When criticising the adaptation to rural conditions and the Stalinist method of leadership, we are in no way seeking to denigrate the heroic struggle of these thousands of committed Communists, so many of whom gave their lives for the fight against capitalism. It is only that the task of building a revolutionary party capable of leading the working class to power and forging a new kind of society without class and state power is an extremely exacting one. In chasing after the utopian dream of building a revolution from the backwards countryside, the CCP was unfortunately erecting a barrier between itself and the working class.
But let us be absolutely clear, the rural Soviets express the most herculean struggle, the noblest sacrifice of the downtrodden Chinese masses. In them we find an extraordinary determination to overcome all obstacles. Against the odds, the comrades managed to achieve many progressive tasks, and it is in large part thanks to the objectively progressive role of the rural soviets that the CCP was swept to power in 1949.
The Progressive Role of the Soviets
The absolute cornerstone of this was the progressive agrarian reform carried out, in various forms, by the CCP in this period. The November 1931 Land Law of the Soviet Republic states that,
“...all the lands of the feudal landlords, tuhao, gentry, militarists and other big private landowners, shall be subject to confiscation without any compensation whatever, irrespective of whether they themselves work their lands or rent them out on lease. The Soviets will distribute the confiscated lands among the poor and middle peasants... Hired farm hands, coolies, and toiling labourers shall enjoy equal rights to land allotments, irrespective of sex... Aged persons, orphans, and widows, who are not in a position to work and who have no relatives on whom to depend, shall be given social relief by the Soviet government.” (Land Law of the Soviet Republic, November 1931)
The Constitution of the Soviet Republic from November 1931 “guarantees to the workers, peasants, and toilers freedom of speech and the press as well as the right to assembly... the workers, peasants, and toiling masses shall enjoy the use of printing shops, meeting halls, and similar establishments by the power of a people’s regime, as a material basis for the realisation of these rights and liberties.”
With regards to the ethnic minorities encountered on the Long March (which was like the Chinese Soviet Republic in transit), the Red Army broke down their hatred of the dominant Han Chinese on a class basis, explaining that there were actually ‘Red’ and ‘White’ Chinese. They freed tribes from their oppression by the warlords, and as a result these nationally oppressed peoples spread the good word about this poor man’s army. The current CCP regime could learn a lot from such an intelligent and class based approach to the national question in places such as Tibet and Xinjiang.
The Marriage Law of the Chinese Soviet Republic prohibited arranged marriages and the buying and selling of women. Marriage had to have the consent of both parties and any couple could be given a marriage certificate free of charge. All children were considered legitimate, and either party could get a divorce for free. The property was then divided equally, both parents had to care for the children, and the male was obliged to supply two-thirds of the child’s living expenses (Snow, op cit.).
Of course, progressive laws are just words on paper before they become a social reality, and as we shall see, in the backward, destitute and militarily insecure conditions of the rural soviets, reality rarely matched up to the legal ideal. Nevertheless, these laws combined with the radical land programme represent an extremely bold step forward.
The bold entry of this party onto the scene was like the sweep of an invigorating hurricane of fresh air through a stale cellar. These were areas where destitute peasants were crushed by a millennia old class system. On the basis of an outdated and extreme form of class exploitation, ancient and cruel Chinese practices such as child slavery, concubinage and foot-binding were carried on well into the 20th Century. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an extraordinarily well organised and determined party establishes itself. It not only preaches a few progressive ideas, such as an end to despotism, but actually carries out a programme of wealth equalisation and with the most modern of social programmes for women, ethnic minorities, children, etc. Indeed their marriage laws were significantly more progressive than those of many Western countries even today.
According to Edgar Snow, who lived for some time in the Soviet areas of China, the Soviets managed to completely eliminate opium cultivation and use, official corruption, beggary and unemployment, child slavery and prostitution, and foot-binding and infanticide were finally made illegal. Land deeds were destroyed, taxes on poor peasants abolished and the poor peasantry was armed. All of this was achieved by what appeared to be a ragtag band of defeated and isolated Communists. Whereas under the Guomindang regime, whose key task was supposed to be ending landlordism and the obscene rents that crushed the peasantry and agriculture as a whole, the landlord system was strengthened and rural inequality deepened, as we have seen above.
It is no surprise then that “as many as 80% of the eligible youth joined Communist sponsored organisations” (Guillermaz, op cit.). The enthused and sympathetic peasants spread the word, so that during the Long March the Red Army essentially had a vast and impossible to infiltrate network of informal peasant spies and scouts.
According to Mao’s Report to the Second All-China Soviet Congress in January 1934, the proportion of the Soviet administered population voting in the Soviet elections in late 1933 was more than 80%. He also claimed that “in the majority of city and xiang [village] Soviets, women delegates constitute more than 25%”, and in some districts women delegates were actually the majority.
Of course Mao had an interest in prettifying the regime and made a serious error in presenting this as the building of rural socialism. For the reasons outlined above, socialism cannot be built from the peasantry upwards, and collective peasant self rule will always be a fiction, due to their being scattered and illiterate, their lack of time and their varying levels of wealth and interests. But the evidence is that the Soviet government did grant the peasantry genuine social and economic freedoms and did engender a certain amount of enthusiasm.
Why in the 1930s did the CCP manage to grant genuine freedom of expression and democracy if upon seizing national power in 1949, the very same people established a totalitarian regime (albeit one that did still carry through land reform and nationalisations)? Because this rural regime’s existence was daily threatened from outside in the form of the Guomindang and the warlords, and from the inside in the form of economic weakness. To combat the constant external military threat, Mao needed to mobilise the maximum number of peasants to fight for the Soviet, and he had no recourse to a large and established state apparatus to coerce the masses into doing so. To combat the incessant danger of economic catastrophe, he needed to give the peasantry control over their land so that they did not feel that in feeding the CCP forces, they were labouring under the same old exploitation in another name.
It was their objectively progressive role that the CCP depended on for their survival. Socialist revolution represented to hundreds of millions of toiling Chinese masses the only real way out. They had seen what the bourgeois nationalists in the form of the Guomindang could do. The USA is thought to have spent, in various forms, around $50m on propping up the Chiang Kai-shek regime. The still weak USSR spent no more than $15,000 per month on maintaining the CCP. And yet the influence of Russia and Communist ideas on the Chinese masses was infinitely greater, because only they had the boldness to finish thousands of years of class rule. As Mao himself put it,
“The peasant millions, awakening from their long dark age, have confiscated land and other properties from all the landlords and fertile land from the rich peasants, abolishing usury and onerous taxation. They have eliminated everything which stands in the way of the revolution and built up their own regime. For the first time, the Chinese peasant masses have broken their way out of the hell [they live in] and made themselves their own masters. This is the fundamental situation that differentiates the rural districts under the Soviet from those under the KMT.” (Mao, op cit.)
The secret of history, its hidden thread, is the ability of society to develop the means of production. The viability of any social system, however big or small, rests upon its ability to do so. If the relations of production are such that the forces of production from which society lives stagnate or decline, then those relations of production are doomed to extinction.
Therefore the litmus test for the Chinese Soviet Republic was not the earnestness with which the comrades pursued their project, nor the tolerance for hard work in the peasantry. It was whether or not an isolated rural district under military siege and with no industrial base could improve the living standards of the peasantry, as well as sustain its own military force, purely on the basis of land re-division. The evidence is that in the long run, no, they could not.
In fact, Marx explained not only that any social system depends on its ability to develop the productive forces, but also that a new, higher social system can only come about on the basis of the full development and exhaustion of the old social system. Although it is true that the old system of landlordism found in China’s rural districts was beyond exhaustion, it was by no means the case that the valid successor growing out of this system was the rural Soviet system.
For the landlord system did not stand in splendid isolation, but was crowned by industrial, capitalist relations in the cities. What the CCP was doing then, was to try to impose a utopian rural communism onto the occupied areas. In doing so they cut these areas off from the industrial relations they previously depended on. As a result the agricultural production in these areas had to be sustained with extremely limited access to the products of industry in China, let alone the rest of the world. For all its communistic ideals, this did not represent a higher social system than the semi-feudal production which it replaced.
In the final analysis politics does not trump economic relations; one cannot mould social relations from outside without oneself being fundamentally conditioned by economic relations. It was therefore inevitable that in one way or another the CCP would succumb to the enormous social pressures of the environment.
To the extent that they were able to trade with the rest of the Chinese economy, the administration of the Soviet areas always tended towards bankruptcy, since its illegal and extremely precarious existence determined very unfair terms of trade (Snow, op cit.).
This was partially overcome by heavy taxation on the rich and ‘voluntary contributions of the people’. Illegal trade with the outside world necessarily had an extremely limited or depressed character, and so both these ‘solutions’, which are not based on production and merely redistribute existing wealth, were not solutions by any means. 40-50% of total Soviet expenditure was derived from confiscations, and 15-20% from voluntary contributions. A minority of revenue was from productive activity. It is clear that if the CCP failed to overthrow the Guomindang in the cities it would perish.
In order to sustain their existence in these desperate conditions, there must have been strong incentives to embark on dangerous military adventures to seize new territory containing productive industry or other resources. Strategy would be more and more determined by economic necessity rather than the class struggle, and the Party was forced to conquer areas to survive, like a benevolent imperialism. Once again we can see how holing oneself up in economic isolation from the rest of society and placing oneself outside of the class struggle, has unavoidable tendencies towards degeneration for a Marxist party.
Social Relations in the Rural Soviet
It is easy to imagine that rural areas of China at this time had a simple class composition similar to that of the cities – rich landlords and the poverty stricken peasants whose labour power the former exploited. Actually the simplicity of social relations in the cities is unique to capitalism. The peasantry is not a mass of equally poor labourers, but has as many social distinctions within itself as there are geographical differences.
The 1928 Resolution of the Sixth National Congress on the Peasant Movement points out that whereas in Southern and Central China “landless peasants constitute the majority of the rural population, and the major aspect of the struggle centres on opposing landlords”, in Northern China “the majority of peasants are small landowners.” It follows from this that it is impossible for this class, to the extent that something as heterogeneous as this can be considered one class, to lead a unified national struggle to transform society around common interests, since this group lacks common interests.
Actually the above statement in itself is an oversimplification of the peasantry, since it gives the impression that within one very large area (Southern and Central China) there is a more or less homogenous composition of the peasantry, who like the working class ‘have nothing to lose but their chains.’ This is not accurate as the CCP would learn in the coming years.
The complexity of social relations in the Soviets of Southern China is indicated in the strategy and tactics that the CCP was obliged to pursue, which resembles a circus performer juggling knives whilst walking the tightrope,
“Our class line in the agrarian revolution is to depend upon the hired farm hands and poor peasants, to ally with the middle peasants, to check the rich peasants, and to annihilate the landlords... Hence, the Soviet government should deal severely with all erroneous tendencies to infringe upon the middle peasants (mainly the well-to-do middle peasants) or to annihilate the rich peasants.” (Mao, Report to the Second All-China Soviet Congress, 1934)
Some peasants had no property whatsoever, and constantly sold their labour power to others, just like a worker. However, unlike workers they did not constitute a majority of the rural population and did not work socially, i.e. in large numbers with a division of labour, and consequently lacked social weight that the CCP could base itself upon.
Also, unlike workers they did not sell their labour power to one kind of possessing class from whom their interests were clearly, sharply differentiated. Some sold their labour power to middle peasants, who as the above quoted passage from Mao indicates, did not have diametrically opposed interests to the poor peasants whose labour they may have enlisted – they too were exploited by landlords, who often owned some of their land and to whom they paid rent.
Both groups were also exploited by merchants (some of whom were also landlords) who took advantage of their capital and access to industrial goods to squeeze the atomised and weak peasantry. But their ability to unite in a common struggle and do away with the class divisions in the countryside was barred by the fact that middle peasants had an interest in maintaining the system of landownership which they partially benefitted from, and by the simple fact that their work focused around atomised economic units tenuously connected by a market they were the victims of. Lacking the social distillation of the modern city, the countryside can never of its own accord sweep away all the ancient injustices by implementing and carrying to completion the agrarian revolution. The political unity and swiftness of action necessary for ending the power of the ruling class can only be found in the working class in the cities.
These factors made it impossible for the CCP to pursue a militant revolutionary policy in the rural Soviets, and as time went on their agrarian policy generally moved from the more revolutionary to one of open class collaboration. Middle peasants, let alone the rich ones, would rebel if the re-division of the land were too thoroughgoing, and so the CCP had to back down to stay in power. Hence the fact that by June 1933, the party openly admitted that three quarters of the Central Soviet area had witnessed no land reform under their watch. (Guillermaz, op cit.)
And since their power was restricted to small and economically dependent areas, they depended on the local bourgeoisie through whom they accessed the wider market. They therefore could not pursue a policy too antagonistic to bourgeois interests. Class collaboration therefore became a necessary policy of the rural struggle.
Trapped in a position of governing a class divided region within which no single class had the power to transform the situation, the CCP was essentially playing the role of managing the class struggle, attempting to find a formula with which to balance between the class forces, with no hope of eliminating the ruling class. Unconsciously, the party became a Bonapartist regime.
It is a law of history that any state apparatus which is not the instrument of a new, rising class, will inevitably become transformed into an instrument in the hands of the old ruling class. At least to an extent, in the brief amount of time that the CCP ruled any one area, it would appear that the party was infiltrated and used by the landlords and rich peasants.
“‘Two-thirds of the government is in the hands of the rich peasants,’ wrote a correspondent from one of the Soviet districts in 1931. ‘Rich peasants are in all the party posts,’ wrote another in August that same year. In 1933, at Juichin, the Soviet capital, a leading spokesman wrote:
“‘The land was divided, but the landlords and rich peasants also received land and better land at that. A number of landlord and rich peasant elements still retain their authority and position in the villages... Not a few of them are in control of party and government institutions and use them to carry out their own class interests...’” (Isaacs, op cit.)
This attempt to bureaucratically ‘manage’ or constrict the class struggle, to make it fit into their schemas, is also expressed in the constitution of the Chinese Soviet Republic. Here farm labourers, handicraft workers and other amorphous and ephemeral semi-classes which in some way resembled the urban proletariat (on which the party still officially based itself) were declared to be the rural proletariat and as such were arbitrarily granted greater representation in Soviet elections, like a consolation prize for their lack of real power. But democracy and the class struggle are not simply outwardly balanced arithmetical combinations, but the real movement and power of the masses.
All these factors played a key role in the decision to abandon the Jiangxi bases and begin the famous Long March to Shaanxi. Of course the Soviets were continually facing extermination from wave after wave of Guomindang attacks (more on these later). One of the worst effects of these extermination campaigns, combined as they were with the trade embargo applied to the region, was the fact that as the productive class it was the peasantry who bore the burden. As in the Jinggangshan before, the CCP was an occupying force living off the surplus produced by the local peasantry’s back-breaking work, but was incapable of leading the liberation of the peasantry. This could be masked for a time if there were a good harvest, but when things inevitably turned for the worst, it was the same peasants who suffered.