[Book] China: From Permanent Revolution to Counter-Revolution

The Communist International, the Kuomintang and the CCP

2.1 Introduction

Sun Yat-sen returned to China from Japan in 1917 determined to lead the struggle for reunification but with a military not a political perspective. By 1921 he had established himself as a leading member of a regional military government based in the city of Canton in South China. Real power was in the hands of Chen Jiongming (Ch’en Chiung-ming), supposedly the leading KMT general but really the local warlord upon whose tolerance the KMT depended, and who supported the KMT as long as it suited him. Sun was convinced that unifying China required military conquest. This would start in the south but to gain control of Beijing required the overthrow of the northern warlords. At that time Chen was Sun’s preferred route to victory.[1] The CI was determined to persuade him to take another route and was prepared to make considerable concessions to win him over.

2.2 The Communist International and Sun Yat-sen

In late December 1921, Maring met with Sun Yat-sen to propose an alliance between the KMT and the CCP. While Sun did not dismiss the proposal outright he was more interested in Maring’s suggestion that the KMT could be re-organised along ‘Russian’ lines as a disciplined, centrally-controlled party, and a KMT military academy be established by the Soviet Army. However, Maring’s proposal that that the CCP join the KMT was met by the almost universal opposition of the CCP members.[2]

On 13 January 1922, some 30,000 Hong Kong seamen struck for union recognition and a pay increase to bring their pay more into line with that of Europeans. The Hong Kong seamen held out for eight weeks in a bitter and bloody struggle. The British imperial authorities in Hong Kong were finally forced to raise wages by 20-30%, lift the ban on the Seamen’s Union, release arrested workers, and indemnify the families of the martyrs. The crews of the Yangtse steamers went on strike soon afterwards for two weeks and also won victory.[3] This successful strike by seamen in Hong Kong was an inspiration to all those working to unionise labour.

The strike had been led by KMT militants and publicly supported by individual leaders of the KMT. The CCP participated in, and actively aided, the strike and this raised its prestige enormously but the strike demonstrated that the CCP was not yet in the same league as the KMT even within unionised labour.[4] It is claimed that as many as 12,000 sailors from Canton, Hong Kong and Swatow joined the KMT as a result.[5] It was on the basis of this strike that Maring convinced the ECCI that the KMT had serious and important links with working class organisations and understood the need for mass action in support of the anti-imperialist struggle.

This was certainly not true at the top of the KMT but Maring believed that the loose structure of the KMT made it easy for the CCP to enter the KMT, convince its left wing of the need for mass action in support of the nationalist struggle, win a majority and change the composition of the KMT. CCP members within the KMT would educate so-called ideologically independent elements who would eventually be recruited into the CCP, and use KMT contacts to organise caucuses within the trade unions. The discussions within the CCP were over whether, if it entered the KMT, it could maintain its own identity and establish its own independent activity amongst the workers.[6] The majority of the CCP leadership opposed any agreement which did not meet these Leninist conditions.

In March/April 1922, Chen wrote to the ECCI insisting:

“in any struggle which we may take up or any combination we may make with other parties, we must always show our true face to the masses. Furthermore, we must maintain our complete independence in any arrangement we may make in a United Front.”[7]

He would receive short shrift at the 4th World Congress where he would be accused of ultra-leftism.

However, it turned out that Chen Jiongming opposed Sun’s scheme, and in 1922 Sun had to flee to Shanghai where he once again sought support from Canada, Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and even Manchurian warlords. They all refused. The Western powers were too attached to their special privileges to support a united independent China. At this critical moment Voitinsky visited Sun. Sun’s situation and that of the KMT had changed radically since Maring’s visit the previous December and now Sun welcomed collaboration with the Soviet Union even if it meant some form of unity with the CCP.[8]

At the 1st National Congress of the CCP it had been decided to establish a Trade Union Secretariat. This soon became the most important undertaking of the Party. In May 1922, on the back of the Hong Kong strike, it organised the First National Labour Conference in Canton which was attended by 160 delegates claiming to represent 300,000 union members.[9] The CCP was now very active in building trade unions, for example, in September 1922 Li Lisan would lead the Anyuan miners to an important victory; the gains included recognition of the union (it claimed 11,000 members), foremen no longer allowed to physically beat workers, and no withholding of wages as a punishment.[10]

CCP Members approached the 2nd National Congress (16-23 July 1922) with great confidence. Present were nine delegates representing about 123 members.[11] Prominent among the delegates were Communists who had recently returned from participation in the First Congress of the Toilers of the East held in Moscow and Petrograd, and with their support, the CCP Congress adopted a manifesto which endorsed a United Front with the KMT while warning that “workers must not become an appendage of the petty bourgeoisie … but must fight for their own class interests.”[12] This was fully in accord with Lenin’s guidance given in his Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Question.[13]

At the 2nd World Congress, Maring had heard Lenin define the British Labour Party – a party founded by the trade unions to protect the trade unions and composed largely of workers – as “a thoroughly bourgeois party.”[14] Lenin insisted a party had to be judged by the men who led it and its actions. The British Labour Party was an organisation of the bourgeoisie which existed to systematically dupe the workers. By Lenin’s criteria, the KMT was a bourgeois party.

However, prior to the 2nd Congress of the CCP, Maring had attended the ECCI meeting of 17 July 1922 and presented a report describing the KMT as a national-revolutionary movement; a bloc of intellectuals, liberal democratic bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, and workers. Maring proposed the CCP enter the KMT even if this meant joining the KMT as individuals; and then find ways of preserving their independence and organisation. Zinoviev and the ECCI endorsed this new strategy and sent a message to the CCP ordering it to move its HQ to Canton and to carry out its work “in contact with” (i.e. under the supervision of) Maring.[15]

Maring took the United Front proposal to Sun Yat-sen who stubbornly insisted that CCP members would be allowed to join the KMT only as individuals who had to abide by its rules; a United Front of equals was out of the question – a condition that Maring and the ECCI had already accepted, but the CCP leaders had not.

Adolph Joffe, later to be a leading Left Oppositionist, was in China heading a Soviet diplomatic mission. After meeting Sun Yat-sen he wrote to Moscow in July 1922:

“Support the Chinese Communist Party even more than Sun Yat-sen, … Irrespective of the weakness of this party, regard its complete independence as necessary, and the efforts of certain agents of the ECCI to fuse this organisation with the party of Sun Yat-sen as completely incorrect.”[16]

There was stiff and universal opposition to Maring’s proposal within the Central Committee of the CCP on the grounds that joining the KMT as individuals would curb the independence of the CCP. The CC argued that any alliance with the KMT should be temporary, based on specific issues, and include the continuing independence of the two parties. Maring called the members of the CC to a meeting on 17 August 1922 at which he strongly argued that the KMT was the “only serious national-revolutionary group” in China, that it was not a party of the bourgeoisie but a “strong national revolutionary political party with members in all strata of Chinese society.” Maring argued that the proletarian party should join the KMT in order to advance the revolution; that a small weak party such as the CCP could enormously and quickly expand its membership and influence if it entered the KMT. It took two days of argument and, ultimately, the threat of expulsion from the CI before the CC agreed to accept the ECCI instructions to join the KMT.[17] As a face-saver it was agreed that the matter would be raised again at the next Congress of the CCP.

The discussions between Chen, Maring, and the KMT took place between the 3rd and 4th World Congresses, both of which were concerned with advancing the United Front strategy. Thus, the discussions within the CCP were couched in terms of a United Front, but that was not what was being proposed for China. A United Front was a temporary alliance between independent parties for specific goals, but here was a strategy in which CCP members entered the KMT and worked within it subject to KMT discipline for an unspecified period to achieve goals set by the KMT.[18] For Communists with little experience of any kind of political work the bloc within carried serious dangers. The organisation of the Party had to change to match that of the KMT; there were limits on what the CCP could publicly say or do. The CCP both formally and informally was being tied into relationships with members of the KMT and tempted to make all kinds of concessions to be accepted and, possibly worse of all, the major work being undertaken by many if not most CCP members was to build KMT branches, often from scratch. There was a real danger of these inexperienced and untested CCP members adapting to the KMT, and of alien ideologies finding their way into the CCP.

Maring met Sun on 25 August 1922 in the French concession in Shanghai and the terms of the collaboration were endorsed, i.e. Sun again refused a United Front on equal terms but would accept Soviet and ECCI assistance. Soviet military and financial assistance would begin arriving the following summer.[19]

On 4 September 1922 (coincidentally the day four CCP leaders symbolically joined the KMT as individual members), Sun Yat-sen announced his intention to reorganise the KMT with a tighter discipline. The plans for a new programme and constitution had been drawn up by a committee headed by Maring and Chen Duxiu.[20]

The 4th World Congress of the CI (7 November–3 December 1922) examined the national-revolutionary movements in the Far East, and the United Front strategy was approved as part of the Theses on the Eastern Question. The CI gave its support to any genuinely revolutionary national movement against imperialism in the colonial and semi-colonial countries; but before joint actions the Communist Party had to establish itself as an independent factor and only after its complete political autonomy had been secured could it make temporary agreements with revolutionary bourgeois democratic forces. The theses were at pains to point out that in the so-called backward countries, the struggle for the land was a key element in the revolutionary national liberation struggle against imperialism.[21]

The Congress received a report from the Chinese delegate to the effect that the CCP was establishing an anti-imperialist United Front with the revolutionary nationalist party: “The form of the united front is that we enter (the KMT) in our individual names and capacities.” Instead of the Congress reminding the CCP that it was “absolutely unacceptable” to enter any arrangement which restricted the freedom of the CCP to criticise and agitate, the Congress was treated to Radek (session leader and supporter of the bloc within) pronouncing that social and economic development in China was so backward that not even a national republic was on the order of the day.[22] The prestige of the Russian leaders was so high that when Radek spouted this nonsense (the Chinese Revolution which had overthrown the emperor and established a republic had taken place eleven years previously, the anti-imperialist May 4th Movement which radicalised an entire generation of workers and students had exploded three years previously), no-one spoke up to contradict him. Instead Chen Duxiu was upbraided for ultra-leftism for arguing for a politically-independent CCP.

At the 4th World Congress, the machinery of the centre was considerably strengthened with an enlarged ECCI scheduled to meet once every four months with a Presidium, on the pattern of the Russian Politburo. Lenin had generally played an important part – in many cases, the decisive part – in the decision-making process[23] but with Lenin increasingly incapacitated, weakness at the centre combined with the weaknesses in the leaderships of the national Communist Parties would prove fatal in Bulgaria, Germany, Estonia and … China.

Opposition in the CCP remained so strong that in early January 1923, Zinoviev took the matter before the Politburo of the Russian Party where, following Lenin’s death, he was in an unholy alliance with Stalin and Kamenev, and gained its approval for the “bloc within” (Trotsky voted against). On that basis he drafted a resolution approved by the ECCI on 12 January 1923 justifying the desirability of “co-operation” between the CCP and the KMT.[24] Zinoviev may have honestly considered the bloc within to be the most appropriate tactic for building the CCP and developing the national democratic revolution but there was a sleight-of-hand in the ECCI resolution which designated the KMT as a “group” and this allowed the authors to emphasise its multi-class membership. The text of the resolution referred to the KMT as a party only in quotation marks and in this way the document avoided having to define the class nature of the KMT as bourgeois. The policy Zinoviev was proposing for China reflected the class-collaboration he had shown in October 1917.

The resolution re-affirmed the central task for China as the national revolution against imperialism, repeating that the KMT was the only serious national revolutionary group so the activities of the KMT and CCP should be co-ordinated. The members of the CCP were to remain within the KMT and avoid conflict with it as long as it maintained an “objectively correct” policy. The CCP was supposed to preserve its own organisation and apparatus and not lose its identity within the KMT, “not furl its own banner”. The CCP was instructed to work independently and openly to create trade unions and lay the foundations for a strong mass Communist Party, but how it could do so while its members were limited by KMT discipline was not described.

Implicit in the ECCI resolution was the assumption that the Chinese national revolution would be a self-contained stage in which the national bourgeoisie remained steadfastly anti-imperialist with the CCP playing a supportive role. Ignored was the possibility that the bourgeoisie might have stronger links with the imperialists than the proletariat and peasantry, and align themselves accordingly. In the event, the Chinese national democratic revolution – just as in Russia in 1917 – would have to be carried though against the national bourgeoisie. The CCP would have to choose capitulation or conflict. Pressure from the ECCI ensured it furled its banner.

Inspired by the First National Labour Conference, enthusiastic railway workers attempted to unionise North China. During 1922-23 strikes took place on all the trunk lines with CCP members playing a leading role. On 7 February, the warlord Wu Pei-fu ordered his troops onto the railway stations in Hankou (part of the Wuhan complex) where they opened fire on the strikers. Sixty railwaymen were killed and the strike collapsed. This became known as the February 7th Massacre.[25] This failure of a CCP-led trade union initiative was used by Maring to justify his argument that the CCP was not yet strong enough to go-it-alone and needed the KMT. With the defeat of the strike there was widespread persecution of militants but trade union organisation recovered surprisingly rapidly, and by 1925 the number of unionised workers had reached 570,000, and a year later had risen to 1,023,000.[26]

Mao was an active and able leader. In response to the February 7th Massacre, the Hunan branch of the CCP organised demonstrations, memorial meetings, even an attempt to get the local railroad workers to strike in sympathy. In March, in protest at Japanese territorial demands, the branch organised a protest demonstration of some 60,000 people. However, Mao’s policy was towards a radical bourgeois democracy not socialism, In April 1923 he wrote: “If we analyse the influential factions within the country, there are only three: the revolutionary democratic faction, the non-revolutionary democratic faction, and the reactionary faction. The main body of the revolutionary democratic faction is, of course, the Kuomintang; the rising Communist faction is co-operating with it. … The Communist Party has temporarily abandoned its most radical views in order to co-operate with the relatively radical Kuomintang. … This [co-operation] is the source of peace and unification, it is the mother of revolution, it is the magic potion of democracy and independence. Everyone must be aware of this.”[27]

Convinced the CCP needed further and more comprehensive direction, Maring travelled to Moscow, and largely on the basis of his report the ECCI issued the famous 13 point directive of 24 May 1923 as instructions for the forthcoming 3rd National Congress of the CCP.[28]

The directive repeated that the “Central task for China is the national revolution against the imperialists” and, in the light of the recent strikes declared that the chief demand to be made by the CCP on the KMT was for unreserved support for the labour movement in both north and south China. This would supposedly rally the forces of the working class and enable the CCP to grow into a mass party of the proletariat while it remained within the KMT!

In this directive the ECCI, for the first time, publicly recognised that the success of the national bourgeois democratic revolution depended on the millions of small peasants. It proposed that the CCP urge the KMT to adopt a programme the most important demand of which was seizure of large private estates and church and monastery lands, and their distribution to the peasantry. The KMT responded by agreeing to a token gesture of calling for a 25% reduction in land rent. This minor concession which made little difference to the lives of the peasants was praised to the skies by Borodin and used as a fig leaf to hide his failure.[29]

It would be wrong to draw too close a parallel between Russia and China, but the 1917 Revolution in Russia had demonstrated clearly that peasants do not limit their demands to those acceptable to the landlords. Indeed, Lenin had concluded that the Russian bourgeois-democratic revolution could cross over into the socialist precisely because no party of the national bourgeois (or petty-bourgeoisie) was prepared to satisfy the peasants’ hunger for land.[30] The same situation existed in China. The different sectors of the bourgeoisie; comprador, banker, factory owner and, especially, the families of army officers all had large holdings in the rural areas. The CCP was allied with a bourgeois party and if its demands undermined the economic and social position of the entire bourgeois class the KMT would inevitably break that alliance. The ECCI directive sounded great but could not be enacted in any meaningful way without confrontation between the CCP and KMT.[31]

2.3 The ‘Bloc Within’

At the 3rd National Congress of the CCP (12-20 June 1923), there was considerable opposition amongst the 40 delegates (representing 432 members of whom only 19 were female and over 100 were in prison) to the bloc within. Two reasons predominated. Firstly, despite the statements calling for the CCP to maintain its independence the actual restrictions being placed on the CCP made ‘independence’ more an illusion than reality. Secondly, CCP members were having to spend considerable valuable time and effort setting up KMT branches before they could join them.[32] The discipline of the International prevailed but the hostility of the membership to their submergence in the KMT resulted in three quarters of CCP members quitting so that by November 1923, Party membership had fallen to only about one hundred!

The Party manifesto proposed that the:

“KMT should be the central force of the national revolution and should assume its leadership. … We hope that all the revolutionary elements in our society will rally to the KMT, speeding the completion of the national revolutionary movement. … (We also) hope that the KMT will resolutely discard its … reliance on foreign powers and concentration on military action … in order to create a true central force for the national welfare and a true leadership for the national revolution.”[33]

The qualitative difference from the first manifesto is obvious. From now on as CCP members led the most radical workers’ struggles they increasingly did so under the blue and white banner of the KMT and moved towards a class-collaborationist perspective for China.

A five-person Central Bureau was elected at the Congress with Chen Duxiu as chairperson. Mao Zedong was elected to the Central Bureau (CB) and took control of the Organisational Department and so became secretary of the CB, gaining this post because he was one of the few on the CB who personally endorsed the ECCI line. Within the Party, Mao was second only to Chen.

Soon after the 3rd National Congress, Mao wrote an article for Guide Weekly. An important passage reads:

“The current political issue in China is the single question of national revolution: to topple, by our own efforts, the warlords and foreign imperialists …. Due to historical inevitability and current circumstances, the role of merchants in national revolution is more urgent and important than that of others. As we know, semi-colonial China is under the dual political pressure of warlords and foreign imperialists who colluded with each other to suppress the people of the whole nation. … It is, however, the merchants who are most sensitive to such pressure and suffer the most … The more the merchants unite … the greater their role in leading the nation, the more chances for the revolution to succeed.”[34]

Mao now used his position on the CB to actively promote the formation of KMT branches by CCP members, particularly in Hunan, and in mid-September 1923, he returned to Changsha to help in successfully establishing a KMT branch with three local cells, and by January 1924 claimed a membership of nearly 500, only the branches in Canton and Shanghai were bigger.[35]

Maring returned to Moscow and was replaced by Mikhail Borodin who arrived in China in September 1923. Borodin’s primary role was as adviser to the KMT not the CCP, and was responsible to Stalin not the ECCI.[36] Borodin was sent to Canton to work with Sun. Both were fluent in English and so needed no interpreters and this helped in forming a close personal bond between the two men. In due course the Central Executive Committee (CEC) meetings of the KMT would be in English with Borodin an accepted and active member. Borodin was to carry through the reconstruction of the KMT on the ‘Russian’ lines proposed by Maring and Chen, and turn it into a disciplined, efficient instrument for carrying out Sun’s orders. The nature of Borodin’s appointment suggests that Moscow saw little or no likelihood of a clash of interests between the CCP and the KMT, which says much about Moscow’s perspective for China both in terms of timescales and politics.

Guide Weekly now carried dutiful articles from leading Party members such as Chen Duxiu and newly-elected CC member Ch’u Ch’iu-pai, publicising, embellishing and concretising the new general line: The KMT was the party of the common people (though it had certain negative feudal aspects), the KMT was the centre of power, the KMT could throw off warlord and imperialist oppression and establish a true people’s republic. The corollary was “all work should go towards building the KMT” to form a left wing within it which would push and guide the KMT onto a revolutionary path.[37]

Borodin’s influence within the KMT was considerable, due not only to his organisational abilities, but also because during 1924 he paid about 35,000 Chinese dollars a month into the KMT. At Borodin’s suggestion, and under his direction, the 1st National Congress of the KMT was called for January 1924 in Canton. The entire Congress was stage-managed by Borodin: he convened it, wrote the major documents, ensured Sun was elected leader for life, had the Congress agree formally to take Communists into the party as individuals (who must abide by the rules of the KMT), and arranged for three Communists to be elected as full members and seven as alternate members to the 41-strong CEC. Amongst these ten CCP members were Li Dazhao, Li Lisan, and Mao Zhedong.[38] However, the CCP was excluded from holding positions on the Party Secretariat and in the General Staff of the armed forces.

On Borodin’s urging and with the experience of the Hong Kong strike, Sun’s Congress speech included the declaration that the nationalist movement in China could not succeed without the support of workers and peasants. But behind the scenes the conservative elements within the KMT were coalescing and increasing their power. To protect their interests, landlords and factory owners raised the demand that KMT members limit their work to purely nationalist goals, i.e. KMT/CCP members could unionise a labour force but not take strike action for better conditions and higher pay!

To present his strategy in the best light, Borodin arbitrarily divided the KMT into a left and a right on the basis of those who approved the entry of the CCP. This, of course, presented a picture of an overwhelmingly left party with a few dissident right wingers. The class basis of the different groupings was deliberately ignored to better disguise the bourgeois nature of the KMT.[39]

From January 1924, all rank and file CCP members were expected to join the KMT on an individual basis subject to KMT discipline. Within the KMT, the CCP members openly organised themselves into fractions, and were acknowledged to be the most energetic party workers and organisers. Even Li Lisan who had been a key and major figure in building the trade unions was re-assigned to help reorganise the KMT. However, from the very outset, the KMT resisted any political suggestions the CCP members made. Sun Yat-sen was of the opinion:

“Since the Chinese CP has joined the Kuomintang, it should obey the discipline of the Kuomintang and should not openly criticize it. If the Communists do not obey the Kuomintang I shall expel them from it; if Soviet Russia stands on the side of the CCP I shall immediately oppose Soviet Russia.”[40]

It was statements such as these and the demand by Sun that he vet all communications from the ECCI to the CCP, which pushed Chen Duxiu into re-assessing CCP policy.

Previously, Sun had manoeuvred between warlords but now with Russian support, he began a determined attempt to build the KMT’s very own National Revolutionary Army (NRA) capable of defeating the warlords. The Whampoa Military Academy in Canton – modelled on the military academies of the Red Army and the basis of Chiang Kai-shek’s rise to power – was established and staffed largely by Soviet advisors. In China with its history of mercenary armies, this was an entirely new concept; expecting moral integrity, honesty and loyalty had an effect similar to the introduction of Cromwell’s Ironsides into the English Civil War. Chiang became Commander of the Whampoa Military Academy in May 1924, with the Communist Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai) as his nominal second in command.[41] The majority of the cadets – the future officers in the NRA – came from the families of the landed gentry, a class bias which would erupt as soon as the peasants laid claim to the land.

For the moment, the Communists took as much advantage as possible of their opportunities and continued to organise the proletariat but as the process of reorganising and restructuring the KMT advanced, the CCP found itself more and more constrained by the bloc within. However, in 1924 no-one could have foreseen that the emergence of Stalin as leader would mean the CCP would be ordered to cling to the KMT until hacked away by the swords of NRA officers.

From 1924, the ECCI was empowered to issue directions to national sections that were binding, and to annul resolutions passed at national congresses with which it disagreed. Between the 5th World Congress in 1924 and the 6th World Congress in 1928 most talented and independent minded communist leaders had been replaced by the servile and the “fifth-rate.”[42] As a starting point the Congress internationalised Lenin’s temporary 1921 ban on factions and raised it to a principle: from then on open dissent was impermissible.

Peng Shuzhi had spent some time in Moscow as a student and then lecturer. He returned with a number of others in August 1924 to help remedy the shortage of trained CCP personnel. They found a Party they considered ‘loose’ and proposed three actions to the CC: that the returnees take responsibility for renewing Party organisation and discipline, that Li Lisan return to Trade Union work aided by, amongst others Peng Shuzhi, and that a more critical attitude be adopted towards the KMT. This second wave of Bolshevisation was generally welcomed because it was accepted by the CCP that it needed trained and experienced cadres.[43]

However, the contradictions arising due to the fundamental class nature of the KMT abounded and fuelled antagonisms towards the CCP so much so that in 1924, leading members of the CC were again pressing for the CCP to end the bloc within. Peng Shuzhi in December 1924 published an article in the party theoretical journal New Youth, of which he had become the editor, emphasising the need for the proletariat to take the lead in the Chinese national revolution.[44] The article was clearly meant to influence delegates to the forthcoming 4th Party Congress, as was the accompanying article by Chen, The Lessons of the National Movement over the Past Twenty-seven Years, which concluded that the national revolution could be victorious only if led by the proletariat.[45]

Borodin and the ECCI used the success of a number of joint activities between the CCP and KMT to counteract the arguments of Chen and Peng, to hide the fundamental political differences between the two organisations, and so justify the continuation of the ECCI line. For example, in the summer of 1924, the KMT’s rule in Canton was challenged by the Merchant Volunteers, armed and funded by the British and their comprador lackeys. KMT militants (including CCP members) seized a boatload of arms intended for the Volunteers and on 26 August in a short, sharp engagement, defeated and disarmed them. A few months later in February 1925, a local warlord threatened Canton but joint action by KMT forces and peasant militias forced him back. The working class was recovering from the May 7th Massacre of the previous year and strike activity was increasing, particularly in Canton and Shanghai. CCP and KMT militants often worked together to build trade unions, and between May 1924 and May 1925, union membership rose from 220,000 to 540,000, and by May 1926, was over a million.

The 4th National Congress of the CCP (11-22 January 1925) voted to maintain the bloc within, but there was significant criticism of those communists who were considered too subservient to the KMT and who placed the interests of the KMT before those of the CCP. At the same Congress, the CCP (then numbering just under 1,000) on the basis of the rising class struggle, relaxed its membership conditions and attempted to begin the move towards a mass proletarian party rather than remain a mainly intellectual group – within eighteen months the membership would double. This proletarian hegemony line was presented at the 4th Congress by Peng and Chen Duxiu, in stark contrast to the arguments of those such as Ch’u Ch’iu-pai that the CCP should be engaged primarily in recruiting to the KMT. Peng Shuzhi was elected to the Central Committee of the CCP and then became the Politburo member in charge of propaganda activities.[46] It was after the 4th Congress that leading figures such as Li Lisan gave up building the KMT as their primary task and returned to their original activities.

Under pressure of work Mao fell ill, was given sick leave just two weeks before the 4th Congress, and was not re-elected to the Central Committee. During this time Mao’s support for the national as opposed to the socialist revolution was developing and hardening: in the autumn of 1925 he wrote: “I advocate making use of the national revolution … to realize the joint rule of the proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie, and the left wing of the middle bourgeoisie, that is, the rule of the revolutionary popular masses.”[47] Mao was developing the idea of a ‘bloc of four classes’ independently of Stalin but based on the same misconception – that the KMT could be won to revolution.

Sun died suddenly in March 1925. With his death the social tensions within the KMT, which he had kept under control, came into the open. During 1925 membership of the KMT rose to about a quarter of a million, recruited from all sections of society, and was led by two men, the leftist Wang Jingwei (Wang Ching-wei who, at the start of his political career, had favoured distributing the land equally among the people), who held all the nominally important civilian posts and Sun’s protégé, Chiang Kai-shek, backed by the army and the cadets of the Whampoa Military Academy.[48]

In 1925, workers in enterprises all across Shanghai were striking sporadically against appalling working conditions and low wages and on May Day 1925, the 2nd National Labour Conference opened in Canton with 230 delegates representing over half a million union members.[49] On 15 May 1925, a Japanese foreman in a Shanghai cotton mill, which had been on strike since February, shot and killed a leader of the Chinese workers. On 28 May, the CCP called for co-ordinated protest demonstrations and on 30 May 1925, thousands of workers and students marched in protest and several were arrested. The march went straight to the police station to demand the release of their comrades. There, a British officer ordered the police under his command to open fire, killing nine people and wounding dozens. This May 30th Incident triggered an unprecedented eruption of the working class, more than 100 separate strikes involving 400,000 workers arose directly out of the shootings and culminated in a general strike across Shanghai. “Down with the imperialists”, was the slogan of the day but the local government in Shanghai, egged on by foreign imperialism, met demonstrations and meetings by shooting and wounding scores of people. At this time, the CCP branch in Shanghai was led by Chen and Peng and remained sufficiently independent to severely criticise the attempts by the local KMT to compromise with the factory owners.[50] What started as a dispute about wages and a protest against imperialist injustice flashed into a political battle for national liberation.

As the strength of the Shanghai proletariat showed itself, it drew behind it the ‘whole people’; the students, the artisans, shop keepers, small traders, merchants and businessmen and, in the special conditions of China as a country struggling for national independence, even sections of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Between the end of May and the middle of September, the class-forces that would struggle for mastery during the coming revolution differentiated themselves. Initially, all the urban classes seemed to support the strike and merchants and businessmen joined the protests. But the workers predominated, the Chinese proletariat was the leading component of the struggle right from its start and, as the strike developed, the necessity of a proletarian party which retained its political and organisational independence was confirmed with startling clarity.[51]

The foreign capitalists who owned the electrical power stations retaliated by shutting off the power to Chinese factories. The Chinese bourgeoisie who had never been very ardent, unable to operate their factories and seeing the growing radicalism of the working class, rapidly ceased to support the strike and began secretly co-operating with the imperialists against the strike movement – a characteristic of the bourgeoisie ever since the revolution of 1848 when the German bourgeoisie had been prepared, even eager, to compromise with the aristocracy.[52]

During July and August 1925, the petty-bourgeoisie and those with an intermediate position in society began to vacillate. Some minor victories were won and Li Lisan was important in organising the end of the strike in such a way that the Shanghai workers returned to work in good order, “with a living, vital experience to help them in the future.”[53] In Shanghai itself the strike was over by the end of the summer but the strike wave had reached Hong Kong and Canton via seamen working for British shipping companies, who had walked out on 18 June. A week later, during a demonstration in Canton, over 50 students and workers were killed by Anglo-French military police. A general strike and boycott of British goods followed immediately, and all foreign industrial activity ground to a halt.

To avoid being forced back to work, strikers left Hong Kong for Canton (90 miles up the Pearl River). The movement was well organised through a 13-member Canton-Hong Kong Strike Committee, responsible to a delegate conference which had one representative for every 50 strikers and met twice a week. In a show of workers’ power the committees set up a hospital, organised 17 schools and with some 2,000 armed pickets, they captured, tried and imprisoned strike-breakers and other hooligan elements. They organised patrols of pickets (many of these patrols were peasants) along the entire frontier of Kwangsi province to keep out British ships and British goods from Hong-Kong. The organisation became known as ‘government number two’ and was the first Chinese Soviet in embryo. Its presence forced the KMT government in Canton to give solid support, legalising trade unions and providing food kitchens for the strikers (earning for itself the label ‘left’).[54]

The Canton-Hong Kong strike lasted for fifteen months and remains one of the greatest strikes in history. It was anti-imperialist in its demands, proletarian in its methods. It raised the question of who would hold state power if the workers and peasants, guns in hand, seized governmental power – would they voluntarily hold back or would they flood over the limits set by the bourgeoisie?

The main leaders of this tremendous revolutionary movement were Communists. The leaders of the powerful Chinese Seamen’s Union joined the CCP. From being a party composed largely of students and intellectuals, the CCP increased its membership ten-fold and of these between half and two-thirds were workers. The CCP moved from being a few intellectuals to a party rooted in the working class, with mass support. During the strike the CCP targeted agitation at specific sections of the population especially women and youth, and helped set up peasant unions in alliance with the urban workers. The CCP was still small numerically compared to the KMT but its leadership of large-scale proletarian actions posed the question of how long it could continue to subordinate itself to the discipline of the bourgeois party.

The radicalism sweeping China had also greatly benefitted the KMT and within two years it had grown into a mass force (in many areas due to the work of Communists); and simultaneously it had been transformed from a loose association into a structured party with an effective army. At the end of June 1925, with Kwangtung province solidly under its control (Chen Jiongming had been driven out), the KMT proclaimed itself to be China’s National Government. The KMT now set its eyes on Beijing.

During 1925, the left wing of the KMT had displayed much sympathy for the workers’ movement, and had begun to organise peasant leagues to fight against the ming tuan and militias of the warlords in the countryside. But, just as the SRs in 1917, they vacuously promised the land would be redistributed lawfully in due course, insisting the peasants took no action to seize the land. However, the formation of even reformist peasant leagues caused dissatisfaction among the rightist elements in the KMT. The heart of the KMT (the families of the army officers) were landlords who brooked no challenge to their control over the land. If the Communists supported peasant demands for seizure of the land then that would place the CCP and the KMT on opposite sides of the barricades; the former with the oppressed and the latter with the landlords and imperialists.[55]

The revolution was entering a new phase; the right wing was organising to oppose strike action by workers, oppose organisation of the peasants into peasant leagues and oppose the right of Communists to be in the KMT. At the October 1925 Central Committee (CC) of the CCP, Chen Duxiu argued that the Chinese bourgeoisie was going over to the side of counter-revolution and urged that the CCP should not allow itself to be held hostage by its bloc with the KMT. The CCP should have a public political face and should be ready to withdraw from the KMT at a moment’s notice to be able to lead the workers’ and peasants’ struggles independently. His position was rejected by the Comintern representative, Voitinsky, who won the support of a majority of the Central Committee on the grounds that such a policy would lead to exclusion from the KMT at a time when the benefits of the bloc within were about to be reaped.[56]

Voitinsky pointed out that the KMT CEC was dominated by the left; that the Political Bureau of nine members was also dominated by the left; that Wang Jingwei (a key left figure) was head of the party and of the Canton/Wuhan Government and had supported the Canton-Hong Kong strike; that Borodin was so highly favoured by Wang that he was drafting the resolutions for the forthcoming KMT conference; that CCP members were to be the secretaries of the Peasant Section, Propaganda Section, Women’s Section, Workers’ Section and Youth Section. To many in the CCP it must have sounded wonderful. Voitinsky also pointed out that the bloc within had assisted the CCP to grow enormously and rapidly. By November 1925 it claimed 10,000 members (and this would triple in the next six months). [57]

However, Voitinsky played down the response of the bourgeoisie to the Shanghai strike and the demands for the expulsion of Communists from the KMT. He closed his eyes to the very sharp differences regarding the policy of land distribution that were exposed during the initial stages of work amongst the peasants; that the peasants were demanding the land but the social composition of the KMT made it impossible for it to carry out land redistribution. He closed his eyes to the fact that sooner or later the CCP would have to choose between supporting the starving Chinese peasantry or the bourgeois KMT.

The theoretical justification for the bloc within and its continuation was provided by Bukharin, who argued that the Chinese national bourgeoisie would play an objectively revolutionary role in the bourgeois revolution against feudalism and imperialism (ignoring the Russian example which demonstrated just the opposite). He presented the KMT not as a bourgeois party but as a neutral academic arena which could objectively discuss and, by a majority vote, determine the best way forward for the national revolution. He used Maring’s argument that if the CCP succeeded in recruiting enough workers and peasants into the KMT, it would change its social composition and political nature, and move its centre of gravity leftwards. Even at the strictly organisational level this was untrue – the ECCI (including Bukharin) had only recently provided the model and means for reorganising the KMT into a tightly disciplined organisation controlled from the top down, which effectively blocked such a transformation.[58]An even more fundamental error was the supposition that the Chinese bourgeoisie would accept democratic constraints when its essential interests were threatened.

Bukharin’s view was quite the opposite of Lenin’s who defined the fundamental task facing Communist Parties:

“in backward countries (as being) to give special support to the peasant movement against the landowners … to strive to lend the peasant movement the most revolutionary character … It is particularly necessary to exert every effort to apply the basic principles of the Soviet system in countries where pre-capitalist relations predominate – by setting up working peoples’ Soviets.”[59]

Bukharin’s scenario failed to recognise that bringing the revolutionary masses into struggle against imperialism was to invite the seizure of the land. It was inevitable that in the end the Chinese bourgeoisie would join with imperialists and militarists to crush the revolution.

Mao was now regarded both in the CCP and the KMT as ‘the’ expert on the peasantry, and in October 1925, Wang Jingwei personally invited Mao to join the KMT Propaganda Department and edit the KMT weekly paper Political Weekly.[60] Here, Mao enthusiastically endorsed the ECCI line dictated by Stalin that Communists should form a bloc with the petty-bourgeoisie, a bloc which would have the form of a single party.[61] Naturally Stalin laid down conditions: no restriction on the freedom of the CCP to conduct agitation and propaganda work, and the bloc must facilitate the CCP taking the actual leadership of the revolutionary movement. However, for Stalin and the ECCI, the collaboration between the CCP and KMT was essential and the conditions optional.

The activism of the rank and file CCP members meant the left and Communists dominated the 2nd Congress of the KMT in January 1926. This was trumpeted within the CCP as demonstrating the success of the bloc within. The following month at the 6th Plenum of the ECCI, Tan Pingshan, the chief Chinese delegate, claimed that the left and Communists had 166 out of the total of 278 votes and that the Congress had adopted many of the Communist demands for social reforms to the benefit of workers and peasants. This was just what the ECCI wanted to hear and its members took the report as verification of its strategy. However, Tan’s parliamentary-style appraisal was self-deception which held great dangers for the CCP as it omitted from consideration the very real power base of the right wing – the armies of the KMT and the warlords – and it over-estimated the strength of the KMT lefts and Communists by omitting the very real differences between them over the key question of land to the peasant. It was this meeting that the ECCI, with only Trotsky voting against, approved the admission of the KMT to the CI as an associate party and elected Chiang Kai-shek as honorary member of the ECCI.[62] In Lenin’s time the idea that a bourgeois party would be admitted to the Comintern was something no proletarian revolutionary would have dreamt possible.

Fraternal delegates from the KMT attended the two plenums of the ECCI held in February and November 1926. The KMT associated with the CI to better control the Communists within its ranks and deceive the masses. But this parody of an association meant the ECCI was even more opposed to any suggestion that the CCP leave the bloc within, and it urged the CCP to avoid engaging in class battles in which they would be opposed to the patriotic bourgeoisie of the KMT.

2.4 Summary

The ECCI’s advice and material support which ensured the successful launch and initial growth of the CCP would become its antithesis with the coming to power of the Bukharin/Stalin bloc in the Russian Communist Party, after which the ECCI would systematically mis-direct the CCP. The ECCI would go so far as to justify in advance, the failure of the KMT to solve the land question by revolutionary means because its “multi-class composition” meant it could not be expected “to undertake the confiscation of private property.”[63] With such an appraisal, the efforts of the young CCP to lead an agricultural revolution were doomed before they began.

In the Second Chinese Revolution, many workers were organised in such groups as the Canton-Hong Kong Strike Committee and the Shanghai General Labour Union (which for a time were functioning practically as Soviets). The workers were mobilised, and Communists occupied leading positions in a nationwide movement, launching a number of large strikes and giant demonstrations. The coming months would see the working class engaged in several victorious armed revolts as when the worker masses in Hangkow and Chiuchiang seized the British settlements, and in Shanghai where they occupied the entire city with the exception of the foreign concessions.[64]

While the young CCP was weak and composed almost entirely of intellectuals, and while the KMT had the support of large numbers of workers the bloc within was an acceptable tactic. Indeed the entry tactic if treated as an episode on the road to an independent party could have been a magnificent success. Unfortunately, its ongoing application in a distorted form in completely changed conditions would prove disastrous for the Chinese Revolution.[65]

Stalin had a track record of successful manipulation and manoeuvring within the Russian Communist Party (RCP(B))[66] but his successes in Russia had been due to the ebb of the revolution. In China the revolution was on the rise and bureaucratic calculations of who would be voted onto what committee and which resolution would be passed by the KMT Congress were worthless in the face of class war. It would not be the Communists and the left who would eject the right from the KMT, but the right and left of the KMT who would eject and massacre the Communists.

The KMT’s 2nd National Congress in January 1926 had, apparently, been for the CCP a huge success. On 13 March, the ECCI declared that the KMT identified ideologically with the CI.[67] Just one week later on 20 March, Chiang Kai-shek carried out his first coup against the Communists.


[1] Alexander, R. International Trotskyism 1929-1985, 1991, Duke U.P. rosswolfe.files.wordpress.com.

[2] Dov Bing, Sneevliet and the Early Years of the CCP, The China Quarterly, 1971, No. 48, p677-697.

[3] Mao Tse-tung, Footnote 21 to Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society, Selected Works FLP, 1926, Vol1 p13-21.

[4] Brandt, C. Stalin’s Failure in China, 1924-27, Harvard U.P. 1959, p47.

[5] Saich, T. The Origins of the First United Front in China, Brill, 1991, p116-117, p 84.

[6] Isaacs, H. Documents on the Comintern and the Chinese Revolution. The China Quarterly, 1971, No. 45, p100-115.

[7] Chen Duxiu The Immediate Tactics of the CCP, November 1922. Henk Sneevliet papers, socialhistory.org.

[8] North, R. Moscow and the Chinese Communists, Stanford U.P., 1963.

[9] Alexander, Op. cit.

[10] Lescot, P. Before Mao, Collins, 2004, p40.

[11] Ho Kan-chih, A History of the Modern Chinese Revolution, PFLP, 1959, p40.

[12] Manifesto of the 2nd Congress of the CCP Brandt et al, in A Documentary History of Chinese Communism, Allen & Unwin, 1952, p65.

[13] Lenin, V. Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Question June 1920, CW31: 144-151.

[14] Lenin, V. Speech on Affiliation to the British Labour Party, May 1920, CW 31: 257-263.

[15] Dov Bing, Op. cit.

[16] Bolshevik Leadership Correspondence 1912–1927, Rosspen, 1996.

[17] Chen Duxiu Appeal to All the Comrades of the Chinese Communist Party December 10, 1929, w.m.org.

[18] Alexander, Op. cit.

[19] Sneevliet papers, Op. cit.

[20] Brandt et al., A Documentary …. Op. cit. p67.

[21] 4th Congress of the Communist International, Theses on the Eastern Question, 5 December 1922, w.m.org.

[22] Theses on the Eastern Question, Op. cit.

[23] Trotsky, L. The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928-29) New York 1981, p202-3.

[24] Sneevliet papers Op. cit.

[25] Mao Zedong, Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society, Footnote 13, 1926 w.m.org.

[26] Dorland, A. The Concept and Function of “China” in Trotsky MA thesis, Mc Gill Univ., Montreal, Canada. 1971.

[27] Schram, S. Mao’s Road to Power Sharpe, 1992, Vol 2 p157.

[28] Degras, J. The Communist International, Selected Documents, 1965, OUP, Vol 2 p25-26.

[29] Jacobs, D. Borodin: Stalin’s Man in China. Harvard U.P., 1981.

[30] Lenin, V. From a Publicist’s Diary, Sept. 1917, CW 25:278-286.

[31] Borkenau, F. Communist International, 1919-1945, Faber and Faber, Ltd., p278 and 343.

[32] Pantsov, A., and Levine, S. Mao, Simon & Schuster, 2012, p123.

[33] Brandt et al, A Documentary … Op. cit. p71-2.

[34] Mao Zedong, Peking Coup d’Etat and the Merchants, 11 July 1923, w.m.org.

[35] Pantsov and Levine, Op. cit. p129-133.

[36] Jacobs, Op. cit.

[37] Peng Shu-tse, Introduction to Leon Trotsky on China, Pathfinder, 1976, p42-44.

[38] Lescot, Op. cit.

[39] Jacobs, Op. cit.

[40] Chen Duxiu, Appeal… Op. cit.

[41] Alexander, Op. cit.

[42] Benton G. Bolshevising China: From Lenin to Stalin to Mao, 1921–1944. Leeds Univ., East Asia Papers No. 22, 1966.

[43] Benton, Ibid.

[44] Alexander, Op. cit.

[45] Peng, Op. cit. p47-48.

[46] Alexander, Op. cit.

[47] Schram, Op. cit. p237.

[48] Dorland, Op. cit.

[49] Isaacs, H. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, w.m.org.

[50] Millward, L. Workers in the Chinese revolution of 1926-7, Workers’ Liberty 12-13, August 1989.

[51] James, C.L.R. The World Revolution, w.m.org.

[52] Marx, K. and Engels, F. Address to the Central Committee Communist League, March 1850, MESW, 1:107.

[53] Lescot, Op. cit.

[54] James, Op. cit.

[55] James, Op. cit.

[56] Chen Duxiu Appeal … Op. cit.

[57] Dorland, Op. cit.

[58] Broue, P. Chen Duxiu and the Fourth International, Rev. Hist. Vol 2 No 4 1990.

[59] Lenin, V. Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, June 1920, CW31 p144-151.

[60] Pantsov and Levine, Op. cit. p143 et seq.

[61] Stalin, J. Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Students of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, May 18, 1925 Vol 7 p135 – 155.

[62] Broue, Chen Duxiu … Op. cit.

[63] Isaacs, Tragedy …, Op. cit.

[64] Peng Shuzi, The Causes of the Victory of the Chinese Communist Party over Chiang Kai-Shek, February, 1952 w.m.org.

[65] Pantsov, A. The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919-1927, Curtzon. 2000, p106.

[66] (Note: the Russian Communist Party changed its name twice during the period covered by this book. In 1918 it had adopted the name Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) (RCP(B)), between 1925 and 1952 it was the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) (AUCP(B)), and after 1952 it was known as Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)).

[67] Degras, J. (ed), The Communist International 1919 – 1943, Documents, OUP, 1956, Vol 2, p275 et seq.