100 Years of the Chinese Communist Party

The Chinese Communist Party turns 100 as a party of power in one of the world’s most important states. It’s been a long road from the CCP’s early years as a band of revolutionary outlaws that narrowly escaped obliteration by its enemies.

Mao Zedong addressing a group of his followers during the Chinese Civil War in 1944. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

This year, the ninety-one million members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are celebrating the centenary of the party’s First Congress in July 1921, which was attended by just twelve delegates from seven regions, and which claimed to represent a national membership of fifty-three.

The First Congress has served as a founding myth for the CCP — not least because of the presence of Mao Zedong, who through the 1920s was a second-ranking leader of the party. The myth has undergone readjustment in the light of political events: for example, Chen Duxiu, elected the party’s first general secretary, was later expelled, and became a Trotskyist; around half the founding delegates subsequently left the party; and the role of the Soviet-controlled Comintern in bringing about the congress was a rather sore issue.

A hundred years on, it is a good moment to look at the creation of the CCP and at the first phase of its history, when the party was in a united front with the Nationalist Party (Guomindang), and principally oriented toward organizing the working class. The national revolution that got underway between 1925 and 1927 largely reunified the country. The CCP and the left wing of the Guomindang (GMD) carried out a substantial mobilization of workers, peasants, young people, and women in the areas liberated by the National Revolutionary Army (NRA).

However, the threat of social revolution posed by the mass movements pushed the NRA’s commander-in-chief Chiang Kai-shek into mercilessly crushing his Communist allies from April 1927. A battered CCP was lucky to survive and had to make a new start in the remote countryside of southwest China.

China’s First Revolution

In 1911, a revolution had overthrown the Qing dynasty and established a republic under the presidency of Yuan Shikai. The revolutionary government failed to establish viable parliamentary institutions or to stem the tide of provincialism and militarism. A dismal symptom of its failure was the attempt by Yuan, an erstwhile military reformer, to make himself emperor in 1915.

Disenchanted with politics as a mode of reversing China’s decline, a group of radicals, led by Chen Duxiu, looked to culture as the arena in which China could be saved from “national extinction.” In 1915, Chen founded the journal, Youth, which became the mouthpiece of the New Culture Movement. This lambasted the Confucian tradition for its subordination of the individual to the patriarchal family and urged that a new, Westernized culture be forged, rooted in science and democracy.

In 1919, New Culture intellectuals greatly expanded their audience when the May Fourth Movement arose after the patriotic Chinese public learned that the peacemakers in Versailles intended to transfer German privileges in China to Japan. In Beijing, students took to the streets to demand the removal of the “national traitors,” i.e. the pro-Japanese ministers in the government, which had become the plaything of rival warlord factions. Students, merchants, and, for the first time, workers mobilized to denounce this latest instance of “national humiliation” through a general stoppage and boycott of foreign goods.

The May Fourth Movement brought home to the nationalist public the unavoidability of politics. The GMD, led by Sun Yat-sen, revived. Young radicals, many from declining gentry families but with an education in modern schools, set up journals and study societies to discuss ideologies as varied as anarchism, liberalism, Marxism, state socialism, guild socialism, constitutionalism, and the educational theories of John Dewey, in order to work out how to save China.

Interest in the Russian Revolution was widespread, sparked by the Bolshevik government’s renunciation of tsarist privileges in China in 1918, an act that Chiang Kai-shek could still refer to forty years later as “the noblest move in the annals of international relations.” Those attracted by the Bolshevik Revolution were drawn variously by the opposition of the Bolsheviks to imperialism, their commitment to world revolution, their apparent elimination of capitalism (a system which most radicals thought China could avoid), and, not least, by the model of a strong, centralized party and the ideal of proletarian dictatorship.

Significantly, these elements seemed to promise an escape from the feeble, squabbling organizations that dominated politics. It is perhaps significant that between 1919 and 1927, more than thirty of Lenin’s works were translated into Chinese, compared with only ten by Marx.

Birth of the CCP

Despite this interest in the Russian Revolution, no CCP would have come into being without the intervention of the Communist or Third International — Comintern for short — founded by the Soviet government in 1919. Crucial was the arrival in Beijing in April 1920 of a group of Russians led by twenty-seven-year-old Grigori Voitinskii, who had been a member of the Socialist Party in the United States from 1913 to 1920.

He made contact with Li Dazhao, a prominent New Culture intellectual at Peking University, who put him in touch with Chen Duxiu in Shanghai. Together with Voitinskii, he helped set up a Socialist Youth League in the city in August and a foreign languages school to recruit promising youngsters to go to Russia for political training.

Around November, a Shanghai Revolutionary Bureau was set up, which may be seen as the true foundation of the CCP. However, the departure of Voitinskii in December, along with that of Chen Duxiu, who took up a position in the putatively socialist government of warlord Chen Jiongming in Canton, deprived the Shanghai “small group” of leadership. By spring 1921, many young socialists had set off for the Soviet Union, Japan, or France. Among the sixteen hundred who signed up for a work-study scheme in France between 1919 and 1921 were Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

Urgent preparations for a congress did not resume until June 1921 with the arrival of a new Comintern envoy, Maring, whose real name was Hendricus Sneevliet. Maring, a Dutch trade unionist, had a history of militant involvement in the struggle against colonial rule in the Dutch East Indies from 1913 to 1919. It was he who provided the driving force and finance to summon the First Congress, which opened on July 23 in the French Concession of Shanghai. Along with the twelve (initially thirteen) official delegates, Maring and V. A. Nikol’skii, soon representative of the Red International of Trade Unions, were in attendance.

It was probably the presence of Maring and Nikol’skii that tipped off the French Concession police, who raided the gathering, forcing the seventh and final session to be held a hundred kilometers south of Shanghai on a lake near Jiaxing. Significantly, neither Chen Duxiu nor Li Dazhao was among the delegates, and only three of the twelve would be present at the Second Congress of the CCP the following year.

Some mystery surrounds the political resolutions passed by the Congress, for those resolutions favored a struggle for proletarian dictatorship rather than the strategy of national liberation set out in the “Theses on the National and Colonial Question” that the Comintern’s Second Congress had adopted in July 1920. The Comintern theses, although they had inspired some controversy, outlined a blueprint for a two-stage revolution in the colonial and semi-colonial world. During the bourgeois-democratic stage, when the priority was to achieve national sovereignty, Communists were to support bourgeois nationalist leaders while preserving their political independence.

For whatever reason, Maring, who had been present at the Congress, failed to communicate this strategy to the Chinese Communists, who were probably influenced by what they had read of Communism in English-language publications. The Congress also ruled out any kind of alliance with the GMD. Such divergence from the Comintern line could not be tolerated for long.

Bloc Within

In summer 1922, in the course of talks with Sun Yat-sen, Maring resolved that the Communists should join the GMD, and acceded to Sun’s demand that that they join as individuals. The Dutchman was impressed by the support that the GMD had given to the Hong Kong seamen’s strike earlier in the year. The Second Congress of the CCP in July 1922, while reluctantly endorsing joint action with the GMD, strenuously opposed this “bloc within” strategy. But Sun and Maring were convinced that China could only be reunified through a single, centralized party, backed by a strong army.

The wholesale military, political and ideological reorganization of the GMD thus began under the auspices of Mikhail Borodin, who arrived in Canton in October 1923. The GMD now adopted a highly centralized structure. However, as the Chinese understood better than Moscow, power was chiefly brokered in the organization through personal networks rather than formal structures and conferences, and a powerful anti-Communist grouping existed within the GMD.

More importantly, the Soviet government put a large amount of money, expertise, and equipment into creating the NRA. Between 1924 and 1926, Soviet advisors supervised the training of more than six thousand officers at the Whampoa (Huangpu) Military Academy. Moscow’s priorities were evinced by the fact that the GMD received ten times more financial support than the CCP in the years up to 1927.

The strategy of Moscow — increasingly formulated by Stalin’s faction, which was rising to dominance — was for the CCP to radicalize the GMD from within: “to build the left, to unite with the centre, and to attack the right.” Ultimately, the strategy would prove disastrous, but one should not assume that it brought no benefit to the CCP. In some sectors of the nationalist movement, such as the student and women’s movements, the two parties cooperated fairly happily. In Guangdong and areas that came under the control of the GMD, the NRA provided political and military protection for labor and peasant organizing.

Yet the CCP was caught in a dilemma: its mass-mobilizing activities heightened its influence and led to workers joining the party, but those activities also greatly exacerbated tension with the right wing of the GMD. On three occasions, Chen Duxiu begged Moscow for an end to the bloc within and a looser form of alliance.

Working-Class Mobilization

The working class in China was tiny, although it had grown from about 1.5 million in 1919 to three million by the mid-1920s. The young militants of the Socialist Youth League and the CCP showed great ingenuity in making contact with workers, but their early efforts at creating trade unions came to grief when the northern warlord Wu Peifu smashed the Beijing-Hankou railway union in February 1923. The breakthrough for the Left only came in 1925.

In spring of that year, persistent unrest in the Japanese mills in Shanghai led to a worker being killed. On May 30, a demonstration took place which ended with the International Settlement police shooting and killing twelve protesters and injuring seventeen. Such violence on the part of the foreign powers was not without precedent, yet it proved to be a turning point in the fortunes of imperialism. It triggered a general strike, the closure of schools, colleges, shops, banks, and other businesses, and a renewal of the boycott of foreign goods.

In Hong Kong, workers went on sympathy strike, and police met a demonstration in nearby Canton on June 23 with a hail of gunfire as it reached the foreign concessions: fifty-two protesters were killed and more than a hundred wounded. The strike-cum-boycott in the South would last sixteen months — one of the longest in the history of the global labor movement — and cause serious damage to British business. Workers now came to the fore of the anti-imperialist movement nationwide — something that would not happen again.

The CCP helped strikers formulate ambitious wage demands, organize pickets, and create trade unions. As a result, the All-China General Union grew from 540,000 members in May 1925, to 1.24 million members in May 1926 and 2.8 million by June 1927. Powerful though this labor movement was, the CCP-backed unions never succeeded in displacing particularistic ties within the workforce based on secret societies, one’s place of birth, or clientelist ties with labor contractors and foremen.

Moreover, the May Thirtieth Movement was not a straightforward class movement, its most radical demand being for the abrogation of the unequal treaties. Strikes could be sustained for long periods because they were funded in part by Chinese businessmen, who became nervous whenever conflict spilled over from British and Japanese firms into native ones. The CCP cleverly promoted a rendition of national identity that cast the Chinese nation as a victim of imperialism and aligned its liberation with the struggles of workers and peasants for justice.

From July 1926, the NRA began its northern expedition to eliminate or co-opt warlords. By December, a government in Wuhan had been established that was under the control of the GMD left wing. As the army advanced, Communists and left GMD members busily established peasant associations and trade unions in its wake.

By spring 1927, some fifteen million peasants in south and central China had joined associations, posing a threat to the power of the gentry, lineages, bandits, and Triads that controlled rural affairs. Pressure now mounted on Chiang Kai-shek to curb the Left from his gentry and merchant backers and from senior officers. He thus refused to recognize the Wuhan government.

Disaster in Shanghai

As the NRA edged closer to Shanghai, the CCP began to prepare an uprising aimed at defeating the warlord forces that controlled the Chinese areas of the city. They hoped to liberate the city in advance of the NRA’s arrival with a view to strengthening the position of the Left. In a four-day strike from February 19 to 22, 1927, 420,970 industrial and commercial employees halted work — a larger number than had taken part in the May Thirtieth Movement.

However, the attempt by the CCP to seize power in the city backfired. On February 23, it thus formed a special committee, chaired by Chen Duxiu, which tasked Zhou Enlai with training an effective armed militia. But right-wing GMD members in the city were now organizing politically and militarily to resist the CCP. In a desperate attempt to forestall a split in the united front, Moscow ordered the CCP to refrain from any public criticism of Chiang Kai-shek, who was widely seen as the personification of the national revolution.

By March 18, the NRA was camped about thirty kilometers south of Shanghai. The CCP resolved that a general stoppage and an armed uprising should commence on March 21. On that day, eight hundred thousand people were reported to have stopped work, closed their businesses, or left school to demonstrate their support for the NRA. The British authorities in the International Settlement were alarmed enough to order troops to disembark from the thirty to forty warships anchored in the river.

The workers’ militias, with some belated assistance from a progressive general in the NRA, expelled the warlord forces from Shanghai, and on March 22, an exultant citizens’ assembly declared the city liberated. The leaders laid plans to form a radical municipal government and legalized the Shanghai General Labour Union, which now claimed 821,280 members. On March 26, vast crowds poured into the streets to welcome the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek.

Ominously, his first meeting was with a leader of the main secret society in the city, the Green Gang, who was also chief detective in the French Concession police. The two men agreed that the secret societies should be mobilized to crush the workers’ militia. Still hoping to avoid a rupture in the alliance, the Comintern ordered the Communists to hide their weapons — an order that the Shanghai comrades ignored. On the night of April 11, the secret societies struck, systematically liquidating the workers’ militia.

Amazingly, heedless of the terror, workers went on strike and the nationalist public mounted protests. However, this was only the beginning of the suppression of the Left. By April 15, the General Labour Union announced that three hundred trade unionists had been killed, with more than five hundred arrested and five thousand missing. This proved to be the first act in a bloodbath that quickly spread into other regions and almost wiped out the CCP.

Reinventing the CCP

By the time the Fifth CCP Congress opened in Wuhan on April 27, 1927, membership stood at 57,967, although most of these had joined since the start of 1927. About half the membership were workers, especially young men with a few years’ employment in the cotton mills. The membership was overwhelmingly youthful.

The CCP, as the inheritor of the New Culture Movement’s commitment to women’s liberation, had invested greater energy in the feminist movement than the pre-revolutionary Bolshevik party. Yet while there were some outstanding women leaders, the CCP was still an overwhelmingly male party. Just over 8 percent of members were female at the time of the Fifth Congress.

Since the First Congress, the CCP had been transformed from a congeries of study groups into a mass party staffed predominantly, though not exclusively, by intellectuals who had undergone ideological, organizational, and military training in the Soviet Union. There was very little internal democracy in the party, not least because political conditions in most parts of China dictated that it must work in the underground.

Although a recognizably Comintern style, in which debate was discouraged, had taken hold, the enormity of events inevitably led to sharp conflicts within the party. Moreover, elements of the May Fourth style had not yet disappeared among educated youth, who continued to link their personal rebellion against Confucian culture to the cause of class and national liberation.

From 1926, the United Opposition in the Soviet Communist Party clashed with the Stalin faction over Comintern policy toward China, criticizing the “bloc within” and the supposed limitation of peasant struggles, and calling for the formation of soviets. Among CCP members who were being trained in Moscow, support for Leon Trotsky was fairly strong. However, despite Moscow’s demand in spring 1927 that the CCP preserve the united front at all costs, it would not be accurate to define Stalin’s policy as “rightist,” as Trotsky’s followers did, at least when judged against the Comintern theses on national liberation of 1920.

The pressure from Moscow, certainly from 1924, was not to support a supposedly “bourgeois” GMD, but to transform it into a “worker and peasant party.” It was this message that seemed to chime most with party leaders on the ground. Most of the pressure for an armed uprising in Shanghai, for example, seems to have come “from below” rather than from Moscow.

Yet social revolution was not on cards, given the balance of military and political forces. As Mao Zedong recognized in August 1927, in a situation where power is fragmented and central government is weak, “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” The CCP was only able to chart a course out of the impasse when it managed to build an independent armed force of its own.

In the light of this first phase, what seems striking when we think about the subsequent history of the CCP is the ability of the party to reinvent itself in the way it did after 1927. Over the course of a hundred years, the CCP has frequently resorted to repression, but its longevity derives less from this practice and more from its ideological flexibility, organizational discipline, and periodic capacity to completely revamp its strategic vision, before and after taking power.