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date: 21 January 2019

The Origins and Growth of the Chinese Communist Movement

Summary and Keywords

When the origins and development of the Chinese Communist Movement before it seized the state power in 1949 are examined, while conventionally the movement is periodized according to its respective main task of struggle, it can also be divided into four distinct phases in reference to the dominant ethos and style in each phase. To avoid the movement-centric pitfalls, it can be shown how the structural circumstances and organizational ecologies in each phase conditioned the fashioning of its dominant ethos. In its earliest phase, a failing parliamentary politics with relatively strong civil society and weak state institutions thus shaped its ethos as a social movement led by intellectuals, with sprawling networks but loose coordination. After being purged and outlawed by the Kuomintang, the movement began to bifurcate into two segments, one dedicating to urban clandestine activities and the other capitalizing on the state devolution in the countryside. The KMT’s incremental state building efforts narrowed the space of the movement, until it came almost to the brink of organizational extinction, even though its intellectual fellow travelers had helped score much success in ideological and cultural domains. The forced retreat of the Long March inaugurated a third phase of exploration and openness, when the movement regained its legal activities and attracted broadening support from a variety of social sectors. Yet, the scrambling of resources as a result of the structure of triadic conflicts with Japan and the KMT ended that phase of exploration and openness. A new phase of internal tightening and external softening cemented its hegemony yet also consolidated and institutionalized a leader-centric organizational culture that partly mirrored its competitor and partly borrowed from the Soviet template. Tracing its transformation from a social movement to an institution with its own organizational myths, rituals and rules, the teleological narrative gives way to an emphasis on the contingent interactions between its organizational environment and its internal evolution. Such a viewpoint also underscores the politics of interpretation in the formation of its organizational power and authority.

Keywords: China, Communism, social movements, Maoism, Bolshevism, CCP, KMT, socialism

Unlike its original inspiration—the Russian Bolshevik Revolution—the Chinese Communist Revolution did not materialize through a dramatic seizure of the state power in the middle of a political crisis. Rather, the seizure of the state power was only the finale of a long and protracted process of struggle and growth in a modernizing yet fragmented polity, whose prolonged crisis also shaped the character of the movement.1 In the first fifteen years of its existence, the movement was twice on the brink of total collapse and managed to survive thanks to a combination of structural interstices, situational improvisation, and strategic learning. Yet, by the end of the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945), the movement had grown so strong that it could begin to lay its claim for the national state.

Because the protracted development of the movement took place in the midst of a prolonged crisis in the state and the society, examining its origins and growth needs to take particular caution to avoid the teleological mode of thinking that explains its process as inevitably leading up to its final power seizure. While the question of “how could the Chinese Communists win?” was a palpable question to scholars working in the Cold War decades of the 1950s to 1970s, this entirely reasonable search for explanation ran the risk of promoting a teleological presumption that somehow the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was inevitable. Rather, in the same chronology there are not the inevitable stages of a movement teleology defined by movement tasks or external markers (May Fourth Movement, Japanese invasion) but rather there’s a different ethos and political style that emerged in each phase in response to changing structural factors, contingent events, and an adaptable organizational culture. The “ethos and style” refers to the collective spirits, aspirations, mentalities, and expectations that shape individual attitudes, expressions, and lines of action toward the community, other members, and the world beyond the community.

Intellectuals Took Command: The Phase of Social Movement (1920–1927)

The Chinese Communist Movement came into being in 1920–1921 through the confluence of a number of international factors, domestic political crises and microorganizational exigencies. On the international stage, the ending of the catastrophic First World War brought forth the Russian Revolution (and the revolutionary wave immediately after it in Europe), which initially felt rather distant to the Chinese intelligentsia, and the Wilsonian doctrine of national self-determination, which found immediate repercussions in China as elsewhere as the doctrine raised nationalist aspirations.2 Yet, by ceding the German colony of Qingdao to Japan instead of turning it back to China, the Versailles peace treaty negotiation in 1919 quickly disappointed those aspirations and provoked the May Fourth student demonstration that galvanized a young generation into political and social activism. This situation made it possible for the Communist International to send its emissaries to China in early 1920 and find an eager audience ready to examine the alternative path they would deliver.

In domestic politics, after two consecutive efforts of monarchical restoration—both quickly collapsed—and the humiliating diplomatic mission in Versailles, the young republican state—along with its parliamentary politics—was widely perceived to be incompetent and precarious. Moreover, “local self-government”—a popular notion associated with the liberal constitutional movement since the last years of the Qing in the early 1900s that May Fourth activists like Mao Zedong had also hailed briefly—seemed already bankrupt, as decentralized local power had now fallen into the alliance of predatory militarists and local gentry elites instead of the commoners. Opposition parties seemed able to accomplish nothing more than joining the fray. This widespread distrust of existing political institutions thus sent a young generation of students and graduates of modernizing educational institutions in search of noninstitutionalized ways of redressing their concern: social activism. Such was the context that spawned over a hundred youth activist groups across China during the late teens and early 1920s. These groups generally called themselves “study societies,” exploring and practicing new ideas in an atmosphere of change. While sharing an antitraditionalist attitude, they varied in their political militancy, internal cohesion, and life span.

At the microorganizational level, the Chinese Communist Movement really took off in recruiting among these activist groups when the emissaries of the Communist International managed to convert Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, two prominent radical intellectuals at the time, who then mobilized their networks among these groups to forge the nascent Communist movement. Notably, among the May Fourth activist groups, it was those that practiced “collective self-cultivation”—a hybrid organizational identity that combined neo-Confucian notions of self-cultivation with Christian-influenced group methods modeled by the YMCA in China—that favored Communist recruitment in comparison to non-joiner groups. And while there were academics interested in socialism and fringe elements in the Nationalist (KMT) circles involved in the beginning of the Communist movement, most of them soon left the movement. It was the “bloc recruitment” of these May Fourth activist groups that brought the first batch of committed participants into its fold. Their organizational trajectory suggests that Communism appeared attractive to these students because it seemed to provide a convincing explanation for the inadequacy of their earlier practices of character building and an effective prescription to eradicate the structural causes of moral decay and corruption through class struggle.3

This conversion trajectory from moral vanguard to revolutionary vanguard shaped the solidarity of the movement and its commitment to expand their reach in labor, youth, and women activists in its early three years. It also partly explained the Communists’ initial reluctance to collaborate with Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party (KMT, hereafter), despite the prodding of the Communist International, since these early comrades considered the latter too corrupt to work with. Due to the insistence of the Communist International as well as the deep distress caused by the violent crackdown of its labor movement on February 7, 1923, the nascent Chinese Communist Party finally took on Sun Yat-sen’s offer to establish an alliance and participated in the reform and reorganization of the KMT in 1924. Members of the CCP could join the KMT as individuals but were not expected to form caucus groups within it. Under these terms, the CCP sought to expand its social movement infrastructure under the legal protection of the KMT government in Guangzhou and often in the KMT’s name, particularly by collaborating with its left wing. The strength of the mass movement infrastructure of the CCP and its fellow travelers in the KMT’s left wing was well on display in the wave of anti-imperialist strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and riots during the May 30th Movement in 1925, which further boosted its growth enormously.

As a reflection of the dominance of the intelligentsia in the CCP during this phase, most of its involvement in the KMT concentrated on the “soft” side, such as mass movements, propaganda, and political work, while the right wing of the KMT held pillars of “hard” powers—government, army, finance, and foreign affairs. The frictions between the CCP and the KMT right wing, which started brewing in late 1925, were often fought over proper jurisdictions, as every advance made by the former in “hard” powers would meet pushback from the latter. The tension eventually came to a head on April 12, 1927, when workers’ militias in Shanghai, which the CCP organized to welcome the KMT’s triumphant Northern Expedition Army led by Chiang Kai-shek, were disarmed and violently purged by the latter. The subsequent months were a period of shock, confusion, and major policy changes, especially after Stalin’s plan to help the Communists take over the KMT’s left-wing government in Wuhan backfired in another round of purges in July, when many in the KMT already felt that their interests were threatened by the radical peasant policies that the Communists were promoting. Thus ended the phase of social movement and began a second phase characterized by violent and clandestine struggles.

Because in its first phase, the movement was mainly engaged in open and semi-open struggles and because the intelligentsia ethos was still dominant, its internal organization was generally quite loose. Its approach to expansion often did not differ significantly from social clubs’ membership drive. Its membership experienced enormous growth in the favorable atmosphere after the May 30th movement yet contracted dramatically immediately after the KMT’s two purges in 1927. At its peak in early 1927, it could claim influence on 3 million industrial workers and 9 million peasants, yet such influence was quickly decimated.

Chen Duxiu, the general secretary, was heavily attacked by a younger generation of Soviet-trained leaders at this pivotal moment and ousted in August 1927 both for his policy failure and for his “patriarchal” and “undemocratic” leadership style. Notably, this style tells not so much about Chen’s bad temperament—although it was certainly the case—as about the party’s coordination structure. Because its commanding structures were often ad hoc and not clearly formulated, these loosely connected networks and systems had to rely on a central arbitrator to use his personal authority to coordinate and adjudicate. One telling example is the governance of “libidinal economy.”4 As a continuation of the May Fourth “free love” movement and attack on patriarchy, the early years of the Chinese Communist movement saw tremendous experiments of sexual relationships that emphasized voluntary consummation. Yet jealousy and resentment soon tested the limit of this principle. Chen Duxiu often found himself called upon to intervene in order to harness conflicts over romantic relationships.

As a younger leadership took over after the emergency meeting of August 7, 1927 and tried to introduce tighter forms of “democratic centralism” that they were lectured about in the Soviet Union, they were confronted with a movement that was often too fragmented and volatile to implement them.

Revolution on Two Legs: Peasant Soviets and Urban Clandestine Activities (1927–1934)

Once the Communist movement was outlawed, loyal participants had to struggle for a viable path forward. This was initially driven more by survival instincts than by coherent plans. This scrambling process was further complicated by the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky from the Soviet side over the responsibility for the misjudgments about the KMT that caused the CCP’s disastrous suppression. Some, such as Chen Duxiu, Peng Shuzhi, and Liu Renjing, definitively took Trotsky’s side and became the first cohort of the left opposition. The majority who stayed in the CCP, however, had little clue about that debate yet bore its consequences when Stalin, as if to disprove Trotsky’s accusations, advocated a series of drastic military actions and strikes that turned out to be adventurist and unproductive. This reflects an ongoing structural reality for the CCP: the domineering authority of the Comintern and from the late 1920s, Stalin himself. Nevertheless, the KMT’s counterrevolutionary violence now justified revolutionary violence. Armed struggle became a necessity. Thus a Red Army was established after the Soviet model.

After a series of failed attacks on major cities such as Guangzhou and Changsha, a bifurcated system gradually emerged: while clandestine struggles were fought in the cities where the nerve center of the movement still lay, Red Army bases sprouted in a few places in the countryside where traditional social control had deteriorated and a new mechanism was not in place. Particularly notable was the overlap of these bases with mountainous Hakka (“guest people”) areas in South China, where longstanding rift between the “locals” and the Hakka provided a fertile ground for the Communists to take root.5 In these bases, land reform was carried out to secure the support of poor peasants. Yet policies toward middle peasants fluctuated across time and varied across bases and were often implicated in “white scares” (fears of KMT infiltration) and internal purges. Among these bases, the mountainous south Jiangxi and west Fujian where Zhu De and Mao Zedong initially found shelter was the most consolidated and was declared the Central Soviet when the Communists established a formal Soviet government in November 1931 during the KMT’s crisis in the wake of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. By early 1934, the Central Soviet had control over 66 county seats in the border area between Jiangxi, Fujian, and Guangdong provinces.

Up until 1930, the communication between the rural bases and the Party Central was sporadic. The rural bases were either left to develop on their own or called upon to support urban insurgences. The Party’s power center still resided underground in Shanghai and occasionally in Moscow, where the sixth congress of the CCP was held due to the risk of convening so many people in cities in China. Urban clandestine activities had toughened up the rank and file but in most cases they were so unproductive in terms of expanding the Communist organizational clout that Liu Shaoqi would later accuse them of “adventurism” and “close-doorism.” Its labor movement—its alleged justification—dwindled and paled in comparison to the “yellow unions.” Defectors and dissent became a serious problem. Despite its endemic instabilities, the KMT’s state-building efforts during this period did bear fruit, including its rapidly expanding intelligence system led by the spymaster Dai Li. By January 1933, the CCP Party Central had found it impossible to operate in Shanghai and was forced to relocate to the Central Soviet. Its underground networks in major cities were all shattered by late 1934.

Despite this devastating failure, the Communists scored impressive success in ideological domains, which would pay off in the long run. The League of Left-Wing Writers, a Communist front organization established in 1930 and nominally headed by the preeminent writer Lu Xun, swayed the literary and artistic field leftward. Around the same time, the “Chinese social history debate” in the late 1920s and early 1930s galvanized the fields of social sciences and history, in which Marxism emerged as a formidable intellectual current. The plight of the peasantry had also attracted more attention than ever, giving the Communist experiment of land reform a curious if distant audience. Paradoxically then, by 1934, the Communists as visible organized action seemed to have virtually disappeared from the urban scene yet the ideological milieu had become ever more favorable.

When the Party Central relocated to the Central Soviet in January 1933, it had already undergone three rounds of leadership change, with the Soviet-trained Bo Gu and Zhang Wentian now in command and the seasoned Zhou Enlai having the most extensive control. A reshuffling of leadership in the Central Soviet government and military ensued. Although Mao retained his position as Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, he was divested of actual leadership roles in the government and the army, partly because of his implication in the white scare of the Futian Incident, which had led to the execution of thousands of his own comrades.6 By this point, the Communist movement had developed its four pillars—the party, the government, the military, and the mass organizations. Yet, it had barely managed to blend the hitherto bifurcated system before it was forced to evacuate from the Central Soviet on October 14, 1934, due to its failure to withstand Chiang Kai-shek’s fifth campaign to encircle and annihilate it (the first four campaigns were successfully repelled). Thus began the Long March as well as a new phase characterized by exploration, innovation, and openness.

All Roads Led to Yan’an: The Phase of Exploration and Innovation (1934–1940)

Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China was instrumental for casting a heroic image on the arduous resettlement journey known as the Long March and turning it into a metaphor of the Chinese people’s struggle. Not to diminish its accomplishment, the Long March was nevertheless driven less by grand visions than by the will to survive, facilitated by structural opportunities, and punctuated by strategic adjustments and disputes. After initial major battles in Hunan with Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, when the 80,000-men strong Communist forces were reduced to 30,000, direct military engagement became rare. In most instances, the Communists managed to survive between warlords in southwest China, who were more concerned with preserving their own forces and who with mutual understanding would let them pass with minimal fighting, and Chiang Kai-shek’s central government forces, who sought to penetrate into warlords’ turfs by chasing the Communists into these territories instead of destroying them once and for all. Most Communist casualties after Hunan, therefore, did not result from direct fighting but from extreme natural circumstances when crossing the snowy mountains and wild grasslands.

Two examples of strategic and organizational reshuffling occurred along the way. In January 1935, after the Communists reached the temporary haven of Zunyi, an enlarged Politburo meeting criticized the military strategies under Bo Gu and Otto Braun and incorporated Mao into the military command, assisting Zhou Enlai. The Politburo was also reorganized, with Zhang Wentian, a staunch ally of Mao, in charge and Mao becoming a standing member. For the first time, Mao was transformed from a guerrilla base developer and obtained influence on the overall direction of the movement. The second organizational change was Zhang Guotao’s demand for a larger share of power in August–September, after his stronger Fourth Front Army, retreating from Sichuan-Shaanxi Soviet base, finally met up with the debilitated First Front Army led directly by the Politburo. Now, after some concessions made to accommodate Zhang’s demand, disputes emerged between Mao and Zhang—the two most vocal military leaders—regarding the direction of their movement. While Mao and the Politburo majority decided to go north, Zhang insisted on going south with the Fourth Front Army and set up a separate Party Central. The First Front Army eventually reached an already existing Soviet base in Shaanxi whereas the Fourth was almost decimated, after which a small contingent survived to reach Shaanxi. Although the Zhang-Mao dispute was a major blow to the movement overall, one of its consequences was that Mao, because of his determination and assertiveness in standing up to Zhang, emerged as the main strategy maker.

When they arrived in Shaanxi in October 1935, the Chinese Communist leadership found a dramatically different national and international environment than a year ago, before the Long March. The Japanese attempt to encroach on north China instigated a tide of patriotic sentiment that would soon sweep the nation. The Communists were adept at taking advantage of this set of contingent events. Just two months earlier, Wang Ming had issued a declaration in the name of the CCP and called upon the nation to organize a united front to resist Japan, following the Communist International’s new policy (partly to forestall Japan’s attack on the Soviet Union). In this context, Chiang Kai-shek’s policy to exterminate the Communist forces before resisting Japan had little popularity. This turn of events pushed the Communist leadership to adopt a united front policy appealing to a wide public. They negotiated a secret truce with the KMT military units who were charged to eliminate them. And once students in Beiping (Beijing) took on street in December 1935 and galvanized a National Salvation Movement nationwide, party veterans like Liu Shaoqi were quickly sent in to rebuild clandestine networks and sway the movement. Edgar Snow’s visit to the Communists in Northern Shaanxi in 1936 and the widespread circulation of his account, Red Star Over China, further helped to win over public sympathy. Eventually, the positive role that the Communists played in the peaceful resolution of the coup in Xi’an in December 1936 helped to bring the Communists and the KMT back on the negotiation table, in order to fight Japan together in a second United Front.

From then on, the Communists regained some space for legal activities. Tens of thousands of leftist intellectuals and idealist youth poured into Yan’an and, from there, many went into Communist bases that were quickly sprouting behind enemy lines (the Japanese). Various cultural and artistic innovations to incorporate and speak to peasant cultures flourished. The loss of communication with the Communist International during the Long March helped to consolidate a leadership team who were able to coordinate with each other to make decisions closer to the dynamism on the ground and more independent from Moscow’s dictations. The independent spirit and local initiative of these years of guerilla warfare had yet to be replaced by the centralized Soviet nomenklatura system. The reorganization of the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia border region government (over which the Communists had control), tax reform, and interest reduction manifested advanced policies that were both progressive and flexible (combining state and private ownership). The battle of Wuhan saw the resurgence of the Communists’ enormous influence in urban social movements. And while there was clear disagreement between Mao and Wang Ming (the CCP leader who returned from Moscow in October 1937) regarding the scope of the United Front and the degree of the CCP’s autonomy in it, it was largely reckoned with in a spirit of civility and tolerance. Wang, following the Communist International’s prescription, pursued an “all through the United Front” policy, whereas Mao was distrustful of the KMT’s will to resist Japan and believed in a broader conception of the United Front in which the CCP had more autonomy and was able to draw more allies to pressure the KMT to stay in the war.7

One important way Mao ascended to his leading position was through establishing textual authority. Although Zhang Wentian was nominally the general secretary after Zunyi conference, Mao quickly took upon himself the seemingly tedious task of drafting directives, circulars, announcements, and telegrams. He usually took great care in the precise wording of these documents. Rarely can one find a political leader in world history who was more mindful of the politics of interpretation in bureaucratic communication and invested so much energy in it. It is also the reason why one of his objectives during the Yan’an Rectification Campaign (1942–1944) when he finally took full control of Party leadership, was the transformation of the “literary style” (wenfeng) of the CCP. Although he is often seen as a grand strategist with little patience for bureaucratic detail, his meticulousness in the wording of documents was a consistent feature throughout the rest of his life.8

When Mao was finally recognized as the Party’s core leader, with Stalin’s blessing, in the enlarged Central Committee plenary session in late 1938, his policy gained upper hand over Wang Ming’s. Yet the spirit of experiments and openness persisted. While the Japanese army was quickly advancing in major cities and along railways, they left behind rear areas largely unoccupied. The Communist and KMT guerilla forces quickly moved in. By early 1939, the Communists had control of large areas in north China, where they had set up functioning governments, as well as newly established bases and guerrilla zones where their control was less stable and exclusive. Scholars have debated about whether their success resulted from “peasant nationalism” in face of foreign aggression or from progressive socioeconomic reforms that materially benefited them. In reality, while both were important, it was their organizational hegemony forged in combining both that mattered.9 It was the struggle to consolidate and expand organizational hegemony that brought this experimentation to an end in the 1940s and which characterized the next phase of the movement.

The Communist Sun Also Arose: The Struggle for Hegemony (1940–1949)

After taking Wuhan, the Japanese began to make efforts to consolidate their rear areas. In early 1939, a series of military campaigns were launched to attack and contain Chinese guerilla forces. Local elites and powerful notables were sought after to set up “peace-maintaining” collaborator governments.10 Such a move quickly upset the Communist–KMT rapprochement, which so far had been able to coordinate action to fight Japan yet now had to scramble for diminishing territories and resources. Frictions thus ensued between them. By late 1940, those had developed into major military battles in central China. Negotiations broke down and eventually the KMT troops annihilated the 7,000-strong Communist New Fourth Army in south Anhui in January 1941.

The New Fourth Army incident had three major consequences that shaped the ethos and character of the Communist movement in the years to come. First, by foreclosing the possibility of direct cooperation between the Communists and the KMT, it seemed to vindicate Mao’s policy of autonomy in the United Front and lent him the authority to overhaul the Party’s strategic thinking and policy approach. Second, in openly defying the KMT, the Communists suffered from the latter’s retaliation, specifically military and economic blockades and the termination of subsidies, which made its openness no longer viable and resulted in severe economic hardships. The Communists resorted to tightening their internal control to confront the situation. Third, the public relation campaign in the aftermath of the incident to win over public sympathy and to accuse the KMT of internecine struggle initiated a strategic pattern of public flexibility and reasonableness to undercut the KMT’s support and sway public opinion, including among upper social strata. These twin efforts proved extremely effective over time.

The economic hardships were so severe that they began to shake peasant support as trade was disrupted and the tax burden increased in Communist-administered areas. The leadership thus launched the “great production movement” to ameliorate the condition. Some base areas even began to join in the illicit opium trade to survive. Coupled with this condition was the need to appeal to public opinion and win over upper classes from the KMT. This led to the strategy to tighten internally and soften externally (waikuan neijing). In other words, the Party needed to establish clear boundaries between the internal and external constituencies and enforce strict discipline in its own rank and file while externally projecting a liberal and open-minded image on its leadership. The goal was to exercise control over the politics of interpretation.

At this point, to outdo the KMT’s rising personality cult of Chiang Kai-shek as the savior of the nation, the CCP needed its own sun to shine. Through the New Fourth Army incident, Mao seemed to demonstrate his unrivaled wisdom. At this juncture, Liu Shaoqi provided crucial justification for major ideological revamping of the Party. According to him, because of the influx of individuals from diverse social backgrounds since 1937, the Party needed more intense internal ideological struggle to consolidate and strengthen its unity. Thus, during the Rectification Campaign of 1942–1944, Mao used his personal authority to revamp the Party by transforming the “three styles” (in party work, study, and writing). Through rituals of group study, mutual criticism, public confessions and self-criticism, and reconstruction of both individual and Party history (and persecutions for those who refused to give themselves up to group pressure), the campaign helped to ideologically tighten up the Party ranks internally while decentralizing practical decision making by giving local cadres greater latitude. Although it did not turn local cadres into selfless followers of the official ideological lines and there was always room for them to twist official policies for other purposes, the campaign did forge hegemony in intraparty discourse and communication. This resulted in clear boundaries from outside constituencies and projected a concerted image of the movement, with Mao as the benign and progressive leader.

Therefore, the Rectification Campaign and the accompanying rise of Mao’s personality cult was not just Mao’s personal contrivance, but was facilitated by structural circumstances and, in the process, began to be interpreted by many of his colleagues as an effective solution to the movement’s immediate structural problems. Nevertheless, the organizational mythology, ethos, and artifacts it generated gave an independent life to the Party, transcending the will and interests of all of its constituencies and social classes and being able to dispense with any when chance arose. In this sense, the analytical practice of reducing the movement to any of its constituencies, such as interpreting Chinese Communism as a peasant revolution, misses its most essential feature. And because the CCP’s organizational transcendence was so tied up with Mao’s personal authority, it would be a long and arduous—and in some sense still unfinished—process to disentangle them in the four decades to come.

Tightening up internally while engaging in a charm offensive externally gave enormous strategic advantage in a triadic conflict with Japan and the KMT. As the war dragged on, the Communists were gaining ground both locally in north and central China and nationally among educated urban elites. Toward the end of the war with Japan, the KMT was already losing public support. In contrast, the Communists now had effective front organizations and a united front with diverse social sectors. The incompetence and corruption of the KMT government was so blatant that even the US government sent the “Dixie Mission” to Yan’an in 1944 and considered providing aid to the Communists. When Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, the enmity between the KMT and CCP was so entrenched that both sides knew a showdown was impending. There were American efforts, under Patrick Hurley and George Marshall, to make peace between them, but those only occasioned disaffections from both sides.

Eventually, the truce broke down and small skirmishes escalated into all-out confrontations in early 1947. On one side, the Communists’ military discipline and land reform (whose excessive violence had to be reined in to prevent it from antagonizing the middle and rich peasants) proved generally popular. Their proposals of “New Democracy” and coalition government—while more strategic than sincere—were attractive to the urban political society. On the other side, corruption, failed currency reform, and a series of strategic blunders led to cascading disaffection with and defections from Chiang Kai-shek’s government. The rapid crumbling of the KMT military and government surprised even the Communists. It convinced them of the superiority of the Yan’an paradigm of synthesizing ideological justification of socialist transition and the extreme organizational flexibility of New Democracy to forge ideological hegemony. As they took over state power and monopolized it, tensions between ideological justification and organizational pragmatism began to be the major source of uncertainty, which would eventually manifest in the conflict between Mao and Liu Shaoqi—his right-hand man since Yan’an—whom he later accused of revisionism.

We can briefly illustrate the dominant ethos and their enabling environments in the following table:

Table 1. The Dominant Ethos and Its Enabling Environment in the Four Phases of the Chinese Communist Movement



Enabling Environment


Intellectuals-led social movement

Failing parliamentary politics, warlordism, youth patriotism and activism


Peasant soviets + urban clandestine activities

KMT’s white terror, state devolution in countryside


Exploration and openness

Military defeat and united front


Internal tightening and external softening

Triadic conflict structure with Japan and KMT, KMT crisis

Narrating the development of a movement often runs the risk of teleological construction, in which movement participants’ interests and identities are presumed to be stable and consistent and are often anachronistically attributed. Yet genuine existing movements are often as much shaped by their environments as they attempt to shape them. Moreover, this mutual constitution unfolds precisely through actors deploying collective symbols, inventing interactional rituals, and integrating rules of feeling, through which emergent interests and identities are created (as in the case of the Yan’an Rectification Campaign). When these cultural styles and repertoires are stabilized, the movement can be considered to have become an institution. There were many social movements active in the first two decades of republican China yet only the Chinese Communist movement came to dominance. Of course, many of the other movements never aimed to seize state power. Nevertheless, the trajectory of the Communist movement was stunning and was never predestined. Rather, it was the focus on the politics of interpretation—along with some lucky breaks and mistakes by their competitors—that contributed especially to the CCP’s ability to capitalize upon the opportunities and to survive the disasters that human error and contingent events brought upon them. This was even though, or perhaps precisely because, the Party’s very ideological foundation—historical materialism—adamantly denied its primacy in social change.

Thus, from a social movement steered by a loose intellectual vanguard, Chinese Communism managed to transform into an institution, the Party, which has become ontologically irreducible to its composite constituencies. Although the movement began with the vision of a group of intellectuals to transform society, it turned intellectuals into its victims as much as its participants, until after the Cultural Revolution, when it finally made peace with them, if only temporarily and in a limited fashion. It professed to be the proletariat’s movement, but the proletarian power was more on paper—as an expression of vanguardism—than in practice, given the visible lack of labor activist participation. It claimed that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun; yet it was the Party that commanded the gun and the gun was never allowed to command the Party. It drew its mandate heavily from the peasantry; yet the peasants had to be educated by the Party before they could make history. In each case, it resorted to formulas like “unity-struggle-unity” to ascertain its autonomy. Out of the movement thus grew a political party that transcended its composite constituencies and realized through collective symbols, interactional rituals, and rules of feeling, the amalgamation that amounted to what Franz Schurmann once called the CCP’s “practical ideology.”11 The current CCP leadership’s persistent efforts, in the midst of prevalent legitimation crises, to revive and uphold this practical ideology after three decades of attenuation invite more attention to its historical formation, both as a sociological interest and as a pertinent question for those in the general public who are concerned about the political future of China and the world.

Discussion of the Literature

The earliest literature on the Chinese Communist Movement came from participants and witnesses, whose accounts were implicated in its very dynamics. Examples include Chen Gongbo’s Communist Movement in China: An Essay Written in 1924 and Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China.12 Later, the CCP’s takeover in 1949 spurred the first wave of scholarship. In trying to explain the rise of the movement, historians produced classic works that examined in-depth the intellectual development of key leaders and contextualized it within the background of China’s intellectual history, whereas social scientists were mainly concerned with the dynamics of organizational control. Among the historians, Joseph Levenson’s Confucian China and Its Modern Fate, Benjamin Schwartz’s Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao, and Maurice Meisner’s Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism obtained lasting influence; whereas Franz Schurmann’s Ideology and Organization in Communist China represented the latter strand of literature.13 Scott Boorman’s The Protracted Game, which compared Maoist guerilla strategies with the game of Go, also falls into the latter category. While luminous, these works have their shortcomings: the focus on leaders is accomplished at the expense of necessary attention to grassroots social forces that leaders responded to; the dynamics of organizational expansion and control are often interpreted teleologically as the inevitable unfolding of successful strategic maneuvers or of “modernization.”

The 1960s saw a new generation of scholarship. In 1962, Charmers Johnson published his Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937–1945, in which he made the polemical case that the success of the movement thrived on the surge of peasant nationalism in face of Japanese invasion, which the CCP was able to tap into.14 The connection this book drew between peasant nationalism and Communist ascendance struck a sensitive chord in cold war politics and partly explained the widespread interest this book attracted. Yet in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China, Mark Selden argued instead that it was not nationalist ideology but socioeconomic policies (such as land reforms and tax and rent reduction) that explained peasants’ support for the CCP.15 This debate proved one of the most fruitful in social science studies of China and has inspired new works that also emphasized organizational strength, such as Chen Yung-fa’s Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937–1945 and Tetsuya Kataoka’s Resistance and Revolution in China.16 Lyman P. Van Slyke’s Enemies and Friends: United Front in Chinese Communist History expanded this narrow focus on the peasantry to examine the CCP’s strategic interactions with a wide range of social groups, especially the upper social strata.17 The issue of gender also came to prominence in this juncture. Judith Stacey’s Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China in China provided a compelling sociological explanation for why the Communist movement capitalized on the struggle for women’s emancipation while compromising it in many aspects as well.18

Since China’s reform and opening up in the late 1970s, the studies of the Communist movement have gradually lost their centrality among social scientists, who abandoned it for more contemporary topics, with only very few exceptions (e.g., Elizabeth Perry’s studies of Communist-influenced labor movements in Anyuan and Shanghai on Strike, and Xu’s sociological study of the movement’s organizational emergence).19 Meanwhile, the increased access to Chinese historical materials and Chinese historians have provided new impetus for foreign historians to deepen their pivot toward social history by situating the movement firmly in the local socioeconomic and political ecologies it interacted with.20 And the methodological toolkits have also greatly expanded. For example, Ralph Thaxton has used oral history to enrich the historical studies of the causes of peasant support and argued that paradoxically it was the KMT’s suppression of peasants’ market rights that provided rooms for the CCP to attract the support of local protesters and coopt them.21

The study of the origins of the movement has also blossomed due to the greater knowledge of the organizational environment from which it emerged and to the declassification of the Soviet archives. A number of fruitful studies of the complex organizational terrains that the nascent movement was embedded in have emerged.22 Ishikawa and Pantsov have used the Soviet archives and charted the connection between international contexts and local organizational formation.23 Biographical studies of early participants have also enhanced our understanding of the rise of the CCP by connecting social ecologies and individual conversion to and struggle in the movement.24

Looking ahead, there are two little-trodden areas of research that historians and social scientists may explore in the future. One area is cultural analysis. The linguistic and cultural turn that has invigorated history and social sciences in the past three decades, including within the historiography of the French Revolution, has made little headway in the scholarship on the Chinese Communist Movement (see Apter and Saich for a notable effort).25 Of course, studies of the movement’s cultural production abound (for example, the reform of yangge folk dance in Holm 1990) yet they tend to be pursued segmentally. There is a lack of incorporating cultural analysis in understanding the central organizational dynamics of the movement. Yet, as I suggest above, politics of interpretation is essential to the growth of the Communist power. Efforts are needed to integrate cultural history, political history, and socioeconomic history to understand and explain the CCP’s origins and growth. The other area of research is comparative research on the movement’s developments in different locales. While local history is a burgeoning enterprise partly due to the trend in the history profession and partly due to the easier access to local archives, there is a need to systematically bring these local studies in comparison with each other. Some key debates in the field, such as the Johnson-Selden debate, have a lot to do with the different guerilla bases they examined. Cross-sectional studies of regional variations would help to advance our understanding of the movement’s overall picture in ways that the current sporadic and ad hoc comparisons have not delivered.

Primary Sources

Primary sources of the movement can be generally obtained through two ways: archives and published compilations of primary materials. Inside China, access to archives varies greatly according to their administrative level. The Central Archives, which hold the richest materials on the movement, are closed to most Chinese and all foreign researchers. Provincial archives, once being open (at varying degrees), have increased restrictions in the last few years. For example, the Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region Government archives, which are housed in the Shaanxi Provincial Archives in Xi’an and are the base for some excellent studies in the past three decades, are known to have now become virtually inaccessible. Local archives such as city archives and county archives have been less affected by this tightening of control. And local archivists are usually less suspicious about researchers requesting pre-1949 materials than those requesting post-1949 materials. In that sense, local historians still have more leeway to carry out their research, although the guanxi skills required for navigating Chinese local archives are necessary all the same. For detailed information about these local archives, readers are encouraged to consult Ye Wa and Joseph W. Esherick’s Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide (1996).26

Outside Mainland China, there are still a few worthy destinations for archival research. The Bureau of Investigation Archives in Taipei contains extensive collections of internal documents of the Chinese Communist movement that the KMT intelligence agencies seized in raids or obtained from defectors. Its collection of Communist publications is also immense. In addition, the archives include KMT intelligence reports that offer informative glimpses into CCP activities. Russian readers can also visit the Communist International Archives in Moscow, although most of its archives have been digitalized, and are available on CDs and accessible online through a paid subscription. In North America, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies collections in Fung Library and the Harvard-Yenching Library at Harvard University hold some of the best collections of the CCP newspapers and publications (including internal ones) in the world. In addition, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University house a great amount of materials related to the Chinese Communist Movement, including personal papers of important Communist activists such as Peng Shuzi (later a Trotskyist) and witnesses such as Edgar Snow’s wife Helen P. Snow.

In compensation for the lack of archival access in China, researchers can rely on the published compilations of primary sources that are compiled by Chinese archives and party historians. There are four major types in these compilations. The first is compilations of the CCP party center sources carried out by the Central Archives. It includes internal document series like Selections of the CCP Central Party Documents (zhonggong zhongyang wenjian xuanji) and series like CCP History Materials (zhonggong dangshi ziliao) that mainly focus on memoirs, recollections, less essential documents and secondary studies. The second type of primary sources is drawn from provincial and local archives and provides quite extensive materials on local government and party works in the guerrilla bases and border region governments. The third type is compilations of functional archives—such as military, organization, youth, women’s work, etc.—drawn from related functional units. The fourth type comprises compilations centered on particular historical events, often resulting from the collaboration of the Central Archives and relevant local and functional archives (for example, documents related to the New Fourth Army Incident).

In addition, autobiographies, memoirs and recollections are an important source for researchers. The CCP has an intricate policy regulating the publications of party leaders and cadres’ recollections. And individuals also have the incentive to cast a new light onto themselves other than what current history would warrant. Nevertheless, these recollections, some published as monographs and others appearing party history journals, often humanize the movement’s dynamics and can be highly informative in conjunction with historical documents.

Further Reading

Apter, David Ernest, and Tony Saich. Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Averill, Stephen C. Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.Find this resource:

Chen, Yung-fa. Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Dirlik, Arif. The Origins of Chinese Communism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Esherick, Joseph W. “Ten Theses on the Chinese Revolution.” Modern China 21, no. 1 (1995): 45–76.Find this resource:

Feng, Chongyi, and David S. G. Goodman. North China at War: The Social Ecology of Revolution, 1937–1945. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.Find this resource:

Ishikawa, Yoshihiro. The Formation of the Chinese Communist Party. Translated by Joshua A. Vogel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Johnson, Charmers. A. Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937–1945. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.Find this resource:

Keating, Pauline B. Two Revolutions: Village Reconstruction and the Cooperative Movement in Northern Shaanxi, 1934–1945. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Meisner, Maurice. Li Ta-Chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.Find this resource:

Pantsov, Alexander. The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919–1927. New York: Routledge, 2013.Find this resource:

Perry, Elizabeth J. Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Saich, Tony, and Hans J. Van de Ven New Perspectives on the Chinese Communist Revolution. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995.Find this resource:

Schoppa, R. Keith. Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Schurmann, Franz. Ideology and Organization in Communist China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Schwartz, Benjamin. Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.Find this resource:

Selden, Mark. The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.Find this resource:

Snow, Edgar. Red Star over China. New York: Grove Press, 1968.Find this resource:

Stacey, Judith. Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Thaxton, Ralph. Salt of the Earth: The Political Origins of Peasant Protest and Communist Revolution in China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Van de Ven, Hans J. From Friend to Comrade: The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, 1920–1927. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.Find this resource:

van Slyke, Lyman P. Enemies and Friends: The United Front in Chinese Communist History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967.Find this resource:

Xu, Xiaohong. “Belonging Before Believing Group Ethos and Bloc Recruitment in the Making of Chinese Communism.” American Sociological Review, 78, no. 5 (2013): 773–796.Find this resource:

Yeh, Wen-hsin. Provincial Passages: Culture, Space, and the Origins of Chinese Communism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.Find this resource:


(1.) Perry Anderson, “Two Revolutions,” New Left Review 61, no. 1 (2010): 59–96.

(2.) Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

(3.) Xiaohong Xhu, “Belonging Before Believing Group Ethos and Bloc Recruitment in the Making of Chinese Communism,” American Sociological Review, 78, no. 5 (2013): 773–796. Also Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

(4.) Jeff Goodwin, “The Libidinal Constitution of a High-Risk Social Movement: Affectual Ties and Solidarity in the Huk Rebellion, 1946 to 1954,” American Sociological Review 62, no. 1 (February 1, 1997): 53–69.

(5.) Stephen C. Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). Also, Mary S. Erbaugh, “The Secret History of the Hakkas: The Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise,” The China Quarterly 132 (1992): 937–968.

(6.) Stephen C. Averill, “The Origins of the Futian Incident,” in New Perspectives on the Chinese Communist Revolution, eds. Tony Saich and Hans J. Van de Ven (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995), 79–115.

(7.) The CCP’s official account would later interpret this disagreement as a line struggle between the correct Mao and right deviationist Wang Ming. Yet the idea that history proved Mao to be correct is overplayed in that, unlike in a controlled experiment, the disagreement itself influenced the outcome: Mao’s aggressive policy of pursuing autonomy had the effect of provoking the KMT’s pushback and thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also notable was the role of contingent events, especially the KMT’s disbandment of mass organizations during the battle of Wuhan that Wang Ming was organizing, in anticipation of the strategic retreatment from the city to Chongqing.

(8.) The relationship between textuality and authority in Chinese Communism has received scant attention. For an exception that looks an earlier period, see Hans J. Van de Ven, “The Emergence of the Text-Centered Party,” in New Perspectives on the Chinese Communist Revolution, eds. Tony Saich and Hans J. Van de Ven (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995), 5–32.

(9.) Mark Selden, The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971); Yung-fa Chen, Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); and Chongyi Feng and David S. G. Goodman, North China at War: The Social Ecology of Revolution, 1937–1945 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

(10.) David S. G. Goodman, “Reinterpreting the Sino–Japanese War: 1939–1940: Peasant Mobilisation, and the Road to the PRC,” Journal of Contemporary China 22, no. 79 (2013): 166–184.

(11.) Franz Schurmann, Ideology and Organization in Communist China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).

(12.) Chen Gongbo, Communist Movement in China: An Essay Written in 1924 (New York: Octagon, 1960). Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China (New York: Grove Press, 1968 [1936]).

(13.) Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate (London: Routledge, 1958). Benjamin Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1951). Maurice Meisner, Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967). Franz Schurmann, Ideology and Organization in Communist China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).

(14.) Charmers Johnson, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937–1945 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962).

(15.) Mark Selden, The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

(16.) Chen Yung-fa, Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). Tetsuya Kataoka, Resistance and Revolution in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).

(17.) Lyman P. Van Slyke, Enemies and Friends: United Front in Chinese Communist History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967).

(18.) Judith Stacey, Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

(19.) Xu, “Belonging Before Believing Group Ethos and Bloc Recruitment in the Making of Chinese Communism.” Elizabeth Perry, Anyuan (Berkeley: University of California, 2012). Elizabeth Perry, Shanghai on Strike (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).

(20.) Keating, Pauline B., Two Revolutions: Village Reconstruction and the Cooperative Movement in Northern Shaanxi, 1934–1945 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997). Feng and Goodman, North China at War. Averill, Revolution in the Highlands.

(21.) Ralph Thaxton, Salt of the Earth: The Political Origins of Peasant Protest and Communist Revolution in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

(22.) Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism. Van de Ven, Hans J., From Friend to Comrade: The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, 1920–1927 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). Xu, “Belonging Before Believing Group Ethos and Bloc Recruitment in the Making of Chinese Communism.”

(23.) Yoshihiro Ishikawa, The Formation of the Chinese Communist Party. Translated by Joshua A. Vogel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). Alexander Pantsov, The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919–1927 (New York: Routledge, 2013).

(24.) Keith R. Schoppa, Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). Wen-hsin Yeh, Provincial Passages: Culture, Space, and the Origins of Chinese Communism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

(25.) David Ernest Apter, and Tony Saich, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

(26.) Ye Wa and Joseph W. Esherick, Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).