China’s peasantry played a vital role in Mao’s communist revolution. They helped his communist forces defeat Chaing Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang, for without the support and assistance of the peasants Mao’s communist forces would have been unable to defeat the numerically and technologically superior Japanese and Kuomintang armies. Recognizing this, Mao based the revolution around the peasantry. Indeed, they formed a key part of Mao’s theoretical approach to Marxism. A number factors, such as the conduct of the communists and the Kuomintang in governance and war and the way Mao structured his revolution to be intimately connect with the peasantry, are what enabled the ultimate victory of Mao’s peasant communist revolution.
Karl Marx believed that a communist revolution could only begin in an already-industrialized capitalist state. He predicted that this sort of society would create the political means and motivation for them to seize control of and redirect the resources of society towards benefiting the needs of the majority, as opposed to an elite minority (Defronzo 44). This was because of how such a society mass-organized and alienated the masses. A peasant society, conversely, would not be receptive to revolutionary goals because of the peasantry’s ties to tradition, sense of powerlessness, and relative ignorance of the world beyond the village (Defronzo 112). Peasants would therefore be unable to develop class consciousness, and in turn would never engage in revolution to improve their plight.
Mao disagreed with Marx’s analysis of a peasant society, believing that it too could engage in and win a revolution. He recognized how Chinese peasants of the past had supported the revolutionary, untraditional ideologies espoused by the Taiping and Boxer rebellions. This contrasted with Marx’s belief that the peasants were a reactionary, traditionalist class. He was also aware of how the peasantry had engaged in rebellion against rulers who ‘lost’ the “Mandate of Heaven” and against imperialist powers. Mao equated the peasantry’s tradition for rebellion with class consciousness, and believed that the “Sinification of Marxism”, which fused that tradition with the ideology of Marxism, would enable a successful, peasant-based communist revolution to occur in China (Defronzo 120). Mao thus had supreme faith in the peasantry, seeing it not as a backwards reactionary class but rather as the class which would enable and carry out revolutionary change in China.
Theory aside, a number of factors contributed to the success of Mao’s peasant communist revolution. Especially important among these was the conduct of Mao’s communist fighters and Chaing Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang in governance and war. After Chaing’s 1927 massacre of communists in Shanghai and seizure of power, China was split between the two competing groups in a struggle for control. Initially forced into hiding and suffering from a number of military defeats throughout the civil war, the communists were easily able to secure victory in their revolution by 1949 (Defronzo 113). This was largely a result of their behavior, which garnered and reinforced public support, and the increasingly negative public perception of the Kuomintang.
Mao based his revolutionary strategy around the concept of the “people’s war”, in which the revolutionary effort was intimately connected with, relied upon, and was supported by widespread popular support. The slogan “the people are the water, the (revolutionary) army are the fish; without the water, the fish will die” exemplifies the tenets of such as a strategy (Defronzo 113). Through good words and deeds, such as exemplary conduct by soldiers and reforms aimed at helping the peasantry, the communists would gain the support and loyalty of the people. They would then help support and sustain the communist revolutionary war effort. While the peasants were perhaps unfamiliar with Marxist theory, they were supportive towards the good deeds and kind acts done by Mao’s forces, and this helped legitimize the communist cause. Building popular support through good deeds was such a successful strategy that it enabled Mao to turn his ‘Long March’, a 6,000 mile military retreat, into a major political victory. During the retreat, his forces would routinely assist, teach, and support the peasants they encountered, building widespread goodwill.
Another central element of Mao’s revolutionary strategy was politicizing his armed forces so that they would spread the ideals of the revolution to noncombatants. Mao believed that “the most important natural quality [of a soldier] is that of complete loyalty to the idea of people’s emancipation” (Baggins 2000). The revolutionary soldier was to motivated by the idea that they were fighting against the oppression of the landlords, imperialists, capitalists, and the creation of a morally just society (Defronzo 113). They were thus more inclined to commit the good deeds necessary to breed popular support and more committed to waging a determined struggle against a superior foe.
Guerilla warfare was the major military strategy employed by the communists, and was also intimately connected with popular peasant support. Mao believed that “because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and co-operation (Baggins 2000). Again, good deeds bred popular support, and popular support enabled the communists to overcome their disadvantage in numbers and armaments. Revolutionary forces were nourished, hidden, informed about enemy troop movements and dispositions, and in other ways aided by the people (Defronzo 113). Then, instead of engaging the Kuomintang and Japanese armies face on, the communists engaged in raids, swift military actions, and rapid retreats which slowly demoralized and defeated the enemy forces. Meanwhile, anti-revolutionary forces had to deal with not only the armed force of the revolutionary army, but also the hostility of large numbers of pro-communist noncombatants. This proved an effective strategy which allowed Mao’s forces to eventually secure their revolutionary victory over numerically superior forces.
While Mao was building widespread peasant support and legitimacy for his armed cause, the Kuomintang was conversely breeding peasant antipathy. While the communists engaged in land-reform and rent-control programs and reforms, which eased the suffering of the peasantry, the landlords under Kuomintang rule often increased rents and interest rates. Little was done to bring about a redistribution of wealth, and as a result inequalities and oppressive conditions continued, or even worsened, in Kuomintang controlled areas. Peasant discontent led many to join the communist revolutionary army, bolstering the numbers of Mao’s forces and further legitimizing his cause (Defronzo 116).
Economic conditions and poor governance alone did not breed antipathy towards the Kuomintang; army abuse by Kuomintang forces also alienated many peasants. Its officer corps was perceived as corrupt, and the common soldier in its army faced abuse and exploitation by their officers. Negative perceptions about Chaing and the Kuomintang had also formed. His regime was heavily influenced by foreign advisors, his wife was seen as more allegiant to U.S. culture than Chinese, and Chaing, as a Methodist Christian, was seen as trying to change fundamental Chinese cultural values. For a peasantry which had previously rebelled against imperialist powers and which was rooted in a nationalist outlook, Mao’s communists appeared more capable of establishing a truly and genuinely Chinese controlled national government. This served to reduce the appeal and legitimacy of the Kuomintang (Defronzo 115). Chaing’s army also saw much less success against the Japanese than the communist army and was often kept out of the fighting. As a result, many Chinese came to see the communist force as the ‘true army’ of China, and accordingly Mao’s army grew significantly in size(Defronzo 115).
Mao’s revolutionary strategy was designed around the peasants, and thus necessarily garnered their good will and support. The Kuomintang, meanwhile, alienated many peasants through the continuation of unjust and oppressive rule and perceptions of illegitimacy. As a result, in the final struggle for power following World War 2 between the communists and the Kuomintang, the communist forces were immensely strengthened and the Kuomintang was largely demoralized and weakened. The communist victory was easily obtained. The factors described above therefore enabled the ultimate success of Mao’s communist peasant revolution.
Baggins, Brian, “On Guerilla Warfare”, Marxist Internet Archives, October 9 2013, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/works/1937/guerrilla-warfare/
Defronzo, James, Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements Colorado: Westview Press, 2011