Harold R. Isaacs

VI. From Canton to the Yangtze

The Kuomintang marched its forces northward to replace the power of the older militarists with its own. It marched not to fight imperialism, but to compromise with it. Deluded into the belief that a Kuomintang victory would bring a thorough change in their conditions of life and livelihood of this the Communists made no attempt to disabuse them—the masses rose in a tidal wave which swept the expeditionary armies to the banks of the Yangtze.

Success was swift and spectacular. Armed forces merely supplemented the huge propaganda machine which swept forward, unleashing the forces which levelled all opposition like a line of tanks clearing the way for infantry. Before this onslaught the mercenary forces of Wu Pei-fu and his allies were helpless and demoralized. They either fell back in confusion or with their commanders sought the safety of an alliance with the Nationalists. A foreign eye-witness relates how “an indigenous intelligence service . . . was ready waiting to assist the incoming army, reliable guides were available to serve whenever wanted; in some cases days before the army arrived, towns and cities were taken possession of by little groups (!) of enthusiasts . . . in the name of the National Government.”[1] In the actual fighting peasant detachments were found wherever the clash was fiercest. Railway and telegraph workers paralysed the enemy’s communications. Peasant intelligence made all the enemy stall secrets almost instantly available to the advancing Nationalists.

Tang Sheng-chih, a Hunan militarist who was among the first to leap upon the Nationalist band-wagon, occupied Changsha on July 12. A few weeks later the expeditionary forces faced the northern defences at Yochow on the Yangtze. Their way had been cleared by the independent action of the peasants at Pingkiang and of the workers of the Canton-Hankow and Chuchow-Pinghsiang railways. Peasant guides led the Nationalists to a ford unknown to the Northerners which enabled them to cross one of the adjacent tributaries of the Yangtze and fall upon Yochow’s defenders from the rear. “The enemy thought the army had come from Heaven,” gleefully reported a Canton newspaper.[2] Twelve hours later on the morning of August 22, Nationalist troops entered Yochow. Nationalist forces converged on the three great cities located at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers, Hanyang, Hankow, and Wuchang. The arsenal workers in Hanyang struck. The northern garrison retreated from the city in confusion, the Nationalists taking possession of Hanyang on September 6 and of Hankow two days later. Wuchang’s defenders held out inside that city’s mighty walls for nearly a month before the charges of the famous “Ironsides” army battered the gates in. By mid-October the flag of the Kuomintang was firmly established over the heart of the Yangtze Valley.

Meanwhile in the east the advance of Chiang Kai-shek through Kiangsi had been less spectacular and less successful. Chiang had restricted the activities of the propaganda machine and had already along the line of march adopted repressive measures against the mass movement. This enabled Sun Chuang-fang, military overlord of the five eastern provinces, to put up a hardier resistance. Chiang’s progress was so slow that in October he loosened slightly the restrictions on propaganda and matters then moved more swiftly. Nanchang was finally taken, and on November 5 Chiang’s forces reached Kiukiang on the banks of the Yangtze.

The victories of the Northern Expedition coincided with a vast extension of the mass movement. In Hunan labour unions spread from five to forty hsien and their membership rose from 60,000 to 150,000 by the end of November. In Wuhan within two months of the Nationalist occupation more than 300,000 workers and shop employees were mobilized in more than 200 unions united under the banner of the Hupeh General Labour Union. To the workers the Nationalist victory was the signal for militant efforts to revise the miserable living standard to which they were subjected by Chinese and foreign employer alike. Wuhan was rocked by a terrific series of strikes.[3]

Even more spectacular was the growth of the peasant movement. By the end of November there were in Hunan fifty-four organized hsien with a total registered membership in the peasant associations of 1,071,137. By January, 1927, this number had passed 2,000,000.[4] The peasants first demanded rent reduction, abolition of the miscellaneous tax burden, and arms to fight the village gentry. Village authority fell largely to the peasant associations and in Hunan the step from refusal to pay all rent to the outright seizure of land was quickly taken.

It was in these circumstances that the National Government moved in December from Canton to the Yangtze. The flush of victory and the glow of the mass movement enabled the vacillating petty bourgeois politicians of the “Left” to shed temporarily the inferiority complex which Chiang Kai-shek’s show of power in Canton had thrust upon them. They strutted back and forth on the platform of power erected by the masses and gushed a torrent of radical phrases. Before the realities of the class struggle, however, they shrank. Soon the traditional cry of the petty bourgeois radical rose like a wail in the meeting chambers of Government committees—” The masses are going too far!”

In the face of the strike wave the Hankow capitalists stiffened into resistance. On December 3, the General Chamber of Commerce threatened a general strike of capital unless measures were immediately taken to limit the workers’ struggles. Borodin, the Communist leaders, and their Kuomintang associates hastened to comply. Three days later a board of arbitration was set up to “recognize reasonable (?) increases of wages, advise different trades to follow traditions (!) in fixing working hours, to improve materially the social treatment of the workers, and to leave the power of employing and dismissing labourers entirely in the hands of the employers.”[5] The personnel of the board was made up of representatives of the Kuomintang, the General Labour Union, and the Chamber of Commerce. Its decisions were to be “binding on both employer and employees.” An attempt was made to introduce labour legislation which fixed a minimum wage of $13 a month—a ruling which never took effect, miserable as it was—and at the same time forbade workers to interfere in matters “of management and employment; but in cases of obvious disadvantage to the workers they may present protests.”[6] This meant the establishment of a system of compulsory arbitration, against which Communists had always taken a principled position precisely because such a system is designed to sap the initiative of the working class, vitiate the fighting strength of its organizations, and in general to deflect them from methods of militant class struggle.

Borodin and the Wuhan Kuomintang radicals similarly tried to evade taking responsibility for the peasant movement. The task of formulating a concrete programme of peasant demands was avoided. Even the 25 per cent rent reduction provided for in the 1924 programme of the Kuomintang was never applied. Instead peasant “excesses” were deplored and the fear prevailed that the peasants, by going “too far,” might prejudice the united front of the classes. The period of the Northern Expedition offered an incomparable opportunity to liberate the masses from bourgeois influence and from the bourgeois leadership established by Chiang Kai-shek in Canton. The Communist leadership did not seize this opportunity, however, Instead it clung to the flabby bourgeois radicals of the Kuomintang “Left.” A striking picture of the Communist leadership and the policies of the Comintern delegate was given by three more critical-minded Comintern functionaries in Shanghai in a letter to Moscow dated March 17, 1927

“Up to October, 1926, the question of the peasantry . . . was never raised in a more or less serious form either by the representative of the E.C.C.I. (Executive Committee of the Communist International) or by the C.C. (Central Committee) of the Chinese Communist Party, except for the decisions of the June plenum of the C.C., which completely hushed up the peasants’ struggle and appealed for a bloc with the ‘good gentry.’ . . . In October a programme of peasants’ demands was worked out, but the representative of the E.C.C.I. as well as the Party leaders considered it only as a programme for the Party congress. For a period of three to four months the programme did not pass beyond the walls of the C.C., and only in January was it sent out to the local organizations. But up till now, nothing has been essentially changed in the tactics of the Party on the peasant question. The old line of curbing the struggle in the village and applying the brakes to the peasants’ movement as a whole still prevails. . . . The fear of the peasants’ movement has existed and still remains in the Party. The realization of peasant possession of land (that is, the occupation of the land by the peasants) is called by the C.C. ‘a dangerous infantile disease of Leftism.’ It continues to speak of the ‘united front with the good gentry and the small and middle landlords against the bad gentry and the blackguards.’ (Report from Hunan of December 30.) The expression ‘good gentry’ is found to this day in all Party documents, in articles by leading comrades. This replacement of social categories by moral categories is essentially a suspension of the revolutionary movement in the village.

“At the December plenum of the C.C. a resolution on the peasant question was adopted with the participation of the representative of the E.C.C.I. Not a word is to be found in this resolution on an agrarian programme and on the struggle of the peasantry. The resolution does not answer a single one of the most burning questions of the day; the question of the peasants’ power is answered negatively. It says, the slogan of a peasants’ power must not be raised so as not to frighten away the petty bourgeoisie. From the neglect of the peasants’ revolution springs the suspension by the leading Party organs of the arming of the peasantry. . . .

“The tactic of the Party in the workers’ movement is no different from its tactic in the peasants’ movement. Above all, there is an absolute under-estimation and lack of attention to it. The C.C. has no trade union department. More than a million organized workers have no guiding centre. The trade unions are separated from the masses and remain to a large degree organizations at the top. The political and organizational work is replaced everywhere by compulsion, but the main thing is that reformist tendencies are growing inside as well as outside the revolutionary trade union movement . . . there occur refusals to support and defend the economic demands of the workers. Out of fear of the elementary growth of the labour movement, the Party in Canton consented to compulsory arbitration, then it did the same thing in Hankow (the idea of compulsory arbitration itself comes from Borodin). Especially great is the fear of the Party leaders of the movement of the non-industrial workers. . . .

“The report of the C.C. at the December plenum says:

’˜It is unusually difficult for us to decide our tactics in relation to the middle and petty bourgeoisie, since the strikes of non-industrial and office workers are only conflicts within the petty bourgeoisie themselves. Both sides (i.e. the employers and the workers) being necessary for the national united front, we can support neither of the two sides, neither can we be neutral. . . . The employees in concerns producing vital necessities (rice, salt, coal, fuel, etc.) must never resort to strikes if there is the slightest possibility of attaining concessions in a peaceful manner.’

“Thus the Party abandons the defence and support of the non-industrial workers, i.e., the majority of the Chinese working-class, and covers it up with the necessity of the united front with the petty bourgeoisie. Incidentally, it is quite clear that it is not so much a question of the petty bourgeoisie, especially of the artisans, as of the commercial middle bourgeoisie. . . . The Party leadership also fears the arming of the workers. . . .

“A characterization of the Party attitude towards the army was given by comrade Chow En-lai in his report. He said to the Party members: ‘Go into this national revolutionary army, strengthen it, raise its fighting ability, but do not carry on any independent work there.’ Up to recently there were no nuclei in the army. Our comrades who were political advisers occupied themselves exclusively with military and political work for the Kuomintang. . . .

“With the aid of all sorts of combinations, oppositions, etc., our comrades hoped to maintain a balance of forces in the army, but it never occurred to them to capture it. . . . With particular ardour does the representative of the E.C.C.I. deny the possibility of political work in the army. The December plenum of the C.C. adopted a decision to build nuclei in the army (only of commanders, to be sure, with the prohibition against taking in soldiers), and in January of this year, when the other Russian comrades (not for the first time), raised the question of work in the army, comrade V.[Voitinsky.] already expressed himself sharply against the organization of nuclei. First he told comrade M.[ Mandalyan.] that Moscow had decided not to form nuclei and then he showed the impossibility of organizing them; first, because the military commanders, especially Chiang Kai-shek, would see in it the machinations of the Communists, which would strain relations; second, because the Cantonese army was not susceptible to influence from below. When it was proposed to draw workers and Communists into the army on a mass scale . . . as well as peasants and members of the Peasant leagues, he laid it aside with pretexts, declaring that nobody would take them into the army anyway, nothing would ever come of it, there is no recruiting going on now, etc. And since he did not dare to appear as an opponent in principle in the question of arming the workers, he discovered a thousand difficulties, and showed that the arming of the workers is absolutely unthinkable, that we cannot get weapons anywhere, etc.

“Besides, there are dozens of company commanders and a few regiment commanders who are Communists and have a colossal influence, there is a Communist regiment, and through all these channels an enormous work could be conducted. But out of fear of revolutionizing the army which pervades some Party leaders, isolated comrades working in the army became detached from the Party, were transformed into ‘individual’˜ Communist commanders. . . . Despite the fact that the representative of the E.C.C.I. after a Long resistance admitted to us that the work of the Party in the army must be reorganized, he subsequently did nothing to carry through this reorganization. We do not even know if he spoke of it to the C.C.”[7]

In all this the functionary critics were careful not to say that Borodin and Voitinsky were only carrying out in China the policies dictated by Stalin and Bukharin in Moscow. The fatal policies of the Chinese Communist leadership, sponsored by Borodin and Voitinsky, flowed irrevocably from the course pursued by the Comintern. In March, 1926, on the very eve of Chiang Kai-shek’s coup, the Sixth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Comintern had sanctified the bloc of the workers and peasants with the bourgeoisie and ensured to the latter the support of the proletariat. After the March 20 coup it deliberately concealed the shift of power in Canton to the hands of the extreme Right wing of the Kuomintang under the aegis of Chiang Kai-shek. Shortly afterward the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, against one adverse vote—Trotsky’s—approved the admission of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, as a “sympathizing party,” into the Communist International.[The participation of Shao Li-tze, of Chiang’s personal entourage, as fraternal delegate of the Kuomintang in the Seventh Plenum of the E.C.C.I. in November, 1926, confirms the membership status of the Kuomintang in the International.]

“In preparing himself for the role of an executioner,” wrote Trotsky, Chiang Kai-shek “wanted to have the cover of world Communism—and he got it.”[8]

In October, 1926, the Stalin-Bukharin leadership in Moscow wired the Chinese Communists to keep the peasant movement in check in order not to drive away the generals leading the victorious march northward. When confronted with the fact, [9] Stalin later admitted that such a telegram had been sent and, more remarkably still, confessed that it had been “a mistake,” hastily adding that it had been “cancelled” a few weeks later.[10] The “cancellation” consisted of the directives of the Seventh Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, which were more careful to stress, in general terms, the importance of the agrarian revolution to the Chinese anti-imperialist struggle. At the same time, by the system of double book-keeping that had now become the rule in the Comintern, the specific and concrete programme laid down for the Chinese Communists required them, more than ever, to check the tumultuous uprising of the peasant millions.

This cleavage between profession and practice flowed from the opportunism of the Comintern, which professed, abstractly, the principle of the political independence of the proletariat while it practised, concretely, a policy of capitulation to the bourgeoisie. In their word-laden, over-cunning resolutions, Stalin, Bukharin & Co. united these antithetical elements and presented them as a synthetic whole. When their practices led to disaster, they could always cite their professions and shift the blame to the practices of others.

The theses on the Chinese question,[11] adopted by the Seventh Plenum of the Comintern Executive in November, 1926, observed that “the progressive abandonment of the revolution by the big bourgeoisie is historically inevitable.” This phrase was later worn thin when quotations were needed to prove that the Comintern “foresaw” and “predicted” everything. Its original context, however, included the following passages: “This does not signify that the bourgeoisie is totally eliminated, as a class, from the struggle for national independence, since side by side with the small and middle bourgeoisie, even a certain section of the big bourgeoisie can for a certain time still march with the revolution. . . . The proletariat must, of course, broadly utilize those strata of the bourgeoisie which at present are actively co-operating in the revolutionary struggle against imperialism and militarism.”

The theses warned that the “bourgeoisie” was trying to “smash the revolution,” but the worker closely following the actual events in China would look in vain in the pages of this document for a translation of this dire “warning” into the names, dates, parties, and places directly involved in the Chinese events. “Smashing the revolution” implied an activity of an extremely concrete nature. Who was smashing it? Where, when, and how? Of this the theses speak no word. What of Chiang Kai-shek, the March 20 coup, the repression of the workers in Canton and the massacres of the peasants in the province of Kwangtung and in the wake of Chiang Kai-shek’s northward advancing armies? Of all this no word, not a single solitary word. The theses contained a single reference, unexplained and unelaborated, to the fact that “the labour and peasant movement, even in Kwangtung province, have had to surmount many difficulties.” In his report, Tang Ping-shan, delegate of the Chinese Communist Party, referred mysteriously to “the March affair this year in Canton” as “an attempt on the part of the bourgeoisie to take the leadership of the revolution away from the proletariat,” but he never mentioned it again, nor did anyone else, if the official record is to be believed.[12]

Stalin himself assured the members of the Chinese commission on November 30 that the “big national bourgeoisie is extremely weak . . . the role of leader of the Chinese peasantry must inevitably fall into the hands of the Chinese proletariat which is better organized and more active than the Chinese bourgeoisie.”[13] The sections of the Comintern and their delegates were left secure in their belief that while the “bourgeoisie” might be trying to “smash” the revolution, Chiang Kai-shek was leading it from victory to victory. When Chiang’s personal representative, Shao Li-tze, appeared on the rostrum as the fraternal delegate of the Kuomintang, they gave him a stormy ovation and rose to sing the “International” in his honour. When “in the name of the Kuomintang,” Shao—referred to in the record as “comrade” Shao—declared that “we expect the support of the Comintern and all its affiliated parties. . . . Long live the Comintern! Long live the world revolution!” the enthusiasm was indescribable.[14]

Stalin was perfectly aware that the advance of Chiang Kai-shek’s armies had meant in Canton and in scores of towns and villages the bloody suppression of strikes, the destruction of trade unions, and repression of the peasant movement,[15] yet of Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expedition he said: “The advance of the Canton troops meant a blow aimed at imperialism, a blow aimed at its agents in China. It meant the freedom of assembly, freedom to strike, freedom of the Press, freedom of coalition for all the revolutionary elements in China in general and for the workers in particular. . . . In China it is not the unarmed people against the troops of their own Government, but the armed people in the form of its revolutionary army. In China armed revolution is fighting against armed counterrevolution. This is one of the peculiarities and one of the advantages of the Chinese revolution.

“What is important,” continued Stalin, “is not the bourgeois democratic character of the Canton Government, which forms the nucleus of the future all-Chinese revolutionary power. The most important thing is that this power is an anti-militarist power, and can be nothing else, that every advance of this power is a blow aimed at world imperialism and is therefore a stroke in favour of the world revolutionary movement.”[16]

The “bourgeoisie” would indeed “inevitably abandon“ the revolution, but its chief agent, Chiang Kai-shek, was the heroic leader of the “armed revolution,” and its chief agency, the Canton Government, was the shining spearhead of struggle against the militarists and against imperialism, which, “despite its bourgeois-democratic character, essentially and objectively contains the embryo of a revolutionary-democratic-petty-bourgeois dictatorship of the revolutionary bloc of the proletariat, the peasantry, and the urban petty bourgeoisie.”[17] How more to disorient and confuse the Communists of all countries, and above all the Communists in China?

On the agrarian revolution the theses of the Seventh Plenum spoke bold words: “The agrarian question . . . is the central point of the present situation. . . . Not to deal boldly with the agrarian question, not to support in their entirety the political and economic aims of the peasant masses would be a real danger for the revolution. It would be false not to place the programme of the peasant movement first in the programme of national liberation for fear of alienating the uncertain and perfidious co-operation of a part of the capitalist dass!”[18]

This was, presumably, the “cancellation” of the October telegram that ordered a restraining hand on the peasants precisely to assure the continued “uncertain and perfidious” co-operation of the bourgeoisie. But examine this new boldness a few lines farther, where the theses declare:

“While recognizing that the Communist Party of China must proclaim the nationalization of land as the fundamental demand of the agrarian programme of the proletariat, it must nevertheless for the present differentiate its agrarian tactic according to the economic and political peculiarities of the different sections of Chinese territory.”

Light is shed on this cryptic qualification in the concrete agrarian programme laid down for the Chinese Communists to follow. Exceeding in no respect the liberal-reform programme of the Kuomintang, the Comintern asked for rent reductions, tax adjustments, credit aids, Governmental support of the peasant organizations, arms, and “confiscation of church and convent land and of land belonging to the reactionary militarists.” Stalin suggested the same kind of “tactical differentiation” when he spoke of the programmatic demands of the proletariat and raised the slogan of nationalization of industry. “This raises above all,” he immediately added, “the question of nationalization of those undertakings whose owners have distinguished themselves by special hostility and special aggressiveness towards the Chinese people.”[19]

This reproduced the categories of “good” and “bad” gentry already in common usage in China. It extended them to the idea of “reactionary” (as against “progressive”?) militarists, and “especially hostile” (as against “friendly”?) exploiters of industrial labour. This mechanism served here simply to “cancel” completely the specious radicalism of the theses and to conceal, however thinly, the Comintern’s capitulation to the bourgeoisie. The Communists were ordered to support “in their entirety” the demands of the peasants - and the peasants were already demanding the land. At the same time the Communists were required to limit themselves to agitating for the confiscation only of the land of the “reactionary militarists.” Was it not a fact that every local satrap joined the Kuomintang as soon as it reached his bailiwick? He thus became part of the “armed revolution” and his land became theoretically inviolate, along with the land of all his satellites, his relatives, his supporters—i.e. all the local owners of land for whom he ruled. Peasants in Kwangtung, Hunan, and Kiangsi were already discovering this as they reached out to take the land for their own. Protection of the “officers’ land,” sanctified here by the Comintern, served as a noose for the agrarian revolution. Supported by the Communists, it became the main prop in the defence of the landlords as a whole.

This was the kind of “agrarian revolution” that even Chiang Kai-shek gladly supported. Said “comrade” Shao Li-tze to the plenum: “Comrade (comrade!) Chiang Kaishek declared in his speech before the members of the Kuomintang that the Chinese revolution would be unthinkable if it were unable to solve correctly the agrarian, i.e. the peasant, question. . . . We are convinced that the Kuomintang, under the leadership of the Communist Party and the Comintern, will fulfil its historic role!”[20]

There was a grim truth in Chiang Kai-shek’s conviction that under the “leadership of the Comintern” the Kuomintang would “fulfil its historic role.” So long as this leadership kept the Chinese Communists, and with them the masses, lashed to the chariot of the bourgeoisie and its Government, there could be no doubt of it. On this point the theses were emphatic. The whole programme was to be achieved through and by the Kuomintang Government. “The task of the Communist Party,” said the theses, “is to see that the Canton Government carries out these measures as a transition toward a further development of the agrarian revolution.” Casually the theses admitted that “since its creation, this Government has really been in the hands of the Right wing of the Kuomintang,” and then added: “Recent events indicate that the Communists must enter the National Government to support the Left wing in its struggle (?) against the feeble (?) and wavering (?) policy of the Right.” The “recent events “—again unspecified—had really shown that the “Left” was the feeble and wavering prisoner of the aggressive and powerful Right. To order the Communists into this Government and cut them off from a powerful independent offensive of their own only ensured that they in turn would remain obedient prisoners of the “Left.”

All power and unquestioning obedience to the Kuomintang regime! ”What is essentially new and original,” Bukharin told a Leningrad party meeting, “is that now the Chinese revolution already possesses a centre organized into a State power. This fact has enormous significance. The Chinese revolution has already passed the stage of evolution in which the popular masses struggle against the ruling regime. The present stage of the Chinese revolution is characterized by the fact that the forces of the revolution are already organized into a State power with a regular, disciplined army . . . the advance of the armies, their brilliant victories . . . are a special form of the revolutionary process.” [21]

The popular masses had no longer need of struggle against “the ruling regime.” The ruling regime still represented the interests of the exploiters in town and country, and its generals were already clamping the lid on the mass movement, but this was “a special form of the revolutionary process.” Tang Ping-shan unconsciously summed up the dilemma:

“We must safeguard the interests of the peasantry, but on the other hand we must maintain and solidify the united front of the national revolutionary movement. In so contradictory a situation it is not easy (!) to maintain a correct tactical line . . . In this question we stand completely on the standpoint of Comrade Bukharin: the development of the Chinese peasant movement, while at the same time maintaining the united front of all strata of the population in the national revolutionary movement against imperialism.”[22]

This was the attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. To “develop” the peasant movement and still preserve the bloc with the bourgeoisie was impossible if this “development” was carried to its logical conclusion, the expropriation of the landlords. The Chinese Communists were asked to ride two horses pulling in opposite directions, and those in the Russian Opposition and in China who raised their voices to say that this could not be done were condemned out of hand. Stalin and other speakers at the plenum sharply rapped the demand of the Chinese Communists for withdrawal from the Kuomintang. “It would be the greatest mistake . . .” said Stalin[23] When P. Mif, later chief of the Stalinist experts on maintaining the “national united front,” chanced to re-read the theses of Lenin and came forward with a proposal for the creation of Soviets in the Chinese country-side, Stalin called him brusquely to order, and he quickly subsided.

The Seventh Plenum resolution spoke about the “path of non-capitalist development” and the “agrarian revolution,” but it laid down a policy that based itself, not on the interests of the workers and peasants, but on the sacrifice of those interests for the sake of a get-rich-quick bloc with the Chinese bourgeoisie. Preservation of this bloc at all costs was the task assigned to the representatives of the Comintern in China, to Borodin in Hankow and Voitinsky in Shanghai, whose counsel helped petrify the Chinese Communist leadership in the mould of class collaboration. They did not teach the Chinese Communists to go out into the factories and the fields with faith in the power of the millions who entered the struggle against their exploiters during the closing months of 1926.

The spectacular growth of the peasant movement coincided with a strike wave of unparalleled depth and intensity in all the major industrial centres throughout the year 1926. Incomplete records show a total of 535 strikes in 1926 as compared with 318 in 1925. Well over one million workers were directly involved. Most of the strikes were fought on the battleground of economic demands, for wage increases, and improvement in working conditions. More than half of them were fully or partially successful. Counting only those strikes for which full data were available, one investigator calculated that 49.70 per cent were wholly successful, 28.01 per cent were partially successful, while only 22.29 per cent failed.[24] These statistics tell their own story. The workers of China were raising their heads as never before. By the end of the year the strike wave was already reaching beyond the plane of economic demands to that of open political struggle. With a single, spectacular stroke the Hankow workers took the course of the antiimperialist struggle into their own hands.

On the afternoon of January 3, 1927, a great demonstration took place at the boundaries of the Hankow British Concession. The British, with memories of May 30, 1925, still fresh in their minds, voluntarily withdrew their naval landing party the next day. Frightened even more than the British by the demonstrations in the streets, the leaders of the Nationalist Government agreed to take over responsibility for policing the British area after the marines and volunteer guards were withdrawn. In mid-afternoon on January 4, the workers again gathered at the Concession boundary. “Finding that the Concession was merely being policed by their own men, and that it had not actually been taken away from the British, the cry went up to ‘Take it now!’ . . . Squads of coolies then started a round of the Concession removing the barricades. Sandbags which had been stacked up at the entrances to all the Concession roads were torn open, the sand scattered in the street and the sacks taken away. Barbed-wire barricades were removed bodily, as were all other obstructions. . . . The foreigners’ day was done on the streets of the British Concession.”[25] Along the wires to Shanghai and to the world outside raced reports of “mobs,” of looting and pillage. As a matter of fact, as eye-witnesses were compelled to admit, the victors “were riotously excited and jubilant in the Concession thoroughfares for a day or two, and there were some instances of insolence and threats toward foreigners; but no personal violence was done and no houses entered.”[26]

At Kiukiang two days later the British Concession was similarly recovered when the British hurriedly evacuated from the city under the threat of mass action. Similar stories of vandalism were circulated. Six weeks afterwards the well-known British journalist, Arthur Ransome, visited Kiukiang and inspected some of the “violated” premises which had been especially sealed for investigators. “The looting seemed to me to have been very inefficient,” he wrote, “floors covered with torn-up papers which must have been left by foreigners while preparing to leave; corners of sofas and mattresses ripped up. . . . Very little furniture was broken and no windows, not even a very ugly ostentatious hanging lamp, which I should have liked to smash myself. . . . It is curious to observe that at 6 p.m. of that day ( January 7) a party of fifteen, two men and the rest women, who had come down . . . from Kuling, came through the Chinese streets into the Concession and down to the ships without molestation.”[27]

The seizure of the British Concession in Hankow was a spontaneous act of the Hankow workers. “Nobody foresaw the events of January 3,” wrote the three Comintern functionaries in their letter from Shanghai. “The occupation of the Concession by the Hankow workers took place spontaneously, without any leadership, either from the Government, from the Kuomintang, or from our Party. They were all confronted by an accomplished fact, by a spontaneous act of the masses, and all of them had to reckon with it.”[28]

For the imperialists, and for the British in particular, the Hankow events served to hasten the policy of retreat before the mass movement that had already begun to manifest itself during the course of 1926. This policy had a dual character. It consisted first in making concessions sufficiently attractive to the Chinese bourgeoisie to establish a new basis for united action against the mass movement. This was accompanied, however, by a display and a use of force designed to remind the bourgeoisie that imperialist privileges could not and would not be surrendered without a struggle. The policy combined cajolery with menace. On August 31, 1926, the Powers signed an agreement for the rendition of the Shanghai Mixed Court to become effective on January 1, 1927. A few days after the accord was reached, British gunboats ruthlessly shelled the Yangtze town of Wanhsien, inflicting heavy casualties on the civilian population in retaliation for a minor shipping scuffle. It was a reminder that “gunboat policy” still held good.

Early in December, when the Nationalist Government moved to Hankow, the British minister, Sir Miles Lampson, was sent there on an official mission to explore possible channels of compromise. The Japanese and United States Governments likewise sent special diplomatic representatives to treat with the Wuhan regime. On December 18, 1926, to the horror and angry consternation of the British community in China, the British Government circulated a memorandum to the other signatories of the Washington treaties of 1922 proposing progressive relinquishment of foreign treaty privileges. On January 27, 1927, it followed this up with similar proposals addressed impartially to the Peking and Wuhan Governments. The same week the United States Secretary of State announced his Government’s readiness to participate in a compromise arrangement. In line with this policy, the British Government accepted the fait accompli at Hankow and opened negotiations which ended with the signature of the Chen-O’Malley notes of February 19 and March 2, which returned the Hankow and Kiukiang Concessions to Chinese jurisdiction, a surrender that seemed like the end of the world to the British residents of other treaty ports.[29] For them, however, there was the satisfaction of freshly arriving troops and warships. Caressing with one hand, the imperialists were prepared to strike with the other. The threat of armed intervention was held over the head of the Chinese bourgeoisie, hut the imperialists still counted on their Chinese minions to smash the mass movement in their joint behalf, and their major strategy was directed to this end.

When the petty bourgeois politicians of Hankow recovered from their fright at the audacity of the workers, the spectacle of a retreating and conciliatory Britain gave them new heart. They readily stepped in to negotiate and emerged dazzled with the Chen-O’Malley accord. It was greeted as a “diplomatic victory” for Eugene Chen, but it was the humble Hankow coolie and his comrades who had brought the mighty Britain to heel.

The Communist leaders, on their part, were dazed. “How did the Central Committee of the Communist Party react to the events in Hankow? At first it did not want to react at all. . . . The C.C. was of the opinion that the foreigners and the petty bourgeoisie need not have been irritated.”[30] Again: “The seizure of the British concession by the Wuhan workers . . . was not only carried out without the knowledge of the Party leadership, but afterward the Central Committee regarded it as having been incorrect.”[31]

Nevertheless the psychological effect of the January 3 events was to stiffen the attitude of the Left leaders at Wuhan, if only temporarily, toward Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang had established himself at Nanchang, capital of Kiangsi, where the politicians of the Right wing gathered about him and gobetweens like Huang Fu and C. T. Wang scurried to and fro seeking an entente with the Japanese and even with Chang Tso-lin through the latter’s emissary, Yang Yu-ting. Chiang’s eyes were fixed on Shanghai, the principal economic and political base of compradorism, the stronghold of foreign and Chinese finance capital. Pending conquest of that vital centre with its ready funds and its direct access to the big bourgeoisie, Chiang Kai-shek manoeuvred to keep control of the Party in his own hands. He demanded that the seat of the Government be established at Nanchang. He wanted the Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang to meet there under his auspices. He even made a swift trip to Wuhan on January 10 to press his demand. But there, the petty bourgeois radicals, Borodin included, momentarily exhilarated by the victory over the British and the strength of the movement behind them, were bold enough to give him a cold reception. Even Borodin at a banquet attended by Chiang made a few pointed sallies about power-seeking militarists, a bit of audacity from which he himself “immediately recoiled in fright,” saying: “I am afraid I made a mistake. . . . Our intervention against Chiang Kai-shek was provoked by the pressure of the general opinion and I do not know whether I acted correctly.”[32]

Chiang left Wuhan abruptly. Back in Nanchang he openly announced his intention to smash the Communists. “If the Tung Men Hui (the predecessor of the Kuomintang) failed to construct an ordered republic,” he said in a speech on February 19, “it was because in its ranks were too many disparate elements who did not march together. There were . . . reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries who compromised the work. Of these people there are still now too many. The time has come to expel them since they are not true comrades. . . . No more differences or tendencies among us! Being known as a faithful believer in the doctrines of Sun Wen (Sun Yat-sen), I have the right to say that every true member of the Party must be just that and nothing else. Whoever goes against the aims and methods indicated by Sun Wen will not be a comrade but an enemy who must not remain among us.”[33] Again, on March 7, Chiang delivered a broadside, directed this time against Borodin and the other Russian advisers, professing, however, continued friendship for the Soviet Union. “It is not (Russia’s) policy to tyrannize over us,” he said, “and though her representatives have acted otherwise, insulting our every movement, I am convinced that it has naught to do with Russia but (they) are the individual actions of these representatives.”[34] Rumours of his negotiations with Mukden and Japan, Chiang laid at the door of “one or two individuals” who were maliciously trying to injure his reputation for revolutionary purity.

The bold mood of the Wuhan radicals found expression in the decisions of the third plenary session of the Kuomintang Central Executive Committee convened by them at Hankow on March 10. Here Borodin and his colleagues put through a series of resolutions which, on paper, restored to the regular Party organs the power assumed by Chiang Kai-shek just a year before. The emergency powers delegated to Chiang at that time were revoked and the Military Council re-estahlished. Chiang Kai-shek “resigned” from the chairmanship of the Central Executive Committee and the plenary session abolished the post itself as a gesture against the concentration of too much power in the hands of a single individual. Simultaneously, resolutions were passed arranging for “co-operation” between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party, calling upon the latter to share political responsibility by sending “responsible comrades to join in the Nationalist and Provincial Governments.” It was also resolved that “the Press organs of the Third International, of the Chinese Communist Party, and of the Kuomintang shall not violate the spirit of co-operation in their reports and criticisms of one another.”[35]

The decisions regarding the Communist Party, implemented by the nomination of two Communist ministers to the newlycreated Government posts of Labour and Agriculture, were designed specifically and consciously to tighten the bonds that already strapped the workers’ party to the bourgeois Kuomintang. On this point the Kuomintang leaders were perfectly clear. “The present co-operative plan is important,” it was explained in the official People’s Tribune, ”because it signifies greater control by the Kuomintang over all the forces participating in the national revolution. . . . The Communist Party will have to fulfil its obligations to enable the Party (the Kuomintang) and the Government to exercise full control over the mass movement.”.[36]

These resolutions took effect. The decisions concerning Chiang Kai-shek remained futile words scribbled on paper. The Communists accepted the authority of the petty bourgeois radicals of Wuhan. Chiang did not and Wuhan dared not take the offensive against him. While the Press everywhere buzzed with rumours concerning the growing schism in the Kuomintang, the Wuhan radicals and their Communist allies sought desperately to deny the presence of any rift in the Nationalist lute. “The military organs are willingly and gladly turning over all political functions to the Party . . . the Party and the army are in agreement,” the Wuhan leaders declared. Asked about the rumour of a split, they said it was “a pure fabrication.”[37] The shifts made in the commanding stall of the Party were made amid general agreement, it was asserted. “In all these changes there is now complete concurrence. The very individuals and groups which seemed directly aimed at . . . have now signified their concurrence,” reported the Nationalist News Agency.[38]

This whistling in the dark harmonized entirely with Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy. He had yet to reach Shanghai. He had yet to conclude and consolidate his new alliances. He wanted no open break so long as he remained in Nanchang. He would break with Wuhan on his own terms once ensconced in the Whangpoo metropolis. In Kiangsi he was already unleashing the terror against the labour and peasant leaders and against the Communists. Press reports almost daily of his negotiations with Mukden for “a reconciliation of north and south to fight the Reds” heralded his course toward a split. For Wuhan, however, the “Crisis was over” and the national revolutionary movement was declared to be “in a position to move on unhampered by the slightest suggestion of inner conflict.” [39]

“What did the C.C. of our Party do. . . .? One would think that it should have conducted a broad campaign among the masses . . . baring the secret motives behind this conflict and exposing the intriguers, encircling Chiang Kai-shek, and bringing strong pressure to bear on the Government and on Borodin to stop camouflaging the conflict as a personal one and to move among the masses on the basis of a political platform of social reforms, and above all agrarian reforms, so that Chiang Kai-shek would have been forced to accept battle (if he wanted it) on the basis of a fixed programme—a fact which would have created grave difficulties for him. But the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the representative of the E.C.C.I. for a long time ‘did not notice’ this conflict and took no position with regard to it. . . . We repeat: the leading nucleus of the Party took no position and did nothing for two months in the Nanchang-Wuhan conflict. . . . The Central Committee only hid itself and evaded answering the questions that the situation placed before it. The local organizations of the Party in Hupeh developed, at their own risk and peril, a campaign around this question without awaiting the decisions of the Central Committee.”[40]

When finally, on March 18, Chen Tu-hsiu took open cognizance of the situation, he confined himself to reproaching Chiang Kai-shek for attacking Wuhan and Borodin. He quoted a headline from a Shanghai Japanese newspaper of March 17: “Nanchang openly proclaims a pro Japanese policy; Refuses to recognize the results of the Central Executive Committee Conference; Decides to get rid of Borodin.” Chiang, exhorted Chen Tu-hsiu, should repudiate these Japanese rumours and not “abuse his own associates.” “Our duty, therefore . . .” he wrote, “is earnestly to persuade the Nationalist revolutionary leader, General Chiang Kai-shek, to prove immediately in words and actions that the so-called reconciliation between north and south to oppose the Reds is but the scheming of imperialist Japan.”[41]

The advance to the Yangtze and the gigantic up-surge of the mass movement had brought the class contradictions in the Nationalist movement to the breaking-point. Chiang Kaishek was openly steering for Shanghai to come to terms there with the imperialists. The mass movement would be headed off this time only by the sharper expedient of decapitation. This was the real root of the so-called Nanchang-Wuhan conflict. Yet the Wuhan radicals, flattered by the boldness of their paper resolutions, considered the crisis over. The Communists tried only “earnestly to persuade” the erring general. The issues were kept carefully screened from the masses, and especially from the Shanghai workers who held the key to the crisis in their hands. Unwarned, unprepared, they became first Chiang’s pawns and then his victims.


1 Chapman, Chinese Revolution, p. 20.

2 Quoted by Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. IV, Section 4.

3 Ibid.

4 Changsha correspondence to the Guide Weekly, quoted by Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. IV, Section 4.

5 Chen Ta, Analysis of Strikes, p. 40.

6 Ibid., p. 41.

7 La Lettre de Shanghai, Paris, 1927, pp. 13-18 (Eng. trans. in appendices to Trotsky, Problems, p. 397 ff.). The authors of this letter were Nassonov, Fokine, and Albrecht. Although they carefully avoided implicating the Comintern in the errors of the “representative of the E.C.C.I.,” the facts they gave were so damaging for the Stalin-Bukharin leadership that the letter was suppressed. It was published by Albert Treint, a member of the presidium of the E.C.C.I.

8 Trotsky, Problems, p. 271.

9 Trotsky, “Speech of August 1, 1927,” Stalin School of Falsification, pp. 165 and 173.

10 Stalin, “Speech of August 1, 1927,” Marxism and the National and Colonial Question, p. 237.

11 “Theses sur la Situation en Chine” (adopted by the VII Plenum of the E.C.C.I., November-December, 1926), La Correspondance Internationale, February 20, 1927.

12 “Report of Tang Ping-shan” (VII Plenum), International Press Correspondence, December 30, 1926.

13 Stalin, “Prospects of the Revolution in China” (speech before the Chinese Commission of the VII Plenum, November 30, 1926), International Press Correspondence, December 23, 1926.

14 “Detailed Report of the VII Plenum,” First Session, November 22, 1926, International Press Correspondence, December 1, 1926.

15 Albert Treint, “La Vérité Qu’on Cache sur la Chine, etc.,” Documents de l’Opposition et la Réponse du Parti, pp. 77-8.

16 Stalin, “Prospects of the Revolution in China.”

17 “Theses sur la Situation en Chine” (VII Plenum).

18 Ibid.

19 Stalin, “Prospects of the Revolution in China.”

20 “Speech of Shao Li-tze (Kuomintang),” VII Plenum, Session of November 30, 1926, International Press Correspondence, December 30, 1926.

21 Bukharin, “Speech to 24th Conference of Leningrad District, C.P.S.U.”, La Correspondance Internationale, February 12, 1927.

22 “Speech of Tang Ping-shan,” VII Plenum, Session of November 26, 1926, International Press Correspondence, December 23, 1926.

23 Stalin, “Prospects of the Revolution in China”; see also “Speech of Petroff (C.P.S.U.)”, International Press Correspondence, December 30, 1926.

24 Chen Ta, Analysis of Strikes, p. 43.

25 Hankow Herald, January 5, 1927.

26 Chapman, Chinese Revolution, p. 35.

27 Ransome, Chinese Puzzle, pp. 106 and 113. Subsequently one of Ransome’s British informants at Kiukiang wrote him to complain that his account was “insufficiently lurid” !

28 Lettre de Shanghai, p. 4.

29 For texts of these documents and related citations, see China Year Book, 1928, pp. 739, 756 ff., 761, 764, 983, 1353.

30 Lettre de Shanghai, p. 5. -

31 “August 7 Letter.”

32 Lettre de Shanghai, pp. 7-8. In later years Borodin never wearied of recalling that banquet as evidence that he had struggled against Chiang Kai-shek. For Chiang’s own account of the incident, see Wieger, Chine Moderne, v. VII, pp. 140-2. Wieger, Chine Moderne, v. VIII, pp. 23-4.

33 Wieger, Chine Moderne, v. VIII, pp. 23-4.

34 North China Herald, April 2, 1927.

35 People’s Tribune, Hankow, March 15, 1927; Woo, Kuomintang and the Future of the Chinese Revolution, p. 180.

36 People’s Tribune, March 16, 1927.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., March 19, 1927.

39 Ibid.

40 Lettre de Shanghai, pp. 7-8.

41 Trans. from Guide Weekly, March 18, 1927, by North China Herald, April 9, 1927.