The Chinese Revolution of 1949 (Part-3)


Founding of Chinese Communist Party:

As with Russian Marxists, the main problem facing the Chinese Marxists was the fact that the vast majority of the population was made up not of workers, but of peasants. Li Dazhao circumvented this obstacle by claiming that foreign exploitation of China made all its people an exploited proletariat. Moreover, he claimed that China could not be liberated without the liberation of the peasants. He urged young Marxists to go into the countryside, and they began to do so in 1920.

Chinese Communists benefited greatly from the fact that Sun Yat-sen obtained no support from the Western powers who were, after all, attached to their special privileges in China. It is not surprising, therefore, that he turned to Moscow. In January 1918, he congratulated Lenin on the successful Bolshevik revolution (November 1917).

Lenin was convinced that the Russian Revolution could not survive unless successful revolutions took place in other countries, which would then become socialist allies of Soviet Russia. But he knew from his own experience that in economically backward countries — and Russia was a backward country in 1917 — the revolutionary leaders were not workers or peasants, but bourgeois, i.e., middle class intellectuals. Therefore, he developed the policy of supporting “bourgeois nationalism” in Western-ruled colonial areas, seeing it as the primary instrument of anti-imperialist revolution. This was, in turn, to lead to the fall of “imperialism” which he saw as the highest stage of capitalism. This explains Lenin’s primary interest in the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) movement of China. Thus, in the early 1920s, the Soviet Union supported Sun Yat-Sen’s KMT. The Soviets agreed to give Sun military, political, and organizational help.

Earlier study groups were organized to study Marxist thought but it was not until spring 1920, that a Comintern agent, Grigorii Voytinskii, arrived in China with information and political writings. Many of these were translated into Chinese at this time. It was also Voytinskii who worked successfully to transform the existing Marxist study groups into communist groups and then into the Communist Party of China.

Thus, it was in the period between spring and winter 1920, and with the active help of Voytinskii, that the Chinese Communist Party began to take shape. It was based on the Marxist study groups previously organized in Beijing and Shanghai. The party was secretly constituted in that city in July 1921, formalizing the organization formed the previous year. Communist nuclei around the country were transformed into party branches with local secretaries in Hunan (Mao Zedong), Guangzhou, Wuhan, Beijing, and Jinan. Shanghai had its own branch. The party program closely followed the Bolshevik program in Soviet Russia.

Voytinskii was assisted in this organizational work by the Soviet government’s proclamation that it would give up the old Russian privileges in China. In particular, the Soviet government promised to return the Chinese Eastern Railway (a branch of the Trans-Siberian railway) to China. Though this promise was not implemented, it made Chinese authorities more friendly to Moscow and allowed some travel between China and Soviet Russia.

In May 1924, the Soviet government fulfilled some of its earlier promises by giving up formally the old Russian concessions in Tianjin (Tientsin) and Hankow, as well as paying the outstanding part of the indemnity for Chinese losses incurred by Russian action in the great power intervention during the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901). These Soviet moves cost Moscow very little, while increasing Chinese goodwill toward the USSR.

At first, the Chinese Communist Party consisted mostly of intellectuals and had very little military strength, which explains why it was willing to work with the KMT.

CCP-KMT cooperation and Northern Expedition(1926-1928)

Lenin, and later Stalin, ordered the CCP to join the KMT and many leading communists did so, including Mao and Zhou Enlai. The goal was to strengthen and, at the same time, infiltrate the KMT. Nevertheless, though Soviet advisers gave the KMT ideology an anti-imperialist slant, the bulk of the movement remained distinctly non-communist. Ironically, the CCP’s major contribution to the KMT was to organize worker support for it in the coastal cities.

The peak of CCP-KMT cooperation came in the years of the Nationalist Revolution, in 1925-27. This was crowned by the great campaign launched against the warlords of central China by Chiang Kai-shek in 1926. It was known as the Northern Expedition because he started from the south.


The Northern Expedition was a Kuomintang (KMT) military campaign, led by Chiang Kai-shek. Its main objective was to unify China under its own control, by ending the rule of Beiyang government (the government of the Republic of China, which was in place in the capital city Beijing from 1912 to 1928) as well as the local warlords. Chiang won a series of impressive victories and unified about half of the country. It led to the end of the Warlord Era, the reunification of China in 1928, and the establishment of the Nanjing government.

The Northern Expedition became a point of contention over foreign policy between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Stalin followed an opportunist policy, ignoring communist ideology. He told the CCP to stop complaining about the lower classes and follow the KMT’s orders. Stalin believed that the KMT middle and upper classes would defeat the western imperialists in China and complete the revolution. Leon Trotsky openly criticized Stalin for the failure of his policy in China. Trotsky wanted the Communist party to complete an orthodox proletarian revolution and opposed the KMT. Stalin funded the KMT during the expedition. (This criticism, together with his opposition to Stalin in the debate on industrialization (1926-27), led to his internal exile to Alma Ata, Kazkhastan, in 1928, and then his exile from Russia in 1929)

However, Chiang quickly reversed the tables in the Shanghai massacre of 1927 by massacring the Communist party in Shanghai midway in the Northern Expedition.

End of cooperation between the KMT and the CCP:

Chiang’s triumph signaled the end of cooperation between the KMT and the CCP. The generally accepted view is that the split was precipitated by CCP radicalism. This targeted not only foreign privileges and symbols, but also rich Chinese. Wealthy Shangai industrialists were alarmed and offered to bankroll Chiang if he freed himself from dependence on Moscow. This suited Chiang and in March 1925 he arrested the political commissars in his army and placed the Soviet advisers under house arrest.

In April 1927, when the Northern Expedition forces approached Shanghai, the communist-led labor unions rose to take the city from the inside. When Chiang entered the city, he ordered a massacre of the communists. This became known as the “Shanghai massacre” or more commonly “the White Terror.” Also in April 1927, KMT leaders met in Nanjing (Nanking), proclaimed the establishment of a National Government and outlawed the CCP.

Stalin did not want to admit the defeat of his China policy, so he ordered the CCP to continue cooperation with the KMT. It is not clear whether he sanctioned an unofficial test of strength, or whether the CCP disobeyed his orders. In any case, it carried out an uprising in the city of Nanchang in August 1927. Although the communists held the city for only a few days, the rising is notable for the participation of future leaders of the Chinese Red Army. The communist rising in Guangzhou in December 1927 also failed.

There was, in fact, no way that the CCP could have seized control of the KMT in the 1920s or 1930s, because at that time the KMT embodied the dominant drive toward unification and symbolized Chinese national goals. But we can at least wonder whether a different Soviet policy toward the CCP might not have averted its annihilation. For example, it is intriguing to speculate what would have happened if Moscow had ordered the CCP to split off from the KMT in March 1926, and/or supported Mao’s later policy of concentrating the party’s efforts on the peasants – as the CCP frantically requested. However, such a policy seems most unlikely for while Trotsky opposed CCP cooperation with the KMT, neither he nor Stalin ever sanctioned Mao’s strategy to build Chinese communism with the support of the teeming millions of Chinese peasants.

Still, though the Stalin-Comintern Chinese policy had exposed the CCP to brutal repression, at the time it seemed to achieve the primary Soviet goal of aiding a strong national movement to victory, thus loosening the hold of the imperialist powers on China and thereby benefiting the Soviet Union. But this was a theoretical benefit at best. In fact, Great Britain, which of all the imperialist powers had the greatest investments in China, made its peace with the KMT. Furthermore, Germany gained a foothold in China by extending help to Chiang to fight the communists in Jiangxi (Kiangsi).

However, Chiang’s chances of consolidating his power over China were ended by the Japanese attack on the country in 1937. This was to drive him to Chungking (southwest China), where he waged only limited military action against Japan until the end of the war.


Period between 1928-1935

At this time, the KMT led by Chiang continued the struggle to unify China up to the Yangtze River and beyond. However, the Japanese overran Manchuria in 1931, made it a puppet state, and called it Manchukuo.

Japanese made the last Emperor of China, Puyi, their puppet ruler in Manchuria. Still, in 1936, the KMT exerted at least a loose form of control over two-thirds of the population of China.

However, the peasants soon found that nothing changed much except for the national flag. Warlords loosely allied with Chiang still ruled large parts of China and there was no land reform. Many intellectuals became alienated from Chiang by the end of this period because he did not introduce democratic reforms. On the contrary, he seemed to favor his own dictatorship, and to see fascism as a desirable model of government.

At this time the communist movement was rebuilt by Mao and Zhu De (Chu Teh) — one of the leaders of the Nanchang rising — in the southern part of the province of Jiangxi. Meanwhile, the official party leaders, who remained loyal to Moscow, went into hiding in Shanghai, where they stayed until 1930.

Emergence of Mao and his policies:

Mao Zedong, who was present at the founding meeting, was born in Hunan province (1893) in south-east China, the son of a prosperous peasant farmer. After spending some time working on the land, Mao trained as a teacher, and then moved northwards to Beijing where he worked as a library assistant at the university, a centre of Marxist studies. Later he moved back to Hunan and built up a reputation as a skilful trade union and peasant association organizer.

In his essay on physical education, published in the progressive journal, New Youth, in April 1917, Mao attacked the “passive” Confucian thinking and way of life; he called for physical education to strengthen the body, for violence, and anger. Soon, he was advocating the equal rights of women, and attacking the practice of arranged marriages. Above all, he expressed a determination to fight for his beliefs.

After the communist breach with the KMT, Mao was responsible for changing the Party’s strategy: they would concentrate on winning mass support among the peasants rather than trying to capture industrial towns, where several communist insurrections had already failed because of the strength of the KMT. In 1931 Mao was elected chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Party, and from then on, he gradually consolidated his position as the real leader of Chinese communism.

Furthermore, in cooperation with Zhu De, Mao evolved the strategy of operating from a stable base area, and of harassing government troops by guerrilla tactics. These tactics were not new; they were rooted in traditional Chinese military strategy which Mao knew very well from his reading. They were to play a central role in the ultimate victory of Mao’s forces over Chiang.

Equally important was the fact that in the area under their control in southern Jiangxi, the communists carried out land reform. This really meant distributing the land equally, except that landlords and richer peasants were to get less than the others. This did not always work out that way because some landlords and rich peasants kept more land in return for supporting the communists. But overall, the communists obtained solid support from the peasants, for whom land reform was the most important issue.

 Chinese Soviet Republic or Jiangxi Soviet(1931-34):


Mao emerged as the leading spokesman for his policies. They were embodied in the Chinese Soviet Republic, known also as the Jiangxi Soviet, which was proclaimed in 1931 and existed from 1931-34. On 7 November 1931 the first All-China Congress of Soviets was held there. These developments took place independently of Moscow.

Mao Zedong was both CSR state chairman and prime minister; he led the state and its government. Mao’s tenure as head of a “small state within a state” gave him experience in mobile warfare and peasant organization; this experience helped him accomplish the Communist reunification of China during the late 1940s.

Mao and his supporters spent most of their energies on survival as Kuomintang (KMT)’s National Revolutionary Army under Chiang carried out five ‘extermination campaigns’ against them between 1930 and 1934. They took to the mountains between Hunan and Kiangsi provinces and concentrated on building up the Red Army. However, early in 1934 Mao’s base area was surrounded by KMT armies poised for the final destruction of Chinese communism. Mao decided that the only chance of survival was to break through Chiang’s lines and set up another power base somewhere else. In October 1934 the breakthrough was achieved and almost 100 000 communists set out on the remarkable Long March, an event of enormous significance in the history of Chinese communism.

The Long March (1934-35):

The Long March (October 1934–October 1935) was a military retreat undertaken by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) army. Mainly this march started from Jiangxi province in October 1934.

The First Front Army of the Chinese Soviet Republic, led by an inexperienced military commission, was on the brink of annihilation by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in their stronghold in Jiangxi province. The Communists, under the eventual command of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, escaped in a circling retreat to the west and north.

They covered about 6000 miles in 368 days and, in the words of American journalist Edgar Snow:

crossed 18 mountain ranges, 5 of which were snow-capped, and 24 rivers. They passed through 12 different provinces, occupied 62 cities, and broke through enveloping armies of 10 different provincial warlords, besides defeating, eluding, or out-manoeuvring the various forces of government troops sent against them.

Eventually out of 100,000 people, the 20 000 survivors found refuge at Yenan in Shensi (Shaanxi) province: this was the last surviving communist base in China and was controlled by the guerrilla leader Kao Kang. The Shensi communists, not entirely willingly, accepted Mao as leader, and a new base and a soviet were organized. Mao was able to control the provinces of Shensi and Kansu.

The Long March began Mao Zedong’s ascent to power, whose leadership during the retreat gained him the support of the members of the party.

However, according to writers Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book Mao: The Unknown Story, published in 2005, the march was vastly exaggerated and was in fact nothing like as heroic as legend claimed. They even suggested that Mao’s ‘breakout’ in October 1934 was actually permitted by Chiang Kai-shek because he preferred the communists to be in the north where he could box them in while he extended the KMT control over the south-west. This interpretation was welcomed by Mao’s critics, but historians generally gave a more balanced judgement: while agreeing that there had been some exaggeration in accounts of the march in order to show Mao and the communists in the best possible light, they rejected the Jung Chang/Halliday interpretation as ‘more fantasy than fact’.

Long March and the arrival of its survivors in Shaanxi signified the survival of Mao’s brand of communism in a secure base. Here, it could gather its forces and, by waging a guerrilla war against Japan, lay the groundwork for its later conquest of China. During the ten years following the Long March the communists continued to gain support, while Chiang and the KMT steadily lost popularity.

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