Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

In previous articles, we have seen how Stalin’s power in the late 1920s in Moscow veered from one extreme to another. The reality that the Communist movement could not be built through an opportunist policy of accommodation with the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie had to be admitted. In the fourth part of this series, Daniel Morley discusses the origins of Maoism and the early years of the Red Army.

We have seen how Stalin’s power in the late 1920s in Moscow veered from one extreme to another. The reality that the Communist movement could not be built through an opportunist policy of accommodation with the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie had to be admitted. 

[Previous parts: one, two, and three.]

The Origins of Maoism

The reason for this was that not to have done so in China by 1928 would have meant the total extinction of the CCP with the real danger that the remaining members could be won to Trotskyism. So to eliminate that possibility it was now stressed that the Guomindang was the enemy of the CCP and the revolution, and that therefore the party’s chief task was to win back the working class to an open socialist programme.

But on the other hand it was an imperative for Moscow that such a policy be clearly distinguished from that of the Trotskyists. Stalin could never admit that Trotsky had been right in his perspectives for China. Therefore whilst declaring the Guomindang to be an enemy, the CCP was forced to adopt the self-contradictory position that its sudden transfer from ally to enemy only signified the raising of the revolution to a new, higher plane. So to combat Trotsky’s influence, a task far more important for Stalin than the wellbeing of the CCP, the CCP was forced to seek evidence of the rising revolutionary tide and find, somewhere, an avenue to pursue an immediate revolutionary policy.

This development displays the idealist tendencies of Stalinism, by which I mean its tendency to think it can manipulate reality purely in accordance with its own narrow wishes. If the revolution failed, the real task for Marxists is to understand and explain this failure, however personally difficult this may be. Stalinism, being based on the careerist interests of the bureaucracy, rather than on sacrificing one’s own interests for the real needs of the revolution, attempts to hide reality in the hope it will go away.

A Product of Moscow

So in pushing the CCP to find ‘evidence’ of the healthy state of the revolution and the good prospects for the Comintern in China, Moscow began to create within the CCP a strong tendency towards substituting itself for the real action of the working class, towards adventurism and voluntarism. If evidence of the revolution wasn’t there, there was enormous pressure on the party to make it up, to artificially create a ‘revolutionary rising tide’. In a resolution written by Li Lisan in June 1930, it is argued that any lack of faith in the imminence of the revolution must be cut out, which will aid in “speeding the arrival of the rising tide in the workers’ struggles.”

It is always an illusion to imagine that a revolutionary organisation’s task is to ‘speed up’ the arrival of the revolution. Workers will move in that direction when they feel the need to, based on their own experience of economic and political crises. Considering that the party had systematically lost all influence in the proletariat by 1930, such a claim can only be seen as evidence of Stalinist wishful thinking.

The same resolution then makes a wild departure from reality in justifying the policy of campaigning for armed insurrections on the basis that the revolution is merely a product of the party itself,

“ great workers’ struggle in an industrial or political centre may immediately lead to the formation of a revolutionary upsurge – (that is), to a directly revolutionary situation... [this would] mean that the ruling class is not only unable to hold the rural areas, but also incapable of suppressing or controlling the revolutionary struggle in the cities. This would mean that objective conditions are ripe for armed insurrection. Therefore we may say that the upsurge of the revolutionary rising tide will inevitably be followed by armed insurrection.” (Li Lisan, The New Revolutionary Rising Tide and Preliminary Successes in one or more Provinces, June 11, 1930, my emphasis)

Perhaps the worst casualty of this policy was the core of Marxism – its unswerving materialist philosophy, its emphasis on the fact that the objective laws of society are decisive, not the will of the party. Above we find no mention whatsoever of the actual consciousness of workers, their level of organisation, the state of their leadership. Mass actions of the workers are dreamed up out of nothing, one imagined scenario is built on top of another, and hey-presto, we arrive at armed insurrection!

A Mistake of History

This characteristic of Stalinism in the late 1920s is the root of what would become Maoism, although it was by no means certain that things would develop in this way. Since Moscow’s pressure on the CCP to ‘find the revolution’ at this time was not a product of a scientific understanding of the situation, but was a knee-jerk, empirical response to an unforeseen development (the failure of 1925-7), so too its outcome (Maoism) was not foreseen and has the character of a historical accident.

The reason Maoism, or the strategy of armed insurrection from the countryside, became the dominant political line of the CCP from the early 30s onwards, was because a rural struggle uniquely fitted Moscow’s opportunist need to deny the failure of the revolution and to continue the fight at the will of the party leadership. It was not a genuine theoretical development of Mao that expressed the Chinese revolution’s uniqueness. In fact, although Mao became the policy’s chief leader, it did not originate with him.

The Political Resolution of the 1928 CCP Congress (which Mao did not attend and which took place before Mao had risen to prominence), meeting in Moscow and under decisive influence of the Comintern leadership, declares that it is necessary for the party “to organise revolutionary armies of workers and peasants in the present guerrilla areas... this task is now the central issue in the peasant movement, deserving special attention by the party. The success with which this task is carried out may give an impetus to the growth of a new revolutionary rising tide” (Political Resolution of the 6th National Congress of the CCP, 1928, emphasis in original).

Here it is explicitly stated that the rural movement deserves special attention because it can fulfil Moscow’s desire to artificially kick-start a revolution. On this basis the resolution outlines the concrete tasks of the party as expansion of the Soviet areas; to create a revolutionary army of peasants; and to induce the ‘broad masses’ to participate in the Soviet areas’ organisation once the latter have been established (by the party, not by the ‘broad masses’).

This is the recipe for the Maoist strategy of the party creating a rural insurrection as a substitute for the masses creating an urban based revolution in which the party would participate and aim to lead. It must be pointed out that all of this happened by mistake. The failed Autumn Harvest and Nanchang Uprisings that disastrously ended the revolution in 1927 obliged what remained of its military force to flee into the nearby countryside, which included Mao Zedong and Zhu De.

It was here that this ragtag force built the first ‘rural soviet’. And for the very same reason that they fled the cities to hide in the nearby no-man’s-land of the Jinggangshan mountain range, (because this region was safe from government persecution), the CCP began to see the Soviet in the Jinggangshan as the panacea for their urban failure. If you want to create a ‘revolution’ artificially, it is far easier to do so in an obscure rural backwater with a loose and scattered peasantry than in an urban centre. After all, with the Canton Commune the CCP had tried to manufacture the revolution in a city, but without genuine mass support this lasted only 3 days. Contrariwise, the rural soviets lasted, in one form or another, right up until 1949.

Therefore considering Stalinism’s need to ‘find the revolution’, and given the party’s systematic loss of its best urban activists and its alienation from the working class, it was inevitable that it would stumble into the policy of rural armed struggle as its main strategy. Maoism was improvised independently of Mao himself and with little thought given to its long term consequences.

For the first few years of the 1930s the rural struggle was still officially subordinate to the urban one, with Party Central clandestinely based in Shanghai. But the fundamental point about the socialist revolution is that it can only happen thanks to the interdependence and unity of the working class. That whole sections of the party were forced to now base themselves on an extremely un-unified class (the peasantry) represented a massive defeat for the revolutionary forces, not an innovative step forwards. The Jinggangshan’s remoteness was not an advantage but a massive disadvantage, and it inevitably led to an objective dislocation and conflict between the rural and urban sections of the party. From now on unity of action, the best weapon in a Bolshevik party’s armoury, would be constantly undermined.

Mao’s Base in the Jinggangshan

Mao was born and raised in Hunan Province, a rural setting in South Central China and in close proximity to the Jinggangshan mountains, which straddled Jiangxi and Hunan Provinces. No doubt due to his peasant origins (most of the prominent youth in the party were from a student background) Mao took a great deal of interest in the party’s work amongst the peasantry, organising Peasant Associations in Hunan from 1925.

So when the Autumn Harvest Uprising was organised in Changsha (the capital of Hunan) in 1927, Mao was the comrade to lead it. When it was summarily crushed, he knew the surrounding countryside. As a man particularly steeped in China’s traditions of rural uprisings, he was most likely familiar with the local tendency for bandits and other outlaws to hide in the remoteness of the Luoxiao Mountains, of which the Jinggangshan range forms a part.

Because of the economic, social and political weakness of the peasantry as a class, any peasant based uprising must have the tendency to subordinate the politics of the movement to the narrow technical and military aspects of it. In the cities Marxists can work amongst the existing organisations of the working class, and therefore concentrate their efforts on giving those organisations a socialist programme. Organising peasant uprisings and revolutionary governments in the countryside, however, necessarily drags communists into the extremely difficult work of holding the movement together economically and militarily.

The scanty resources, low level of productivity and economic isolation found in Jinggangshan and other rural areas made running the Soviets a constant burden. As we shall see, the political needs (agrarian reform, raising of agricultural productivity etc.) of the movement had to be subordinated to the task of bare survival, let alone the fact that it was impossible to carry a revolutionary programme out on the basis of one or two Xiens (rural districts). If socialism in one country is impossible, socialism in one Xien was certainly a pipe dream!

If the desire to use the isolation of certain rural districts to keep the ‘revolution’ going flowed from Stalinism’s inherent bureaucratic, commandist methods, then the organisational weakness of the peasantry was its perfect social basis. One could hardly get away with invading the homes of workers in a city and declaring yourself their revolutionary government! But in a sparsely populated rural area, that is another question entirely.

The need to place organisational tasks ahead of winning the political struggle in this context is exemplified by the fact that the political organs of the supposed self-rule of the peasants in the Jinggangshan Soviet were established “artificially and directed from outside” (Guillermaz, op cit.) by what was in effect an invading and occupying force, albeit a benevolent one. These organs of power were not created by the peasant masses; they did not flow from their own struggle and experience. They could only be sprung up once the Red Army had done its military work. Thus there was no political experience of the masses as the prerequisite, there could be no political work conducted in convincing the peasant masses of the need for socialism as they went through their own struggle.

This explains Mao’s 1928 admission that “wherever the Red Army goes, the masses are cold and aloof, and only after our propaganda do they slowly move into action... We have an acute sense of our isolation which we keep hoping will end.” (Mao, quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). Again a party report in 1929 stated that “the masses completely failed to understand what the Red Army was. In many places, it was even attacked, like a bandit gang.” (quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

Formally speaking the soviet was democratic, but in order to ensure mass participation “everybody over the age of 16 had to take part.” (Guillermaz, op cit.). “The establishment and functioning of the new administration was constantly hindered by such difficulties as finding qualified office-bearers... lack of understanding of the respective roles of assemblies and committees” (Ibid).  But democracy is not a set of formal arrangements, a certain number of committees legally responsible to the people as the liberals imagine. Democracy is only real democracy when the mass of people actively and voluntarily participate and feel the process to be theirs.

Genuine democracy therefore has an economic basis – the masses must have the time, education and resources to exercise real control. But the economic conditions in places such as the Jinggangshan were to preclude this. The low level of productivity in these areas meant that peasants were already performing back-breaking work. For them to participate in the political organisation of their region was simply not possible. Furthermore, the population would undoubtedly have been illiterate and unaware of national politics. All these problems apply not only to Jinggangshan but also to the following Soviet established in Jiangxi as well as all the others established by the CCP in provinces such as Shaanxi.

In addition to this, the Jinggangshan was made up of particularly barren and infertile land. At the best of times it would barely have been able to feed its own peasant population, and yet the (in effect) occupying force of the Red Army now had to be fed too. Although when they first arrived they had only 1,000 troops, by the time Zhu De’s forces arrived, following their failure in the Nanchang Uprising, the number went up to approximately 5,000, and then reached a height of 10,000. That is a lot of people for 2,000 impoverished peasants to feed!

A harmonious and democratic socialist society therefore must be built on the highest of economic foundations; and yet here the CCP appeared to be trying to build it on the very lowest of foundations. True, at this time they had no illusions that socialism would be created here; they continually emphasised that these ‘Soviets’ were merely stepping stones to the proletarian revolution.

In reality, they represented a haven from the already failed proletarian revolution, an escape from reality, and so it was inevitable the party would be mired in these conditions for some time – in the end, this period lasted 22 years. They underestimated the essential role of the consciousness of the working class in the fight for socialism and therefore could not grasp what had been thrown away in 1927 thanks to Stalin’s policies. The workers could not be stimulated into action by a strange army in the countryside. It would take years of hard, patient work in the cities to win back the confidence and participation of the workers. For this reason they were unconscious that this ‘temporary’ concession to peasant politics would become the long-term foundation of the party.

The deleterious effect on the unity of the party that this barbaric struggle for survival had was already visible less than one year after arrival. By Summer 1928, the Red Army’s “operations had exhausted the region economically, while the food situation in the army, which was scarcely ever paid, had grown still worse. Yuan Zhongzuan, in command of the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Regiment, rebelled and killed his colonel and part of his unit followed him in his revolt for some time.” (Ibid). According to Mao himself “discipline was poor, political training was at a low level, and many wavering elements were among the men and officers. There were many desertions.” (Mao, quoted in Snow, op cit.).

It has already been mentioned that this remote area, and countless others like it, had traditionally harboured bandits and outlaws who, like the Red Army, could operate here in safety from the state. Indeed in order to settle in the area Mao not only had to placate two local bandit chiefs but was actually obliged to assimilate them into his army! It appears from his own account that Mao naively believed these roving de-classed elements were immediately transformed, by means of some verbal commitments, into “faithful Communists” “carrying out the orders of the party.” And yet he also admits that “later on, when they were left alone at Jinggangshan, they returned to their bandit habits. Subsequently they were killed by the peasants.” (Ibid). The desperateness of the efforts to build the Communist movement in these conditions clearly compelled the party to downplay the material and class basis for the movement in an idealist manner.

It’s no surprise to learn that if this environment was the ‘natural habitat’ for bandits, to the extent that the Red Army actually absorbed outlaws into its ranks, the Red Army itself began to lose its proletarian revolutionary character, and took on more of the lumpen-proletarian characteristics of a bandit gang. Again, Mao honestly lists these tendencies in the CCP and Red Army at the time,

“‘Partisanism’, for example, was a weakness reflected in lack of discipline, exaggerated ideas of democracy, and looseness of organisation. Another tendency that had to be fought was ‘vagabondage’ – a disinclination to settle down to the serious tasks of government, a love of movement, change, new experience and incident. There were also remnants of militarism, with some of the commanders maltreating or even beating the men, and discriminating against those they disliked personally, while showing favouritism to others.” (Ibid).

Under incessant military pressure from the Guomindang and facing a ruinous economic situation, the exodus from the Jinggangshan into Jiangxi took place in dribs and drabs from mid 1928 through to 1930. The first rural Soviet experiment, which was cobbled together ad hoc without the CCP really understanding what was in their hands, and under Mao’s leadership by an accident of history, had failed.

But guerrilla armies are stubborn things. They grow accustomed to their arms and heroic lifestyle; they lose touch with the city and the urban masses. They begin to see the only path to power, or at least the only way to sustain their own existence, as being in the continuation and enlargement of the guerrilla struggle.

The weakening of party structures, discipline and centralism that is inherent in leading an obscure rural armed struggle are evident here. Because although at this time Mao was repudiated by and expelled from the Central Committee for the loss of comrades this movement led to, with sections of the party beginning to decry this adventure, he nevertheless maintained his army in spite of their criticism.  So rather than pack-in this peculiar experiment in petty-bourgeois adventurism and return to the cities, Mao and his troops found it far easier to simply set up another camp in the neighbouring province.


Much time has been spent criticising the rural experiment beginning in the Jinggangshan. But it cannot be denied that the establishment and maintenance of a rural government in the most adverse of conditions and after years of party failures represented a huge technical achievement. The success in establishing a government in the Jinggangshan meant that a Communist haven from persecution had been created.

For that reason when Mao and Zhu De’s band were forced to abandon their first base here, they found in the neighbouring province of Jiangxi (and in a few other border areas) rudimentary Soviet bases already established. Communist refugees from cities such as Changsha established copy-cat bases, so this was the natural place to take the forces from the Jinggangshan. It is unclear to what extent the moves to create these various bases were led or coordinated by the CCP leadership (still in Shanghai), but it would seem that to a large extent these activities were simply the unplanned outcome of the failed uprisings of 1930 detailed above.

By 1931 Mao was now leading what was known as the Jiangxi Central Soviet, with headquarters in Ruijin (then called Juichin). This was by far the biggest of the 7 soviet bases in and around Jiangxi. At the beginning of the Jiangxi period in 1930, there were about 60-70,000 Red Army troops defending these bases.

The new base was undoubtedly more successful than the previous one, for several reasons. Of course by now Mao and the Red Army had gained valuable experience in establishing a rural government, and the cadres in the party must have been toughened up after three years in the countryside. The land in Jiangxi was, like the Jinggangshan, suitable from a defensive point of view, being both mountainous and remote. But it also had the advantage of being more hospitable and therefore the Red Army was better fed and, crucially, less of a burden for the local peasantry who had to feed them. Finally, the Guomindang regime was weakened by splits, civil wars, regional dislocation and general unpopularity.

In these more fertile conditions the movement flourished. The total population governed by the Chinese Soviet Republic, as it was now called, grew to a size of up to five million from 1932-4. 17,375 new comrades were recruited to the CCP in 1931-3. 4.2% of the local population were party members and in 1932 there were 678 rural branches. This compares with only 10 branches in factories, 1 in a school, 123 in public sector workplaces and 160 in the military. Whereas in “all non-Communist territory” there were only around 6,000 members (bear in mind the number of urban and working class members will have been still lower than that, since this figure includes all non-Communist territory), there were as many as 97,000 members in Jiangxi alone (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). This shows how rapidly the party had lost its working class, urban base.

James Pinckney Harrison gives some useful statistics on Red Army numbers and the CCP class composition in the rural areas,

“The various Red Armies, of which there were about a half-dozen principal groups and more than a dozen in all, supposedly grew from less than 10,000 in 1928 to 22,000 in 1929 to 66,000 in the spring of 1930 to something more than 100,000 by early 1931. Estimates of total strength in 1932 ranged from 92,900 to 200,800, to possibly as many as 300,000 men in all groups by late 1933. Much of the time, about half or more of these forces were associated with Mao Zedong and Zhu De, who had more than 100,000 men by mid-1933.


“early in 1934, 28% of Red Army men were Party members, and another 16.6% were members of the Communist Youth League. Thus, about 45% of all Red Army men and a higher proportion of its officers (about 55%) were in the CCP or its youth affiliate. Only 4% of army men were over 39, 44% were from 23 to 39, 51% were 15 to 22, and 1 % were under 15. Their class backgrounds were supposedly 30% worker (apparently including 20% ‘agricultural labourers’) and 68% peasant; about 1% were former government employees and 1% ‘other’. Another survey, of 1932, reported proportions of 57.5% of the Red Armies peasant, 28% (former Nationalist or warlord) soldier, 8.75% ‘vagabond and bandit’, and 5.75% worker...The source of recruitment of the Red Armies was 77% from ‘revolutionary bases,’ 12% from Guomindang areas, 4% defected from Guomindang armies, and 7% converted prisoners of war.” (Ibid).

Read part five here ->>