Biographies & Memoirs


Into the Party

THE FIRST TIME that Mao in his own writings discussed the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin at any length was in an article of September 1920. The context, rather surprisingly, was Hunanese independence, for which Mao had become a forceful spokesman. In his essay, Mao argued that China’s apparent size and strength had always been deceptive: when it was examined more closely, one could see that China had been “solid at the top but hollow at the bottom; high-sounding on the surface but senseless and corrupt underneath.” The farce of China’s current attempts at proving itself a Republic was evidence of the truth of these assertions. Effective political organizations had to grow out of an integrated social system. Such a social system could initially take root only in “small localities,” and in such local settings “it is the individual citizens who comprise the foundation of the citizenry as a whole.” To Mao this had to be a voluntaristic process: “A forced attempt at construction simply will not work.” Mao then drew on the discussions of Marxism he had attended in Beijing but suggested that some of those arguments were lacking in cogency. People had used the example of Lenin, wrote Mao, to argue that “political organizations can reform social organizations,” and that “group forces can transform the individual.” Mao felt Lenin’s example in Russia was a special case, not one that could be simply applied to China. For a start, Lenin had relied on “millions of party members” to undertake his “unprecedented course of popular revolution that made a clean sweep of the reactionary parties and washed away the upper and middle classes.” Lenin had a carefully thought-out ideology—Bolshevism—and a “reliable mass party” that carried out his orders “as smoothly as flowing water.” The peasants of Russia also responded to his revolutionary call. Were there to be a “thorough and general revolution in China,” Mao wrote, he would support it. But he knew that was not possible at the moment. Accordingly, he would work for a Republic of Hunan “that shines like the rising sun.”

Events, however, were pushing China away from the federation of provinces that Mao envisioned. Part of the problem was that Hunan was in no way united, and within a few months of Mao’s return to Changsha from Shanghai, rival warlords were once again vying for control; although the province did declare its formal independence in November 1920 and formulated its own Hunanese constitution, including the granting of full civil rights to women, the Hunan assembly never established a fully independent jurisdiction. Equally fateful were developments in the Soviet Union. In March 1919 Lenin convened the first meetings of a “Third Communist International” to replace the Second International, which had disintegrated during World War I. This new international—known as the Comintem—was to be the global arm of the Soviet Communist Party, fostering revolution overseas not only to spread the cause of the world’s proletarians, but also to strengthen the Soviet Union’s own defenses. In the spring of 1920 the first of the Comintern agents (one of them was a Chinese raised in Siberia, who acted as interpreter) arrived in China to speed the formation of a Chinese Communist Party. The Soviet group rapidly identified the New Youth editors Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu as the two most prominent Chinese intellectuals interested in Marxism. Having conferred with Li in Beijing, they traveled to Shanghai to visit Chen. Though the Soviet agents did not meet Mao in either Beijing or Shanghai, and Mao had already returned to Changsha by August 1920 when a Communist “small group”—the first in China—was established in Shanghai, he and his fellow Hunanese had nevertheless made enough of an impression on the inner circle of leading radicals for Changsha to be included among the six cities in which further Communist “small groups” were to be formed. (The other four cities were Beijing, Wuhan, Jinan in Shandong province, and Canton.)

The first brief “Manifesto” of the Chinese Communist Party appeared in Shanghai in November 1920, but there is no evidence that Mao saw it right away. From a flurry of letters that Mao wrote at this time to friends in many parts of China and in France, we know that he was frantically busy with his teaching, running the New People’s Study Society and the Cultural Book Society, building up a “rent-a-book readers’ club,” and coordinating the struggle for Hunanese independence. Mao does not mention the Manifesto to any of his November correspondents, so it is unlikely that he had seen it yet or had any hand in drafting it. To a woman student friend from Changsha, who was then in France, Mao expressed his pessimism over the Hunanese people’s capacity for change, but added philosophically, “Education is my profession, and I have made up my mind to stay in Hunan for two years.” Mao was also clearly thinking deeply about his relationship with Yang Kaihui, struggling to avoid the entanglements and hypocrisies of what in an unusually frank letter he called the “capitalist” type of marriage in which fear and “legalized rape” were combined. The loftier goal must always be to develop a meaningful union based on “that most reasonable thing, free love,” wrote Mao to another friend on November 26. He added: “I have long since declared that I would not join this rape brigade. If you don’t agree with me, please put into writing your opposing views.”

The November 1920 Chinese Communist Manifesto—as if echoing its Comintern origins—was a formulaic document couched at the theoretical level, with no roots of any kind in the realities of Chinese society. The ideals of the Party were stated as being the “social and common ownership and use of the means of production,” abolition of the state, and formation of a classless society. The goals were to overthrow capitalism through class struggle. The immediate task of the Communist Party was to strengthen the anticapitalist forces and “organize and concentrate” the forces of class struggle: workers, peasants, soldiers, sailors, and students were singled out as the troops to be mobilized, and a “general federation of industrial associations” was seen as a central tool of this process. A final general strike would lead to the overthrow of the capitalists and the formation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, under whose leadership the class struggle would continue against “the residual forces of capitalism.”

Though the language was vague, the issues here were major, and we know that even before he saw the Manifesto, Mao was beginning to discuss such revolutionary issues through correspondence with several of his Changsha friends, who were now in France on the work-study program. In two especially long and detailed letters, one of December 1, 1920, and another of January 21, 1921, Mao wrestled with the two differing views on China’s future that the Chinese students in France had divided over. One group pushed for the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the need for violent class struggle. Anarchism, they felt, would not work, the forces of reaction were just too strong. A strong Communist Party, they argued, must be the “initiator, propagandist, vanguard, and operational headquarters of the revolutionary movement.” The other group wanted “a moderate revolution,” on evolutionary principles, driven by education, focusing on the people’s welfare, and using trade unions and cooperatives as its means. Mao was torn: “In principle I agree with the ideas to seek the welfare of all by peaceful means, but I do not believe they will work in reality.” Mao had listened to Bertrand Russell when the British philosopher came to Changsha on November 1, 1920, and argued for Communism but against “war and bloody revolutions”; Mao had strenuous arguments about the lecture with his friends and concluded, “This is all very well in theory; in reality it can’t be done.” A Russian-style revolution was certainly a “last resort” for China, but maybe it was coming to that.

The same issues were being constantly discussed at the Changsha meetings of the New People’s Study Society, where the members were overwhelmingly involved in education. Of those who attended regularly in December 1920, according to another of Mao’s neat and meticulous reports, besides himself there were three teachers at the Zhounan women’s school, three working as editors on the Popular Newspaper for a group called “Popular Books and Papers,” two teaching at primary school, and two working in the Cultural Book Society; all the others were students: six at middle schools, one at the Hunan-Yale medical school, and one in self-study. None were workers, farmers, or tradespeople. Mao’s own feeling was that this group as a whole was “somewhat immature,” and showed “childishness in thought and behavior”; some of them were “apt to launch or support causes rashly.” He did not entirely exempt himself from criticism. He knew full well that he was “weak-willed,” he told a friend in January 1921. “I constantly have the wrong attitude and always argue, so that people detest me.” But when Mao convened a lengthy meeting of the Cultural Book Society in that same month and called for a vote on the political options, twelve members, including Mao and Tao Yi, voted for Bolshevism, one voted for moderate (Russell-style) Communism, and two for parliamentary democracy. Tao Yi also spoke out for concentrating on ideological work within the army, rather than putting faith in education throughout the society as a whole. (Yang Kaihui is not listed among the attendants at the meetings.)

Even as the first Comintern agents were exploring the possibilities in China, Lenin convened the Second Congress of the Comintern. Despite serious differences over how to interpret the opportunity in China and what organizational forms would be most suitable, this congress decided to send the Dutch Communist Sneevliet (who operated under the pseudonym “Maring”) to China—specifically to Shanghai—to investigate the situation there and elsewhere in Asia. This decision was finalized in August 1920, but due to various organizational problems Maring left for China only in April 1921. His instructions were confusing and contradictory. Following current Comintern policies, he should encourage Chinese Communists to unite with the bourgeoisie in the interests of the national revolution, while at the same time leaving room for the development of a strong proletarian organization that could eventually overthrow the bourgeoisie. For his entire trip to China, Maring was given £4,000 sterling, of which he used £2,000 immediately for his wife’s expenses and some other political obligations. He also lost £600 of his funds in a bank failure, and was thus left with funding of exactly £1,400 for the entire revolutionary journey. Taking a train from Berlin in April 1921, he obtained his visa for China in Vienna, and traveled from there to Venice, where a passenger ship was readying to sail for China.

Maring reached Shanghai on June 3 and took rooms with a Russian landlady in the International Settlement. Within a few days he made contact with another Comintern representative, Nikolsky, who had been sent from Irkutsk. Though the details are obscure, it appears that Maring coordinated with Communists from the Shanghai and Beijing small groups, who had already begun to plan a Communist conference, and that letters were sent to Communists in the other four cities where small groups had formed, as well as to a Communist living in Japan and one with no fixed affiliation living in Hong Kong. Thus it was, after various delays and mishaps, that fifteen representatives (thirteen Chinese and the two Comintern representatives) convened in Shanghai for the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on July 23, 1921. The fifteen were there to represent the complete roster of fifty-three Chinese Communists who were then affiliated with the Party in some form or other.

Mao was one of the two invited to come from the Changsha small group, a fact that was to prove crucial to his subsequent revolutionary career. But why was he chosen? There is no absolutely clear answer. As we have seen, Mao knew the Party founders, Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu, at least fairly well, and had made a name for himself in Changsha educational circles. He also knew the Yangs and a fairly wide circle of influential Hunanese. But he had virtually no formal knowledge of socialist ideology, and it was not until January 1921 that he even mentioned “the materialist conception of history” in his writings. Mao derived his new interest in Marxism partly from corresponding with his friends in France, some of whom had joined the Communist Youth League there, and from reading a new magazine, The Communist, developed by Li Da and the Communist small group in Shanghai, and published as a monthly underground Party journal for seven issues between November 1920 and July 1921. Mao stated that he admired the journal for its “clear-cut stand,” but as far as we can tell from the surviving records he did not sell it in the Cultural Book Society’s store. Mao knew little about the proletariat, though he had spoken vaguely of doing some industrial work in a ship-building yard or factory, and at a meeting of the Society in January 1921 he had mentioned that he wanted to “learn to do some form of manual labor, such as knitting socks or baking bread.” Otherwise he would continue to be a teacher, and perhaps a reporter as well.

Basically, though, Mao’s proven strength was as a businessman. The operations of the Cultural Book Society had grown prodigiously, with sales from a vastly expanded list of titles reaching 4,049 Chinese dollars and expenses of 3,942 dollars for the seven months from September 1920 to the end of March 1921. The business had expanded to encompass seven full county branches of the store, with their own staffs (Mao hoped to have one in each of the seventy-five Hunan counties before too long) and there were also four smaller outlets in local schools, as well as three run by individuals in their own homes. The main office of the company was still in the rented Hunan-Yale building, though the premises had grown too cramped, and Mao was seeking a larger and more central location in Changsha. Mao now called himself by the unusual title of “special negotiator” for the bookstore, and a friend of his from Xiangtan was listed as “manager.” Besides these entrepreneurial skills, there was the fact that Mao clearly had remarkable energy and initiative, and a good deal of physical courage. He was handsome too: lean, tall, and with large, mournful eyes. Photos of the time show him with long hair swept dramatically back from his brow. Apparently, Mao was also never at a loss for words. Perhaps the Beijing and Shanghai intellectuals, with their sophisticated knowledge of the world, found something refreshing in this untutored youth from the Hunan backlands.

The July 1921 First Communist Party Congress in Shanghai was tense. The Comintern agent Maring aroused instant dislike among many of the Chinese, and his doctrinaire plans for their future—especially the need to ally with the bourgeoisie—were hotly contested: two of the Chinese present flatly rejected Maring’s request that they give him a “work report.” Neither Li Dazhao nor Chen Duxiu even attended the Congress, and the proceedings were further disrupted when on July 30 a stranger wandered right into the private house where they were meeting, explaining lamely that he had come to the wrong place. Experienced in holding clandestine meetings and in police procedures, Maring at once suggested the members scatter, which they did, and shortly after that the police arrived. One advantage of this for the Chinese was that they could now state that the presence of two Westerners made their group too conspicuous. Accordingly the last session of the congress was held in a boat on a nearby Zhejiang lake, and Maring and Nikolsky did not attend.

The documents of this first congress were never published, even for internal distribution within the Party, and no record of the exact nature of Mao’s participation has been preserved. A brief summary of the congress was filed in the Comintern archives, though its author and reliability cannot be ascertained. It appears that each of the local groups gave a report on their activities and emphasized the small size of their membership and the need to expand. Maring spoke of his work in Indonesia and underscored the need to develop the labor movement in China; Nikolsky described the founding of the Far Eastern Secretariat of the Comintern in Irkutsk, and also the situation inside the Soviet Union.

The most important discussion seems to have focused on whether to break altogether with bourgeois society or to find a link between open work and secret work that would let the Party operate more openly in society. Congressional delegates argued that workers should be encouraged to “expand their outlook” and take part in “the struggle for freedom of publication and assembly.” Open propagation of Communist theories was “an absolute condition for success”—though at the same time it was “futile to hope to build a new society within the old system.” Ultimately the working class would have to learn how to liberate itself because it was not possible “to force it to carry out revolution.” On the last day of the congress, without the Comintern representatives present, the Chinese argued over what exactly was meant by the proletariat’s “allying with other parties and factions,” and whether the warlords were the most important enemy. After “short but intense debate” it was recommended that for the immediate future the focus of the Communist Party should be on organizing factory workers. Organizing the peasantry and the army should wait until there were more Party members available—such members should be especially sought out in the working class.

The final “program” of the Party, on which all were said to agree, stated that the capitalist class must be overthrown and a classless society established inside China. Machinery, land, buildings, and other means of production would be under “social ownership.” Membership in the Party would not be restricted by gender or nationality. It was enough that each new member have the backing of a preexisting Party member, with background checking of suitability for membership not to exceed two months. Party doctrines and membership lists were to be kept secret. Any area of China where there were five members could form its own unit, called a “Soviet.” Soviets with more than thirty members would form their own executive committees. Finances, Party policies, and publications would all be supervised by the Central Committee of the Party, of which Chen Duxiu would be the general secretary.

Mao Zedong was back in Changsha by early August 1921, having been instructed at the congress to build up the Party in Hunan. His first response to this order, in line with his earlier experiences, was to announce on August 16 the formation of a “Hunan Self-Study University.” On the surface this was to run somewhat along the lines of the old dynasty’s Confucian study academies—it literally met on the premises of one such academy in Changsha that had been founded in the late Qing to propagate the thought of an earlier Chinese patriotic thinker opposed to the Manchu conquest of 1644. This location was made possible by the fact that Mao’s fellow Communist delegate from Hunan, the fifty-one-year-old scholar He Shuheng, had been named director of the academy, and the Hunan government had provided it with a monthly stipend of 400 Chinese dollars. The goal of the new university, Mao stated, was to get away from the “mechanical conformity of teaching methods” still all too common, and to form a fully “democratic” community that would “strive to smash the mystery of learning” and be affordable for all. “Correspondents” appointed by the university would keep the students in touch with intellectual developments worldwide (New York, London, Paris, Moscow, and Tokyo were among those places mentioned) and also in schools throughout Hunan. Marxism was not mentioned in the roster of courses, but the university formed a convenient front for recruiting and vetting possible members of the Communist Party, and students enrolling found they were given the choice of taking courses in Marxist-Leninist theory. A similar use was made of a YMCA-sponsored “mass literacy” campaign that happened to be going on in Changsha at the same time, based in public halls, schools, churches, and private homes, which allowed Communist organizers to reach over a thousand potential recruits.

In November, the Party Central Committee specifically mentioned that Changsha must recruit at least twenty new “comrades” to form “district executive committees,” and combine with other areas to get at least two thousand young socialist league members. (It was probably around this time that Yang Kaihui joined the Communist Party formally.) The Changsha district was also told to get “more than one labor union under its direct control” and to establish “solid relations” with other labor unions. The short-term goal was for all the districts to unite in forming a national union of railway workers. In line with such specific directives, Mao had already (in September) traveled to the massive Anyuan coal mines just across the border in Jiangxi, pretending to be a tourist, and even went down the colliery shafts. That November, Mao issued a particularly lavish eulogy on the Labor Association of Changsha, which had launched a major strike the previous April, although he had not been involved in its work and it was in fact controlled by Hunanese anarchists.

The Labor Association was bound to become the focus of Mao’s attentions, now that his goals had been defined so dramatically. The association already had a following among a wide variety of Hunan operations and laborers—spinning mills, the mint, lead-smelting plants, construction workers, tailors and barbers, machinists and railway workers. In January 1922 it spearheaded a major strike against a Changsha spinning mill, and the military governor of Hunan—the same man who had been Mao’s commanding officer after the murder of the secret-society revolutionaries in 1912—responded by sending troops with machine guns to break the strike and also beheaded two student leaders believed to have aided the strikers.

Mao’s scale of activities was now broadening swiftly. In the midst of the endless organizational work and the addressing of the somewhat contradictory calls of the Party center, he had managed to spend enough time with Yang Kaihui for them to start a family. Despite the absence of any formal ceremony they now considered themselves married. Their first son, Anying, was born in October 1922. But something curious was happening to Mao. The young man who had struggled so often against the autocratic nature of his father, who hated and despised the shackles of bourgeois marriage and had found joy in a free-love relationship, who detested schools and would never be a student in one again, and who always sought freedom of spirit and the chance to grow and change had willingly accepted, at the age of twenty-eight, a much greater degree of disciplined control from the Communist Party than any he had encountered in his life before.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!