maochiang3.jpgBrad DeLong recently described Chiang Kaishek as a “twentieth-century Chinese nationalist, socialist, general, and dictator.” By itself, this description is rather surprising. The legendary Chinese anti-Communist was actually a socialist? But not only is Brad right about this; you could go a lot further. If the 1920’s had gone a little differently, Chiang Kaishek could easily have become the first Communist dictator of China.

The following facts – from Encyclopedia Brittanica – are well-known to historians, but rarely publicized:

In 1918 [Chiang] reentered public life by joining Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. Thus began the close association with Sun on which Chiang was to build his power…

Shortly after Sun Yat-sen had begun to reorganize the Nationalist Party along Soviet lines, Chiang visited the Soviet Union in 1923 to study Soviet institutions, especially the Red Army. Back in China after four months, he became commandant of a military academy, established on the Soviet model, at Whampoa near Canton. Soviet advisers poured into Canton, and at this time the Chinese Communists were admitted into the Nationalist Party. The Chinese Communists quickly gained strength, especially after Sun’s death in 1925, and tensions developed between them and the more conservative elements among the Nationalists. Chiang, who, with the Whampoa army behind him, was the strongest of Sun’s heirs, met this threat with consummate shrewdness. By alternate shows of force and of leniency, he attempted to stem the Communists’ growing influence without losing Soviet support. Moscow supported him until 1927, when, in a bloody coup of his own, he finally broke with the Communists, expelling them from the Nationalist Party and suppressing the labour unions they had organized.

Didn’t the violent break with the CCP prove that Chiang was just pretending to be a Communist sympathizer? Hardly. Rival factions of Communists have been killing each other for a very long time. If Moscow had showed Chiang the respect he felt was his due as an independent national leader, there is every reason to think he would have remained a loyal Soviet ally. Once he had a secure grip on power, it is more than possible than he would have forged ahead with fairly radical socialist policies, though it would have been hard to be as extreme as Mao.

If all this is in the encyclopedia, why have so few people heard? The main reason, I think, is that neither left-wingers nor right-wingers want to draw attention to these facts. Left-wing historians of course have no desire to highlight the leftist background of an anti-communist dictator they love to hate. But right-wingers also kept mum about Chiang’s previous close alliance with the Communists because they didn’t want to embarrass their friend and ally.The picture of Mao and Chiang comes from Historical Images.