Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Between 1925 and 1927 workers and peasants in China challenged both foreign and Chinese ruling classes, but in the end were defeated. The Chinese Communist Party remained only as isolated bands of guerrillas and lost practically all urban support. The retreat to countryside groups directed the revolution away from the idea that workers were able to bring about a new society, and towards the strategy of guerrilla warfare.
With the advances of foreign imperialist forces in the 19th century looking to exploit new markets, the class nature of China altered radically. Factories, mills, shipyards and railways sprang up, creating the considerable growth of a new working class. By 1916 there were one million workers in China, and by 1922 that number had doubled. The old ruling class was unable to resist the foreign imperialists, and a new Chinese capitalist class emerged, with a growing nationalist feeling, focusing on the desire for the Chinese capitalists themselves to take control.
In 1925 workers in Shanghai came out on strike against appalling working conditions, low wages and the brutality of foremen. The anger and resentment increased when striking workers were shot down and a Chinese worker killed by a Japanese foreman. On 30 May workers and students protested and several were arrested. The march went straight to the police station to demand the release of their comrades. There 12 students were shot and killed by a British officer.
The response was a general strike across Shanghai. At least 135 strikes involving 400,000 workers arose directly out of the 30 May shootings. The strike wave reached seamen in Canton, working for British shipping companies, who walked out on 18 June. A week later, during a demonstration in Canton, 52 students and workers were killed by British and French machine gunners. A general strike and boycott of all British goods followed immediately, and all foreign industrial activity ground to a halt as more than 100,000 workers left Hong Kong. The movement was well organised through strike committees, and a delegate conference which met twice a week. The committees set up a hospital, 17 schools and armed self defence squads in a show of embryonic workers' control. The organisation became known as 'government number two'.
The upheavals in Chinese society led to new political developments. These were influenced by ideas reaching China for the first time. By 1920 much of Lenin's writing had been translated into Chinese, and a few of the leaders of the growing movement came to understand the links between capitalism, imperialism and the need for workers to take control. In 1921 the Chinese Communist Party was formed.
The other major political force arguing for change was the Guomindang--the Nationalist Party. The Guomindang stood for three principles of nationalism, democracy and social justice, and was led by the Chinese liberal bourgeoisie. The CCP agreed to support the Guomindang in its nationalist struggles while maintaining independence as a working class party. This general position was initially adopted by the Communist International. But by 1922 the Comintern representatives in China were applying pressure on the young Communist Party to join the Guomindang to give it a 'communist colouring'.
Behind this change in policy was the emerging nature of the Russian state. The revolution in Russia was now in full retreat, the working class and its leadership had been decimated by civil war and famine. A new nationalist state was emerging, with a new bureaucracy led by Stalin. Russia's intervention became based, not on encouragement and support of revolutionary socialist movements, but on searching for allies for its own battle against pressure from Western powers. This meant that popular movements abroad were seen primarily as tools to engender support for soviet foreign policy. Instead of drawing from the experience of 1917, where the bourgeois and proletarian revolutionary movements had fused together, the revolution in China was seen as proceeding in rigid stages. The old ruling classes in a semi-colonial country like China would first have to be removed through a bourgeois nationalist revolution, and the socialist revolution would have to wait. The Russian bureaucracy believed that if they were able to place a powerful mass movement in the hands of the Chinese bourgeoisie for the purposes of overthrowing the foreign imperialists, they would in turn win a firm, ally in the Chinese bourgeoisie. Despite opposition within the CCP, it did enter the Guomindang. Developed in justification was the idea of the revolutionary bloc of four classes--workers, peasants, intellectuals and the bourgeoisie--who all had an interest in the national revolution. For the Comintern, maintaining this bloc was imperative for the success of the revolution and for consolidating the alliance with China.
The Guomindang and the Soviet advisers in China looked for a military leader to convince the Chinese liberals that an anti-imperialist revolution could be successful. This opened the door for Chang Kai-shek who, as a leader of the military cadets, had already proved that he could hold the balance between clashing political groups during their military campaigns in 1925. Chang was to become a useful ally for the Comintern within the Guomindang leadership. In turn he realised that he needed the support of the CCP and also the Russians who would provide arms, ammunition and advice.
Chang took command in Canton (Guangzhou) during a coup on 20 March 1926 which stunned the Communist leadership. Martial law was introduced and Russian and Chinese Communist advisers were arrested. The Chinese Communists had some power within the worker and peasant movements but found themselves increasingly unable to shape events politically for fear of breaking the bloc of four classes. Chang's leadership meant that the revolution was firmly in the hands of the bourgeoisie and the right wing of the Guomindang.
In 1920 Lenin had argued that in revolutionary movements involving bourgeois nationalists every attempt would be made by them to seize and take control of the movement in order to compromise with imperialist powers. He also argued that Communists must maintain independence and preserve their own leadership. But for Stalin the dynamics of the revolutionary struggle were less important than winning a strong ally in nationalist China, even to the detriment of the Chinese Communists, workers and peasants. Stalin was prepared to surrender to Chang.
Chang was hailed as a great leader of the revolution. The Guomindang was admitted into the Comintern as a 'sympathising party' and Chang Kai-shek became an honorary member. This policy of retreat and compliance allowed Chang to embark on a military campaign to conquer the north (the Northern Expedition), knowing that he could pull the mass movement behind him. The CCP received directions from the Stalin leadership in Moscow to restrain the peasant movement so as not to weaken the military campaign.
As the armies spread across China they were preceded by peasant revolts. Chang could take no credit for these uprisings. Indeed, the sight of dispossessed landlords coming into the cities with exaggerated tales of murder, rioting and looting infuriated the leadership of the Guomindang and the liberal bourgeoisie, many of whom were absentee landlords. The peasant movement was matched by an unparalleled strike wave involving over one million workers.
On 17 February 1927, as Chang approached Shanghai, the General Labour Union, expecting the armies to immediately advance, declared a general strike. Street fighting between workers and police began on 21 February with workers taking up arms in defence. With insurrection really under way, the Communist leaders called for an uprising for the next evening, planned to coincide with the arrival of Chang's troops. However, the army stayed outside as instructed by the Guomindang leadership. The uprising was put down by local warlords and police though mass slaughter. Despite the heavy casualties and the vacillation of the Communist leadership, the workers' organisations remained intact. When it was announced that the troops were about to enter Shanghai the General Labour Union announced another general strike and insurrection on 21 March. Fighting took place to gain control of police stations and local military posts. Still the troops stayed outside the city. The insurrection was victorious and as the battle died down Chang eventually entered Shanghai and the workers were told to lay down their weapons and welcome the liberation by the Guomindang armies. However, the battle for the city was not over.
Chang Kai-shek's support did not go to the workers of the city but to his old allies, the Shanghai capitalists and local warlords. While the CCP organised demonstrations to mark his arrival, Chang met with the capitalist leaders and heads of local gangs to discuss how to smash the workers' organisations and remove them from control of Shanghai. Chang imposed martial law on the city, arrested many Communists and banned trade union and student organisations. On 12 April the General Labour Union was shut down. Pickets were arrested, disarmed and killed. A general strike was called but Chang was ready and his troops slaughtered 5,000 strikers.
Stalin continued to argue that the Guomindang and Chang Kai-shek were leading the revolution to victory and the Communist press claimed that the unity of the Guomindang was firmly in place and the demands of the workers would be satisfied. In Russia the internal struggle between the Stalinist bureaucracy and Trotsky and the Left Opposition was becoming fierce. Much of the debate centred around the policy of the Soviet state in external affairs and so China became a major issue. Trotsky demanded that the CCP leave the Guomindang, that soviets be set up and arms be supplied to the workers and peasants instead of to the Guomindang armies. Trotsky understood that there were two possible courses for the revolution: either the working class would use its power to push the revolution forward or the forces of counter-revolution would rise and crush the workers' and peasants' movement. Trotsky's views were suppressed and the CCP was ordered to hide its weapons and avoid any conflict between the workers and Chang Kai-shek.
Chang's reign of terror continued. Between April and December 1927 38,000 militants were killed and 32,000 imprisoned. The Communist Party lost practically all its support in urban areas and the trade union membership was decimated. It became increasingly difficult for the Comintern to conceal the true nature of events in China. Stalin and Bukharin swiftly changed course, claiming the Comintern could hold no responsibility. Leaders in the party were scapegoated and denounced for restraining the workers and peasants in order to maintain the alliance and were purged from the CCP. The Comintern, having led the CCP down a blind alley, now attempted to bury the remains of the party. The Comintern declared that now was the time for action and the CCP was ordered to go on the offensive in a series of revolts. The 'Autumn Harvest Uprisings' spread across the country. Armies attacked key towns in order to establish bases from which to launch a national offensive. The strategy was suicidal and the remnants of the party were practically crushed. Mao Zedong led one of those armies and his troops survived because they fled from battle and Mao led them to the countryside where they were joined by two other surviving bands.
These guerrilla bands held on to power precariously for the next few years, mainly in the Jiangxi region, which was named the 'Soviet Republic of Jiangxi'. Although the Guomindang, controlled the major cities in China, local landlords still held power in the countryside. As the CCP managed to extend its control, the peasantry regarded it as a welcome new local power, because it restricted the power of the local landlords and introduced lower rents. By 1932 Chang Kai-shek saw the growth of the CCP as a serious threat and the Guomindang armies launched a series of attacks against the central base at Jiangxi. The CCP was able to hold out until the fifth attack when the Guomindang did manage to recover the districts of the 'Soviet Republic' but it did not destroy the Communist armies. The CCP retreated further into the countryside, embarking on what was to be known as the 'Long March'. This immense undertaking saw between 80,000 and 90,000 people set out for the 'soviet' areas in Shaanxi, hundreds of miles from Jiangxi Only 4,000 arrived. Over half those who set out on the march died along the way. The remaining survivors who didn't reach Shaanxi were left to establish guerrilla bases in the countryside.
In contrast to the brutality of the Guomindang armies and the Japanese forces taking control in parts of the country many peasants saw the Communists as a welcome political force that treated them like humans. As a result the CCP grew significantly for the first time since 1927. At the end of the Long March in 1937 the membership was 40,000. By 1943 the party had grown to 800,000 and by 1945 to 1.2 million. But, the composition of the party had radically changed--90 percent of the new recruits were peasants and the leadership of the organisation was drawn mainly from intellectuals.
In 1931 Japan invaded the north of China and took control of regions as far south as Shanghai. Chang did not resist these advances but instead attempted to satisfy Japan's demands whilst protecting his own power. He hoped that he would maintain his position by holding power at least in the Yangtze Valley. However, when Japan attacked in earnest in 1937 it was clear that this was to be a conquest for control over the whole of China and Chang had to resist. The Guomindang was only able to pull together poorly led and poorly trained forces which were unable to halt the Japanese troops. Chang's regime was only able to hold power in a small area in the west. In areas that were occupied by Japan, struggles against the advancing troops had sprung up and taken their own form and leadership. The CCP, previously confined to the north-west, was able to move in and organise the resistance. Although it was forces from outside China (mainly US power), which pushed the Japanese back, as the armies retreated the Communists were able to challenge the Guomindang for control over China.
By 1945 the Red Army had control of 10 percent of China. Civil war broke out almost immediately after the defeat of Japan between the Communists and the Guomindang with the majority of the population mere spectators. The Guomindang was heavily supported by the US, which supplied vast quantities of arms. Yet the Red Army, motivated by a belief that it was fighting for a better society, was able to push the Guomindang troops back. The war dragged on for four years, mainly due to China's vast size, but by 1949 it was clear that Mao Zedong and the CCP would take control and Chang Kai-shek fled. In January Peking (Beijing) surrendered and on 1 October Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China.
The overthrow of the old ruling class by a million strong peasant army was a revolution, but not a socialist one. The CCP had very little support from the working class and as the Red Army approached the cities the CCP ordered the workers not to strike or pursue insurrections. The working class, having been crushed during the massacres of 1927, had lost confidence. The CCP had withdrawn from the cities and the revolutionary spirit was lost. But the potential for revolution had not disappeared and the urban intelligentsia, able to control the mass peasant movement, filled the vacuum left by the absence of a revolutionary working class. From the beginning the People's Republic of China was not built on socialist ideas. The experience of 1925-27 shows why, and where real power lies in the fight for the socialist revolution.