed down – just a matter of days after it had organised the taking of Shanghai! The day after that Chiang conducted an interview for a foreign paper in which he promised to ‘remove all obstacles’ to restoring ‘friendship’ between China and the West – a ‘friendship’ that required the termination of Chiang’s ‘friendship’ with the Chinese masses. Then in early April leading Chinese bankers offered Chiang 15m Shanghai dollars on condition he ‘suppress Communist and labour activities’. Regardless of these Chinese businessmen’s view of the decades long national oppression at the hands of Western imperialism, they clearly now knew who their real enemy was. There is no clearer expression of the community of interests between the colonial bourgeoisie and the imperialists against the colonial masses than this act.
Chiang’s Second Coup
China experienced its second and most decisive coup at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek on April 12th 1927, in the city of Shanghai, one year and 23 days after the first, in Guangzhou. The Comintern had laid the groundwork by preventing the Chinese masses from learning the lessons of the first coup. The coup in Shanghai was really a purge of communists in the city at the hands of criminal gangs recruited to his cause. It was the direct reversal of the CCP and GLU’s taking of Shanghai 22 days previously, except it was far bloodier. Hundreds of CCP comrades were killed that night, and it is estimated that around 12,000 CCP members and sympathisers were executed in Shanghai in April. The cunningly hidden weapons of the working class were now retrieved by Chiang’s men, leaving the working class defenceless.
A microcosm of later Comintern disasters took place when the local party leadership, suddenly realising the catastrophe that they had unconsciously helped to bring about, hastily organised a general strike to try and reverse the situation. Unsurprisingly, the accompanying unarmed and unprepared demonstration was massacred by machinegun fire. Tragically, this was only the beginning of the punishments meted out to the Chinese people thanks to Stalin’s leadership. Nor was it the last time that the CCP or other Comintern sections would turn a defeat into a rout by desperately swinging from a disastrously opportunist, capitulationist policy to a hasty revolutionary or pseudo-revolutionary one once it was too late.
Nevertheless, despite this disaster there are strong grounds for believing that the situation could still have been saved for the CCP. Even if it could not be turned around in the short term, it was more essential now than ever that the CCP remove itself from self-imposed subservience to the Guomindang and regain its open independence, so that it could begin the honest, Marxist appraisal of the lessons of its defeat, the better to prepare for the next opportunity. Such a situation would be comparable to the strengthening of Bolshevik theory following the defeat of 1905. But it was essential that the independence of the CCP and the freedom to discuss and make proposals within the party (rather than have them decided in Moscow) be re-established so that the party could learn and mature. But precisely because of the falsity of Stalin’s line for the party, which he would still peddle even after this coup, no real internal freedom could be allowed.
The traumatic experiences of these months in 1927 were a turning point in history. They fundamentally altered the character of the CCP and of Chinese history. Monumental, decisive events are like the junctions of history, the wrong decision can place a whole nation or even the world onto a different path. Because its own cadres were prevented from learning the lessons and adapting, the CCP would be transformed into a fundamentally different animal by these wrenching defeats. It is almost “better not to build a Communist Party at all than to compromise it in the epoch of revolution, i.e., precisely at the time when the ties between the party and the working masses are sealed with blood, and when great traditions are created which exert their influence for decades.” (Trotsky, Class Relations in the Chinese Revolution).
Despite this setback the Guomindang and Chiang Kai-shek remained extremely weak, in some respects actually became weaker. Although in leadership and results the Northern Expedition was ultimately a civil war between competing sections of the Chinese ruling class, the social content was provided by those who did the fighting – the masses and the CCP, without whom the war would never have begun.
When assessing his strength following his coup in Shanghai, we must bear in mind that Chiang was now exposed as a counterrevolutionary in front of his own troops, whole divisions of which Chiang clearly felt could not be trusted, as we have seen. “[Chiang] had to pay a price for turning on the mass movement, for without the popular support that made it real, the legend of Nationalist invincibility waned. Military victories came far less easily and the chances of defeat in the field loomed large before him.” (Isaacs, op cit).
His social ‘capital’ had already been spent, and he had further alienated the ‘left’ Guomindang at Wuhan for precisely this reason – his counterrevolutionary coups were undermining the masses’ illusions in the whole Guomindang. In fact it was partly due to this split that Chiang’s armies lost the city of Xuzhou to the warlord Sun Chuanfang, as he had stationed one of his armies away from the city to shield it from a feared attack from the ‘left’ Guomindang in Wuhan, weakening the defences against Sun Chuanfang. And Chiang’s forces were now long gone from the proletarian centre of Guangzhou, where the masses could certainly no longer entertain any illusions in his ‘progressive’ role thanks to his coup there one year previously.
This weakness of Chiang Kai-shek and the ‘left’ Guomindang, who had very publicly lost the initiative and folded to Chiang Kai-shek in Guangzhou, could and should have been exploited by the CCP even after their debacle in Shanghai. The reason they failed to was that they placed all faith in the sincerity of the ‘left’ Guomindang’s opposition to Chiang, and basically under instructions from Moscow merely transferred the policy of subservience from Chiang Kai-shek to Wang Jingwei.
History Repeats Itself First as Tragedy then as Farce
What was the reason for the existence of this ‘left’ Guomindang still holding out in Wuhan? Was it a principled opposition to Chiang Kai-shek as a traitor of the national revolution? Their sheer acquiescence to his Guangzhou coup would suggest otherwise. Indeed, they only existed as a ‘left’ because Chiang Kai-shek had imposed that on them. The difference between the two was that Chiang felt the need to move against the Communists in the party’s ranks earlier. The ‘left’ was more cautious, fearing such an act would expose them and risk losing the control of the movement that was needed to strike a deal with imperialism when the time was right.
They were wrong only because they miscalculated quite how subservient the policy of the CCP was. It is actually true that after committing his original sin in Guangzhou, Chiang himself feared reprisals from the communists and the masses which could topple his power, hence his immediate move to reconcile with Borodin by (insincerely) apologising for his actions.
Wang Jingwei’s hatred of Chiang Kai-shek was genuine, but largely because he had deprived Wang of his former prestige as the successor to Sun Yat Sen, and also because Chiang’s rash actions had placed the whole Guomindang in such a precarious position. It risked the whole party falling apart under the heat of the revolution, with the masses always liable to support the Communists against the Guomindang.
Ultimately this scenario would play out not with the CCP leading the masses against a weakened Guomindang but with the ‘left’ Guomindang severely attacking the CCP to eliminate it as a threat. But first these politicians who had their “leftness” thrust upon them had to reflect the popular anger against Chiang Kai-shek to maintain their power in Wuhan, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Shanghai coup. They were pushed to the left (in words) in their newly conquered power base in Wuhan – “on April 25th an immense protest meeting, presided over by Wang Jingwei and attended by 300,000 people, was held in Wuhan.” (Jacques Guillermaz, A History of the Chinese Communist Party 1921-1949).
Wang Jingwei, balancing carefully between the compromised Guomindang and the CCP, was in effect preserving the name and the structures of the party for a later reconciliation with Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists. He may not have realised this at the time, but that was the hidden meaning and inevitable outcome of the actions of a man prepared to work with the CCP and use their resources, but always unprepared to carry out revolutionary measures against any private property.
For instance, during these uneasy months the CCP and Wang Jingwei tossed and turned as they attempted to reach a compromise on exactly which landlords were big enough and counterrevolutionary enough to expropriate for the peasantry. “The Guomindang suggested a minimum figure of 500 ‘mou’, or 33 hectares, and the communists proposed 100 ‘mou’ (6.6 hectares).” In such matters the CCP always ended up folding, this particular difficulty being resolved by giving up the whole idea of land expropriations and instead simply fixing “a maximum land rent, amounting to 40% of the harvest.” (Ibid). Even this was never enforced, as that would have meant mobilising forces against powerful landlords whom the Guomindang really wanted to placate.
Once again the Comintern leadership is to blame for such capitulations – a resolution agreed at the CCP 5th Party Congress committed the party to a programme of confiscating the land of large landlords and counterrevolutionaries, all to be given to the peasants to work in addition to “publicly owned land and lands belonging to family or religious temples, schools, foreign churches and agricultural undertakings.” (Ibid). But this resolution was suppressed by the Executive Committee of the party under pressure from Moscow, for fear it would embarrass the party in front of Wang Jingwei. The political consequences of this botching on the land question in Wuhan, all to please the supposed revolutionary Wang Jingwei, are explained very clearly by Guillermaz,
“Faced with these two urgent duties – maintaining the political front with the Guomindang and the Wuhan government at all costs, and at the same time enlarging the scope of the peasant revolution, taking over the leadership of it, at the risk of damaging the front – Chen Duxiu and the Communist Party could neither find a middle way nor resign themselves to making a choice. Their irresolution finally checked the impetus of the peasant movement, while exciting the suspicion and hostility of a large proportion of the Guomindang left wing, and eventually of Wang Jingwei himself. The bourgeoisie rose in self defiance; as upholders of the theory of class struggle, the communists ought to have been better equipped than most to foresee this possibility.” (Ibid)
Wang Jingwei was actually testing how far he could push the CCP, and he saw that he could push them very far, and not only on the land question. The ‘self defiance’ of the bourgeoisie mentioned above consisted of economic sabotage against the revolution. 100,000 radicalised workers were locked out by factory owners in Wuhan in May. The response of Wang Jingwei was not to defend these workers but to lay the blame on the ‘excesses’ of those workers,
“It was an ‘excess’ when the workers of Hanyang [part of Wuhan] decided to open the factories and run them and when the workers in Puchih and other Hubei towns took over shops that had been deliberately closed down. It was an ‘excess’ when local peasant committees in Hunan and Hubei placed local embargoes on shipments of rice in order to resist the hoarders and speculators who were trying to starve them into submission. It was above all an ‘excess’ when the peasants seized the rice hoards of the landlords to feed their families...One of Wang Jingwei’s first official acts upon his return to Wuhan was to break up the workers’ cooperative that was operating 15 factories in Hanyang, force the surrender of the plants, and order the dissolution of the Hanyang Guomindang branch which supported the workers.” (Isaacs, op cit.)
Surely this branch, and many others like it, could have been easily won to the banner of the CCP during such events, had the latter only come out in defence of these Guomindang rank-and-file members?
Then Wang Jingwei’s government issued an open declaration of its alliance with the bourgeoisie, which reads like a confession of the correctness of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution as it says the following:
“Whether or not the revolution will be a success will depend on the measure of support given to it by the manufacturers and merchants. Whether or not they can effectively support the revolution will depend upon the willingness of the peasants and labourers to treat them as their allies...In order to carry out this policy, the National Government is ordered to...prohibit labourers and employees from making excessive demands and interfering of factories and shops.” (Guomindang Central Executive Committee May 20th manifesto all-class nature of the revolution).
But the only test for whether the revolution really did have an ‘all-class nature’ (whoever heard of a revolution involving ‘all the classes’?!) and manifested an alliance of the bourgeoisie and the workers is in these great events, in the movement of millions, which cannot be made to obey the schemas of any party leadership. That the Guomindang had to complain of mass disobedience by the workers and peasants towards the supposed bourgeois leadership of the revolution, is in itself proof that it was the workers and peasants who were leading the revolution.
But the CCP led GLU instantly complied, telling its members it would dutifully hand them over to the openly bourgeois government of Wang Jingwei for trial and punishment should they not comply. The reader will be forgiven for having a distinct sense of déjà vu at this moment, for these events almost exactly mirror those in both Shanghai and Guangzhou. As we said, the Stalinist Comintern could not permit the CCP to learn the lessons of those earlier mistakes.
But in this desperate atmosphere, the CCP comrades were learning, were questioning the whole line – how could they not? We should feel immense sympathy and solidarity for the Chinese Communists struggling with an imposed political line completely at odds with their own experience. Thousands of them paid with their lives for the crimes of Stalin’s leadership. The sheer disregard displayed by Moscow for those having to endure their policy in China provoked a panic in Wuhan as rumours filled the vacuum of leadership:
“Fear and anxiety were increasing within Communist Party organisations. There were all sorts of rumours flying about: it was said that the attitude of General Tang Shengzhi, supreme commander of the Wuhan forces, was questionable, that the leading Guomindang politician Wang Jingwei was not to be relied on, and that Sun Fo, Sun Yat Sen’s son, was secretly flirting with Chiang Kai-shek’s rival government in Nanjing. What should we do? This was the question in all our minds. It reminded us very much of the situation a year earlier: then we all looked in vain to Chiang Kai-shek, and despite his growing recalcitrance and his rapid shift to the right we had been incapable of moving a finger to stop him. Now we were looking the same way towards Wang Jingwei and Tang Shengzhi....the situation was worsening, and even we lower-level cadres could clearly see that the revolution was reaching a crisis.” (Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary).
The worst kind of defeat is one that is not understood, one where the potentially unstoppable power of the working class rears its head, only to not be realised due to a crisis of leadership. Each of the three cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan had experienced a situation of dual power in 1926 and 1927, that is a situation where the bourgeois state power is crippled by a parallel, embryonic form of workers’ power, which itself is semi-paralysed by its inability to recognise its own power. We have described how the workers had already begun to reorganise production and to keep order in these cities. The demands for the labour movement to be shut down now made by Wang Jingwei on the CCP, getting the latter to do the bourgeoisie’s dirty work for them, show that without the compliance of the CCP leadership the Guomindang government was in effect powerless because the workers were running things themselves.
A telegram from the CCP Central Committee in Wuhan in May 1927 talks of “the necessity of increasing discipline among the workers and of obedience to the national government [Guomindang] and declared that the trade unions have not the right to arrest anyone, and must always apply to the authorities when they consider the arrest of this or that person necessary.” As Trotsky pointed out, “the trade unions in the territory of the Hankou government are arresting the enemies of the revolution. This means that the trade unions, by the whole logic of the situation, are forced to assume the tasks of the revolutionary soviets.” (Trotsky, Is it not time to understand?)
The essence of revolutionary leadership is to understand the objective situation in the class struggle and to help the working class gain consciousness of this reality. As Trotsky says above, it was the logic of the situation that compelled the organised working class to arrest counterrevolutionaries in Wuhan. But they did not realise that in taking this step they were moving very close to having power in their hands. At the very least they did not have a collective realisation of how to tie together these revolutionary acts into a revolutionary government of the working class. The role of the CCP should then have been to show the workers how to take power.
Thus Trotsky’s proposal to save the revolution at this time was for the CCP to launch the call for the creation of soviets – revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ councils of power. Trotsky argued that this should have been presented to the masses not as a form of the dictatorship of the CCP, but as a multi-party system of revolutionary power in which the left Guomindang would be welcome to participate. The attitude of the soviets to the Guomindang would be determined by the Guomindang’s attitude to these organs of power, which latter would simply be the realisation of the fact that the working class had the consciousness, organisation and weapons to wield state power.
It would be necessary for the CCP to couch this proposal in such terms, as rejecting the Guomindang’s participation in soviets a priori would discredit the proposal in the eyes of the masses. But if the Guomindang rejected these councils of popular power and sought to prevent their creation, they would now come face-to-face with an armed working class conscious of its ability and need to form soviets thanks to the CCP putting this forward. Instead, under Moscow’s orders, the CCP buried the notion, serving to hinder the consciousness of the working class and to clear for the Guomindang all those obstacles to its power which it was incapable of removing itself.
By July 15th, Wang Jingwei, like Chiang Kai-shek before him, concluded that the CCP had served its purpose, had been ‘squeezed out like a lemon’ and was ready to be ‘thrown away’. On this day the Guomindang Political Council in Wuhan “ordered all Communist party members of the Guomindang to renounce their Communist party membership on pain of immediate extreme penalties.” CCP comrades were persecuted, even killed, and the trade unions completely closed down. Wang Fanxi’s fears had been realised. Once again the bourgeoisie had broken with the CCP, and the latter was beginning to resemble a permanently jilted lover!
This act laid the basis for reconciliation with Chiang Kai-shek and marks the real end of the Chinese revolution of 1925-7 and the end of the CCP’s leading role in the Chinese working class movement, bar one final debacle, the Canton Commune, which we will briefly come onto. The preparation for Wang Jingwei’s rapprochement with Chiang is extremely instructive as to the real nature of their previous split, which was little more than a personal power struggle in which Chiang Kai-shek was the victor.
Immediately prior to the CCP expulsion on July 15th, Wang Jingwei had been openly courting the Warlord Feng Yuxiang, who was flirting with ‘revolution’ (i.e. adapting to the new realities of power in China). If he could form an alliance with Feng, Wang could usurp Chiang Kai-shek’s role. But by July 15th Feng had concluded that, in order to crush the CCP, all the tendencies of the Guomindang would have to place themselves under the national leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, who was clearly the more decisive politician, was himself a military leader (unlike Wang Jingwei) and had very close relations with the imperialists. He implored Wang Jingwei to come over to Chiang Kai-shek for a united struggle against the CCP.
Hence Wang Jingwei’s subsequent move against the CCP, which was quickly followed on August 10th with a letter of complete reconciliation to Chiang Kai-shek. In doing so, Wang was merely recognising that his power struggle with Chiang was over, that he had lost and that the best he could now hope for was to be a puppet to Chiang’s puppet master – a habit he must have grown accustomed to, as Wang Jingwei ended his illustrious career as a puppet of the Japanese fascists in China.
That the forces of the revolution must now break with the bourgeois Guomindang was a conclusion that could no longer have failed to be drawn in Moscow. But the Russian bureaucracy, governed by the iron law of its short-sighted imperative to maintain political prestige, could not draw the more profoundly correct conclusion that the revolution had been defeated, and that the CCP must therefore retreat to minimise its losses and regroup. This would mean admitting their policy had failed and would be a humiliating climb-down from apparent international infallibility.
So instead the Guomindang’s betrayal was loudly proclaimed as merely the harbinger of a higher plane of the revolution in which the CCP would soon lead the workers to power. Communist led coups and military insurrections were suddenly ordered. According to Trotsky, “in a revolutionary period, a deviation towards putschism is often the result of defeats whose direct cause is to be found in an opportunist leadership.” (Trotsky, The Classic Mistakes of Opportunism). The cause of this newfound adventurism and impatient ultra-leftism foisted onto the party by Moscow lay “in the fact that the leadership [was] striving to cover up its past sins” and in doing so “monstrously forced the course of events.” (Trotsky, Three Letters to Preobrazhensky). It was the equivalent of lashing out wildly and impotently after having been defeated in battle.
The beneficiaries of this policy were in Moscow, who would milk it back home as evidence of their bold revolutionary leadership (in much the same way that, at the same time, Stalin adopted an extreme caricature of the Left Opposition’s more radical economic policies to cut across the latter’s support). The heavy price to be paid would be borne entirely by the heroic Chinese communists and workers.
The new line was agreed at a special meeting called and led by the new Comintern representative, Lominadze, on August 7th 1927. The strategy was very simple – to command a revolution from the masses. Peasant and workers’ insurrections would be initiated, not so much where the party had political strength, where it had done the political work of winning over and preparing the masses to take power, but where the party happened to be able to cobble together some military forces left over from its involvement in the Northern Expedition between Guangzhou and Wuhan/Nanchang.
The first uprising, at Nanchang, actually took place before this meeting, on August 1st. The city was taken very easily, the CCP having the benefit of surprise, but “the population understood little about what was going on and took scarcely any notice of it.” (Guillermaz, op cit.). This shows that the party had fully reaped what Stalin had forced it to sow – it had abandoned the materialist, class analysis of society and had already descended into bureaucratic ‘commandism’, having lost all roots among the workers. They had now embarked on a policy from which the party would not depart ever again, substituting a purely technical, military strategy for one based on the class balance of forces.
Such a policy, if it is successful, and it rarely is considering the enormous technical-military weakness of the communist movement in comparison with the forces of the bourgeois state, could only usher in a new regime with a Communist label but in which the working class played no active role. In other words the ‘Communist’ regime would lack the essential political prerequisite for socialism. Indeed, the revolutionary committee that was briefly established upon taking Nanchang was simply appointed over the heads of the working class. In fact the basis for the military success of a revolution is precisely the mass involvement of the working class and the winning over of sections of the military rank-and-file through political means, which more than compensates for the movement’s inferior financial and technical resources.
Needless to say, in the Nanchang Uprising as in those that were to briefly follow, the communists met with a crushing defeat. It would appear that, in their haste, spurred on as they were by Moscow, the CCP leaders had not even prepared for the possibility that the Guomindang might counter-attack. Because as soon as they did, the CCP forces immediately evacuated without a fight! “The rebel armies still under Ho Lung did not try to maintain their position in Jiangxi and Hunan within range of the Wuhan government, as might have been expected from a logical and political point of view. Nor did they turn for support to the hinterland, said to be in a great state of restlessness. They do not even appear to have considered looking for reinforcements in these two provinces.” (Ibid). The end result of this particular uprising was around 800 Communists killed and a further loss of sympathy amongst the Guomindang rank-and-file.
Following this by one month was the ‘Autumn Harvest Uprising’, which ended in much the same way, being carried out with the same methods. The significance of this event lies in that, being based in the countryside and the peasantry, and led by Mao Zedong, it paved the way for the future developments of the party as a peasant based guerrilla army. It should be noted that this first embryonic experiment in ‘Maoism’ was at the behest of Moscow as a desperate last throw of the dice. It was not an exciting new strategy thought out well in advance by Mao or anyone else. The resulting creation of the first rural ‘Soviet’ in Haifeng, the inspiration for Mao’s future policy of creating rural soviets wherever the Red Army seized territory, was in reality accidentally stumbled upon by the party’s military as it fled defeat in Changsha.
But the event which severed all ties with the Chinese working class and finished the revolution off once and for all was the ‘Canton Commune’. By 1927 the revolution had already been finished for one year in Guangzhou (Canton), Chiang Kai-shek’s coup having taken place in March 1926. This year of reaction had been put to good use by Tang Shengzhi, the former Wuhan general in whom to CCP had placed its faith so recently, who used the following methods to make sure the Guangzhouese working class would never forget the bitter taste of defeat:
“The usual methods of shooting and beheading have been abetted by methods of torture and mutilation which reek of the horror of the dark ages and the Inquisition. The results have been impressive. The peasant and labour unions of Hunan, probably the most effectively organised in the whole country, are completely smashed. Those leaders who have escaped the burning in oil, the burying alive, the torture by slow strangulation by wire, and other forms of death too lurid to report, have fled the country.” (Jui Fu San, quoted in Isaacs, op cit.)
Nevertheless this obvious crippling of the local working class was ignored and on December 11th (since the Guomindang had caught wind of the plan, the CCP was compelled to move the date forward by two days to maintain their one advantage, the element of surprise) Guangzhou was seized by an insurrection. Despite the fact that the Communists’ forces were outnumbered by 5 to 1, they succeeded in taking the city. Upon taking power, the rallying cry of ‘Down with the Guomindang’ was heard, and the insurrectionists outlawed all Guomindang tendencies in the city. Their programme given to the inhabitants of the city called for,
“The confiscation of the property of the big bourgeoisie, the banks, and the money exchange shops. The houses of the wealthy were to be turned into dormitories for the workers. The pawnshops were to be taken over and all the articles in them returned freely to their owners...The programme of the Canton Commune called for an eight-hour day; wage increases; state aid to the unemployed according to the regular wage scale: nationalisation of all big industries, communications, and banks; recognition of the All-China Labour Federation as the national organisation of the Chinese proletariat.” (Isaacs, op cit.).
As Trotsky pointed out, despite its adventurist character (i.e. being organised over the heads of the working class), these acts displayed the real objective character of the Chinese revolution, in that the only class that could really achieve independence for China was the working class, by nationalising industry. But it was too little, too late.
The Commune’s leadership, installed as it was with no participation from the exhausted and defeated Guangzhou masses, was not elected and could have no real authority amongst the workers. At best it could (had it not been busy fending off the immediate counter-attack) order the working class about. What unites the previous policy of opportunist subservience and this current ultra-left one is the underlying lack of faith that the working class can organise a revolution and take power itself. In the first instance, the working class was seen as too new, too weak, and would have to merely support the apparently revolutionary bourgeoisie. In the second instance, the working class was seen as a tap that could be turned on and off by the party at will, so that when the party (or rather, the Russian bureaucracy) felt it necessary to boost its prestige by having a revolution to its name in China, it could simply order one off the shelf.
But precisely because the revolutionary militancy of the working class is not available on tap, the CCP could no longer rely on it to defend the retaken Guangzhou. Having spurned the opportunity when the workers had moved mountains to take over the city in 1925, the CCP now expected the workers to do it once again after they had been smashed and their leaders executed. But they could not. As a result, the Canton Commune was crushed in only two days. The results were brutal enough to wipe the CCP completely out of China’s cities, not to return until 1949.
“Long after the fighting ended, the streets echoed the gunfire of executioners and were strewn with the blood and the bodies of the dead. A correspondent of the Ta Kung Pao saw women Communists ‘wrapped in cotton padded blankets, soaked in gasoline and burned alive.’ Soldiers seized any women they found with bobbed hair, which was regarded as infallible evidence of radicalism. Hundreds of girls were shot or otherwise killed after being subjected to indescribable indignities.” (Ibid.)
In 1925, the workers had seized and begun reorganising the entire city with barely a shot being fired and no persecution to speak of. In 1927, the very same workers were unnecessarily sacrificed in the most violent manner to satisfy the political imperatives of a bureaucracy thousands of miles away. Such is the cruel irony that ends the Second Chinese Revolution.