Mao Zedong’s Experience of Long March

Socialist theorists explain the victory of revolution by the general proletarian struggle. In the second half of the 20th century, no revolution could win in that way. The way of China, Cuba and Nicaragua was hard guerrilla war: a small group of guerrillas starts from a support base in a marginal remote area and, step by step, fanning the fire of the class struggle, involves new sections of the peasantry in motion to capture more and more areas. So Chinese revolutionaries acted by involving peasantry, becoming masters of the situation, and trying to take power into their hands. A classic case of victory of rural guerrilla warfare has become an unprecedented story of the Long March. It was the most large-scale guerrilla and civil war of century that became an example of how a revolutionary army was formed and trained without outside support, basing on a revolutionary mood of the population. The sympathy of peasants captured before and during the Long March created the base for Mao’s long directorate in the future; their attitude was a key factor of his popularity.

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The Historical Context of the Chinese Revolution

In order to understand why the revolutionary efforts of the Red Army and the Communists succeeded in China, it is important to overview the historical context of the Chinese Revolution. By the end of the 19th century, the Qing Empire was shattered by the economic decline, dissatisfaction with Western influences, and internal corruption. A series of rebellions took place; the largest of them was Taiping rebellion in 1856-64. The key ideological points of the Taipings later utilized by Mao Zedong were rejection of Confucian religion and agrarian communism. Reform movement that tried to modernize the Empire failed. The Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 demonstrated the people’s wrath against foreigners. The agonizing reformation attempts of the Qing Dynasty came too late, for a strong opposition emerged within the elite and the army.

Sun Yat-sen became a leader of the revolutionary-minded nationalists. He co-founded the Kuomintang party. After several failed plots, a vast rebellion started in many provinces in 1911. Nationalism was the key idea that united people. The Chinese grew increasingly hostile to the Qing Dynasty and the revolution turned the Empire down. However, it did not improve the conditions of the masses, for the leaders of this revolution were aristocrats and army officers. The country plunged into political chaos when Yuan Shikai usurped the power and announced Empire in 1915. However, Kuomintang regained power and maintained it position by the 1930s. After 1925, Chiang Kai-shek took up the leadership of the party.  Chiang received a revolutionary training in Moscow, but his Soviet experience made him a convinced adversary of communism.

The nationalist revolution did not tackle the problems of peasantry and working class that constituted a major part of China’s population. However, the Chinese Communist Party  (CCP) established in 1921 and led by Mao Zedong since the end of the 1920s understood the needs of people and offered a social and political revolution as a remedy.  Communists organized the Red Army and tried to start several uprisings, such as “Autumn Harvest Uprising” in Hunan Province. Mao was equipped with Marxist ideology and received support from the Soviet Union and the Communist International. However, on the basis of his profound knowledge of peasantry, Mao shifted the base of the revolution from the urban to rural areas. 

Preconditions of the Great Campaign

At the beginning of 1923 a relationship between the Soviet government and the South Chinese revolutionary democrats began. The Communists were advised to join the nationalist party Kuomintang, and such dual membership was encouraged by the directive of the Comintern. The work of the Communists in the Kuomintang has brought tangible results – to the end of 1925, the number of Communist Party has reached 60 thousand people. Chiang Kai-shek was troubled by the growing popularity of the CCP. After provincial warlords were defeated in 1927, he turned his forces against Chinese communists. By 1934, Kuomintang almost managed to put an end to the Communist Party of China, blocking their forces in Jiangxi province. To survive, the Red Army undertook a flight northward known as the Long March of 1934-35.

The Attitude of the Peasants to the Long March

The Red Army went through the territories administered by various generals, military cliques, national armies, which were formally subordinated to Chiang Kai-shek. However, many of them wanted to harm the central government, and therefore did not detain the communists. Someone spared his troops, hoping to use them in a power struggle with his neighbors and competitors, and therefore struggled against communism in a slipshod manner. Somewhere the troops were commanded by the left Kuomintang-minded officers, who saw the communists as allies in the fight against Japan that had attacked China in 1931. Due to all that reasons the position of the Red Army units, although separated from their bases and itinerant in the country, was much better than in Jiangxi. Mao’s actions had unwavering support of the peasants. The Soviet areas consistently implemented agrarian reform: the lands of landlords and rural rich people were confiscated and distributed among the representatives of the poorest sections of the peasantry. Mao understood that who won the peasant support, won China. Peasants hated Kuomintang troops as well as they traditionally hated armies of reactionary generals. Getting meager rations, soldiers often robbed the peasants. In contrast, rigid discipline based on three basic positions and eight points, formulated by Mao prevailed in the Red Army. These points and provisions were rhymed and Red Army soldiers learned them by heart and chanted during the march. The three major points were fast execution of orders; no requisition from poor people; everything taken away from the landlords is transferred to the government. Therefore, Chinese peasantry supported the Red Army.

The Reaction of Chiang Kai-shek and further Mao Zedong Experience

Chiang Kai-shek, who knew about the intentions of the communists, gave the order to strengthen the defensive line in the path of their movement, in order to prevent them from breaking out of the blockaded area. However, in the night of October 21, 1934, troops of the 1st and 3rd fronts of the Red Army broke the first line of the blockade and left the territory of the Central Soviet Area. The route was laid out quite precisely: it ran through the areas of compact population of Hakks that welcomed the Red Army as liberators. Due to their support, the Red Army was able to overcome all obstacles and eventually arrive in Guizhou in December. Kuomintang troops waging a parallel pursuit did not dare attack the main forces. They feared the uprising of the Hakk inhabitants.

Despite the success in overcoming some of the enemy fortification lines and relatively successful completion of the first phase of the Long March, the mood among the troops was depressed. Many commanders and soldiers deeply hurt by the retreat were dissatisfied. March difficulties only strengthened their discontent. People did not know how far they had to go, how long to endure hardships, and whether they could ever come back. The number of deserters and stragglers grew with every passing day. Mao created a unique opportunity to strengthen his power. He should use those sentiments, guiding them in the right direction, and he could take revenge on Bo Gu. Mao brilliantly coped with this task. By the time of arrival in Guizhou he had managed to deal with over the majority of the party leadership, almost all army commanders and Lo Fu, a former close ally of Bo Gu.

Internal Relations of Mao with Communist Leaders

Mao began tried to cause a clash between other army leaders, Lo Fu and Bo Gu. At the end of April, Lo Fu accused his old friend of the major defeat of the Red Army. Lo Fu said that Bo Gu should not have gone into battle under unfavorable conditions and adverse balance of forces. In response, Bo Gu accused Lo Fu that his position was no different from the Leninist line of Plekhanov, after an armed uprising in Moscow in 1905. Bo Gu’s position was supported by Otto Braun at that moment. Lo Fu got full support from Wang Jiaxiang.

By the beginning of the retreat the relationship between Mao, Lo Fu and Wang had strengthened so that when Mao suggested marching in the same column with them, his new friends gladly agreed. It was a perfect moment for Mao. At end of the first phase of the campaign, conspirators performed as political brain under Mao’s influence with the aim of seizing power in the party and the army. Each of the three leaders tried to handle army commanders and members of the party leadership. 

Zhou Enlai remained on the side of Bo Gu, but he was unreliable. In Liping, the first Guizhou city captured by the Red Army, during a meeting of the Political Bureau, Zhou supported Lo Fu, Mao and Wang Jiaxiang, when they demanded from Bo Gu to hold an expanded leadership meeting to discuss the outcome of the struggle against the fifth punitive march of the Kuomintang. Bo Gu was forced to agree despite the fact that he was well aware that the coming meeting would be directed against him and Otto Braun.

The Result of the Confrontation within the Party 

On January 15, nineteen people gathered in a small room on the second floor of a recently constructed residence of division commander of the Guizhou army. There were members and candidates of the Political Bureau marching with the troops of the Central Red Army, as well as some commanders and political commissars of the army groups. Other attendees were technical secretary of the Central Committee Deng Xiaoping and Otto Braun with his translator. Bo Gu was the Chairman of the meeting. He opened the meeting by reading out a report on the causes of the defeat against fifth punitive campaign. Zhou made a co-report after him. Both were trying to make excuses. The first speaker dumped everything on objective reasons, the second one – on subjective. Then Lo Fu announced statement on behalf of Mao, Wang Jiaxiang and himself, in which the General Secretary military and political line had been subjected to withering criticism. He was replaced by Mao, who spoke for over an hour. Completely breaking the arguments of Bo Gu and Zhou, he claimed that the retreat of the Central District was mainly their and Brown’s fault. Mao said that all three applied at first purely passive defense tactics, then waged a positional war, and fled at the decisive moment. Mao branded this line of conduct as a child’s play in the war. With the sharpest criticism, he attacked Bo Gu and Otto Braun’s leadership and military methods. The general meeting in the end lasted three days. Zhou Enlai quickly knew which way the wind was blowing and fully admitted the truth of Mao and his associates.  All that meant that Mao’s faction achieved complete victory. 

The Progress and Results of the Long March

The Kuomintang defense forces had several fortified lines. The further the Communists moved, the fiercer became Chiang Kai-shek’s resistance. The first two months of the campaign got the most blood from the Red Army. Of the 80 thousand soldiers that went off Ruijin, only 30,000 remained by December 1934. However, the Red Army managed to overcome the 500 kilometers of the most difficult mountain roads stuffed with enemy fortifications including the so-called “fourth line of defense” – the area of the fortifications, which was built for Chiang Kai-shek by German experts and was considered impregnable.

In January 1935, the Red Army captured a major trading city of Zunyi, where it replenished the stock of food and ammunition and recruited people. The meeting of 8 January 1935 changed the command of the military campaign. Mao Zedong took the post of the chief political commissar of the Red Army.

After the reorganization of the Communist forces, the troops moved north in an effort to go the shortest way to the Yangtze River. Chiang Kai-shek, however set barriers and blocked the advance of the Red Army. Future Chinese Marshal Liu Bocheng managed to organize the crossing of the whole army with the only bridge over the stormy mountain river of more than 200 meters wide. 

On May 29, 1935, the history repeated, but in an even more dramatic situation – the crossing of the Dadu River was held over a single burning dilapidated bridge. In June 1935, the central group of the Red Army met with the 4th Army group led by Zhang Guotao in western Sichuan.

The Conflict Between the two Leaders

This meeting, however, did not strengthen the Red Army. There was a personal conflict and disagreement between Mao and Zhang Guotao on how to organize further actions. Mao insisted on pushing north, Zhang Guotao proposed to fortify positions in Sichuan. Although the north direction was approved by the leadership of the party, in realty the Communist forces were again divided into the western part commanded by Zhu De and Zhang Guotao and the eastern part under the command of Xu Xiangqian and Chen Changhao. Mao Zedong with his party associates was on the eastern side. According to the plan of the campaign, the two divisions were to meet in Gansu Province.

The march was held in extremely difficult conditions. Western column turned back because of a river flooding, and Zhang Guotao ordered the eastern column to return. Part of The eastern division split further. A part of it executed the order, others led by Mao Zedong continued their way.

In practice, it meant not only a split in the army, but also in the party. Zhang Guotao’s activity ended in failure – by the autumn of 1936 his loyal troops had suffered defeat from Chiang Kai-shek and Muslim troops. Finally, Zhang Guotao defected to the Kuomintang.

The Last Frontier

Red Army units of about 10 thousand people remaining under the leadership of Mao Zedong, held a further campaign under the banner of the struggle against Japan Therefore, this army group was called “anti-Japanese vanguard.” The way of the Red Army detachments was to the north of Shaanxi Province, where the 15th Corps of the Red Army under command of Liu Chzhidan held a small Soviet area. Local forces loyal to Chiang Kai-shek retired after the Japanese had occupied Manchuria, and therefore were not active in the anti-Japanese fight under the slogans of the Communists. Chiang Kai-shek, seeking to bring the case to the end, established and headed the Northwest headquarters for the extermination of the Communists in September 1935.

In mid-October of 1935 at the border of the Soviet District in Shaanxi Province, the 17th Army of General Yang Hucheng blocked the way of the Red Army soldiers. It was the last attempt of Chiang Kai-shek to prevent Mao Zedong from capturing power in the country. By the end of the campaign there were about 8,000 people in the Red Army, only 4,000 of whom were those who began the campaign a year ago. During the exodus of the main forces of the Red Army of China to the north, its fighters overcame 12.5 thousand km, passed 18 mountains, crossed 24 rivers on the territory occupied by the enemy.


In his interpretation of the history of the national liberation revolution in China, Mao stated that the alliance with the national bourgeoisie was effective only when the revolutionary proletarian party could dictate the conditions of such a union to the bourgeoisie. Mao tried to declare the best attitude to peasantry and included it into propaganda to his solders. In addition, the analysis of the war actions helped Mao to adjust his position in the ruling elite of the party. Therefore, the experience of Mao Zedong relations with peasantry and his position in the leadership elaborated during the Long March were significant for his future policy and strengthened his position as a communist leader, which confirms the thesis put forward.

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