“The predominating type among the present ‘Communist’ bureaucrats is the political careerist, and in consequence the polar opposite of the revolutionist. Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aid of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU. They view with admiration and envy the invasion of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia by the Red Army because these invasions immediately bring about the transfer of power into the hands of the local Stalinist candidates for totalitarian rule.”
- Leon Trotsky (August 1940), The Comintern and the GPU, Fourth International, I, 6, November 1940: 149
Socialists trying to understand the 1949 Chinese revolution have to ask some key questions: which social agents overthrew the old regime, who led them and who ruled afterwards? The short answers are that the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) won the civil war against the Guomindang, it was led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and it was the CCP that ruled henceforth.
Much then turns on the character of CCP in 1949. Was it a workers’ party in the Bolshevik tradition, a peasant party reflecting the composition of its army or some other bureaucratic, new class formation? Was it beholden to the Soviet Union led by Stalin, or was its ‘communism’ masking a more independent, nationalist politics?
In recent decades, historians have taken advantage of newly opened archives to shed more light on these questions. In particular, materials from Russian archives have revealed much about the close relationship between the CCP and Stalin’s Russia. Chinese researchers have also utilised available archives to clarify important matters. In English, Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine’s biography, Mao: The Real Story (2012) provides the clearest evidence to date of Maoist Stalinism.
Early years of the CCP
The CCP was founded in July 1921. Its first general secretary Chen Duxiu led the May Fourth democracy movement, then Chinese communism and later Chinese Trotskyism. Another key leader was Li Dazhao, the first in China to draw attention not only to Marxism, but also to the global significance of the Bolshevik experience. Both had been influenced by Japanese politics and anarchism.
In early 1920, Grigorii Voitinsky arrived with a group of Communist International (Comintern) representatives to assist Chen and Li with the organisation of Chinese communism. On 23-31 July 1921, 15 delegates, including the new Comintern representative Henk Sneevliet (Maring), founded the Chinese Communist Party. Mao Zedong served as a secretary at the gathering. The party had 53 members.
Sneevliet had previously led built a socialist party in the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia). He did so by working inside the nationalist Sarekat Islam. Sneevliet argued that the CCP should commit its small forces to working inside the nationalist Guomindang party in China’ led by Sun Yat-sen. The CCP adopted this new line at its second congress, held in Shanghai 16-23 July 1922. The CCP had just 195 members, while the Guomindang had 10,000, along with a government base in Guangzhou.
Although Chen and other CCP leaders were unhappy with the tactic of entry into the Guomindang, the communists grew their organisation. In 1925 they had around a thousand members. A year later, on the back of a wave of workers’ militancy, they had grown to nearly 58,000 members. Almost 60% of members were industrial workers. The CCP at this time was clearly a Marxist workers’ party, part of the Communist International and beginning to lead the labour movement into struggle.
Stalinisation of the CCP
In Russia, the October 1917 workers’ revolution had established the beginnings of authentic workers’ democracy. However after the bitter civil war, the Russian workers’ state remained isolated internationally (despite the efforts of the Comintern). In these circumstances, the Stalinist bureaucracy began its ascent to power. It would eventually strangle the Bolshevik party and the Russia workers’ state by 1928. The bureaucracy shut down Bolshevik party and soviet democracy, drove out the Left Opposition, then embarked on forced industrialisation and collectivisation. The Stalinist bureaucracy became the ruling class, sole master of the surplus product, killing off workers’ rule in Russia. This process also bureaucratised the Comintern, transforming communist parties from the general staff of international workers’ revolution into slavish followers of Russian foreign policy, formations of proto-bureaucratic rulers.
Stalin began to reshape communist parties from the Fifth Comintern congress in June 1924. In 1925, Stalin began to elaborate his own views on China. He proposed that the Chinese Communists could radically transform the nature of the Guomindang through seizing power within the party. Stalin argued that in China, the goal should not be a united national front but a revolutionary bloc, and that this bloc might take the form of a single party. The Guomindang was defined as a “workers’ and peasants’ party” and as a revolutionary bloc. At the Comintern‘s Sixth Plenum in February-March 1926, the Guomindang was characterised as a “people’s revolutionary party”.
After Sun Yat-sen’s death, Chiang Kai-shek became leader of the Guomindang. In March 1926, he had Communists and Soviet advisers arrested, curtailing the CCP’s freedom within the Guomindang. Stalin instructed the CCP to retreat and preserve the “united front” tactic. The Comintern‘s Seventh Plenum (November-December 1926) defined the Guomindang as a bloc of four classes. Stalin argued that the CCP should fight for a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”, a slogan discarded by Lenin in early 1917.
In February 1926, the Politburo voted to give the Guomindang representation in the Communist International, but then hesitated. However, a year later, the Guomindang was admitted as a sympathising party, with a consultative vote on the Comintern Executive.
In April 1927, Chiang Kai-shek orchestrated a massacre of the CCP in Shanghai. In July, the “left” Guomindang unleashed their own reign of terror in Wuhan. Thousands of communists and worker militants were killed, arrested or sacked from their jobs. Stalin was responsible for the catastrophic defeat of the Chinese revolution. The Chinese communists led by Chen Duxiu were hostages of Stalin’s line, stuck inside the Guomindang unable to struggle successfully for hegemony. Comintern policy meant subordination to the nationalists, tersely summed up by Chen Duxiu as doing “coolie service for the Guomindang”.
Stalin was the architect of the defeated strategy. In August 1927, an Extraordinary Conference of the Central Committee of the CCP, held in the apartment of one of the Russian advisers, Mikhail Razumov, scapegoated Chen and began replacing the authentic CCP leadership with Stalin’s stooges. Mao Zedong was among those who opposed Chen and remained with Stalin.
Stalinist rural guerrilla strategy
The so-called “rural strategy”, to organise and arm the peasantry – often attributed to Mao – in fact originated in Moscow. In late 1926, Stalin urged the CCP to radicalise the peasant movement. Mao wrote a Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, which was reprinted in Russian and English in Communist International magazine in May and June 1927. At the Eighth Comintern Plenum in May 1927, Bukharin gave a positive assessment of Mao’s report.
In summer 1927, Stalin instructed the CCP to organise armed uprisings and to create “Soviets”. The first revolts took place in Nanchang. The “autumn harvest uprisings” followed in rural areas of Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, and Guangdong provinces and in Changsha. In December 1927 the Stalinists ordered an armed revolt in Guangzhou. All these putsches failed.
Two defeated contingents from the Nanchang uprising led by Zhu De and the Hunan autumn harvest uprising led by Mao made their way to Jinggang Mountain. These troops funded their armies either by coercion, taxation or expropriation of local tyrants. Crucially, they severed their links with the cities and the urban proletariat and based themselves on militarised peasants.
By the end of 1927, the CCP had lost about four-fifths of its membership. In The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938), Harold Isaacs quotes official CCP figures, estimating that workers in the party comprised only 10% in 1928, 3% in 1929, 2.5% in March 1930, 1.6% in September 1930 and virtually zero by the end of the year. At the end of 1933 the complaint was heard that in Shanghai, greatest industrial centre of the country that the CCP had “not one real industrial nucleus”. After 1927 the CCP underwent a qualitative transformation. It ceased to be a workers’ party, both in terms of its composition but more importantly in terms of its political character, orientation and direction.
The Stalinisation of the CCP was demonstrated graphically by its Sixth Congress in June-July 1928, which convened in Moscow. Mao was elected in absentia as a full member of the central committee. At the Sixth Comintern Congress in July 1928, the CCP leadership under Qu Qiubai was denounced for “serious opportunistic mistakes” and took the blame for the “putschist line” it had carried out at the behest of Stalin.
Stalinist support for Mao
For the next decade, the CCP in China fought for its survival, as Chiang Kai-shek launched his encirclement campaigns. The CCP’s strategy was for guerrilla armies to establish rural bases, which it dubbed “Soviets” in places like Jiangxi. At the same time, the CCP was politically subordinate and financially dependent on the USSR. This was the period of Mao’s rise to the pinnacle of the CCP.
The CCP received substantial financial backing from Stalin’s Russia. Pantsov and Levine state that from February to September 1930, the CCP received more than 223,000 Mexican dollars from Moscow. In October, it received another $10,000 in American dollars. At the same time, in 1930 the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League received 70,000 yuan from the same source, and the Chinese branch of the International Organization for Aid to Revolutionary Fighters (MOPR) received 11,400 yuan.
At this time Moscow, began to give active support to Mao’s advancement. Starting in the late 1920s, Stalin’s Comintern began to support Mao. In its reports to the centre, the Comintern’s Far Eastern Bureau highly praised the Zhu-Mao army as “the best” in all respects. Stalin concluded in July 1930 that under Chinese conditions “the creation of a battle worthy and politically mature Red Army... is the first order of business the achievement of which will likely guarantee the powerful development of the revolution”. In the USSR, a campaign began to glorify Mao, along with Zhu De.
In summer 1930, the Far Eastern Bureau in Shanghai supported the decision of the Politburo of the CCP to appoint Mao as political commissar of the First Army Group, the most powerful one, and then as general political commissar of the First Front Army. In October 1930, Moscow actively supported Mao’s co‑optation into the Central Committee Bureau for the Soviet areas, a new party structure that was intended to centralise all party work in rural districts under the control of the CCP. Next, the Russian Stalinists proposed that Mao was appointed to the Central Revolutionary Military Council, effectively the provisional government of all of the Soviet areas. On 10 November 1930, the Far Eastern Bureau wrote to the CCP Politburo:
“We need to arrange things so that Mao Zedong has responsibility not only for the condition and operations of the army, but also participates in the government and has partial responsibility for the work of the latter. He must be appointed a member of the government (chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council). There is no need to discuss the advantages of such an arrangement; it is obvious.”
Stalinists promote Mao cult
Throughout the early 1930s, the CCP’s rural armies suffered successive defeats at the hands of Chiang’s armies. This culminated in the “long march”, starting in October 1934, to regroup the CCP’s military forces in the north of China. The location was deliberate: the CCP wanted to base itself close to the territory of the USSR, in order to receive political and military support. Pantsov and Levine show that large sums of Russian state money continued to flow to the Central Committee of the CCP. On 8 June 1934, the Comintern decided to send 200,000 rubles to the CCP. On 1 July 1934, Moscow decided the Chinese Communist Party would receive 7,418 gold dollars monthly.
This was precisely the time that Moscow began to propagate a heroic image of Mao. At the CCP’s Ruijin plenum, Mao was transferred from candidate to full member of the Politburo on Moscow’s insistence. In 1934 the journals Kommunisticheskii Internatsional and Za rubezhom published Mao’s report to the Second All-China Congress of Soviets. Five thousand copies of Mao’s report were published as a separate pamphlet in Russian and Chinese. The first collection of Mao Zedong’s selected works were published in the USSR in both languages. Finally, in November 1934, the journal Za rubezhom published the first sketch of Mao in its section “Portraits of Contemporaries”.
By September 1935, the Russia Stalinists had already initiated a cult of personality of Mao. The Seventh Comintern Congress pronounced him one of the “standard-bearers” of the world communist movement, along with Bulgarian Stalinist Georgii Dimitrov. The Seventh Congress devoted special attention to elevating the authority of Communist Party leaders. At a specially convened meeting of the CCP delegation to the Comintern in late August 1935, Wang Ming, the delegation leader, said:
“Whose authority should be elevated? Of course, that of the members of the Politburo... Who first? The authority of comrades Mao Zedong and Zhu De.”
After the Seventh Congress a full-blown campaign to exalt Mao commenced in the USSR. In December 1935, Communist International magazine published a long panegyric sketch entitled “Mao Zedong – leader of the Chinese working people”. On 13 December 1935, the article was published in Pravda. This biographical sketch, along with ogthers, was published in a brochure titled “Leaders and Heroes of the Chinese People”, issued by the State Social-Economic Publishers.
CCP alliance with the Guomindang
At the end of the long march, the Maoist army established itself in Yanan. By July 1936 a radio link with Moscow had been re-established and in his very first telegram, Mao asked Stalin to increase aid to the Communist Party to $2 million Mexican dollars per month. He also requested that Moscow send airplanes, heavy artillery, missiles, infantry weapons, anti-aircraft artillery and pontoons.
Stalin sent the CCP two million rubles and, several months later, US $500,000 and 1,166 tons of fuel, military supplies, and other strategic goods. On 15 August 1936, Stalin sent a directive in the name of the Comintern in which he approved Mao’s policies.
At the end of 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was arrested by a warlord ally. Stalin’s principal concern at this juncture was with the threat of Japanese invasion. Japan had already occupied Manchuria and Stalin feared the Japanese occupation of China would be the springboard for an attack on the USSR.
At Stalin’s urging, on January 1937 Dimitrov sent Mao a letter on the need to change the direction of work in China. Dimitrov asked Mao to consider “switch[ing] from the soviet system to a system of people’s revolutionary rule on democratic foundations”, while preserving “soviets only in urban centres and not as organs of power but as mass organisations”. Although Mao and other leaders initially wanted to take advantage of Chiang’s arrest to pursue the civil war, the CCP bowed to Stalin’s wishes and entered into a second “united front” with the Guomindang to fight Japan.
Mao continued to educate himself in high Stalinist thinking. He studied Chinese translations of two Russian textbooks and an article published in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. These works were written by officials of the Communist Academy, all dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists. Mitin, one of the authors said they were “guided by one idea: how best to understand each word and each thought of our beloved and wise teacher Comrade Stalin and how to convert them and apply them to the solution of philosophical problems”.
There was a consistent flow of emissaries to and from Moscow throughout the 1930s. On 11 November 1937, the loyal Stalinist functionary Wang Ming received direct instructions from Stalin to “take measures” to eradicate “manifestations of Trotskyism in the actions of the CCP leadership”. “Using all available means, intensify the struggle against Trotskyites,” he suggested to Wang. “Trotskyites must be hunted down, shot, destroyed. These are international provocateurs, fascism’s most vicious agents.”
In mid-June 1938, the Comintern declared “its full agreement with the political line of the [Chinese] communist party”. It supported Mao’s policy to pursue guerrilla warfare in the Japanese rear and preserve the autonomy within the united front. The Comintern approved the choice of Mao as general secretary of the Central Committee. In early July 1938, Dimitrov transmitted this resolution to Wang Jiaxiang, acting head of the CCP delegation to the Comintern. Dimitrov said:
“You must tell everyone that it is necessary to support Mao Zedong as the leader of the Communist Party of China. He has been tempered in practical struggle. Such persons as Wang Ming should no longer fight for the leadership... Only by unifying the CCP can a [unified] faith be created. In China the key to national resistance to Japan is the anti-Japanese united front and the key to the united front is the unity of the CCP. The victory of the united front depends upon the unity of the party and the cohesion of [its] leadership.”
Stalin continued his efforts to strengthen the vertical control Mao held over the Chinese Communist Party. The Stalinisation of the CCP required intensification of the cult of the leader-thinker and the complete suppression of intraparty opposition, even if it had to be fabricated in the event that no real opposition existed. In 1938 a campaign to propagate Mao’s cult of personality unfolded with renewed vigour in the USSR. The leader of the CCP was lauded as a “wise tactician and strategist”.
An abridged translation of Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China Over China was rushed into print. The text of the book was edited to bring out more clearly the Stalinists’ main point:
“Mao Zedong is an accomplished scholar of Classical Chinese, an omnivorous reader, a deep student of philosophy and history, a good speaker, a man with an unusual memory and extraordinary powers of concentration... It is an interesting fact that many Japanese regard him as the ablest Chinese strategist alive... He appears to be quite free from symptoms of megalomania, but he has a deep sense of personal dignity, and something about him suggests a power of ruthless decision when he deems it necessary.”
A translation of Mao’s autobiography from Snow’s book was published in the journal Internatsional’naia literatura. In 1939, the State Publishing Association issued a canonical biographical sketch of Mao. A brochure titled “Mao Zedong, Zhu De (Leaders of the Chinese people)” also appeared in Moscow, presenting Mao as the “model” leader of the anti-Japanese struggle and of the Chinese communist movement.
Russian Stalinist money also strengthened Mao’s authority in the CCP. At the end of March 1940, Zhou Enlai brought back US $300,000 from Moscow. The USSR continued to help the CCP even after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Pantsov found a striking document in the Russian archives, preserved in the special files of the Politburo of the CPSU: a decision of the Politburo from 3 July 1941, just days after the Nazi assault, to release to the $1 million in American dollars for assistance to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
Stalin helps Mao prepare for power
The CCP emerged from the war with Japan enormously strengthened. At the Seventh Congress of the CCP, which took place in Yanan from 23 April to 11 June 1945, the 754 delegates represented 1.2 million party members and a similar-sized army. Near the end of the Second World War, the Russian army entered the fight against Japan by occupying Manchuria, as agreed with the US and Britain at Yalta. Stalin signed an agreement with the Guomindang, but played a game of deception.
In October 1945, the Russian authorities in Manchuria pledged that all weapons of the 700,000 Japanese Guangdong Army would be turned over to the CCP. Although there is no reliable figure of how many weapons the CCP actually received, the Russian army provided 300,000 rifles, 100 machine guns, and 15 artillery pieces to the Chinese Communists – apparently from Japanese stockpiles, according to the historian Dieter Heinzig.
Russian headquarters transmitted Stalin’s words of praise to the CCP: it was “courageous and mature” and enjoyed his “great confidence.” At the same time, the military leadership confirmed its intention to transfer all of Manchuria to the CCP despite its treaty obligations and ordered it to take over governmental power in the provinces and cities quickly. It encouraged the CCP to move the main body of its armed forces – at least 500,000 troops – to Manchuria, as “industry in Manchuria is developed; the borders to the east, west, and north are secure; Manchuria can function completely independently; and if one holds Manchuria, one can conquer all of China.”
After the Russian army withdrew from Manchuria in May 1946, Russian material support to the CCP was delivered through the city of Dalian and North Korea, both of which were under direct Russian control. The historian Michael Sheng quotes incomplete statistics, which estimate that in the first seven months of 1947, there were 210,000 tons of war materials transferred to the CCP through North Korea. The figure in 1948 increased to 300,900 tons.
Mao’s headquarters in Yanan took advice from Russian military intelligence liaisons. The number of CCP students in Moscow increased sharply and from 1947 onwards, hundreds of Russian doctors, technical advisers, military and communications experts served behind the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) lines in Manchuria.
The CCP devoted space to propagandising the Stalinist example in its publications. The CCP’s internal study materials included translations of Stalin’s writings and speeches. In military affairs, Chinese commanders kept in close touch with the Russian advisers in Manchuria and with Russian Communist Party and Russian army personnel on the other side of the border. Much of what the PLA learned about logistics, battle formations and armoured warfare during the Northeastern campaigns seems to have come from Russian sources.
In November 1948, Mao wrote a spectacular article for the Cominform newspaper that left no room for doubt about the Chinese Communists’ loyalty to the Soviet Union. Mao spoke out clearly against a “third road” and in favour of siding with the USSR in international politics.
Between 30 January and 8 February 1949, senior Russian Stalinist bureaucrat Anastas Mikoyan made a secret visit to Mao’s headquarters. In July-August 1949, Mao sent Lui Shaoqi and a delegation to Moscow for intensive talks with Stalin. This was the occasion for Mao’s public declaration to “lean to one side”, meaning support for the USSR. Throughout this period, Mao and Stalin (known as “comrade Filippov”) exchanged messages. Mao addressed Stalin as “Comrade Master-in-Chief” in his coded telegrams to Moscow.
China’s model Stalinist state
Mao Zedong visited Moscow between 16 December 1949 and 17 February 1950. After meeting with Stalin and much frustrating delay, the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance was signed in Moscow. On 17 February 1950, Mao declared: “Long live comrade Stalin, teacher of world revolution and best friend of the Chinese people!” By 1950, hundreds of Russian experts, advisers, teachers and technical specialists in China. The new Chinese state was built under the tutelage of Russian Stalinism.
China would prove a loyal ally to Russia and its satellites. On 19 October 1950, in accordance with Stalin’s wishes, Mao sent the Chinese army to assist the North Korean communists, who several months earlier had invaded South Korea, an ally of the United States. Mao’s decision had great significance for Stalin, and the Mao certainly knew this. He would often say later that only after the PRC entered the Korean War on the side of the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung did Stalin remove the label of “suspected Titoist” from him and come to believe that “the Chinese communists are not pro-American, and the Chinese revolution is not an example of ‘nationalist communism’. This was confirmed by China’s foreign minister Chen Yi, who said that Stalin shed tears on hearing of Mao’s decision to send troops. “The Chinese comrades are so good!” the aged dictator said twice. Mao’s entry into the Korean War appears at least in part to have been a conscious demonstration of the Chinese leaders’ devotion to the Kremlin boss.
Stalin’s ‘seventieth’ birthday, on 21 December 1949, was greeted in Beijing by two days of city-wide celebrations. When Stalin died on 5 March 1953, the CCP Central Committee selected Zhou Enlai to head the Chinese delegation to Stalin’s funeral. He conveyed Mao’s condolences to the new leadership of the CPSU. “Everyone knows that Comrade Stalin greatly loved the Chinese people and believed that the forces of the Chinese revolution were amazing,” Mao Zedong wrote. “He displayed the greatest wisdom on questions relating to the Chinese revolution... We have lost a great teacher and a most sincere friend... This is a great sorrow. It is impossible to express our grief in words.”
Mao was also unofficially represented by his wife, Jiang Qing, who was in the USSR for treatment. She was very upset by Stalin’s death and visited the Hall of Columns in the House of Soviets, where she was allowed to stand guard at the bier of the deceased. On 9 March, Zhou marched in the funeral procession; alone among the foreign guests he was given the honour of carrying Stalin’s coffin along with the leaders of the CPSU.
As long as Stalin was alive, Mao remained a loyal follower. Even when Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, Mao remained privately supportive of Stalin. Only after the Sino-Soviet split in 1960 did Mao and the rest of the CCP leadership discover their differences with Russian Stalinism. Stalin’s Russia was the model for Maoist Stalinism from its inception in 1949 and remained so for decades afterwards. The Chinese state established after 1949 had the same structural features as the USSR: a bureaucratic ruling class exploiting and oppressing the workers and peasants; totalitarian rule that smashed the old landlord and capitalist classes; bureaucratic planning; forced industrialisation and collectivisation; workplace and household registration to atomise and control the population; and the active repression of dissent.
To understand the Chinese revolution in 1949, it is necessary to comprehend the centrality of Stalinism to the entire Maoist project.