Conditions in China, as well as directions from the Communist International in Moscow, led to the establishment of a formal alliance between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party in January 1924, which required reconciliation to the nationalist agenda and less emphasis on the socialist goals of the Party. The alliance enabled the CCP to grow rapidly; its membership expanded from 500 in 1924 to 58,000 in 1927 (Meisner, 1999:21-25).
The CCP-Nationalist alliance was uneasy, because the Nationalists sought national unity and a form of independence that accommodated to Western interests, whereas the CCP sought full sovereignty that would permit a social transformation emancipating workers from factory owners and peasants from landlords. Acting in accordance with this conflict over political goals, the Nationalist Army, led by Chiang Kai-shek, unleashed a bloody repression of the CCP and their affiliated workers’ organizations and peasant associations in 1927. The membership of the CCP was reduced to 10,000, with its leaders and members scattered and disorganized (Meisner, 1999:25-27).
Inasmuch as the CCP had been crushed by military force, surviving CCP leaders concluded that the revolution had to include a strategy of military struggle. In October 1927, Mao Zadong, who had been a member of the Party from the beginning, led the remnants of a defeated military force to a remote mountain area, and a force led by Zhu De joined them in 1928. Through the recruitment of local peasants on the basis of a proposed radical program of land redistribution, the Mao-Zhu army grew in numbers, such that by 1931 it had attained military predominance in the southern part of the Southern province of Jiangxi, where the Chinese Soviet Republic was proclaimed. From 1931 to 1934, the Chinese Soviet Republic implemented a land reform program, and it successfully administered a territory of 15,000 square miles with a population of three million (Meisner, 1999:28, 31-33).
The Chinese Soviet Republic was conquered by the Nationalist Army in the fall of 1934, forcing the Communists to abandon their base. In October 1934, Mao led 80,000 men (and 35 women) in a trek to the North, in what later would be celebrated as “the Long March.” Fewer than 10,000 survived the 6,000-mile, yearlong ordeal, which included regular battles with Nationalist troops and warlord armies. But a remnant did reach the northern province of Shaanxi in October 1935, and other forces soon joined it, such that by late 1936 the Red Army numbered 30,000, which, however, was much smaller then Nationalist forces (Meisner, 1999:33-36).
The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 greatly benefitted the communist cause. The Nationalist Army was forced by the advancing Japanese army to abandon the major cities and retreat to the west; and in the countryside, the landlord gentry class, allied with the nationalist government, fled to the cities. Meisner writes:
The Communists, already experienced in working in the villages and adept at guerrilla warfare, were given access to vast areas of the countryside. For while the Japanese invaders were able to occupy the cities, they did not have the manpower to effectively control the rural areas, where Communist guerrilla bases multiplied rapidly during the war years. The retreat of [Nationalist] forces to the west, and the collapse of Nationalist governmental authority in much of China, allowed the Communists to break out of their remote sanctuary in Shaanxi and expand their military and political influence through vast areas of the countryside in northern and central China (Meisner, 1999:38).
The Sino-Japanese War of 1937 to 1945 established the basis for an uneasy truce between the CCP and the Nationalist government, based on common opposition to Japanese occupation. When the Allied victory in World War II ended the occupation, civil war broke out in China. The Nationalists had four times as many soldiers as the Communists, and the Nationalists possessed superiority in military technology, mostly supplied by the United States. However, the Communists enjoyed much more popular support, as a result of its patriotic resistance to the Japanese occupation and its land reform program (Meisner, 1999:50).
Popular support facilitated a relatively rapid victory for the Communists. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zadong arrived in Beijing to proclaim the People’s Republic of China. So began a rapid transition to socialism, as we will see in the next post.
Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Third Edition. New York: The Free Press.