Caleb Maupin and Harpal Brar: Chinese Revolution 1: Birth of China’s Red Army

What was the experience that led Comrade Mao Zedong to conclude that ‘without a people’s army, the people have nothing’?

In this first part of a wide-ranging discussion on the Chinese Revolution, Harpal Brar and Caleb Maupin deal with the forerunners to the revolution, with the founding of the Communist Party of China and its struggles with the Kuomintang (KMT), and with the crucial roots that the party cultivated among the Chinese peasantry.

Prelude to revolution – the Taiping and Boxer rebellions

The seeds of the Chinese revolution were planted with the Opium wars, the first of which took place in 1839. That war saw Hong Kong ceded to the British; the territory then became a centre for the imperialist drug-running operation, which continued to force opiates onto the Chinese people.

After the second Opium war in the mid 1850s, it was clear that the rotten and impotent Qing dynasty was fundamentally unable to defend China against this imperialist onslaught and degradation, and a succession of early revolutionary movements were fomented.

The first of these nascent anti-feudal and anti-imperialist movements was the Taiping rebellion, which took place between 1850 and 1864. Led by a Chinese christian, it was the largest anti-colonial movement of its time. Whilst it intended to sweep away the corrupt Qing dynasty, it was ultimately crushed by that dynasty in conjunction with the foreign powers.

The second movement was the Boxer rebellion, between 1899 and 1901. Combining native Chinese spirituality with martial arts, its members called themselves the Yihequan, the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists”. In English, they became known as the Boxers.

Missionaries, diplomats, and other manifestations of colonial power were attacked; this uprising too was crushed, however – this time with the help of the US military in its first foreign intervention. That was an intervention painted at home as the noble defence of christian missionaries, but planned out meticulously behind the scenes by cynical imperialists who wanted the USA to claim a spot amongst the other imperialist “eagles”, as they devoured the “carcass” of China.

These were the words of an advisor to President McKinley, who then ordered the invasion of China without even feeling the need to seek legislative approval. One of the lieutenants of that invasion was Smedley Butler, who later characterised the American “war effort” – looting – in less-than-heroic terms:

“I suppose we shouldn’t have taken anything, but war is hell anyhow and none of us was in the frame of mind to make it any better.” (Jonathan M Katz, Gangsters of Capitalism, 2021)

From the May 4th movement to the founding of the CPC

In the aftermath of the first world war, the Treaty of Versailles passed Chinese territories from German hands over to the Japanese. The Chinese people – who had participated on the Allied side – were rightly enraged.

Student demonstrations flared up in response. The nationalist, popular democratic sentiment that spread through China saw the emergence of the Chinese working class on the political scene, and led directly to formation of the Communist Party of China in 1921.

It had become clear that China, despite its best intentions, could learn nothing from the west. Meanwhile, the October Revolution had set a plan of action for the Chinese people. Mao Zedong said in 1949:

“It was through the Russians that the Chinese found Marxism. Before the October Revolution, the Chinese were not only ignorant of Lenin and Stalin, they did not even know of Marx and Engels. The salvoes of the October Revolution brought us Marxism-Leninism.

“The October Revolution helped progressives in China, as throughout the world, to adopt the proletarian world outlook as the instrument for studying a nation’s destiny and considering anew their own problems. Follow the path of the Russians – that was their conclusion.” (On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship, 30 June 1949)

The Russian revolution had shown China what the imperialist powers could not. The Soviet Union had renounced all treaty rights, in stark contrast to the behaviour of the imperialists at Versailles. And in 1919, Chen Wangdao – who was to become one of the founders of the CPC – translated the Communist Manifesto into Chinese.

This was the historical backdrop to the foundation of the Communist party in 1921 – a world-historical moment, for as comrade Harpal states: “The liberation of China is indelibly connected with the founding, development and activities of the CPC.”

Relations with the KMT from Sun Yat-sen to Chiang Kai-shek

In the early years of its existence, the CPC entered into an alliance with the Kuomintang – the Nationalist party – led by Sun Yat-sen. Under his leadership, the KMT welcomed alliances with the Soviet Union, with the CPC, and with the Chinese workers and peasants.

Sun Yat-sen died in 1925. His final letter was addressed to Soviet Russia and contained his hopes for China, for his party, and for a future of cooperation between China and the USSR:

“You are the head of a union of free republics which is the real heritage that the immortal Lenin has left to the world of the oppressed peoples. Through this heritage, the victims of imperialism are destined to secure their freedom and deliverance from an international system whose foundations lie in ancient slaveries and wars and injustices …

“In bidding farewell to you, dear comrades, I wish to express the fervent hope that the day may soon dawn when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics will greet, as a friend and ally, a strong and independent China and the two allies may together advance to victory in the great struggle for the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world.” (Farewell letter to Soviet Russia by Sun Yat-sen, 1925)

Sun Yat-sen had welcomed communists into the KMT and did not seek to curtail their activities. In this environment, as comrades Harpal and Caleb describe, great gains were by the communists. They were able to openly propagate their ideas among working people, establish trade unions and peasant associations, and, importantly, conduct work within the army.

The months after Sun Yat-sen’s death saw a vast increase in communist manpower. The May 30th Movement, a nationwide protest movement formed in response to the killing of Chinese demonstrators by British soldiers, saw party membership increase from 995 in January 1925 to 10,000 that November. Armed workers’ militias appeared on the streets of Guangzhou.

In the end, it was the rampant success of the communists’ strategy that courted disaster. The new leader of the KMT, Chiang Kai-shek, stood in stark contrast to the noble idealism of Sun Yat-sen – he was described as “a man whose ambition, fathered by ruthless cunning and a total lack of scruple, brought him to the centre of the political scene”. (Harold Isaacs, quoted in Han Suyin, The Morning Deluge, 1972, p125)

Even as the United Front of the CPC and the KMT was organising the Northern Expedition – designed to eliminate foreign imperialist influence and destroy what remained of feudalism – Chiang was preparing to strike against the communists.

Under Chiang’s leadership, as Han Suyin describes, “the KMT was being transformed from nationalist party with revolutionary elements to a counter-revolutionary instrument in the hands of a military dictator”. (The Morning Deluge, p136)

In other words, it was now little better than the warlord elements it had proposed to sweep away. Likewise, Chiang Kai-shek was, as comrade Harpal puts it, “an agent of feudalism, imperialism, and the ruling class in China”.

The Shanghai massacre and its aftermath

By spring 1927, the KMT was split between the weak, vacillatory ‘left’ KMT headquartered in Wuhan, and Chiang’s government in Nanjing.

The latter’s march to seize Shanghai coincided with a huge upsurge in workers’ organisation in the city, under the direction of Zhou Enlai. In February, a general strike of half a million workers had been organised, underground councils had been established, and workers were being drilled for armed battle.

But Chiang’s links to foreign and Chinese compradors and bankers on the one hand, and Shanghai’s reactionary secret societies on the other, proved fatal. Money was loaned by the former, and, in turn, arms and ammunition were provided to the latter. On 12 April 1927, communists and striking workers were executed across Shanghai, in a bloodbath that spread to other cities under KMT control.

It was this experience that led Comrade Mao to his conclusion, first expressed in August of that year, that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun”. To break the bourgeois monopoly on violence – which the communists experienced that year in Shanghai, which the British miners felt in 1984, which the gilets jaunes have experienced in recent years – a people’s army was required.

The military regime imposed by Chiang’s KMT was so brutal that communist ideas resonated and spurred recruitment. The People’s Liberation Army distributed land to the peasantry. Crops were taken from rich landlords and gentry to be distributed among the poor. In this sense, the PLA were not just fighters with weapons, but propagandists for communist ideology.

The PLA and the peasantry

Realising that the peasant movement was vital to the success of the Chinese Revolution was a product of understanding Marxism not as a dogma – like the Trotskyists and their followers – but as a flexible method applicable to and appliable by anyone, anywhere.

This proceeded from the conclusions of the second congress of the Comintern in 1920, summarised by Lenin as such:

“The idea of Soviet organisation is a simple one, and is applicable, not only to proletarian, but also to peasant feudal and semi-feudal relations … Peasants’ soviets … are a weapon which can be employed, not only in capitalist countries but also in countries with pre-capitalist relations … It is the absolute duty of communist parties … everywhere to conduct propaganda in favour of peasants’ soviets or of working people’s soviets, this to include backward and colonial countries.

“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 … the Communist International should advance the proposition, with the appropriate theoretical grounding, that with the aid of the proletariat of the advanced countries, backward countries can go over to the Soviet system and, through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass through the capitalist stage.”

This was echoed by Stalin in a speech on November 1926, when the Shanghai massacre and the rift between the KMT and the CPC was near at hand:

“I know that there are Kuomintangists and even Chinese communists who do not consider it possible to unleash revolution in the countryside, since they fear that, if the peasantry were drawn into the revolution, it would disrupt the united anti-imperialist front. That is a profound error, comrades. The more quickly and thoroughly the Chinese peasantry is drawn into the revolution, the stronger and more powerful the anti-imperialist front in China will be.” (The prospects of the revolution in China)

Mao’s experience on the ground in China proved the correctness of this line. He had seen the militancy of the Hunanese peasants in response to the May 30th Movement in 1925 (see Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China, p183), and, just a month before the massacre in Shanghai, he summed up his experience of the peasant movement there:

“The present upsurge of the peasant movement is a colossal event. In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise up like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back.” (Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, March 1927)

This provided the backbone for the Communist party to withstand the vicious blows dealt it by Chiang Kai-shek’s regime – first in August 1927, and later when its members were pushed from their bases in the south and forced into retreat on the Long March.

In a poem he wrote before he left Hunan, Mao posed a question:

“Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this boundless land
Who rules over man’s destiny?” (Changsha by Mao Zedong, 1925)

How was this question to be answered? It was answered in the Jinggang mountains, and over the 6,000 miles en route to Yan’an, by the revolutionary potential of the peasantry under the leadership of the Red Army, and by the strength and succour the Red Army found in that peasantry.

This conversation was recorded on 18 May 2022. It was hosted by Joti Brar.