Karl A Wittfogel

The Agrarian Revolution in China

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 9, October 1927, No. 10, pp. 621-623
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The Kuomintang promised land to the peasants. The rural masses held on to this promise. It is true that in the proclamations of the Kuomintang mention was made that the new regulation of peasant property should be carried through by legal means, by cautious reforms. This restriction alone (which in actual practice amounted to a betrayal of the promise) troubled the peasants little. The Kuomintang has said that it desires the welfare of the working masses? Well, then, they can have nothing to object to if the solution of the agrarian question proceeds somewhat rapidly.

So the agrarian revolution in Hunan, early in 1927, began under the illusion that the leadership of the Kuomintang in Wuhan would approve of the revolutionary actions of the peasants: This appeared so probable that the local Kuomintang organisations and even the provincial leaders of the Kuomintang in Changsha were throughout friendly disposed towards the advance of the peasants. The landless peasants led the movement. The small landowning peasants similarly showed themselves extremely active. The first object of both groups (which were, moreover, energetically supported by the workers’ organisations) was to break down the political-military bulwarks of the old power. The Min Tuan, a tool of the rich peasants, was disarmed. Obedience was refused to the “gentry” of the villages. The armed self-defence corps of the peasant organisations turned openly against the exploiters and the gentry, the plague of the Chinese village.

The principal object of their attacks is the gentry, the large landowners, the religious way of life of the village, the old officials, the bureaucrats in the towns and the wealthy usurers in the villages. . . . In consequence of these attacks the thousand-year-old rights of the feudal landowners were swept away and thrown on to the dust heap.1

The thousand-year-old rights of the feudal landowners, however, are, before all, their property rights. Every report which has come to hand from Wuhan since the spring tells of land confiscation, which the peasants—without having consulted the officials—are undertaking. The reports from China leave us in doubt as to how far the redivision of the land in Hunan had already advanced in May, 1927.

It is certain, however, that the idea was everywhere in the air (the group around Wang Ching Wei and Sun Fa directed their theoretical arguments against such ideas), and that the peasants of Hunan had in a number of cases proceeded to expropriate their landlords. That was the signal for the outbreak of the reaction. May 21 saw the end of the first important advance in the agrarian revolution in Hunan.

The Wuhan Government Sanctions the White Terror

The Wuhan Government had formerly always declared that it was the unselfish friend of the Chinese masses. But it was the troops of this same Government which, on May 21, marched to attack the workers’ and peasants’ organisations of Wuhan. The first authentic account which reached Hankow states that:—

The 23rd Regiment of the 36 “Army,” inflamed by reactionary reports, and together with other military units of Changsha, turned, during the night of May 21, against the workers’ and peasants’ organisations and disarmed their members. At the same time the offices of the provincial and town Kuomintang as well as numerous schools were searched, during which about twenty persons were killed and a considerable number of others wounded.2

The violent acts of the military were naturally not limited to the provincial capital. For weeks longer the White Terror raged in the various parts of the Province.

It is very instructive to study the effect of the events of May 21 in the area of the Wuhan Government. The town of Wuhan shook before the rebellious cries of the masses. The reports of the revolutionaries who had fled from Changsha excited the working class masses to such a degree that under their pressure the Government itself pretended to consider seriously the sending off of a punitive expedition against Changsha (this was the demand which the representatives of the workers and peasants in Wuhan had immediately made). The gestures of the Government were not seriously intended. Confronted by the actuality of the incipient agrarian revolution, the majority of the leaders in Wuhan hastily shrank back. The bourgeois elements, who were materially and mentally interested in the maintenance of the conditions of ownership, won the upper hand. At the end of June the newspapers of Wuhan reported that the Government expressed its agreement with General Tang Cheng Shi, who approved in principle of the events of May 21. Tang declared:—

Since the local Kuomintang and the other people’s organisations, misled by their leaders, have not kept themselves within the limits of law and order they should, according to the resolutions passed by the Central Government, be prohibited until they are reorganised.3

That gave the catchword to the counter-revolution. Fight against the agrarian revolution! Put an end to the irregular mass associations! Break with the Communists, the leaders of all revolutionary mass actions. The cue came from Changsha. Soon all the other provinces of the Wuhan area followed.

The Wuhan Government which went over to the counterrevolution “triumphed” over the mass movement in the summer of 1927. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. It is a victory which has torn the ground under their feet away from them. The masses, to whom they could once look for support, are now their deadly enemy. But the revolution has certainly suffered a serious setback, although it is by no means defeated. The revolutionary actions in the first month of 1927 have shown the most narrow-minded peasant of Hunan—and not only of Hunan: what happened in Hunan was repeated with modifications in the whole of Central and South China—that a radical solution of the agrarian question is possible, and by what means it is possible. The Communist Party of China is already preparing to lead the masses in an open military struggle against the enemies of the Chinese agrarian revolution. The practical conduct of the Chinese peasants proves that they know how to interpret the meaning of the present struggle.



1.  Quoted from the Communist International.

2.  The People’s Tribune, June 4, 1927.

3.  People’s Tribune, June 29, 1927.