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Mao Tse-tung

Nigel Harris et al.

Mao Tse-tung

The Communist International
and China

THE Chinese Communist Party was founded, in May 1921, as a result of the impact of the October revolution on the left wing of the growing Chinese nationalist movement.

According to Mao’s own account, given to Edgar Snow in 1936,

‘the leading roles were played by Ch’en Tu-hsiu and Li Ta-chao, both of whom were among the most brilliant intellectual leaders of China.’ [1]

Li Ta-chao, who was murdered by the troops of the pro-Japanese warlord Chang Tso-lin in 1927, represented the more nationalist wing of the movement – nationalism with a marxist veneer, an embryonic Maoism in fact.

Ch’en, an internationalist, and a serious student of Marx, was the most prominent leader of the party from its beginnings until August 1927 when he was made the scapegoat for the failure of Stalin’s policies in China.

The political basis of the CCP was the line of the Communist International, to which it immediately applied for affiliation, and, especially the Theses on the National Question adopted at the second world congress (1920).

These theses made a sharp distinction between imperialist and colonial or semi-colonial (oppressed) countries.

‘At the present time therefore we should not restrict ourselves to a mere recognition or declaration of the need to bring working people of various countries closer together; our policy must be to bring into being a close alliance of all the national colonial liberation movements with Soviet Russia.’ [2]

At the same time:

‘A resolute struggle must be waged against the attempt to clothe the revolutionary liberation movements in the backward countries, which are not genuinely communist, in communist colours. The Communist International has the duty of supporting the (evolutionary movement in the colonies and backward countries only with the object of rallying the constituent elements of the future proletarian parties – which will be truly communist and not only in name – in all the backward countries, and educating them to a consciousness of their special task, namely, that of fighting against the bourgeois democratic trend in their own nation. The Communist International should collaborate provisionally with the revolutionary movement of the colonies and backward countries, and even form an alliance with it, but it must not amalgamate with it; it must unconditionally maintain the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is only in an embryo stage.’ [3]

This dual task faced the infant CCP, operating in a country dominated and divided into spheres of influence by Britain, France, the USA and Japan, not to mention minor jackals.

These powers had their concessions, their extra-territorial rights, their troops and naval forces on Chinese territory, protecting the investments of their respective capitalists. Each of them also had ‘its own’ warlord, (sometimes more than one), paid and aimed to protect its interests. The ‘national government’ in Peking was powerless. China was in a state worse in many ways, than the outright colonies of the imperial powers.

The party’s first aim was to create a working class base. To quote Mao again:

‘In May 1922 the Hunan party, of which I was the secretary, had already organized more than twenty trade unions among miners, railway workers, municipal employees, printers and workers in the government mint. The work of the Communist Party was then concentrated mainly on students and workers and very little was done among the peasants ...’ [4]

What did the working class amount to at that time? It was a small minority but a growing one; ‘about 1,500,000 factory workers, about 750,000 other industrial workers (miners, seamen, railroad workers), still closely linked, socially and economically, to the mass of urban shopworkers and handicraftsmen numbering more than 11,000,000.’ [5]

Here were to be found the ‘constituent elements’ of a genuine communist party. But, of course, given communist leadership of this working class, a successful revolution would depend also upon the active support of large sections of the peasant masses.

Marx wrote to Engels in 1856:

‘The whole thing in Germany will depend on the possibility of backing the proletarian revolution by some second edition of the Peasant War.’ [6]

So, still more, in the China of the 1920’s.

The land question was fundamental.

‘Chinese rural economy has been characterized by the following main features; the increasingly swift concentration of land ownership in the hands of a constantly narrowing section of the population; the passage in title of much of the land to absentee landlords, government officials, banks and urban capitalists, who controlled the commercial capital penetrating to the remotest villages via the local merchants and usurers ... From sectional studies ... Professor Chen Han-seng estimated in 1936 that no less than 65 per cent of the peasant population was either entirely landless or land-hungry, i.e., possessing land in parcels too small and too burdened ... to provide a living even on the barest subsistence level.’ [7]

Here was a tremendous reservoir of revolutionary potential. More than three quarters of the Chinese people belonged to peasant families. More than once in China’s history peasant revolts had destroyed a dynasty. But they had not created a new social order. A redivision of the land laid the foundation for a new dynasty.

‘By its very nature,’ Marx noted, ‘small peasant property is suitable to serve as the foundation of an all-powerful and innumerable bureaucracy.’ [8]

The landless peasants, poor peasants, and even sections of the middle peasants – together with the overwhelming majority on the land – were the biggest component by far of the revolutionary potential. They could bring down the old order. But they could not themselves rule. To create a new social order, the leadership of an urban class was needed – that was marxist commonplace.

Which class? The Chinese bourgeoisie

‘remained bound by a thousand links to the pre-capitalist or semi-feudal system of exploitation on the land. The peasant was subject to the depredations of landlord, usurer, merchant, banker, warlord, tax-collector and local official. The interests of these groups fused ... Not uncommonly the collector of rent, interests, feudal dues and taxes was one and the same person.’ [9]

The bourgeoisie had too great a stake in the existing system of exploiting the peasantry to wish to sweep it away. It would never act as its French counterpart had done in 1789.

There was another factor, too. Important sections of the Chinese bourgeoisie were intimately connected with foreign capital. These were the ‘compradores’. They ‘still leaned heavily on their foreign rivals and derived much of their revenue from them. The gulf which separated them from the great mass of the people was far wider and less bridgeable than the antagonism between them and the foreigners.’ [10]

National independence and the unification of China were contrary to the it terests of the imperialists – and so to the interest of the Chinese bourgeoisie in its role as compradore, just as agrarian revolution was contrary to its interests in its role as landowner, usurer and tax farmer. This class would never make a real revolution. A ‘bourgeois revolution’ of the classic type was not on the cards.

Therefore the urban working class was the key. It had no stake in the-existing order. Given communist leadership it could put itself at the head of a vast popular movement, embracing all the oppressed classes. This was the original perspective of the CCP.

The CCP and the KMT

The perspective was, of course, an internationalist one. Lenin had asked in his report on the National and Colonial Questions at the second world congress: ‘are we to consider as correct the assertion that the capitalist stage of development is inevitable for backward nations ...?’ and had replied ‘If the victorious revolutionary proletariat conducts systematic propaganda among them, and the Soviet governments come to their aid with all the means at their disposal – in that event it will be mistaken to assume that the backward peoples must inevitably go through the capitalist stage of development.’ [11] The Chinese revolution, then, could succeed in skipping the capitalist stage if it was part of international revolutionary movement.

However, by the time the Chinese revolution erupted in 1925, the leadership of the CPSU and of the Communist International had abandoned the internationalist outlook, in deeds if not in words. The bureaucratisation of the Soviet regime symbolised by Stalin’s rise to power, the doctrine of ‘Socialism in one (backward) country’ – the bureaucracy’s ‘declaration of independence’, the baiting of Trotsky and left-wing oppositionists generally and the manipulation of the policies of the Communist International in the interests of the conservative bureaucratic caste that now ruled Russia: all this had profoundly unfavourable effects on the young CCP.

In pursuit of the ‘close alliance’ with the ‘national and colonial liberation movement’ the CCP had, in 1922, sent its members into the bourgeois-nationalist organisation, the Kuomintang, after the KMT leader Sun Yat-sen had refused to accept a formal alliance between the two parties. This action was approved, after the event, by the Comintern Executive with the qualification that

‘this should not be at the cost of obliterating the specific political features of the CCP ... While supporting the Kuomintang in all campaigns on the national-revolutionary from, to the extent that it conducts an objectively correct policy, the CCP should not merge with it and should not during these campaigns haul down its flag.’ [12]

This advice was not at all easy to carry out. But it was just possible at first. Each side wanted something the other could give. Sun Yat-sen, who had temporarily lost his territorial base in Canton after quarrelling with the local war-lord Ch’en Ch’iung-ming, wanted Russian guns, military instructors and organisers and he got them. The CCP wanted an opportunity to use the bigger and better known KMT machine to reach broader layers of workers, peasants and students. It was able to do this.

But the arrangement was bound to be highly unstable. Already in 1924 the CCP leadership, pushed on by the Comintern representative Borodin, was playing down its ‘specific political features’ in order to stay in the KMT. The KMT was, after all, a bourgeois party. Once the mass upsurge came, as it did in the spring of 1925, a split was inevitable – unless the CCP would act as an agency of the Chinese bourgeoisie!

On 30 May 1925 the British-controlled Shanghai municipal police fired on a demonstration in support of a textile workers’ strike, killing twelve Chinese. The communist-led General Labour Union called a general strike against the foreign companies. Shanghai was paralysed and the movement spread rapidly through the coastal cities; after three weeks 400,000 workers were out. After British and French troops killed fifty-two demonstrators in Canton on June 23rd, a general boycott of British goods was declared and the British colony of Hong Kong was totally shut down, 100,000 workers leaving the colony for Canton.

This stormy mass movement, almost entirely communist led, shook the foundations of foreign power in China. It also swept the KMT to power in Kwantung province (of which Canton is the capital) and brought the rift between KMT and CCP into the open. The KMT right-wing and the leading Chinese businessmen now saw the communists as the main enemy. Chinese factories too, were being shut and a rapprochment quickly developed between conservative nationalists and the foreign powers.

Comintern policy was, above all, concerned to prevent the inevitable split with the KMT by a policy of manoeuvre ‘at the top’. The chosen instruments of the Comintern were – Chiang Kai-shek, the future leader of the counter-revolution, and Wang Ching-wei, the future head of the Japanese puppet government of China! Borodin’s influence, buttressed by Russian supplies and money, was exerted to defeat their rivals and to make them, respectively, the military and civilian heads of the KMT after Sun’s death in 1925. The CCP leadership was assured that Chiang and Wang were most reliable allies.

The sixth plenum of the Comintern Executive solemnly declared (13th March 1926):

‘The KMT, the core of whose members acted in alliance with the Chinese communists, is a revolutionary bloc of workers, peasants, intellectuals and the urban democracy ... The revolutionary government established in Canton by the KMT has already established contact with the broadest masses of workers, peasants, and urban democracy, and has, by relying on these classes, annihilated the counterrevolutionary bands supported by the imperialists, and radically democratised the entire political life of Kwantung province. The Canton government, which thus personifies the vanguard of the Chinese people in its struggle for independence, is a model for the future revolutionary-democratic structure of the country ...’ [13]

A wave of Stalin’s wand and a bourgeois nationalist organisation was transformed into a ‘revolutionary bloc’ – on paper! This, the notorious ‘bloc of four classes’ theory, was borrowed from the KMT theorists – the only difference being that the ‘national capitalists’ were tactfully translated into ‘urban democracy’!

Just one week later Chiang launched his coup, arresting leading communists and forcing his rival Wang to retire, ‘for reasons of health’. The KMT ‘left’ collapsed and the CCP was required to hand over lists of all its members and to undertake ‘not to entertain any doubt or criticism ...’ [l4]

This was the crunch. To accept was to capitulate. The CCP leaders were divided. But the Comintern had no doubts. The present period is one in which the communists should do coolie service for the Kuomintang’ [15], Borodin told Ch’en Tu-hsiu. The CCP obeyed orders and capitulated.

The coup of 20 March 1926, presents the remarkable spectacle of a huge mass movement, led by communists, being painlessly deflected from the course of its own interests and placed under the direct control of its worst enemies, and being kept in total ignorance of this change by its own leaders.

The prestige of the October revolution and Red Russia were employed to perr suade the CCP to submit to the Chinese Kornilov. The Stalinists in Moscow had no confidence in the prospects of the mass movement. They hoped to cement an alliance with a bourgeois nationalist ‘strongman’. The strongman took their aid – and as soon as he was strong enough turned on his allies.

The Defeat and the Transformation of the CCP

The immediate outcome is too well known to require more than an outline. Having tied the CCP hand and foot, Chiang called off the boycott and launched the Northern Expedition – the conquest of China. It was swept forward on a tide of popular revolt. Chiang still mouthed revolutionary phrases – he still needed the mass movement – and his left flank was protected by the CCP’s uncritical support. As his troops neared Shanghai the greatest city of China and the centre of foreign power, the CCP led its mass working class base into an insurrection which drove out the warlord forces (21 March 1927). The working class was in power in Shanghai (outside the foreign concessions, guarded by 30,000, largely British troops).

Chiang entered the city on 26 March and immediately began preparations to ‘restore order’. The CCP, still loyal to the Comintern line, made no attempt to warn and prepare against the impending danger. No propaganda was undertaken amongst Chiang’s troops. The KMT was ‘a revolutionary bloc’, and ‘model’ – the Comintern said so.

Chiang struck on 12 April, after transferring unreliable leftist units of his own forces away from the city. Without organised resistance, the CCP, the unions and all workers’ organisations were thoroughly smashed. A white terror with mass executions was unleashed. Relations with the foreign powers immediately became cordial. [16]

Shanghai was a catastrophic defeat, but it need not have been decisive.

‘In Hunan and Hupeh the revolutionary tide was just sweeping in. The peasants were rising to seize the land; and the workers in degree of organisation and potential power, were already quite capable of becoming the leaders and guardians of the agrarian revolt. Together they represented a force strong enough to defeat the reaction.’ [17]

Mao Tse-tung, who had played no role in the great events in Canton and Shanghai, now, in fact (as opposed to Maoist myth), became an important mass leader.

Stalin had preferred to rely on the bourgeois nationalists rather than the workers. He now, as the peasants revolt gathered force, discovered a new bourgeois nationalist centre to rely on, at the expense, of course, of the peasant movement.

Wang Ching-wei had moved from Canton and established his own power base in Wuhan, up the Yangtse, in alliance with the ‘progressive’ warlord. Tang Sheng-chih. This ‘left KMT government, according to Stalin,

‘by a determined fight against militarism (in alliance with Tang Sheng-chih!) and imperialism will in fact be converted into an organ of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry ...’ [18]

In the interest of this fantasy the peasant movement was held back, the formation of peasant Soviets expressly forbidden and the basis laid for the next defeat:

‘... only a few weeks later, startled readers of Izvestia would learn that the left KMT leaders had proved to be “playthings in the hands of the generals”.’ [19]

The CCP was disorientated, the mass movement thrown back. Now, after the scale of the defeats was becoming impossible to conceal, the Moscow centre switched abruptly to a policy of putschism. In August 1927 a ‘special conference of the CCP, under Soviet pressure, condemns Ch’en Tu-hsiu and other top Chinese communist leaders for restraining the peasantry and “retreating” in order to maintain the alliance with the KMT left’ [20], that is for faithfully executing Moscow’s instructions!

A series of hastily prepared risings (Nanchang, Swatow and, culminating disaster, Canton) were carried out under the guidance of the new Comintern representatives Neumann and Lominadze. It was too late. The tide had been missed. In March the CCP had a good chance of destroying Chiang by a well prepared rising in Canton while the mass movement was still rising. By December, when the Canton insurrection was launched, the reaction had the advantage and the result was the destruction of the CCP in Canton.

In the aftermath, the CCP disappeared from the cities; ‘by 1930 Chao En-lai reported to the September plenary meeting of the Central Committee that out of a total membership of 120,000, the industrial worker-members only numbered a little over 2,000.’ [21] Soon even they were gone.

What survived, in the ‘Soviet Areas’ were peasant military units led by party professionals. The subsequent twists and turns of Comintern policy and their repercussions in China served only to reinforce this state of affairs.

Yet the CCP did, ultimately, take power. It proved possible, contrary to the expectations of the marxists of the nineteen-twenties, for a new state machine to be created (in backward and isolated Yenan) which was able, in the end, to conquer by military means the disintegrating KMT regime. But the resulting ‘People’s Republic’ had no connection with working class power or with communism, except in rhetoric.


1. Quoted in Snow, Red Star Over China, Penguin, 1972 edition, p.182.

2. Degras, The Communist International: Selected Document, Volume one, p.141.

3. Degras, Vol.1, pp.143-4. Emphasis added.

4. Quoted in Snow, Red Star Over China, p.184.

5. Isaacs, the Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, 2nd revised edition, Athenaeum 1968, p.33.

6. Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers 1955, p.92.

7. Isaacs, p.25.

8. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Surveys from Exile, Penguin, p.243.

9. Isaacs, p.31.

10. Isaacs, p.32.

11. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.31, p.244.

12. Degras, Vol.II, p.6.

13. Degras, Vol.II, p.277. Emphasis added.

14. Isaacs, p.95.

15. Isaacs, p.103.

16. Isaacs, p.105.

17. Isaacs, p.186.

18. Isaacs, p.191.

19. Isaacs, p.198.

20. North, Chinese Communism, WUL 1966, p.121.

21. Shachtman. Foreword to Trotsky’s Problems of the Chinese Revolution, Ann Arbour 1967.

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Last updated: 20.1.2008