The story of Mao’s rise to power – from leader of a ragged army of fewer than 1,000 guerrillas in 1927 to his victory in 1949 – has become one of the great myths of the twentieth century. From the earliest days, it is claimed, Mao had a distinctive strategy for the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism in China – the building of strong “Red bases” among the peasantry from which a guerrilla army could eventually conquer the towns and cities. This involved an explicit break with Stalin’s domination of world communism, and led Mao fundamentally to reshape Marxism to make it fit the realities of Third World countries.
The truth is rather different. What is most often forgotten is that Mao’s road to power started with the defeat of the first, working-class, revolution of 1925-27, a defeat brought about by the disastrous policies which Stalin imposed on the young Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In those two years south-eastern China was gripped by a powerful revolutionary ferment. Tens of millions of workers and peasants began to discover their power as they entered into the struggles against imperialist domination of China, and against native capitalists and landlords. The focus of the struggle was at the outset a nationalist one: to establish a strong nationalist government which could expel Western and Japanese imperialism from their treaty ports and “concessions”. And it was the Guomindang, the Nationalist Party, which came to dominate the struggle.
Yet the power of the Guomindang was built on the basis of workers’ struggles. It was the mass strikes and boycotts launched by the CCP-led trade unions, culminating in a 12-month general strike in Hong Kong, which enabled the Guomindang to establish its first power-base in Guangdong province. And when in 1926 they launched the Northern Expedition to conquer the rest of China it was peasants’ struggles in the villages which enabled the army to advance so rapidly across southern China.
As the struggles deepened, so their scope widened far beyond the bounds set by the Guomindang. Workers’ militias patrolled the streets of Guangzhou (Canton) and blockaded Hong Kong. Strikes over wages, hours and conditions spread to workers employed by Chinese capitalists. The nationalist revolution was becoming a workers’ revolution. As the struggle spread north to the cities of Wuhan and Shanghai, the same pattern was repeated.
In the countryside, the focus of the struggle changed even quicker. Imperialism to the villagers was an abstraction: the enemy was the landlord. As one historian of the revolution put it: “The Guomindang said, ‘Down with the unequal treaties!’ But the only unequal treaties the Hunan peasants knew were the tenancy agreements ... To the Hunan peasant the ‘abolition of the unequal treaties’ meant abolition of thralldom on the land.” 
During late 1926 and early 1927 a wave of peasant insurrections spread across Guangdong, Hunan and Hubei provinces. Landlords were dispossessed, money-lenders driven out of the villages, and co-operatives were set up for food production and distribution to ensure that no-one went hungry. Social evils that had been accepted for hundreds of years also came under attack: the sale of women and children into prostitution, the binding of women’s feet, opium-smoking and religious rituals were abolished in many villages.
The landlords fought back with unimaginable cruelty and viciousness – and with the full support of the Guomindang. For the Guomindang represented the aspirations of Chinese capitalists and landlords to become a ruling class on equal terms with the rest of the world. They needed mass struggle to achieve this, but as Trotsky prophetically argued: “The Chinese bourgeoisie is sufficiently realistic and acquainted with the nature of world imperialism to understand that a really serious struggle against the latter requires such an upheaval of the revolutionary masses as would primarily become a menace to the bourgeoisie itself.” 
As that menace became ever more apparent, so the Guomindang turned increasingly against the workers’ movement. It was the movement in the cities that had inspired the struggles on the land, and so it was the cities that had to be broken if the Guomindang was to retain the support of Chinese capital and win concessions from the imperialists. Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Guomindang, embraced the task with relish.
The climax came in the bloody massacres of April 1927 in Shanghai. As the Northern Expedition approached the city the trade unions had called an armed general strike, and for 12 days the workers held Shanghai. As the Guomindang armies entered the city, workers were told to lay down their arms and welcome them as liberators. The Guomindang was no sooner established in the city than it turned its guns on the workers. More than 50,000 were butchered, and all working-class organisations smashed.
In July the Guomindang government in Wuhan turned on the workers’ and peasants’ movements there in a repeat of the April massacres. This time the death toll was even greater, as the landlords unleashed a reign of terror in the countryside around Wuhan.
How could such a powerful movement have been defeated without a shot being fired? The answer lies in the alliance made between the Guomindang and the CCP, on orders from Moscow, which ensured that the CCP was unable to act as an independent revolutionary force. For Stalin had declared that the Chinese revolution could be only a nationalist one, and thus one led by the Guomindang. It followed that to keep the alliance intact, workers’ or peasants’ struggles which went against the interests of Chinese capitalists or “patriotic” landlords had to be stopped.
The CCP led the trade unions and had a large influence inside the peasant movement. Yet they acted not as revolutionaries taking the struggle forward, but as the left wing of the Guomindang. This meant that having sparked off struggles, they then moved – in the interests of anti-imperialist unity’ – to hold them back. This demoralised their supporters, who then dropped away from the movement; and this in its turn made it easier for the Guomindang to attack the revolution.
The CCP’s attachment to the Guomindang even survived the massacres in Shanghai. Though the CCP bore the brunt of the attack, Stalin simply switched his allegiance to the rival Guomindang government in Wuhan. It was only after that government launched its own bloodbath that he changed course. With the workers now completely defeated, the peasant movement wiped out and the CCP reduced to a fraction of its former strength, Stalin’s response was to announce ... a new revolutionary upsurge!
The CCP was now ordered to launch a series of revolts, known as the “Autumn Harvest Uprisings”, in which armies gathered in the countryside were to attack strategic towns as bases from which to launch a national offensive. It was suicidal lunacy, and led to the near-extinction of the remnants of the CCP.
Mao survived only because he disobeyed his orders. He was commanding an army whose task was to take the Hunanese provincial capital of Changsha. After several defeats, he changed course and led his army of fewer than 1,000 men into the Jinggang Mountains, a desolate and backward area on the border of Hunan and Jiangxi. In May 1928 they were joined by another army led by Zhu De, again with fewer than 1,000 men. These tiny forces were practically all that was left of the CCP.
An internal circular of November 1928 admitted that “... our union organisations have been reduced to a minimum, our party units in the cities have been pulverised and isolated. Nowhere in China can we find one solid industrial cell.”  The CCP never again built up its forces inside the cities. From 1928 it was a party of guerrillas, composed overwhelmingly of peasants and led by middle-class intellectuals.
The “Red Base” which Mao had established in 1928 led a precarious existence for the next six years, gradually expanding the territory under its control. The government was called a “Soviet”, though it had nothing in common with workers’ councils beyond the name; it was essentially a benevolent military dictatorship, welcomed by the local peasants because it placed some restrictions on the powers of the local landlords.
In the early 1930s similar “Soviet bases” were established in the provinces of Anhui and Hunan, and in Shaanxi and Gansu in the north-west. Their existence was possible only because of the utter chaos into which China had been thrown in the 1930s. Though the Guomindang had achieved their aim of forming a government, it was a pyrrhic victory. Their writ extended only to the area immediately around Beijing and other major cities, and to any territory occupied by government troops. The rest of China was ruled by rival warlords, many of whose territories covered only a few dozen square miles. In areas where the local warlords were weak, or divided among themselves, or where the land was so poor there was no profit to be made out of it, it was possible for “liberated areas” to survive. Many mountainous areas – including the Jinggang Mountains – had long been “bandit country” where it was possible to escape from the rule of local officials and the landlords.
But as the areas controlled by the CCP continued to grow, they came under sustained attack by central government troops. From 1932 to 1934 five offensives were launched against Mao’s base in Jiangxi. Though the first four failed, by October 1934 the core of the “liberated areas” was under severe threat. It was in response to this threat that the Long March’ was launched.
Contrary to the myths, Mao did not plan the Long March – he was not even told about the plans until they were fixed.  It was not part of a long-term strategy but rather a desperate solution to a desperate problem. The base area was about to be overrun by Guomindang troops; the only chance of survival was to make a break for it and resettle in a more secure area. But as the March was continually harried by government forces it was forced deeper and deeper into the wilds of western China, until the only option left was to head for the “Soviet areas” in the north-west.
For those who survived it, the Long March was an epic story of human endurance. Between 80,000 and 90,000 people set out on the March in October 1934; about 4,000 completed it a year later. Some marchers were left along the way to start new guerrilla bases, but more than 50,000 of them died on the March. The survivors had travelled between 6,000 and 7,000 miles. About half-way along the route, Mao became undisputed leader of the CCP.
What could possibly have inspired people to endure such hardships? The main answer lies in the conditions in the Chinese countryside in the 1930s. Most peasants lived lives of desperate poverty, trapped between the landlord and the money-lender, sliding deeper and deeper into debt every year. Famine and drought were regular occurrences – between 1926 and 1931 one-third of the population of Gansu died in famines, floods, typhus epidemics and local wars, and three million people starved to death in Shaanxi. Come what may, the landlords insisted on their rents being paid; even death merely transferred the debt to the next generation. As the landlords were also the local magistrates, their word was literally law.
The Red Army promised an end to the power of the landlords, and the land to the peasantry. The mere fact that they treated the peasants as human beings, in contrast to the casual brutality of all other Chinese armies, made it possible for the peasants to believe them. Not that the landlords were ever completely dispossessed in the “Soviet areas” – but even there the Red Army enforced lower rents than had been the norm before.
When Mao took command in 1935, he added another cause to fight for: national liberation from the Japanese invasion of 1931. The Guomindang government had proved completely incapable of stopping the Japanese advance, and by 1935 they had overrun much of north China. The only armed opposition they faced was from guerrillas from the “Soviet areas” in Shaanxi; but in Beijing a powerful nationalist movement erupted among students, which spread to campuses throughout eastern China.
As the Long March reached Shaanxi, Mao started a powerful agitation for a “United Front against Japan” with the Guomindang, demanding an end to hostilities between their two armies and joint operations against the Japanese. This had a great effect both among the students, and also among junior officers in the Guomindang army – uniting with other Chinese to fight a foreign invader sounded to them like a good definition of what a Nationalist Party should be doing.
In December 1936 Chiang Kai-Shek, the butcher of the Shanghai workers in 1927, was kidnapped by his own officers and forced to sign a peace treaty with the CCP. (The officers wanted to kill him, and he was saved only on the insistence of Zhou Enlai, Mao’s envoy.) In return, the CCP “announced the end of the worker-peasant democratic dictatorship”  (there is no record that the workers or peasants were even consulted about this). The CCP threw itself into the War of Resistance. All talk of dispossessing the landlords was dropped, and the sole focus became “uniting all patriotic Chinese to resist enemy aggression”.
It was the anti-Japanese war which turned the CCP into a force capable of challenging for power. In 1937 they had some 30,000 members, and the Red Army was 40,000-strong. By 1940 these figures had risen to 800,000 and 500,000 respectively, with hundreds of thousands more peasants organised in small guerrilla bands. The lessons in guerrilla warfare that had been learnt on the Long March were applied brilliantly on the north China plain and in the hills. The Japanese controlled the towns and the railway lines, the Red Army the countryside in between.
It was thus on nationalism that the CCP built its power base; but they also retained their popularity among the peasantry, by breaking the absolute power of the landlords. Wherever the Red Army went, they enforced both the paying of rents and the lowering of rents “in the interests of national unity”. To the peasants, this was a better deal than they had ever dreamed of. The CCP stood as a force above all classes, acting in their own interests as a future ruling class – but in the process they treated peasants and landlords as equals.
The United Front with the Guomindang coincided with the general strategy of Popular Frontism espoused at the time by Stalin in Europe – unity of the Western Communist Parties with the “progressive” bourgeoisie against fascism. But unlike the Popular Fronts in Spain and France, in China this policy led to the strengthening of the CCP, rather than weakening it. One crucial reason for this was the empirical lesson that Mao had learned from 1927 – hold onto your guns. One historian of the period argued that: “Perhaps the most important thing about this revolutionary movement is not that it was armed with a doctrine and a strategy, but that it was armed.”  The CCP and the Guomindang faced each other as two independent armed forces. While in the cities the weak organisations of the CCP could be sacrificed to unity, in the countryside Mao kept tight control of the Red Army.
The second part of the explanation was to have more long-term implications. For the CCP took on the Guomindang on their home ground of nationalism – and won. If a ruling class cannot defend the territorial integrity of its own state, it loses its claim to power. The Guomindang, deeply corrupt and riven by factionalism, was incapable of defending the “national interests” of China against Japanese imperialism. It was the CCP who proved capable of the task. They thus staked their claim to be the rulers of China after the war.
By 1945 more than 10 per cent of China was in the hands of the Red Army, and CCP guerrillas were operating over much wider areas. The civil war which broke out almost immediately after the victory over Japan was a completely unequal affair. Despite vast quantities of American arms, the Guomindang steadily lost ground, with hundreds of thousands of their soldiers deserting to the Red Army in battle after battle. The war dragged on for three years, largely because of the immense distances which the Red Army had to cover, but the outcome was never in doubt.
In 1949 Chiang Kai-Shek admitted defeat and fled to Taiwan. Mao was master of China.
1. Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford 1961) pp.221-2. The “unequal treaties” were the agreements imposed on the Chinese government by the imperialist powers, which gave the latter the “treaty ports” and “concessions” such as Hong Kong and Macao.
2. Leon Trotsky, On China (New York 1976) p.297.
3. Benjamin Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the rise of Mao (Cambridge Massachusetts 1979) p.128.
4. See Harrison Salisbury, The Long March (London 1986) pp.10-12.
5. Mao Zedong, Selected Works, vol.2 (Beijing 1967) p.41.
6. Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford 1971) p.203.
Last updated on 25.3.2001