Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

In the latest part of his series on the Chinese Communist Party and the development of Maoism, Daniel Morley looks at the Long March and the role of Mao Zedong himself. The flight of the Chinese Communists into the countryside forced upon the leadership the need for flexibility and self-sacrifice at the expense of political foresight and influence in the working class.

The flight to the countryside forced upon the leadership the need for flexibility and self-sacrifice at the expense of political foresight and influence in the working class. Similarly, the desperate way in which the Long March was begun as a daring escape from certain destruction really brought out all the tactical genius of the party and in particular of Mao Zedong.

[Read part six]

The Long March

Facing annihilation there could be no democratically agreed plan on how to conduct this march. There could be no vote on whether it was the correct course of action and where it was to end up. The rural conditions meant that the CCP leadership had to devote all its thinking to the tasks of bare survival, never mind the political costs. In this way the organisational genius that brought the CCP to power is in inverse proportion to the strength of its level of political foresight.

Prior to the true beginning of the Long March several similar expeditions from some of the other Soviet bases had taken place, which demonstrates the necessity to leavethe wider Jiangxi area following years of Guomindang harassment. One of these, starting out with a very small force, was more or less destroyed; however the forces of the legendary general Xu Haidong were trailblazers for this epic expedition. They left their E Yu Wan base (a separate, more northerly base to Mao’s Jiangxi one) about one month earlier than the main force and successfully reached the end point in Shaanxi before anyone else, after spending just over a year at a base in Sichuan.

Breaking Free

Between 16th and 19th October 1934 the main force of 90,000 began the Long March with a fearsome drive through the Guomindang blockade. The Red Army concentrated its forces at one point, staying true to Mao’s maxim of ‘pitting 10 against 1’ and succeeded with a combination of daring, surprise, luck and willingness to make harsh sacrifices. They gained the crucial element of surprise precisely due to their daring and willingness to sacrifice – the Guomindang never expected the CCP to leave its beloved commune and march tens of thousands into the unknown, but they did it.

They brilliantly tricked Chiang’s forces by leaving behind several thousand fighters to confuse the Guomindang and delay their realisation of what was going on. Although almost everyone in the 14 (small) bases left behind in Jiangxi was eventually killed, the tactic was an undoubted success as the Guomindang took almost a full month to really understand what the main army was doing. Without that time the Long March would likely have been intercepted in its earliest stages and abruptly ended, along with the CCP as a party. The success of the march always depended on the CCP’s ability to stay one step ahead. The tactics of surprise, audacity and sacrifice with which the CCP broke out of the stranglehold would remain their key tactics and advantages against the Guomindang throughout the march.

The CCP’s main military force in the Long March was the First Red Army, which departed from Jiangxi in mid October as described above. It was led by Mao Zedong and Zhu De and as described started the march with around 90,000 (the majority, but not all, were soldiers). The route they took and the legendary escapades they performed represent the Long March as it is commonly understood.

However, there were two other core armies leading similar marches for the same reasons, and at various points coalescing with the other armies, despite starting from different places. The Second Red Army was led by He Long and left from a smaller Soviet located to the West of Mao’s main Central Soviet in Jiangxi. And the Fourth Red Army was led by Zhang Guotao, composed of elements that had been based in the more northerly E Yu Wan Soviet. He commanded a force of just under 20,000 when leaving their base in 1932, and reached a meeting point with the First Red Amy in Sichuan Province before Mao’s forces. Xu Haidong’s smaller force, the XXV Corps, also led their own Long March from E Yu Wan as mentioned above, leaving one month prior to Mao’s First Red Army and also arriving in Shaanxi one month before.

The first real event of note in the Long March is the crossing of the Xiang River as the First Red Army moved westwards from Jiangxi into Hunan. This was part of the vague plan to move westwards through Hunan and Guizhou into Yunnan, a relatively remote and densely forested province in the South Western extreme of China, far from the clutches of Nanjing. The general idea was to then turn north into Sichuan, where there was already a base established by Zhang Guotao’s Fourth Red Army.

Moltke, the great German strategist, made a very profound statement when he said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The crossing of the Xiang River sums up the precariousness of the CCP’s existence in the Long March and the imperative to switch tactics at a moment’s notice. Having correctly read their line of movement by mid-November, the Guomindang moved troops into Hunan to meet them. They struck at the weakest point in the First Red Army’s line of march, that is at the Xiang River crossing bottleneck. The crossing must have been extremely inefficient since it took four days to cross. According to Pinckney Harrison, by the time the crossing was completed at the end of November, the First Red Army had lost one third of their comrades as casualties and desertions. By now, the First Red Army had been whittled down to 30,000 soldiers and 5,000 political cadres – down from 90,000 only one month earlier. This dire situation forced Mao’s army to change course.

The Zunyi Conference

Just over one month later, on 5th January 1935, the First Red Army captured the town of Zunyi, in the northern extreme of Guizhou Province, then close to the border with Sichuan, but now near the municipality of Chongqing.

The very next day an ‘enlarged conference of the Political Bureau’, better known as the Zunyi Conference, took place. All the contradictions between the official Party Central leadership (responsible for the disastrous aggressive line in the Fifth Encirclement Campaign) and reality, as represented by Mao, were brought into the open.

Grievances were suddenly and sharply expressed as the immense burdens of the Long March showed their toll. “Peng Dehuai first criticised the leadership of the Long March”, “Mao Zedong then broadened the attack to include Communist tactics against the fifth Encirclement Campaign, and during the Long March.” Then “Liu Shaoqi extended the criticisms to ‘white’ area policies, which had been so ‘leftist’ as to make urban work impossible, and demanded a general policy review.” As a result of this tirade, “Chief of Staff Liu Bocheng reversed his earlier stand to support criticisms made by Peng Dehuai, Mao, and Liu Shaoqi, and when Zhou Enlai admitted his participation in many errors of judgement, it became possible for Zhang Wentian and others to promote a compromise solution” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

The nature of this compromise was the passing of a resolution incorporating many of these criticisms. Although the resolution pulled its punches and declared the current leadership to be generally correct, it is clear that the incorporation of these criticisms represents a mortal blow to the Moscow favoured leadership. After this conference they never regained their authority and Mao, despite not being officially made chairman, was now the ‘dominant personality’ in the leadership, and was listed first in the Politburo when its membership was read out to the Comintern leadership later that year.

The political capital the ‘Party Central’ leadership derived from Moscow’s support had now exhausted itself; Mao’s momentum, built up from his superior tactics and rural foundation, had propelled him to pre-eminence. The period of turmoil in the Party leadership in the wake of the catastrophic failure of 1927, with all its repercussions, had come to an end, and the Party had finally found a leader in harmony with its new rural, guerrilla self. Mao would not relinquish rule in the Party until his death 41 years later.

Luding Bridge

The First Red Army departed their temporary base in Zunyi in early February 1935. In the manoeuvres the army carried out in the next few months we find the daring, ingenuity and heroism of the Long March at its peak.

The rest period of roughly one month in Zunyi lost the CCP the head-start it had relied upon, and so the provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan were by now infested with hundreds of thousands of Guomindang troops waiting for them at every turn. Chiang Kai-shek had time to draw up plans and ensure that all strategic points, such as river crossings, were heavily fortified. The CCP could therefore rely only on their greater capacity for self-sacrifice and hardship, based as they were on politically committed troops rather than poorly paid and poorly treated conscripts.

To escape Guizhou, “a series of distracting manoeuvres” with “two columns, and sometimes as many as four columns, engaged in a series of baffling manoeuvres”, were used “so that it became more and more difficult for Nanjing planes to identify the day-by-day objective” (Snow, op cit.). The lengthy tracks traced by the Red Army to escape the clutches of the Guomindang in Guizhou took four months to complete, during which they destroyed five enemy divisions, recruited 20,000 and called numerous mass meetings amongst the people (Ibid).

Following this an even more dazzling dummy manoeuvre was employed to allow the main army to escape to a dangerous Yangtze river crossing unnoticed, when a few troops visibly broke off and marched towards the capital of Yunnan. This cunning plan worked, with Guomindang troops pulled out of Guizhou in pursuit of the dummy whilst the bulk of the Red Army slipped away!

But that was not all. Once spotted, it was obvious that the main army, not marching to the capital, could only be marching to one of the key crossing points for the Yangtze River in Yunnan. Therefore the initial diversion was not enough, as Chiang would (and did) ensure that the crossing to which they were clearly marching was well covered – according to Snow’s account, all the boats at the crossing were taken to the far side of the river (from the point of view of the Red Army) and burnt.

Once certain that they had fully convinced Chiang Kai-shek (by pretending to build a bridge with which to cross the river), a battalion suddenly upped-sticks and inconspicuously marched at a pace of 85 miles in 24 hours, reaching an alternative crossing of the Yangtze which was too far for Chiang to have considered worthwhile defending. Once again, the Guomindang was outdone by the Red Army’s superior determination, cunning and morale. No conscripted army could possibly be expected to suddenly reverse direction, after spending days carrying out what was merely a dummy manoeuvre, and cover 85 miles in a day.

Crossing was now easy, with only a handful of government troops to defend the actual crossing. Knowing the route to the real crossing was safe, within a day or two the remaining troops left the original crossing to reach the safe one. According to Snow, this unorthodox move, probably too circuitous to be considered by most generals, resulted in the successful crossing of the Yangtze without a single life lost. Ironically mimicking Chiang’s tactics, the Red Army forces now burnt the boats they had used to cross the river, leaving the confused Guomindang troops with both nearby crossings destroyed.

If we are to take the legends at face value, then all this was merely a warm up for the far more spectacularly heroic crossing of Luding Bridge on the Dadu River in Sichuan. At the end of May, after days of hard marching along the treacherous banks of the Dadu River, the Red Army once again successfully pulled away from their pursuers thanks to taking shorter and less frequent rests, and finally reached Luding Bridge.

According to the legends this rickety chain bridge, swinging precariously over the rapids below and spanning 100 yards, was like something from a Hollywood adventure movie after the Guomindang removed most of the wooden planks. On the other side lay a Guomindang position with machine-gunners in place to shoot down any communists fool-hardy enough to try to cross. Once again, the Red Army challenged certain death and 30 soldiers were chosen for the suicide mission. They overcame the lack of planks by crawling under the bridge, hanging from its chains, which had the additional benefit of providing some cover from the volleys of machine-gun fire. Nevertheless most of these dare-devils were killed in the crossing, and we can only admire the astonishing bravery of these nameless heroes,

“Probably never before had the Sichuanese seen fighters like these – men for whom soldiering was not just a rice bowl, and youths ready to commit suicide to win. Were they human beings or madmen or gods? Was their own morale affected? Did they perhaps not shoot to kill? Did some of them secretly pray that these men would succeed in their attempt? At last one Red crawled up over the bridge flooring, uncapped a grenade, and tossed it with perfect aim into the enemy redoubt.” (Ibid)

Once one was across, the game was up, and the machine-gun nest surrendered, with some of the forces joining the Red Army. This is the remarkable story of how the Red Army crossed the river Dadu. For millions of Chinese it encapsulates the decades-long sacrifice of the Chinese people as they struggled against Japanese and Guomindang oppression.

Unfortunately, the truth is probably somewhat more mediocre. Deng Xiaoping, the Chairman of the CCP and President of China who led the capitalist restoration from 1978 onwards, was a participant in these events. According to the US Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Deng confirmed suspicions that this unverifiable account was greatly exaggerated for propaganda purposes when he told him,

“Well, that’s the way it’s presented in our propaganda. We needed that to express the fighting spirit of our forces. In fact, it was a very easy military operation. There wasn’t really much to it. The other side were just some troops of the warlord who were armed with old muskets and it really wasn’t that much of a feat, but we felt we had to dramatize it.”

Of course, this anecdote should be taken with just as large a pinch of salt as the official story, for they are both equally unverifiable and equally useful as propaganda. Whether or not it was fabricated, the daring involved in the story does encapsulate the incredible hardship, suffering, bravery and self-sacrifice that the Red Army really did depend on throughout the Long March. The figures for the number of casualties alone prove this, as do the routes taken through mountain passes, river crossings and swamps, which cannot be exaggerated and did take place.

After crossing the Luding, the First Red Army was obliged to ascend over 5,000m to continue, as they were now on the borders of Tibet. No human being can live permanently above roughly 5,000m, for the air is too thin. Far more of those who died on the Long March perished due to the severe conditions, such as the thin air, cold, lack of food and waterlogging.

Unhappy Reunion in Sichuan

If rural conditions tend to dissolve the political unity of a party, then the Long March through half of China pushed this to its absolute extreme. This was exhibited in the general uncertainty as to where the Long March would end up, which was decided on as they went along, but particularly in the fact that the Long March essentially comprised three separate marches, each with tens of thousands of CCP comrades, and each equally uncertain as to where and when they would meet up.

The First Red Army lost contact with the rest of the Communist International for the entire 12 month duration of the march, and so had no idea of its decisions and political perspectives. The all-important conference in Zunyi, which had determined the fate of the leadership after the testing first few months of the Long March, was not and could not have been representative or constitutional. Note how the conference had to take place at a moment of military convenience, not one of political necessity.

Because the rural work and the Long March had broken up the Party into militarily sealed off areas, such political meetings claiming to determine the party line could only involve one or another section of the Party. Thus the Zunyi conference involved only those in the First Red Army, and it is therefore unsurprising that Mao, who led that division, should come out on top. Mao’s emergence owed a great deal to luck.

The Fourth Red Army, under Zhang Guotao’s and Xu Haidong’s leadership, was equal in size to the First Red Army but could not participate in the Zunyi conference due to geographical separation. What would their opinion have been on the proceedings at Zunyi? How would that conference have turned out had they been there? The comrades of the First Red Army would now find out, as following the crossing of Luding Bridge and their arrival in Sichuan, they were reunited with the comrades of the Fourth Red Army (who had been in Sichuan since 1933) at Fupien.

Both armies had felt the toll of the Long March, which was coming towards its end. When they arrived in their Sichuan base in 1933, the Fourth Red Army was reduced to around 3-4,000 from the 20,000 they had left with (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.). When they joined the Fourth Red Army in mid-June 1935, the First Red Army was down to about 10,000 members; down from the roughly 90,000 when they left Jiangxi only eight months previously.

Nevertheless, Zhang’s forces were significantly militarily stronger when the two armies met, as they had had two years of recovery time, with plenty of time to recruit in their Sichuan base. Estimates of their size vary between 40 and 80,000 in mid-1935. Therefore, when the two armies met, Zhang Guotao’s forces were between four and eight times as large as Mao’s, and much better rested. And yet thanks to the Zunyi conference, from which Zhang Guotao’s forces were excluded by an accident of geography, Mao and his comrades were now the leaders of the party. Zhang and his comrades had had no say in this decision and would now take the opportunity of this reunion to impress their numerical and military superiority on this ‘upstart’ leadership, as it appeared to Zhang.

According to Pinckney Harrison, a key component in the clash between Mao and Zhang that would take place over the course of their meeting in Sichuan was the fact that Zhang and his associates from the much stronger Fourth Front Army were completely under-represented in the party leadership. Although the decision was not taken to give Zhang’s faction a majority in the leadership in proportion to their military superiority, one can see in this tension once again the dangerous tendency towards the subordination of Marxist political leadership to military strength and technical considerations. It would be tempting to capitulate to military strength and name the leader of the strongest army as the leader of the party, irrespective of their political quality. That sets of leaders of the party rarely met in this period (and when they did, their meetings had a fortuitous character) and each commanded massive, independent armies, obviously gave a huge impetus to damaging factionalism.

Moreover, Zhang was correct in arguing that the outcomes of the Zunyi conference, so favourable to Mao, were invalid. He pointed out that “only a plenary session of the Central Committee was supposed to have that authority [to reorganise the leadership]” and that anyway “only about half the Political Bureau (but all members of the Standing Committee except Xiang Ying) had been present at Zunyi” (Ibid). The outcome of this new clash was another victory for Mao, but it must be added that once again, this meeting lacked any formal democratic basis, was called ad-hoc and without any participation from the Second Red Army.  It is unclear on what political basis Mao defeated Zhang’s leadership challenge.

The Home Straight

The conflict between the two factions continued for the remainder of their mutual stay in Sichuan, and the nature of the conflict is worthy of note, again because of its exclusively organisational/technical character. Rather than debating the perspectives for the development of the class struggle in China, the two factions were utterly absorbed, as one would expect, in the question of which route to pursue. Ultimately, such a debate was based on guesswork, turning around matters of whether this or that area had enough food, whether the local tribes would be hostile or not. Party debates focusing on such issues to the detriment of analysing the class struggle in China can only have had a detrimental effect on the political level of its membership, and reflect a fugitive party in a state of desperation.

Given the lack of any objective basis with which to determine the safest route, the decision finally taken in acrimony was that the two factions should once again geographically separate. This was either to hedge the Party’s bets or to keep the feud at a safe distance. Zhang’s Fourth Red Army, with a few of the more exhausted Corps from the First Red Army, would march Westwards towards Tibet, and Mao’s forces, bolstered with many of Zhang’s troops, would march North-Easterly into Shaanxi.

Unfortunately for Zhang, his favoured route turned out to be a fatal dead end. Starting out with roughly 60,000 troops, a brutal Guomindang assault reduced the army to 40,000 at the end of 1935. They attempted to sustain themselves by recruiting from the local nomadic Tibetan population, but failed. It is likely that this was down to the nomadic and extremely backward character of Tibetan society – whereas the Red Army could recruit successfully from the Lolo tribes by appealing to them on class lines as common fighters against the rich and powerful, such efforts would have fallen on deaf ears when given to independent nomads, who were removed from the Chinese class system. Zhang’s soldiers were reduced to having to steal food to survive.

Half his troops then split off after the rest failed to cross the Yellow River. Those who succeeded in crossing were utterly destroyed, and the remaining 15,000 or so who failed to cross were by now reunited with the almost destroyed Second Red Army. They were forced to abandon their plans to establish a more Westerly base. Instead they chased after Mao’s by-now-established Shaanxi base with their tails between their legs in November 1936.

The First Red Army, hero of the long march, left Sichuan on 1st August 1935. They arrived triumphantly at what would become the base of the Red Army for the next twelve years on October 20th 1935, almost one year to the day after departing Jiangxi, with 20,000 survivors, having started with 90,000. Of those 20,000, some were taken from the Fourth Red Army in Sichuan, others were recruited along the way, so it is reasonable to assume that more than 70,000 perished in this most testing of adventures. Of course, many more died in the other armies.

Geographically similar to the Jinggangshan base in its mountain remoteness and poverty, the Red Army managed to stay here partly thanks to the area’s irrelevance in the eyes of Chiang Kai-shek, and partly due to his being distracted by the war with Japan, which as we shall see was beginning to put Chiang under enormous strains.

A Lucky Escape

There is no doubt that the accomplishment of the Long March is like a monument to the awe-inspiring self-sacrifice of millions of Chinese communists who perished in the course of the Chinese revolution. Its staggering statistics sum up the heroism of the toiling masses in their heroic struggle against oppression,

“There was an average of almost a skirmish a day, somewhere on the line, while altogether fifteen whole days were devoted to major pitched battles. Out of a total of 368 days en-route, 235 were consumed in marches by day, and 18 in marches by night. Of the 100 days of halts – many of which were devoted to skirmishes – 56 days were spent in north-western Sichuan, leaving only 44 days of rest over a distance of about 5,000 miles, or an average of one halt for every 114 miles of marching.


“The Reds crossed eighteen mountain ranges, five of which were perennially snow-capped, and they crossed twenty-four rivers. They passed through twelve difference provinces, occupied sixty-two cities and towns, and broke through enveloping armies of ten different provincial warlords, besides defeating, eluding, or out-manoeuvring the various forces of Central Government troops sent against them.” (Snow, op cit.)

Although it is true that the Long March was not planned in advance as part of a political strategy, but was embarked upon at the last minute out of military necessity, the CCP did correctly use it for political purposes. It was “the largest propaganda tour in history”, which “passed through provinces populated by more than 200,000,000 people” and “called mass meetings, gave theatrical performances, heavily ‘taxed’ the rich” (Ibid). This was all carried out by thousands of comrades, many of whom lost their lives in doing so, with a degree of determination that would ensure their final victory fourteen years later.

But the political legacy of the Long March was that it cemented the Bonapartist, Stalinist and petty-bourgeois character of the CCP. Nine-tenths of those who engaged in the Long March died. The mass meetings and education given out to the peasants, whilst well meaning, could be no substitute for the sustained mass participation of millions of urban workers and a stable cadre base in the party. Those fleeting visits to illiterate districts could only scratch the surface of the immense social and cultural problems in China’s vast countryside. And how could an army of CCP comrades constantly on the move, with no time to educate itself and of whom 90% died within a year, possibly hope to exercise any meaningful democratic control over the party? Trotsky brilliant anticipated at this time what the political consequences for absorption in the rural environment would ultimately be,

“The commanding stratum of the Chinese “Red Army” has no doubt succeeded in inculcating itself with the habit of issuing commands. The absence of a strong revolutionary party and of mass organizations of the proletariat renders control over the commanding stratum virtually impossible. The commanders and commissars appear in the guise of absolute masters of the situation and upon occupying cities will be rather apt to look down from above upon the workers. The demands of the workers might often appear to them either inopportune or ill-advised.” (Trotsky, Peasant War in China and the Proletariat, September 22nd 1932)

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