Thursday, July 5, 2007


MAO: A LIFE by Philip Short, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2000. 782pp. [Part 8]
Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an important work and the editor's blog is a good place to discuss it as a preliminary to a review article for PA. Over the next few weeks I will be making entries one chapter at a time (there are sixteen). Comments are invited, especially from anyone who has read the book and wants to critique my take on a chapter, but anyone is welcome to comment.

Chapter 9 "Chairman of the Republic"

On November 7, 1931 in SE Jiangxi the Chinese Soviet Republic was set up with its capital at Ruijin. Mao was the head of state with the title "Chairman." However, in January 1932 he had a big fight with members of the PB over the significance of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Most of the PB thought it was to facilitate an invasion of the USSR. Mao disagreed. Tempers flared and Mao requested "sick leave" and isolated himself in an old temple on Donghuashan Hill around five miles from Ruijin.

Meanwhile, against Mao's advice, the Party decided to attack and occupy a big city, in this case it was Ganzhou. It was a fiasco and Mao was called back by the leadership to give his advice. Mao basically got his way again. One of the major reasons was the fact Zhou Enlai threw his support to Mao at this time and "personal chemistry" developed between the two men which was to last over the next four decades.

The biggest problem for Mao was the tension between his political vision and that of the Shanghai "Returned Student" PB leadership. By July 1932 the Shanghai PB was really down on Mao for not implementing its decisions regarding the taking of big cities. But Mao and the field commanders knew that the Red Army was not ready to take on the big cities.

This impasse was broken by Zhou Enlai, Short says. Zhou told the PB he would personally go to the field to get an offensive underway against the big cities in northern Jiangxi but Mao should be given back his old title as "General Political Commissar." Short refers to Zhou as "the eternal deal- maker."

The offensive got underway, but Mao and Zhu De, with Zhou's support, called it off in order to retreat and build up the Red Army. This led to a big split in the PB and Mao found himself sidelined (October 12, 1932) from military matters for the next two years. But he was still Chairman of the Republic and had administrative functions to perform.

He also gave advice to Luo Ming, the acting secretary of the Fujian CPC, whom he met by accident. It was military advice. Chiang was getting ready for a Fourth Encirclement Campaign and Mao discussed his old guerrilla tactics. Luo Ming liked what he heard and started using Mao's tactics in Fujian.

This infuriated the leader of the Returned Students, Bo Gu (not be confused with Gu Bo-- Mao's former secretary) who immediately denounced the "Luo Ming line" and began a purge of all Mao supporters he could find. This was not a blood purge, they were just being denounced and isolated. As Chairman, Mao was too high ranking to denounce.

Short points out how ironic it was that the Returned Students were against Mao and thought they were following the Moscow line, while in fact it was Mao that Stalin backed. Since 1928, Short says, "Mao was the only major Chinese leader who was consistently in agreement with Stalin on all three of the key issues in the Chinese revolution: the primary role of the peasantry, of the Red Army and of the rural base areas. In the Kremlin, this did not go unnoticed." [Trivia: Mao's favorite novel was "The Dream of the Red Chamber."]

As head of state of the Chinese Soviet Republic Mao turned his attention to civil affairs and the economy. "The key economic issue," Short writes, "was land reform. In rural China, the possession of land gave life: if you had fields, you could eat; without fields, you would starve. Among a nation of 400 million, 90 per cent of whom were peasants, land redistribution-- taking from the rich and giving to the poor-- was the primary vehicle carrying the communist revolution forward, the fundamental point of divergence between the [CPC] and the Guomindang."

This was seventy years ago, we know the GMD will lose because the peasants didn't support it. Even today we see robust Maoist movements in areas with vast peasant populations. The same problems often elicit the same solutions. There are Maoist movements in Nepal as well as India fueled by the peasants desire for land redistribution. Even the dysfunctional "Shining Path" quasi-Maoist movement in Peru based itself on peasants.

Mao was very radical about land reform, according to Short. Mao favored a system of equal distribution, "an identical share" of land for every mouth. All the land was owned by the state and assigned according to the size of the family. Everyone got something and even the poorest could live.

But Mao's views were considered too moderate by the Returned Student leadership. The peasants were classified as rich, middle, and poor. Mao's plan had provided land for all. But the Returned Students, under the influence of Stalin's "anti-kulak campaign" decided that rich peasants would have all their land taken and be given nothing. This all became moot anyway as the Chinese Soviet was ultimately taken over by the GMD.

But before the Chinese Soviet Republic fell, Mao instituted some practices which became characteristic of Chinese Communism, according to Short. Mao, along with Deng Fa his chief of Political Security, was determined to eliminate all "alien class elements" from the state. Lists of suspects were drawn up, "denunciation boxes" were set up in the villages so anyone could put in the name of a "class enemy."

The names of non existent organizations were made up (by the leadership) and then people were accused of being members. This was an excuse to haul in large groups for questioning. Mao also ordered, that when someone was "obviously guilty," the procedure should be, as Short puts it: "they should be executed first and a report made later."

These terrible behavior patterns were not due to Communism. The GMD did the same, even killing people for "disturbing the peace." This type of "law" was inherited from the Chinese Empire, "from which the social controls of both the communists and the nationalists [GMD] stemmed." The purpose of "law" was for political control, not to protect people as individual's with rights and freedom. The ideals of Marx and Engels were taking root in alien soil.

Elections were required for committees, delegations, congresses, etc. The voting age was 16. Men and women both voted and women were guaranteed 25% of the posts. The Soviet also enacted a law to give women complete equality with men in the rights of marriage and divorce.

"This democratic marriage system." Mao stated, "has burst the feudal shackles that have bound human beings, especially women, for thousands of years, and established a new pattern consistent with human nature." If this was the only thing the CPC ever did, it would deserve the undying gratitude of a freed humanity.

Even though Mao was being kept away from the military struggle, his influence remained. Short reports that in the spring of 1933,Chiang's fourth attempt at encirclement was beaten back by the Red Army led by Zhou Enlai and Zhu De "using tactics broadly similar to those Mao had argued for."

In September 1933, Chiang began encirclement campaign number five. As the fighting intensified, "political paranoia resumed." Execution squads went out to the battles to kill suspected disloyal troops and officers. Personally, I can't understand how an army can operate in this way, but it did.

Short says Mao's "land regulations were abandoned" and the Party carried out a "pogrom" killing off thousands of rich peasants and landlords. The poor and moderate peasants saw their interests being protected and supported the Party.

In May of 1934 the Party leadership (without Mao) realized that Chiang was getting too strong and that the communists might have to abandon their base area and Soviet Republic. Mao was on sick leave, this time for real, in any case. In October the Red Army abandoned the base area to the GMD, crossed the Gan River and withdrew to the west.

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