Military or Political Victory?
What was the significance of the Northern Expedition? With the study of this great period of genesis only in its formative stage, conclusions must be tentative and more on the order of questions. The two modern political parties of contemporary China and their members learned many lessons—many of them bitter—and gained much experience in warfare and politics during this phase of China’s era of civil war. Much of what occurred reflected new trends and universal ideas, while other aspects show striking parallels with timeless patterns of Chinese state building. The Nationalists won on the battlefield, but then suffered from the problems that were the consequence of the heterogeneous coalition they had thrown together to achieve victory. The Communists seemed to have lost out, but learned much from their experiences in the Revolutionary Base and the expedition. A generation of leaders, who are still in control of China, emerged from the period 1925 to 1928 as from a training ground. Not only did Chiang Kai-shek and a multitude of KMT luminaries pass through the halls of Whampoa, but Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, Liu Shao-ch’i, and Lin Piao also served in some way. In that period, they turned from discussion and intellectualization of Marxism and nationalism to a phase of experimentation, implementation, and development of their maturing political styles. What they were involved in was the movement that was carrying China away from its ancient status of a dynastic state or empire toward a modern nation state—a goal from which the Chinese people have not been diverted. 288
There are many elements that contributed to the military success of the expedition. The importance of the Revolutionary Base from which the National Revolution spread cannot be overemphasized. In a way it was so like the ancient base areas from which dynastic founders sallied forth to gather allies and conquer the empire. There had been the Wei River valley, the “land within the passes‚” in North China where Feng Yü-hsiang ruled; Yen’s Shansi; and the Manchurian basin where the Manchus had organized and consolidated their power before they defeated their rivals within the empire and where, in the 1920s, Chang Tso-lin had built up his military machine. All of these base areas had in common their outer border of defensible mountains and their inner plains that were productive enough to at least support the launching of a campaign outward into other basins. The topography of China acted as a centrifugal force continually pulling China apart, but then, when the countering force rose to pull it back together, the same topography allowed the build-up of the new regime within the protective cover of some province’s mountains. For the revolutionaries, there was a parallel with the conquering dynasties who had built up power beyond the wall and the authority of the prior regime’s armies; in the 1920s the foreign concessions were sanctuaries where revolutionaries hiding from warlord executioners and partisans could blend in with the compradors and Chinese workers. Thus, the KMT not only set up its regime in the fertile, defensible Kwangtung basin, but also used the concessions as its distant outposts. Kwangtung, the first point of entrance of modern ideas and trade, was a logical seedbed for the national movement. Provincials, such as Sun Yat-sen, had been quite active in anti-Manchu subversion and were more open to innovation and progressive trends.
Out of the city of Canton where the KMT made its headquarters grew the Revolutionary Base. The growth was slow and often frustrating, but productive of valuable experience. By the time of Sun’s death, the movement seemed to have finally taken root and showed promise of bearing fruit. The modern elites who had begun to gravitate to Canton by the mid-1920s tried to make the province into a model state, using rationalized, modern techniques spiced with nationalism. By 1926, Kwangtung did stand as an exemplary alternative to the warlord states. There glistened shining hopes and idealism, which many of the new breed of Chinese could not find elsewhere. Returned students, exuberant with energy and the desire to put to work their new-found modern skills in reconstructing China, found opportunities awaiting them at Canton. Elsewhere, given the instability of warlord states and their arbitrary rulers, the modern-educated elite had felt frustrated. Many graduates and faculty members lacked suitable employment. Bringing their ideas to Canton, the new elites made it a laboratory of nationalism, rationalism, and socialism. None of these foreign ways passed through Kwangtung intact. The need of the KMT for foreign aid and technical advice had forced the Party to take into its bed the eager Russian mission and its CCP followers. The nationalism of the KMT became socialistic through Russian and Chinese Marxist pollination. Chinese Marxism at Canton began to take on nationalistic traits as it blossomed alongside the KMT’s ideology. In 1926, Mao Tse-tung came 289under criticism from his comrades for being too much under KMT influence. The activists planted foreign concepts at Canton, but what spread outward and influenced contemporary China were hybrid Chinese movements: a nationalism emphasizing a Confucian harmony in the all-class union and a Marxist class struggle led by the peasants.
The first “united front” of a nationalistic party and a Communist party provided a heady mixture and some hangovers. As in the extended Chinese family, harmony was an ideal that was more often preached than practiced. The dependence of both the KMT and the CCP on Russian support and guidance was subconciously a galling experience for both, and each reacted against it—the KMT in its anti-Communist excess from 1927 on, and in the later anti-Russian resentments among Mao’s faction after Stalin’s blunders. The movement in Kwangtung fed on anti-foreignism (perhaps even xenophobia) in the May 30 Incident, the Shameen Affair, and the exciting Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike. Foreigners were, once again, the scapegoats and outlets for Chinese frustrations. All of these ideas and feelings brewed in the Revolutionary Base and then spilled over into a disintegrated China thirsting for some new life-giving elixir. Although Kwangtung was but one province in China, the movement there claimed to be a national one—though it was simultaneously manipulating provincialism elsewhere.
Another element in the Northern Expedition’s success was the national image that the movement was eventually able to project. The National Revolution was able to stand in contrast to the more narrow, personal movements of the various military regimes elsewhere. What made the Kwangtung movement seem less Cantonese was a political party that had evangelized throughout China and could boast a membership that was at least nominally representative of all the regions, although showing a preponderance of southern Chinese. The KMT ideology, mainly some rather loosely gathered ideas of Sun Yat-sen, did stress the needs of the Chinese people and nation rather than provincialism. There were KMT branch headquarters, or cells, in most of the major provincial cities, and especially in all the growing new port cities. The modern Chinese elites, infected with nationalistic pangs from their exposure to foreign patriotism, came in contact with the Kwangtung message and then read press reports of the KMT-promoted demonstrations against the foreign powers in such widely flung points as Peking, Shanghai, and Canton. By 1926 there was a growing pantheon of KMT martyrs enshrined with Sun Yat-sen, who was apotheosized as a patriarchal spirit of a national family.
Modern-educated intellectuals, students, and businessmen could all identify with the nationalism that the KMT strove to symbolize. Thus, as the Northern Expedition moved into the Yangtze basin, it was able to travel with less of the colorings of an alien invasion. In many areas, there were with the National Revolutionary Army and ahead of it natives of that area who could communicate with the provincials. The proliferating KMT and CCP student organizations throughout urban China provided agents, spies, guides, and recruits for both parties and the NRA.
Since the national revolutionary movement was built on the base of a 290party rather than a charismatic individual, there was a broader structure of leadership and greater resources in brainpower and economic power available. Although the rather inclusive KMT was weakened by factional strife, the diversity did allow for more creativity than the regimes topped only by a military ruler. Leadership and decision-making in the KMT were more the result of merit and expediency than they were in the other regimes dependent on personal ties and mercenary arrangements. At least during the buildup toward the expedition this was the trend, although personal obligations and mercenary considerations increasingly plagued the KMT from early 1927 on, once the incorporated defectors became indispensable. In the democratic centralism adopted from the Russians, there was some chance for partisans to personally identify with a movement for which they had given their consent. This kind of broader, more progressive nationalism appealed to those Chinese most susceptible to ideology. An urban coalition of modern-educated intellectuals and treaty port businessmen with their economic power gave their support to the National Revolution.
Another conclusion as to the success of the expedition relates to the military contribution. Mao’s reflection that power grew out of the barrel of a gun is just as relevant to the Northern Expedition that he supported in 1926 as it was to his revolution in the 1930s and 40s. The expedition was not merely masses of propagandists armed with ideological slogans moving ahead of the NRA to which they joyfully gave over the cities and the countryside they had won. From 1926 through to the final campaign on the great North China Plain, there were junctures at which the battles were desperate and waged with great sacrifice in blood. Those tens of thousands who died deserve recognition. Mao’s partnership with Lin Piao, head of the Red Army, may have been the indirect recognition of the military side to Chinese politics as practiced in the expedition. The expedition succeeded through combining the military advantages enjoyed by the KMT with its political efforts.
The KMT’s Whampoa Military Academy taught many of the skills that the NRA needed. There too was blended the rationalized modern military science of the Russians and the Japanese-trained Chinese with the Confucian ideals of Tseng Kuo-fan regarding dealings with civilians. Like the Party and its model provincial government, the military nucleus of Whampoa attracted thousands of bright cadets and a crew of energetic instructors. Within the Revolutionary Base, the inner core of the NRA-to-be studied, drilled, and gained experience in the Eastern Expeditions that expanded authority into distant valleys of Kwangtung. Engineering students and apprentice artillerymen put into practice their military lessons in the siege of Huichou, which forced Ch’en Chiung-ming out of his lair. The political indoctrination of new recruits and civilian passersby prepared cadet workers for their significant contributions in the Political Departments of the NRA.
The Political Departments did become almost a special weapon of the NRA and one that the warlords failed to match. Through efforts with its soldiery, NRA morale and fighting spirit far surpassed that of the opposing forces, which were for the most part comprised of mercenaries. Although 291ideology instilled a new level of patriotism in Chinese troops, the political work included practical benefits that cheered them. Steadier pay, regular meals, and the promise of promotions based on merit all exemplified the value of a rationalized approach. The political workers also contributed to the creation of a good name, or “face,” for the army and its soldiers. Traditionally the ubiquitous poor of China were attracted to army life out of desperation and, once enlisted, were doomed to a frustrating existence as the pariahs of society. The KMT and its cadre instilled pride by teaching the soldiers that they were to be the saviors of the people—the only means for China to achieve vital unification. As the NRA became known for its exemplary behavior, the social status, so much a concern of the Chinese psyche, of its members rose. This good reputation was of inestimable value for the NRA in its dealings with the teeming Chinese populace through which it moved. In China, Mao’s analogy of the people as a sea is well taken.
Where warlord armies had been avoided, fled from, and despised, the NRA was made welcome because of its astute dealings with natives. Not fearing the NRA, peasants and workers came to agents of the Political Departments to volunteer for well-paying jobs as porters and guides. Peasants brought their rice and produce to sell to the troops moving through their area rather than hiding those needed commodities in the hills as they had done with the rapacious warlord troops. Carrying away with them good silver dollars and information about the NRA, the local people became the best propagandists the KMT had. Recruits and defectors swelled the ranks once the pragmatic NRA policy became known. Belief that they were involved with a morally upright cause glamorized dealings with the KMT’s army in a way unshared by the warlord forces. Ideology and pragmatism were combined in the NRA policies. The northern regimes of Yen Hsi-shan and Feng Yü-hsiang had both incorporated ideologies, but in practice their operations reflected the one-man operations of the leaders. Their movements were much more region-oriented and did not capture the nationalistic imagination of the modern elites, although political techniques of Feng and Yen must have influenced the national revolutionaries.
Another military advantage enjoyed by the NRA was its pragmatic approach to strategy and tactics. This, too, grew from the broader base of leadership in the Party and its army. The NRA leadership attempted to use means of modern rationalized and systematized warfare: structuring their organization to include engineering units and logistics, artillery, and Political Departments. In other ways, the styles of operating were reminiscent of the methods of Sun Tzu, the great military philosopher who was such an influence on Mao and most likely colored the thinking of all his generation. The KMT did not launch a nationwide war, but rather attacked warlords one by one. While Wu P’ei-fu was in the sights of the NRA, the Party propagandists and diplomats sought to placate, divide, and isolate other rivals. Neither did the leaders of the expedition, which maintained a high pitch of antiforeign, anti-imperialist rhetoric, promote war against the powers. The memory of the first Sino-Japanese war and the Boxer debacle 292was still too fresh, the presence of the powers’ military might too threatening. Rather, the KMT trod a narrow path between the skillful manipulation of the righteous wrath of the Chinese people against the foreigners and the policy of prudence in only pushing the powers, singly, and not to the point of forcing a belligerent response. Wherever Chiang was in control, this was followed, but other factions failed to avoid dangerous incidents such as at the Hankow and Kiukiang concessions, at Nanking, and perhaps at Tsinan in 1928.
Japan proved to be the most unbending in these confrontations, and the interventions in Shantung in 1927 and again in 1928 foreshadowed the future trend of Sino-Japanese relations. Although the 1928 intervention slowed the progress of Chiang’s Collective Army, the emotional furor against the imperialists and their warlord “running dogs” helped generate steam for the last push to take North China.
Chiang’s political style, established during the expedition, placed a higher priority on internal domestic unification than on external defense—China would have to present itself as a strong whole if it were to defend its interests against the rapacious foreigners. After the expedition, this attitude influenced the KMT’s domestic and foreign policy from the Manchurian Incident of 1931 through to the final opening of Japanese aggression in 1937. In that later period, Mao’s call to all Chinese to forget their differences and fight Japan harked back to the propaganda used against Chiang during the Tsinan intervention during May and June 1928. Similarly, Mao’s Cultural Revolution may have set out to accomplish, among many aims, the weeding out of unorthodox domestic factions—one of which was pro-Russian—before a confrontation with Russia.
Another broad military strategy that paid off, in the short run, was the inclusive synthesis of the national movement. First, the CCP was incorporated in the KMT operation. As the Revolutionary Base became a reality, the Party drew in seven regional armies to fight along with Whampoa’s First Army. Then as the expedition began, T’ang Sheng-chih’s unit became the Eighth Army, and the gathering in continued through to the last phase when the old NRA opened up to include a total of four massive Collective Armies. The rationale was that in attracting as many of the militarists as possible, there would be that many fewer to fight.
The problem with the inclusive policy, and the emphasis on harmony, is that it put off until some future time decisions as to the goals of the new “nation.” The struggle could not be put off indefinitely—witness the KMT-CCP split, the KMT division, T’ang Sheng-chih’s revolt, and then the struggle in the 1930s against Yen, Feng, and the warlords taken in earlier who resisted cooperation with Nanking’s centralization of Chinese political power. China’s vastness, topographic barriers, and cultural and linguistic differences were not to be easily overcome by the KMT’s manner of nation building. Following the apparent reunification of China in 1928, upon the completion of the Northern Expedition, there remained to be accomplished the centralization of political power.
Even while gathering in heterodox military allies, KMT members and their CCP collaborators did concern themselves with political orthodoxy. 293In 1925 and 1926, the Revolutionary Base witnessed a succession of struggles between and among politicians attempting to set the Party on the “correct” course. First the KMT Left and CCP had neutralized the Right, then Chiang, as centrist allied with the anti-Communists, countered the Left. By late 1926, an anti-Chiang movement worked for the Left and the CCP, followed by a KMT split and the purge of the CCP. Sun Yat-sen’s metaphorical reference comparing Chinese society to a dish of sand was borne out in the divisiveness—even within the ranks of the revolutionaries. The evidence builds toward a conclusion: that in the 1920s and later, China required the firm hand of a strong man to keep up the momentum of centripetal force needed to maintain unity.
Tactically, the NRA was forced to make do with what it had. It had mobility in the countryside off the main byways and railroads through its utilization of civilian carriers and guides. Time and time again, the NRA moved quickly and with daring around the enemy’s flanks to threaten the railroad that provided its lifeblood. This tactic avoided confronting the superior firepower of the warlords. Where the NRA did not have the heavy cannon to level city walls, the Ankuochün had long-range artillery mounted on trains and manned by crack White Russian teams. The ability to strike out across the friendly countryside with hard-working porters helped to compensate for the initial inaccessibility of rail communications. Eventually through capture and aid from workmen, the NRA did acquire engines and rolling stock, so that from late 1926 on the communications gap narrowed. To the mobility of the NRA should be added its emphasis on keeping on the offensive. By moving quickly ahead, keeping the enemy off guard, and attacking where the enemy seemed weakest, the NRA made the most of its discipline and high spirit. Focusing on the enemy’s weakness—known through civilian informants—harkened back to the teachings of Sun Tzu. Chiang’s desire for the rapid expansion of the NRA through the drawing in of warlord forces sprang from the need to unify China quickly, but it also shows the ancient Chinese proclivity toward mass armies, another trait Chiang shared with his associate Mao Tse-tung. The result of Chiang’s desire was a loosely allied force of 1 million that had been added to his model regiment in the years from 1925 to 1928. Many of these troops had defected from the warlords; many were recruited on the basis of the NRA’s reputation.
One of the most intriguing questions about the Northern Expedition has been the role of civilians—individuals and organized masses. Because of the Marxist requirement that history fit its ideological formulas, the Communist writers, Chinese and Western, have credited the organized proletariat and peasantry with achieving the victories. That Trotskyite thesis prompted this study. However, there is certainly enough evidence to question this conclusion although in the Revolutionary Base there were times and places where unionized workers and organized peasants did weigh the balance in favor of the KMT, there were more numerous and crucial junctures when the mass organizations under CCP direction threatened or distracted the military campaign.
The Hong Kong Strike organization and the General Labor Union that it 294nurtured were the CCP’s most prided creations. The CCP managed to capture the leadership of the strike, and then, in the compromise with the Russians after the March 20 Coup, Chiang and his supporters turned over organizing the masses to the CCP. By the launching of the expedition, the strike apparatus was powerful and autonomous of KMT direction. Its diametrically opposed aims were a challenge to the KMT’s leadership of the United Front. The CCP unions continually disrupted the economy of the Revolutionary Base with strikes and union clashes, a situation repeated again as the workers and peasants’ movements followed the NRA to Wuhan. There the CCP’s proletariat undermined the KMT Left and ruined its chance of capturing the leadership of the KMT military machine. At Shanghai, contrary to the CCP version, the GLU’s General Strike in March 1927 was not so much to capture the city for the NRA as it was to take advantage of the vacuum of military power to seize Shanghai, arm the unions, and create a soviet enclave from which to combine with the upriver comrades.
The real significance for the CCP of the United Front with the KMT was not so much its contribution to the military victory as it was the unprecedented opportunity for the CCP to practice its organizational techniques on the workers and peasants. In this respect the CCP was able to change from a tiny debating society of educated elites into a burgeoning mass movement with over 50,000 disciplined members and literally millions of affiliated workers and peasants. However, the tiny Chinese proletariat and the vast peasantry seem to have been at a very backward stage of political awareness in Marxist terms. Had the proletariat and the peasantry of Hunan, Kiangsi, and Kwangtung been as awakened to social revolution as the CCP had convinced itself they were, would there have been the debacles of Changsha, Nanchang, Swatow, and finally the Canton soviet?
Another element in the polemic over mass participation in the expedition has been the timing and placing of its contribution. The small-scale propagandizing and scouting that preceded the NRA behind warlord lines was nowhere near as significant as the massive effort of the CCP cadre, many of whom were Political Department workers, in the wake of the NRA under the KMT regime. That was where the mass organizations sprang up and gathered power unto themselves. In contemporary CCP accounts, as late as 1926, there were admissions that the union and peasants’ association movements behind the warlord lines had declined. This conclusion as to the role of the organized masses in the expedition must not detract from the contributions of the cooperative individual farmers and coolies who aided the NRA in so many ways. The exemplary behavior and good repute of the NRA eased the way for that beneficial relationship. The unions and peasants’ associations helped defeat the warlords, but even more the success of the expedition must be credited to military means.
The organizing of peasant and labor masses from 1925 into 1927 provided invaluable experience for the CCP and lessons to both the CCP and the KMT. A lesson that the CCP began to digest was that the Chinese workers and ubiquitous peasants seemed to be most energized by issues that 295directly related to their economic betterment—economic incentives that encouraged the later economism of Liu Shao-ch’i in the 1960s. The proletariat, few in number, proved to be weak when most needed. The three Shanghai uprisings accomplished little more than martyrdom for the GLU workers. The organized power of the workers in Shanghai, where there was the largest concentration of unionized proletariat, was not equal to the combined strength of the NRA garrison and the members of the Green Society. When Chiang unleashed the purge in Shanghai, the unionized workers were far more numerous than the KMT troops and allies, but, even with their caches of arms, they were not equal to the military. The same weakness was revealed in the purge that the KMT Left carried out in Wuhan, and again after the failure of the Canton soviet of December 1927. The inescapable conclusion was that, ideology aside, the proletariat and the rural masses could not stand alone to topple a hostile Chinese regime supported by troops. Even where Mao’s peasants’ movement was strongest—in Hunan where he had ecstatically praised the millions of affiliated peasants “… who have risen to fulfill their historic mission”—the CCP’s peasants foiled to protect the party from the opposing military. Mao must have been premature when he claimed in February 1927 that “… in a few months the peasants have accomplished what Dr. Sun Yat-sen wanted, but failed to accomplish…,” but within the year, the lesson had been driven home that the CCP needed its own Red Army. Political power would have to grow out of the barrel of a gun for the CCP, not out of the bullhorns of propagandists or from the spears of peasants.
The violence unleashed in the warlord era would not subside without its suppression by brute armed force. Thus, the trend for the CCP moved toward collaboration between Mao and warrior Lin Piao rather than toward the peasant-worker combine of Mao and Liu Shao-ch’i. The KMT had reviewed the same lesson during its traumatic, often suicidal, careenings. Controlling the powerful centrifugal forces that wracked China would take military might as well as political technique. The KMT failed to gain the aid of organized workers. In its reaction to what it viewed as labor and peasant excesses in 1926 and 1927, the KMT veered sharply from developing the mass movements for social revolution toward organizing as a means of holding down such disruptions. Rather than risk the loss of the gentry’s support of KMT preeminance, the KMT had to put off indefinitely a thorough rural reform and, instead, rely on an urban coalition for progress, protected by the massive KMT military machine. The Northern Expedition may have accomplished fewer political aims than its KMT promoters had envisioned, but the military victory did achieve the first phase in the reintegration of a Chinese state—the phase of unification. What remained was the towering task of centralization. 296