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Mao Tse-tung

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Mao Tse-tung

The Making of Mao

UP TO 1927, Mao was an important member of the second rank of the leadership of the Party. In various positions, he worked in party and trade union work in Hunan, in the party centre, as one of the Communists in the apparatus of the nationalist party, the Kuomintang, and as a peasant organiser. However, in none of these fields did he display a distinctive set of characteristics or politics which would have marked him out for his future role.

The same is true in 1927. On the one hand, Mao claims he presented radical proposals on the peasant question to the Sth Party Congress (April 1927) which were suppressed; on the other, the Comintern delegate and special representative of Stalin, M.N. Roy, describes Mao as on ‘the extreme right-wing of the Party’. [1] There is no trace or confirmation of Mao’s proposals. However, after the 5th Congress he did become Chairman of the National Peasant Federation. In this capacity, he was required to implement Kuomintang-Communist policy which was solidly for ‘eliminating anarchistic conditions prevailing in the villages’. [2] What this meant was protecting the land of Kuomintang officers and their relatives from seizure by the peasants. Mao’s radicalism, if it existed, could not therefore have been greater than his loyalty.

The record of this period has, of course, been heavily doctored, and Mao’s writings extensively revised much later. Mao claims to have written a great deal and, as editor of the Kuomintang journal, Political Weekly, on a regular basis. [3] Yet only two pieces from the Political Weekly have survived. They do not differ seriously or systematically from the official Comintern position. Some people have seen a quite new political alternative, proposing a peasant revolution, in Mao’s famous Report on an investigation of the peasant movement in Hunan. [4] The head of the Comintern, Bukharin, publicly praised the work as ‘an excellent and interesting document’ and it was translated and reprinted in Russian and English, a fate inconceivable for a document less than orthodox by Comintern standards of that time. [5]

It is from the 1 August Emergency Conference of 1927 that Mao begins to play a different role. He himself never framed a political alternative to the leadership of the Party and the Comintern. But the sum of his actions, after the events of the ensuing years, did constitute something different (of course, at the same time, the Comintern’s policies were changing).

At that Conference, the Comintern swung the Party into a premature exercise of what became known in the following year as the Third Period’. Officially, the view was proclaimed that the events of 1927 were not a defeat at all. On the contrary, the movement for revolution was rising, and, as a result, the Communists no longer needed to ally with the Kuomintang. Revolution was now an immediate perspective – the Party must move straight to insurrection and the seizure of power. In fact, it seemed that the Communist International, completely misconstruing what had happened, calculated that a few Communist bases would be an effective bargaining basis for the re-establishment of the alliance with the Left Kuomintang.

But the movement was reeling from a massive defeat, from discovering that those supposed champions of the revolution, Chiang Kai-shek and the so-called Left Kuomintang, were both opposed to a popular movement. Recovery would have been possible, for the base of the Party was intact. But to recover required retreat, repair, rehabilitation. Instead, the Party was thrown into contesting military power with the victors. In effect, the Party was ordered to destroy itself in futile waves of attack, and demoralise its worker and peasant members even further. The leadership of the Party could only be defeated in such an enterprise; at which point, it would be removed by the intervention of Moscow, and a second line of sacrificial victims promoted for self-destruction.

Insurrection, in isolation from a real mass movement, imposed a quite different discipline on those involved. The work of developing strong roots in the working class (or the peasantry), the programme of the class interests of the exploited, was necessarily pushed into the background. The cadres, as a matter of sheer survival, were compelled to concentrate on mobilising and holding together military forces at virtually any cost. There was no point in working in peasant associations or trade unions when an armed uprising was scheduled for the following week. Indeed, this was the conclusion rightly but unofficially drawn by the chief of the second group of leaders promoted by Moscow when the first failed (Li Li-san). Warfare was not a mode of struggle open to workers or peasants except by abandoning their role as workers and peasants, except by joining that rootless stratum which made up the guerrillas. Mao was quite straightforward in acknowledging this rootlessness: ‘When we started to fight battles, we depended on vagrants because they dared to die. There was a time when the army wanted to weed out the vagrant elements, but I opposed it.’ [6] It was obviously a sensible thing to do if the survival of the partisans was at issue, even if it in no way squared with the party’s claim to be ‘of the working class’.

In August 1927, Mao was entrusted with Politbureau authority to direct military operations in what was considered one of the most important provinces of China for peasant revolt, Hunan. This was part of the ‘Autumn Harvest Risings’ to take part in four provinces. Mao was apparently highly excited by the opportunity and full of optimism: ‘While objectively China had long ago already grown to the 1917 level’, he wrote to the Party Centre, ‘we had previously believed that we were at the 1905 level. This was a very serious error.’ [7] At the time he was not criticised, but when the attacks failed, it was used as part of the indictment. [8]

The Party leadership, aware of Moscow’s watching eye and its urgent need for victories to confound the accusations of the opposition, covered itself from the beginning. There must be, as well as insurrection, mass mobilisation of the peasantry. In vain, did the thinly scattered cadres report peasant indifference, the fears of reprisal among urban workers if they listened to the hysteria of the Communists. The Party leadership had been instructed that they were in the midst of revolution, so that all glimmerings of reality were no more evidence of a lack of revolutionary fervour. Mao was himself reproved, and replied with some asperity: ‘Your policy is a contradictory one; you desire us not to be concerned with military matters, but at the same time, want a mass armed force.’ [9] It was the target – the seizure of key cities – which determined politics and tactics, not the leadership’s terror of Comintern reproof.

The main attack in Hunan failed. Mao was arrested before hostilities began and was held in custody throughout the attack. [10] But he managed to escape in time to catch up the fleeing forces. At the November Plenum of the Central Committee, Mao was selected for special reprimand to protect the central leadership from responsibility for the defeats. He was guilty of ‘military opportunism’, an ‘over-reliance’ on military forces rather than mobilising a mass peasant movement. [11]

The following year, armed with these reprimands, Chu Chiu-p’ai, now the main leader of the Party, repaired to a Party Congress specially summoned in Moscow. He was eloquent in blaming his leading cadres (it did not save him; he was removed):

‘China’s “revolutionary generals” ... imagined the proletarian armed struggle to be a military coup d’etat. Protection of the masses class struggle might be possible after the coup d’etat, but the masses must await the coup.’ [12]

Chu’s scorn was misapplied. The Comintern strategy led to exactly that conclusion. No mass movement could be built while waging serious insurrection; it was either built before or not at all. Any sensible cadre would try to make sure of the insurrection first, and rationalise this, by saying the mass movement could be created afterwards. A year earlier, the then leading figure in the party, Chen Tu-hsiu, had reached an identical conclusion as he tried simultaneously to build a mass movement of the exploited while holding hard to an alliance with the party of the exploiters, the Kuomintang – ‘Only after the expansion of revolutionary forces throughout the entire nation will it ultimately be possible to establish the power of workers and peasants in Shanghai’. Perhaps, he meditated, the Party ought to retreat to a remote area and build a base, free of warlords and Kuomintang. It seemed the mass base was dispensible, and protecting the cadres all; the Kuomintang’s Northern Expedition had pressed its military image into the Communist Party – first conquer the State, then emancipate the people, not emancipate the people in order to conquer the State. Two years later, Mao was beginning to draw the same conclusion:

‘Only after wiping out comparatively large enemy units and occupying the cities can we arouse on a large-scale and build up a unified political power over a number of adjoining counties. Only thus can we arouse the attention of the people far and wide.’ [13]

It followed that the function of the cities, of the working class, was not to wage class struggle against their employers but supply the partisans with men and material; the vanguard became the rearguard.

Mao and his forces retreated to the Chingkang Mountains, where they were subsequently joined by other partisan groups and two bandit leaders, Wang Tso and Yuan Wen-t’sai. All the insurrections were defeated. The last, in Canton in December 1927, was a major disaster. But the experience, for those who survived, trained them in warfare and self-reliance. Their subsequent experience, living off the mountains, was a further training in survival in a peculiarly obdurate environment, quite independent of the class struggle, urban or rural.

The Partisans and the Peasants

If insurrection imposed its own discipline upon those who undertook it, even more so did permanent bands of partisans, operating in the most backward areas. The central problem was not the social origin of the fighters, nor their politics, but material survival. The peasants were naturally suspicious of what must have seemed to them yet another bandit gang, despite their wild talk; when the partisans moved on, as sooner or later they were compelled to do, peasants who had trusted them and stayed behind, were completely exposed to landlord and warlord reprisals. It is not surprising that Mao found that ‘Wherever the Red Army goes, it finds the masses cold and reserved; only after propaganda and agitation do they rouse themselves.’ [14] It was very different to the impression Mao’s report on Hunan gave.

It was, of course, necessary to maintain a proper image for the Central Committee in Shanghai, but serious political work was severely limited by the need for mobility and survival. The partisans set up peasant committees, but they disappeared when the fighters moved on. Imposed land reforms disintegrated on evacuation. When the partisans could settle down, as they did in the Kiangsi Republic, more was possible, but even then it was very circumscribed. The partisans depended on the peasants growing a surplus to feed them, and that surplus almost invariably came from the rich peasants and landlords. Redistributing the land tended to eliminate the surplus. Furthermore, expropriation incited the sons of the landlords and rich peasants themselves to undertake reprisals, to fire the houses of known Communist sympathisers, and even copy the Communists and become guerrillas, in league with the warlords and bandits. [15]

The leadership became increasingly cautious in practice. The letter of the agrarian reforms sounded radical enough for the Party leadership, but the fine print gave wide discretion to the cadres. As a result, the social structure of the Kiangsi Republic was not radically altered. Even sometime after land reform, Mao could complain that rich peasants dominated the central Soviet area. [16] Concessions to the dominant classes always entail the sacrifice of the interests of the exploited. In this case, it was the landless peasants.

‘We feared the counterrevolutionary turn of the rich peasants and consequently asked the agricultural labourers to lower their demands.’ [17] The experience was salutary, and ever afterwards Mao condemned the official land policies of expropriation of this period as a great mistake, as ultra-left. [18]

Even without land redistribution, the problems of survival were severe enough. The soldiers needed foodstuffs and labour power, and they took the sons of peasant households into the army. Some might cultivate themselves if land was available and military duties permitted, but ultimately the peasants had to support them. Military insecurity and, finally, the Kuomintang economic blockade closed off the markets outside the Republic for what the peasants had to sell, and so stopped up the income with which to import goods – salt and cloth, in particular, became very severe problems for the troops. [19]

The Partisans and Party Policy

The problems of material survival, so decisive for the partisans, were of little meaning forthe tiny Shanghai sect that called itself the leadership. There, policies could be formulated in the most extreme terms since it cost nothing. Officially, landlords and rich peasants were abolished; ‘Soviets’, elected by the teeming working classes of the Kiangsi mountains, were a model of a socialist commonwealth; or, at least, the Party leadership saw no need to point out the reality to its overlords of the Comintern.

In his formal statements, Mao perpetuated the myths for the same reasons. To have acknowledged reality, apart from reducing the splendour of the Party’s achievements, would also have been the occasion for a denunciation in Moscow, and, along with hosts of other national leaders, expulsion (had he been on Russian territory, he would have been sentenced to a labour camp). He therefore loyally transmitted the official line:

‘the foundations should be laid for the proletarian struggle in Shanghai, Wusih, Nirigpo, Hangchow, Fuchow and Amoy ... workers’ bases must be vigorously established at Nanch’ang, Kiukiang, Sian and on the Nanch’ang-Kiukiang railway.’ [20]


‘Building a proletarian foundation for the Party and setting up Party branches in industrial enterprises in key districts are the important organisational tasks of the Party at present.’ [21]

Only years later, in Yenan, did Mao feel strong enough to confess that, after the Autumn Harvest debacle, ‘from the point of view of the cities, the movement appeared lost’. [22]

Mao appears solidly orthodox. He was even, apparently, enthusiastic about the second wave of insurrection under Li Li-san (Changsha, July 1930) [23], although he refused to act on some instructions, as when the Central Committee told him to break up the Red Army into guerrilla bands and return to Shanghai. [24] He waged no opposition to the insane policies of the Comintern aftd the Party leadership in the terrible years of attrition, 1927-34, when what was left of the urban and peasant base was wantonly destroyed by the policies of the Third Period’. Mao’s disagreements were apparently restricted to tactical questions that affected his military base, as when he was removed from office in the Kiangsi Republic in 1933-34 over how the Republic should be defended against Kuomintang encirclement.

Mao’s politics had become, in practice, completely pragmatic, governed solely by the necessity to preserve the military base. He had at no stage ‘chosen’ the peasantry as a revolutionary class, in some kind of contrast to the Comintern’s’adherence to the working class’. Both the Comintern and the CCP leadership regarded the peasantry as the main force in China’s bourgeois revolution. What he had chosen was guerrilla warfare, building a partisan base in a rural area from whatever manpower was available, and in so doing, he had shaped his politics by a quite different discipline. The difference between his pragmatic responses and the official line was covered by silence or hypocrisy.

The experiences in Chingkangshan and in the Kiangsi Republic were harsh and testing. But they paled in significance beside the staggering rigours of the Long March which followed the defeat and liquidation of the Kiangsi Republic by the Kuomintang. Quite justly, the feat is celebrated as an impressive testimony to the sheer tenacity of the Communist leadership. There were enormous losses – up to four fifths of the original forces disappeared through desertion, sickness and death. At the Tsonyi special conference, during the Long March, at long last he became simulaneously head of the Party and the army.

The Long March and the creation of a new base in the exceedingly backward area of north-east Shensi were indeed triumphs in the face of massive defeat, but they were triumphs of the will, not of the class struggle. That will was not unlimited. Remarkable though the capacity of the Party was to survive, there is no reason to doubt that the vastly superior forces of the Kuomintang, no matter how corrupt and inefficient, would have encircled and destroyed the Yenan base too, sooner or later. But there had been a decisive change in the national political scene – the Japanese invasion. So far as the Kuomintang was concerned, this tied down forces (even if they did not fight), pushed the capital far to the South West, overturned the unstable political balance in the national government, and vastly accelerated the forces of decay and demoralisation which ultimately produced its collapse.

But for the Communist Party, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to present itself as the only serious, honest nationalist alternative, the only force prepared to fight consistently. Now, at last, the abandonment of the interests of the exploited except in their shallowest form had a national political rationale – the threat to the “nation’ which took priority over all other issues. Patriotism was not now ‘love of the ruling class’ and the mark of Right-wing politics; it was ‘simply an application of internationalism in the war of national liberation’. [25] The class struggle had been pushed into the background by the pragmatic imperatives of insurrection in 1927 and after. Now it had, for the wider middle class public, a worthy justification – and not simply local in significance; not merely socialism or even China was threatened, but all the ‘democratic anti-imperialist powers’, that is, the major imperialist powers other than Japan and Germany. [26]

Stalin, with characteristic unscrupulousness, was for the Chinese Communists re-merging with the Kuomintang, so that thereby the Soviet eastern borders would be more effectively secured against Japanese depredations. But this time, in contrast to the period before 1927, Mao kept his forces entirely independent. He made many verbal concessions, tactical feints, and indeed, conceded the scrapping of the land programme:

‘We have already accepted a decision not to confiscate the land of the rich peasants, and if they come to us to fight against Japan, not to refuse to unite with them. We are not confiscating the property and factories of the big and small merchants and capitalists. We protect their enterprises and help them to expand so that the material supply in the Soviet districts, so necessary for the anti-Japanese campaign, may be augmented.’ [27]

It was but a step to the inclusion in the new United Front of ‘patriotic landlords’ and ‘enlightened gentry’ [28], and, what followed, ‘curbing the excesses’ of the exploited:

‘In the matter of raising wages and improving living conditions of the workers in the rural areas, we must especially not make excessive demands on their behalf, or the peasants will protest, the workers will lose their jobs and production will decline.’ [29]

But on one thing Mao conceded nothing. The Red Forces and their base were to be strictly independent. Of course, this was not the ‘independence of the working class’, so much stressed by Lenin; but of the Party, its territory and its main instrument of power, the army.

The land policy remained basically intact up to the final victory. In 1947, there was a shift to the Left, possibly because the peasants were unresponsive to the Party’s programme which proposed no more than a reduction in interest and rent (and even then, gave wide discretionary power to the responsible cadres). As Mao put it, in urging more serious implementation of rent reduction, without it, the masses in the newly liberated areas will not be able to tell which of the two parties, the Communist Party or the Kuomintang, is good and which is bad.’ [30] The radical phase, by contrast, included Poor Peasant Association with the right to try landlords and appropriate land. It spread like wild fire. But it was very brief. Mao launched the counterattack on ‘excesses’ – ‘“doing everything as the mass want it done”, and an accommodation to “wrong views existing among the masses”.’ [31] All the way through since 1926, those ‘excesses’ – the expression of the genuine interests and anger of the poor peasants – had threatened the alliance with rich peasants and others, jeopardised food supplies for the army, and above all, circumscribed the power and freedom to manoeuvre of the Party. The role of the masses, in Mao’s scenario, was strictly to cheer on the troops, not use their initiative independently, let alone express what he was later to call, ‘the selfish, narrow and complacent mentality of small peasant agriculture.’ [32] ‘Land to the Tillers’, ‘Down with Landlordism’, they were slogans strictly to excite enthusiasm, not generate spontaneous seizure of the land.

By 1935, the main elements of what became known as ‘Mao Tse-tung Thought’ had been constructed. By the 1940s, the Party had acquired a mass membership, and the need to refashion it into some homogenous form. It was a new party, with only a handful of men and women who had experienced the Long March, let alone the events of 1927. In 1944, 93 per cent of the members had a membership that extended back only to 1937 and 90 per cent of these were of peasant origin. The Yenan rectification campaign, 1942-44, introduced on a mass scale those instruments of party control characteristic of subsequent years – the mass denunciation of individual errors, rectification and punishment through participation in manual labour, close attention to education and culture, and continuing campaign against the ‘bad style’ of cadres – arrogance, bureaucratic pride etc. The measures were necessary to render the party an effective instrument, to prevent splits and disunity, and, above all, to find a basis of unity to replace the lacking class interest.


1. Revolution and Counterrevolution in China, Calcutta 1946, p.615.

2. Circular letter of the CCP, 7 August 1927, in A Documentary History of Chinese Communism, Ed. Brandt, Schwarz and Fairchild, New York 1952, p.112.

3. He claimed this to Edgar Snow, Red Star over China, London 1937, p.112.

4. Selected Works, Peking 1965, pp.23-59.

5. Bukharin is reported in Die Chinesische Frage, 5th Plenum, Executive Committee, Communist International, May 1927, Hamburg 1928, p.13; the Russian edition, Revolutsionnyi Vostok, 2/107, 1927, p.122; and in English, with the editor’s warm recommendation, in Communist International, 15 June, 1927, and Inprecor, 1927, p.760; all cited by Karl Wittfogel, in China Quarterly, 2 April-June 1960.

6. 20 December 1964, in Miscellany II, p.421; cf. also ‘the soldiers of peasant and working class origin in the Fourth Army in the Border Area constituted an extreme minority’, cited by Stuart Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, London 1964, pp.199-200.

7. Cited by one of the Russian advisers, L.P. Deliusen, Chapter VII of his memoirs, translated in Chinese Studies in History, Summer 1974, VII/4, p.42.

8. Cf. Chu Chiu-p’ai, Report to the 6th Congress, CCP, Moscow 1928, translated in Chinese Studies in History, V/1, p.48.

9. Ching-yang T’ung-hsun, No.5, cited Hofheizer, China Quarterly 32, p.66.

10. Lo Jung-huan, Early Days of the Chinese Red Army, Peking Review, 3 August 1962, p.10, confirms this.

11. Resolution of the Politbureau, 14 November 1927, Kuo-wen Chau-pao, 8 and 15 January 1928, in Wilbur and Howe, Documents on Communism, Nationalism and Soviet Advisers in China, New York 1956, pp.32-34.

12. Chu Chiu-p’ai, op. cit., p.4.

13. January 1930, Selected Works, I, p.123. The Comintern drew the same conclusion – cf. Manuilsky, Inprecor X, March 1930, p.267.

14. Selected Works I, p.97.

15. Cf. 25 November 1928, Selected Works, I, p.73.

16. Cf. Re-examination of Land Distribution in the Soviet Districts is the Central Task, Red Flag, 31 August 1933, cited in Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, London 1938, p.420 passim, and A Documentary History, op. cit., p.219.

17. Central Committee resolution, August 1929, cited Isaacs, 1938, p.416.

18. Cf. for example, Selected Works II, p. 168-9, p.441, and Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed, Ed. Schram, London 1974, p.97.

19. Cf. Selected Works I, 1965, pp.69 and 89.

20. Selected Works I, 1947 Chinese edition, removed in the 1951 edition, p.96, cited Wittfogel, op. cit., p.26.

21. A single spark, January 1930, Selected Works, 1954 edition, New York. p.122.

22. To Edgar Snow, Red Star, op. cit., p.151.

23. Cf. J.P. Harrison for the evidence, China Quarterly 15, p.140.

24. For the evidence, cf. Rue, p.138.

25. Selected Works III, pp.196-7.

26. Snow, Red Star, op. cit., p.95.

27. Letter from Mao to Chang Nai-chi and others, in Mao Tse-tung, China: the March Towards Unity, New York 1937, p.75.

28. Selected Works II, p.278.

29. Selected Works, II, p.466.

30. Selected Works, IV, p.76.

31. January 1948, Selected Works IV, p.181; see also February 1948, ibid., p.197; May 1948, ibid., pp.251 and 255.

32. People’s Daily, 19 March 1975.

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