By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
At first, when the Red Army was still at an infant stage, it numbered no more than a few thousand tattered soldiers, only one-fifth of whom possessed rifles. Not content merely to sit back and watch, however, the growing influence of Mao Zedong and the other Red Army leaders, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, was particularly visible.
Mao’s Views on Revolution
In the spring of 1927, Mao, while on an inspection visit to his native Hunan Province, had written a remarkable essay in which he urged his comrades to pay close attention to the revolutionary anger of China’s poor peasants.
In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants, and evil gentry into their graves.
(Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Zedong, Page 30).
To those who argued that Mao’s ideas amounted to giving China’s crude and backward peasants carte blanche to slaughter landlords, gentry, and government officials willy-nilly, Mao responded:
A revolution is not a dinner party or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.
Learn more about Mao’s economic program in China.
The Unorthodox Views of Mao
At the time these lines were written, they did not sit well with the CCP’s Bolshevik patrons. According to Marx and Lenin, a socialist revolution was an insurrection of the urban proletariat, the industrial working class.
Neither Marx, Lenin, nor Stalin, believed that peasants had the innate capacity to perceive their own objective class interests, let alone grasp the fundamental truth that it was the system of private land ownership itself that was the real enemy, not merely rapacious local landlords.
Only the working class possessed the capacity for such sophisticated consciousness. At best, they argued, peasants could merely serve as auxiliaries of the proletariat, but never, ever as its leading force.
But Mao disagreed. “Without the poor peasants there will be no revolution,” he wrote prophetically. Mao’s unorthodox views led him to be censured by his superiors within the Communist Party.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, Wondrium
Mao and the 1927 Coup
Indeed, had it not been for Chiang Kai-Shek’s bloody coup of April 1927, Mao might have lived out his life in relative obscurity, forever labeled as something of a rabble-rousing heretic. But with the brutal destruction of the party’s urban working-class base, Mao got his big chance; and he seized it with both hands.
According to a recent, controversial biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, titled Mao: The Unknown Story, Mao set out single-mindedly to grasp supreme power in the Communist Party’s Jinggang Mountain stronghold.
Skillfully playing his more senior CCP comrades off against one other, he was able to scheme, conspire, betray and blackmail his way to ultimate power. Although this is probably something of an overstatement, there can be little doubt about Mao’s single-minded determination or his ruthlessness.
Nor can there be any doubt of his independence of mind. Ensconced in his Jinggang Mountain hideaway with a force of perhaps 10,000 worker-peasant soldiers and a land area encompassing about 200 square miles, including maybe half a dozen villages, Mao was now free to do his thing.
The Uphill Battle for the Red Army
The Red Army’s existence was precarious, and its survival was hardly assured. A series of armed engagements with local bandits and remnant warlord forces made life very difficult for Mao and his colleagues. By the middle of 1928, things were looking quite bleak, as Mao’s forces were attacked by pursuing units of the Guomindang.
By the end of the year, the Red Army had been forced to abandon its Jinggang Mountain base, moving steadily eastward toward the border between Jiangxi and Fujian. There they made their headquarters in the town of Ruijin where, a short time later, they declared the birth of a new revolutionary government, the Jiangxi Soviet Republic.
The Fish in Water Theory
Recognizing that to wage a successful people’s war it was necessary to gain the support of the civilian population in the Red Army’s base area, Mao and Zhu De formulated an approach to civil-military relations known as the “fish in water” theory.
In this formulation, Red Army guerrilla fighters were the fish; while the peasant population in the base area was the water. Only by carefully cultivating the hearts and minds of the peasants through benevolent treatment, patient persuasion, and leadership by example, could the Red Army fish swim safely in the village water.
Learn more about the influence of Soviet communism in China.
Mao’s Land Reform
In a further effort to build a mass base of peasant support for the Communist cause, Mao introduced a program under which Red Army soldiers, when not engaged in combat, would perform various civilian functions such as farmers, teachers, militia organizers, and local administrators.
More importantly, in the early 1930s, Mao launched on an experimental basis what was later to become his signature social program: land reform. Under this program, all farmland and associated property belonging to wealthy landlords and members of the rural gentry were to be confiscated and redistributed to the poor and landless peasants. For the first time, Sun Yat-Sen’s revolutionary slogan of “land to the tiller” was being translated into a concrete program of social action in rural China, ironically by the Communists.
Common Questions about the Red Army and the Growing Influence of Mao
Mao Zedong believed that “a revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another”.
Mao saw the potential in the peasants. Neither Marx, Lenin, nor Stalin, believed that peasants had the innate capacity to perceive their own objective class interests, let alone grasp the fundamental truth that it was the system of private land ownership itself that was the real enemy.
The theory was developed by Mao and Zhe Du to gain the support of the civilian population in the Red Army’s base area. Only by carefully cultivating the hearts and minds of the peasants through benevolent treatment, patient persuasion, and leadership by example, could the Red Army fish swim safely in the village water.