Lecture Thirty-Three

The Chinese Communists, 1921-1937

Scope: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in Shanghai in 1921. It grew out of discussion groups in Beijing and elsewhere and with the help of advisors from the Soviet Union. In the early 1920s, the Communists and the Nationalists, led by SunYatsen, formed an alliance, but after Sun’s death in 1925, this collapsed as the new Nationalist leader, Chiang Kaishek, sought to destroy the CCP. In 1927, Chiang launched all-out attacks on Communists and drove the Party out of China’s cities. In response, largely influenced by the ideas of Mao Zedong, the Party turned to a peasant strategy, relying on agricultural workers to build the revolution. After a period of experimentation in the early 1930s and following the epic Long March from southeast to northwest China, the CCP established its main base area in Shaanxi province in 1936 and, in 1937, managed to form a new alliance with the Nationalists.


I. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai in 1921 and soon sought an alliance with the Nationalists.

A. The Party was established through the actions of Chinese Marxists and Soviet advisors.

1. Study groups in Beijing and other cities had been meeting since 1919.

2. Advisors sent by the Communist International in Moscow worked with Chinese Marxists, including Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu.

3. The First Party Congress was held in July-August 1921 in Shanghai, with a handful of delegates in attendance.

B. Realizing that they did not have the strength to lead a revolution right away, the members of the CCP sought an alliance with the Nationalist Guomindang (GMD).

1. The GMD was still led by Sun Yatsen, who had been impressed with the organizational efficiency of the Bolshevik Party.

2. Sun was willing to work with the CCP as long as Communists accepted the leading role of the Nationalists.

3. The First United Front allowed Communists to join the GMD as individuals, and many, such as Mao Zedong, rose to positions of responsibility and influence.

II. In 1925, Sun Yatsen died, and the CCP-GMD alliance began to crumble.

A. Sun was succeeded as leader of the GMD by Chiang Kaishek.

1. Chiang was a military man who had been leader of the GMD military academy at Whampoa, near Guangzhou.

2. He had studied in the Soviet Union and formed a strong aversion to the Communists.

3. After Sun’s death, Chiang was one of several strong leaders in the GMD.

4. He used his control of the army to intimidate and outflank his rivals and eventually became supreme leader.

B, In 1926, Chiang launched the Northern Expedition to reunite China.

1. The GMD had been in control only of Guangdong province in the far south.

2. Chiang led GMD forces north and either defeated or bribed local warlords, bringing them into the GMD regime.

3. In April 1927, he reached Shanghai but allowed local gangsters and secret GMD agents to wipe out the Communists in the city before bringing his army in to take control.

4. This precipitated a split with the CCP, and a major purge of Communists in all GMD-controlled cities followed.

III. The CCP had to find a new way to survive.

A. For a while, urban Communists and their Soviet advisors tried to carry on as before.

1. The main Party leadership called for uprisings and strikes, but these actions were all failures.

2. Leadership in the Party changed hands repeatedly.

B. In the countryside, a new strategy was evolving, largely led by Mao Zedong.

1. Mao had been director of the GMD’s Peasant Bureau.

2. He believed that “agricultural workers” could be the main force in the revolution.

3. A rural base area was set up in southern Jiangxi, where Communist policies could be tried out and refined, including early efforts at land reform.

C. Chiang Kaishek completed the unification of China and turned his attention to the eradication of the Communists.

1. By the end of the 1920s, the northern warlords had been brought under GMD control, and a new national government was installed in Nanjing.

2. Chiang saw the CCP as his main enemy, despite Japanese aggression in Manchuria, which was seized in September 1931.

3. In the early 1930s, Chiang launched repeated campaigns to destroy the CCP bases in Jiangxi.

IV. The Communists embarked on the Long March to reach northwest China and build a new base of operations.

A. In the autumn of 1934, it became apparent that Chiang was preparing a final assault on the CCP’s base.

1. Communist leaders decided to abandon the Jiangxi Soviet and go to northwest China, where another small base area already existed.

2. In October 1934, 115,000 people set out on foot, leaving a small contingent behind to make a last stand against the GMD.

3. Over the next year, the CCP forces walked across much of southwest and northwest China, crossing mountains, marshes, deep gorges, and barren deserts, reaching Shaanxi province late in 1935.

4. Of the 115,000 who set out on the Long March, only about 15,000 survived, and they became heroes of the revolution, respected even today for the sacrifices they made.

B. Once in their new base in Yenan, Mao and the CCP leaders turned to resisting Japanese aggression and to building their movement for a New China, even forming a Second United Front with the GMD in December 1936. We will follow that story in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949.

Supplemental Reading:

Harrison Salisbury, The Long March.

Edgar Snow, Red Star over China.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why was Chiang Kaishek so obsessed with the Chinese Communists and so willing to ignore the expansionist ambitions of Japan?

2. How could Mao Zedong justify his advocacy of a leading role for peasants in the revolution, given the Marxist ideology of the working class as the main force in modern history?

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