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Harold Isaacs

The Peasants’ War in China

(November 1934)

From New International, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pp.25-27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WHAT PRECISELY is the situation today as regards the Red armies and the peasant war in China? What is the perspective for the peasant war and what does it mean for the Chinese revolution? Correct answers to these questions are vitally necessary before we can take a single step forward in formulating a revolutionary program for China consonant with the existing relationship of forces. It is not enough to look back over the long list of Stalinist crimes in the Chinese revolution, from the subordination of the workers and peasants to the bourgeois Kuo Min Tang in 1924-27 to the transposition of emphasis from city to village in the present day. This leads all too easily to a negative rejection of the enormous progressive significance of the peasant war in China. This we must first understand and from all available facts draw every possible positive conclusion favorable to an effective revival of the revolutionary movement in the cities.

The peasant Soviet districts in Kiangsi have suffered a series of crushing defeats in Chiang Kai-shek’s sixth campaign. For this campaign Chiang marshalled a formidable war machine, an army of 360,000 men, a fleet of more than 100 planes, nearly 20,000 impressed laborers for building roads and fortifications, and a vast corps of political and missionary scavengers engaged in tearing from the peasants in the “recovered areas” the fruits of their five years of struggle against the Kuo Min Tang. The campaign has been conducted with the utmost ferocity. Villages and towns have been obliterated by unceasing air raids. Incendiary bombs have been used to lay waste hundreds of miles of forests and fields. Chiang’s slogan has been “Exterminate the Reds!” This means – “exterminate the poor peasant population!” – and this has been literally carried out in an ever-increasing area.

Formerly long Kuo Min Tang columns would penetrate deeply into the Red territory only to be cut off and destroyed or disarmed by the mobile peasant bands. They marched into a countryside whose whole population threw its weight against them. The Kuo Min Tang armies broke and faltered under the counter-attack of the Red armies. The invaders were helpless against propaganda and intelligence corps which comprised virtually every man, woman and child of the poor peasantry of Southern Kiangsi. Through five successive Kuo Min Tang campaigns in four years the Reds fought their way successfully and emerged strengthened in arms, numbers, and morale.

During this last campaign, however, Chiang’s tactics have undergone radical changes. The government army is advancing approximately abreast along a line which stretches from the Hunan border to Northern Fukien. This steam-roller advances slowly, confining its major activities to mopping up after the air raids have done their work. Advances are made only a few miles at a time. Stockades are punctuated by blockhouses, and small forts erected within rifle range of each other are set up across hills and down valleys. The most rigorous imaginable blockade is maintained to free passage of people, news and supplies into the Red areas. This is accomplished by a series of passes and a network of phone wires connecting all the military posts through which the movements of every traveller are rigidly controlled.

In former campaigns the driving of a Kuo Min Tang spearhead into Red territory was always followed by the seemingly miraculous rise of peasant armies from the hills on all sides, the defeat of the invaders and the almost immediate recovery of lost territory. In this campaign to date the Kuo Min Tang has not lost a single mile once recovered. And the territorial losses of the Reds have been great. At its height the “Chinese Soviet Republic” in Kiangsi could legitimately claim control of more than 60 of the province’s 80 hsien (counties), not including the so-called “pink fringe in which the population was under Red influence. Today the Reds have been pressed back into an area certainly not exceeding six hsien, some reports stating three, others five. The government troops, according to the most recent and apparently accurate reports, have reoccupied Jui-chin, the Soviet “capital”.

Within this narrowing domain, the sufferings and sacrifices of the peasant armies – which in their best days never exceeded 70-80,000 men (excluding auxiliary forces) – are paralleled only by their magnificent heroism. Disease and hunger, lack of salt, oil and military supplies, cut off by the blockade which seems to be almost 100% effective, have not failed to take their toll. Communist publications in the Soviet districts themselves reveal the degree of demoralization which all these defeats have brought in their wake. They tell their own story of desertions, food rationing, shortage of ammunition and other difficulties. Several leading Red army commanders, like Kung Ho-chung and Chang Yi, have capitulated to Chiang Kai-shek. The hardships and privations are shared alike by the Red soldiers and the peasants who fight by their side. For it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the village poor are fleeing with the Red armies before the air raids and the Kuo Min Tang advance. Chiang’s armies, according to a pro-Kuo Min Tang eyewitness, march into devastated village in which sometimes the only living things are the wracked bodies of wounded peasants who have not been able to escape from under the raining bombs. The highly-heralded program of “rural rehabilitation with which the campaign is supposedly being accompanied, is mainly for the benefit of those refugees from the Reds who return in the wake of the government troops, in other words, the returning landlords and upper middle peasants.

Nevertheless, the Kuo Min Tang victory is by no means complete. Not even the iron lines of soldiery guarding the boundaries of the recovered areas can prevent bands of peasants from swooping down in black of night and destroying bridges which have been built over gulleys, ravines and small streams. It was Chiang’s primary purpose to surround and extirpate the Red armies and in this purpose he has failed. The loss of territory, the toll in lives, the disease and sufferings resulting from the blockade, the destruction of the Soviet administrations and the virtual liquidation of the “Soviet Republic” in Kiangsi all constitute a stunning blow to the peasant cause. Of this there can be no question. But the main bodies of the Red armies are still intact, although somewhat reduced. Only a few weeks ago Chiang Kai-shek himself admitted that there were still 60,000 “Red remnants”. Nearly half a million men, armed with the latest accoutrements of warfare, the last word in American, British, Japanese and Italian armaments, instructed by German, Italian and American strategists and aviators, have not been able to close in around a miserable, ragged handful. They have won no easy victories and the final victory is not yet theirs. They have not been able to prevent the fleeing Reds from breaking through the lines and shifting the theatre of warfare to Southern Hunan. Government leaders at Nanking and the government-controlled press are by no means disposed to crow over the outcome of the campaign. There is still an anxious edge to their tone.

The reason for this uncertainty in the ranks of the bourgeoisie is not far to seek. They know perfectly well that a temporary success in Kiangsi is certain to be – indeed already is – paralleled by a certain growth of the peasant movement elsewhere. The Kuo Min Tang is incapable of solving a single one of the problems which give rise to the peasant war. Of this they are perfectly aware. “You are fighting Red bandits at the front and creating Red bandits in the rear,” complains the Ta Kung-pao, a leading bourgeois daily. This process is already clearly taking form in the newly-recovered areas. In these districts a grandiose program of “rural rehabilitation” is launched in the wake of the armies. Attempts are made to coax the peasants to return by offers of loans at low rates of interest, offers of seed and tools. The expenses for this are being carried by the provincial administration which has to drain and squeeze all the more heavily the peasants in the northern part of the province who have never been under Red influence. A system of rural credit is being established but according to one pro-Kuo Min Tang observer, the provincial machine is only temporarily bearing the charges on this money which will in the long run cost the people of Kiangsi more than they have had to pay the usurers in the past when rates up to 40 and 50% have been common.

But the basic problem in Kiangsi as in all of South China is the problem of land tenure. The landlord-tenant relationship overwhelmingly predominates in these regions. In Kiangsi before the days of the Reds it was estimated that more than 70% of the land was held by less than 30% of the population. Wherever the Reds held sway the landlords were driven out, land deeds and leases burned and land boundaries destroyed. Returning now into these areas, Chiang Kai-shek can offer no more to placate the peasantry than a purely temporary lightening of the miscellaneous tax burden and the suspension of rent collections for one year. A special decree issued by Chiang’s Nanchang headquarters on September 12 proclaimed that from one year of the date of recovery of any district, all owners of land could resume the collection of rent. The Chinese bourgeoisie is itself inextricably compounded with the landlords. Capitalist and feudal forms alike are used in the exploitation of the peasantry. The Kuo Min Tang is the government of the bourgeoisie. It dare not penalize its class to any greater extent than a single year’s rent. To the poor peasant this is as one drop of rain where he needs a veritable cloudburst. He has less than ever to lose. He will more than ever continue to struggle.

So while Chiang’s hordes are “recovering” Kiangsi, they are not only not destroying the Red armies but they are not and cannot think of destroying the system of exploitation whose continued existence is a warrant for the rise of dozens and scores of Red armies in a dozen other places in the future. Nor are the Red armies of Kiangsi eliminated for they have succeeded in breaking through the iron rim around Kiangsi at several places. The main body of the fleeing Reds is now in Southern Hunan. Last August an army of no less than 10,000 marched into Northern Fukien, took Shuikow and came within attacking distance of Foochow. Imperialist gunboats rushed to the scene and Chiang poured in reinforcements until there were no less than 21 divisions of central government troops in the province. Foochow army headquarters wired to Nanking that “it is like a fierce tiger jumping on a lamb”. Yet the tiger, while it was able to drive the lamb from the Foochow area, recover Shuikow and eventually, weeks later, re-occupy the former Red stronghold at Changting, was unable to dislodge it from the mountain district in Northwestern Fukien.

On the other side of the line in Western Kiangsi later the same month, Hsiao Keh, a Red commander, managed to bring his force of 4,000 men to the border, break through the lines and cross over into Hunan. Confounding the troops of Ho Chien, the Hunan militarist, he was able to make a spectacular march across the southern part of the province, swell his forces to nearly 10,000, swing in a broad arc northward along the Kweichow border and effect a junction with the peasant army of Ho Lung which recently established itself in Northeastern Kweichow. Within the last few weeks the rest of the main body of the Kiangsi Red army, its total number now uncertain, has followed the same trail and despite the most strenuous efforts of the government troops, has succeeded in making its way into Hunan, with the probable objective of an eventual march to Szechwan. The reluctance of provincial militarists to face the Reds and their willingness to live and let live as long as the Red objective is merely a passage through their provinces favor the possibility that the Kiangsi forces will succeed in reaching Szechwan. The impotence of the provincial forces is reflected in the frantic telegrams from the gentry in the affected areas demanding Central Government aid. Typical of such appeals was the wire of a group of Kweichow landlords (published in the press September 18) who complained:

“The Kweichow armies certainly cannot suppress Ho Lung ... there is no hope in asking them to do so. When Ho Lung came ... he had only 3-4,000 men, many of them sick and wounded ... he relieved the poor, abolished harsh requisitions ... Within two months his army expanded to 10,000 men.”

In Szechwan peasant armies operating in the northeastern part of the province in recent months inflicted such heavy defeats on the provincial forces that Liu Hsiang. the chief warlord, withdrew entirely and retired southward to Chungking. The unbelievable lengths to which oppression of the peasantry has been carried, the collection of land taxes eighty years in advance, the forced cultivation of the opium poppy on a vast scale, the divisions and jealousies among the province’s many militarists, the disaffection in their swollen armies, all obviously favor the further extension of the agrarian movement in Szechwan. That great western province, where misery under militarist rule has been of the blackest, offers the possibility for a recrudescence of the peasant war on a larger scale than it ever achieved in Kiangsi. Its remoteness behind mountain fastnesses, its natural wealth, its salt mines and its fertile valleys all indicate that a possible new “Central Soviet district” in Szechwan would be far more impregnable and self-sufficient than Kiangsi could ever hope to be. This is a factor to be reckoned with although its realization can not be looked for in the immediate future. But the Szechwanese gentry can look ahead.

“If the Reds do eventually occupy Chungking and Wan-hsien ...” they recently wired Nanking, “then a Red Szechwan could not be averted. The Szechwan mountains are steep and it would take long years to recover the province ...”

These larger movements are duplicated on a much smaller scale in hundreds of villages throughout the country – right up to the gates of Nanking and on the outskirts of Shanghai itself – where peasants offer armed resistance to tax collectors, where they raid landlords’ stores for rice and attack local officials who oppress them.

The cumulative effect of all this evidence indicates that despite the heavy defeat in Kiangsi, the peasant war in China can and will continue for a long time to come. Militarist divisions and jealousies, conflicts within the Kuo Min Tang simultaneously favor the development of the peasant war and are exacerbated by it. The deepening bankruptcy of Chinese rural economy, the inability of the Kuo Min Tang to deal with the smallest of the problems which have impoverished China’s peasantry, the vast-ness of the country and the great remote areas in which peasant armies can operate, all mean that the peasant war will continue, in smaller or larger degree, in this region or that, to be a characteristic feature of the Chinese scene under Kuo Min Tang militarist rule.

But whether it continues in scattered, guerrilla forms (as it probably will during the next lengthy period) or whether it succeeds in establishing a new, more or less permanent base for itself, the peasant war can have no prospect of successful, revolutionary issue so long as the Chinese working class in the industrial centers remains, as it is today, prostrate. So long as the Kuo Min Tang, with the support of native and foreign exploiters, can continue to control the main arteries of the country’s economic life, so long can it pit its strength against the peasantry. Only the resuscitation of the working class movement can break through this impasse and strike a new balance of forces in favor of the revolution. The Stalinist hope for the capture of cities by the Red armies is not excluded. But even in such an eventuality, there is no reason to suppose that the inevitable differentiation within the peasantry will not drive its leaders into the laps of the bourgeoisie unless – again – there is a powerful, organized, labor movement and a working class party capable of utilizing such a situation in the interests of the proletarian revolution. Lacking this, the prospect can only be one of mutual exhaustion, deeper economic collapse, death, destruction, chaos in which imperialist intervention would be certain to play its part.

For it is precisely because the working class has been throttled that the Kuo Min Tang could hurl army after army against the peasants without fear of a mortal revolutionary thrust within its own strongholds. The lack of a working class movement is the fundamental cause for today’s defeats of the peasant armies. This the Stalinists have either never understood or else cynically ignored. With the same criminal lightmindedness which has characterized their whole catastrophic course in China, the Stalinists assign to the peasantry not only an independent role in the revolution but the leading role. This is not only implicit in the disaster-ridden theory of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” but is explicit in the course of action which they pursue. At the feet of this policy and this course of action must be laid major responsibility for tiie heavy blows and heavy sacrifices which the peasant armies are today being forced to make.

But a correct evaluation of the role and significance of the peasant war is a necessary condition to an effective Bolshevik-Leninist program. The reaction against the Stalinist swing from the proletariat to the peasantry has created in the minds of many comrades a psychological reaction which expresses itself in passivity toward the peasant armies. In peasant defeats they often have the tendency to see not a blow against the revolution but a confirmation of their anti-Stalinist views. The peasant Red armies have actually been slandered as “bandits” by some of these comrades. Such a view can have nothing in common with that of any Marxist revolutionary. It must be decisively repudiated if the banner of Leninism is to be raised again in China.

In the peasant armies the working class and its vanguard must recognize revolutionary allies. But these armies cannot be cloaked in a proletarian garb. On the other hand, the great progressive significance of the peasant war must be fully understood. The slogans of the agrarian revolution and at least their partial application are being carried under revolutionary banners over wide areas. Of all political movements today operating in China it alone is progressive. It alone is an ever-present threat to the rapacious militarists. True, the mere dangling of the episodic victories of the peasant armies before the working classes cannot be substituted, as it has been by the Stalinists, for an independent working class program. But the persistence of the peasant war, in so far as it continues to force Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuo Min Tang to expend most of their resources to suppress it, is a factor of vital importance to the working class. Every peasant advance, every peasant success improves the opportunities which still exist in the cities for the revival of the working class movement. Similarly, every peasant defeat, every Kuo Min Tang victory, reduces those opportunities.

Existing conditions make the fate of the peasant war a matter of the greatest moment to all Bolshevik-Leninists. But this does not mean that they can passively await its outcome. All the more imperative and pressing today is the need for building a new, independent working class party with an. independent working class program which corresponds concretely to the needs of the proletariat. Thus armed, and only thus armed, will the proletariat be able to join and lead a united front of the revolutionary layers of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie and ensure the victory of the Third Chinese Revolution.


Harold R. ISAACS
November 15, 1934

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