On the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party we published a series of articles that trace the origins and subsequent development of this party, which has played a key role in world history. Dan Morley outlines the conditions in China that led to the foundation of the party as part of the Communist International. The founders of the party looked to the October revolution in Russia as their model, with the working class playing the leading role.
Today, July 1st, 2011, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrates its 90thanniversary. During this lengthy period it has played a decisive role in the most profound and dramatic changes in Chinese and world history. The struggles and heroic sacrifices of hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants and workers in the past expressed themselves through this party.
For these reasons we must rank the CCP as an important political force in world history. Marx asked even in 1853, “can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia?”
Today, however, how do we assess the role of the party in Chinese society, after all these decades and transformations that the party and China have undergone? Where is the CCP going? Before we can answer this question we must first look at the remarkable history of this party as it has intertwined with China’s over the past 90 years.
The Chinese revolution of 1949 (preceded by a botched revolution in 1925-7 in which the newly formed CCP played a key role) stands as one of the greatest proofs of the proposition that, in the final analysis, it is the development of the means of production which determines the political superstructure of a society. For despite the heavy weight of the Stalin led Communist International (Comintern) on the burgeoning Chinese revolution, which artificially imposed onto the CCP a false political line conjured up to suit the interests and prejudices of the Russian bureaucracy rather than the needs of the Chinese revolution, the victory of the Chinese revolution could only be delayed. Although it is true that the peculiar course of development that the CCP subsequently undertook under erroneous direction from Stalin, that is heavy bureaucratisation and the abandoning of the working class for the peasantry, profoundly altered the social and economic history of China, nevertheless the underlying and unavoidable trend, visible since the 1840s, of the economic development of China under pressure from imperialism, creating a powerful working class capable of expropriating capitalism, asserted itself in spite of and through the political mistakes of the Comintern in Russia. Such were the contradictions of capitalism in China that all the political errors and meddling from Stalin could not hold back the course of history.
Opium Wars and Imperial Humiliation
The period which preceded the founding of the CCP in 1921 was the re-entry of China onto the world stage and its subordination to imperialism, primarily British imperialism. China was on the inexorable path to social revolution ever since Britain dragged it into the world market by means of the gunboat in the criminal Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60). Britain and its East India Company suffered a trade imbalance with China even then (some things never change!). The British used the battering ram of addictive opium, grown in India and sold illegally to the Chinese, to prise open the Chinese market. But as always, they needed the auxiliary force of guns to get the trade terms they desired. But blinded as ever by short sighted greed, the British could not understand the corrosive effect this trade was to have on Chinese society.
“Besides this immediate economical consequence, the bribery connected with opium smuggling has entirely demoralised the Chinese State officers in the Southern provinces. Just as the Emperor was wont to be considered the father of all China, so his officers were looked upon as sustaining the paternal relation to their respective districts. But this patriarchal authority, the only moral link embracing the vast machinery of the State, has gradually been corroded by the corruption of those officers, who have made great gains by conniving at opium smuggling” (Marx, Revolution in China and in Europe, 1853)
This violent (and narcotic!) entry of capitalism through the barrel of the British cannon really spelt the end for the Manchu Qing dynasty and traditional Chinese society, which was to meet its final doom in 1911. Marx was already speaking of the existence of the Chinese revolution in 1853, and its interdependence with the European revolution. The decisive question was, what would be the character of the revolution, what would Qing despotism be replaced with and by which social force? The crisis in Chinese society which British imperialism engendered, led directly to a revolutionary movement at this time, which Marx thought could even have sparked off a revolution in Europe, “it may seem a very strange, and a very paradoxical assertion that the next uprising of the people of Europe... may depend more probably on what is now passing in the Celestial Empire [China]... than on any other political cause that now exists” (Ibid). The Taiping Rebellion, as it was known, swept through China, leading to what is thought to be around 20 million deaths, the most violent civil war ever and possibly the most bloody war of the 19th Century. It threatened the very existence of the Chinese state thanks to the popularity of its programme – land socialisation, suppression of private trade and the abolition of foot binding. Its ranks were drawn from the peasantry and the town labourers. These class based demands were brought to the fore thanks precisely to the devastating economic impact of trade with Britain.
“The tribute to be paid to England after the unfortunate war of 1840 [i.e. the sanctions imposed onto China after its defeat in the 1st Opium War], the great unproductive consumption of opium, the drain of the precious metals by this trade, the destructive influence of foreign competition on native manufactures, the demoralised condition of the public administration, produced two things: the old taxation became more burdensome and harassing, and new taxation was added to the old. Thus in a decree of the Emperor, dated Peking, Jan. 5, 1853, we find orders given to the viceroys and governors of the southern provinces of Wuchang and Hanyang to remit and defer the payment of taxes, and especially not in any case to exact more than the regular amount; for otherwise, says the decree, ‘how will the poor people be able to bear it?’ ” (Ibid)
Capital, with its cheap goods and superior technology developed thousands of miles away in accordance with a completely different social environment, did not respect the millennia old settled structure of Chinese society; instead it violently shook it up with wanton disregard for the consequences.
“The widespread use of opium caused a flow of wealth from the countryside to the towns and led to an alarming contraction of the internal market. The silver shortage caused by the drain resulted in a 20 to 30 percent depreciation of the copper currency in common use and a sharp rise in the cost of living. Debased coinage came into use. Foreign cotton goods and other commodities drove Chinese handicrafts to the wall, especially in the Southern provinces. The weavers who had produced the 3,359,000 pieces of cloth exported in 1819 lost their means of livelihood when the exports dropped to 30,600 pieces in 1833 and almost to zero in the next three decades... The accumulative result of all these agencies of dissolution was mass pauperisation and the creation of a large floating population.” (Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution)
So at this end of society the effects of imperialism were destructive, continually creating the social conditions and the foot soldiers for revolution and a new, modern China. These are the real beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party. But at the other end of society, the effects of this trade were profoundly conservative and even regressive. The wealth of British capitalism ‘trickled down’ to the old Chinese ruling class, leading to an exaggeration of feudal relations and a strengthening of feudal power backed up with British cannons.
“Among these merchants and officials, a new class took shape, the class of compradores, brokers for foreign capital on the Chinese market... The commanding economic positions the foreigners occupied blocked the channel of indigenous, independent capitalist development. The wealth accumulated by these Chinese merchants and officials went not into capitalist enterprise but back into land. Most of these individuals stemmed to begin with from the landed gentry and they used their money to increase their family holdings. This process visibly hastened the growth of large landed estates and the expropriation of smaller landholders... The profits went back not only into land purchase but into loans at usurious rates to the peasants, who increasingly had to borrow to bridge the gap between their decreasing incomes and their rising costs and taxes... the peasant could not adapt himself to the change. He was simply ruined by it... He not only could not produce enough to provide him with a surplus, but had to go into debt for fertilizer, for food to tide him over until harvest time, for seed, for the rental and use of implements. For these he mortgaged away not only his crop but his land... losing his land, he became a tenant. To the landlord he had to surrender 40 to 70 percent of his crop and a substantial additional percentage, often in special dues, gifts, and obligations preserved from the dim feudal past, including the duty of free labour on special occasions fixed by ancient tradition... This [landlord] class, vitally concerned with preserving all the inequalities on the land from which it profited, became one of the chief instruments of foreign penetration and control.” [Ibid]
No wonder millions of pauperised peasants and labourers for hire signed up to fight the regime. The Taiping Rebellion was accompanied with land seizures by peasants. Within its conquered areas attempts were apparently made to stimulate an internal market, agricultural production, develop exports and to suppress the opium trade. In other words, it bore signs of developing into a classic bourgeois revolution, whose main tasks should be to establish national sovereignty and a national market, and thoroughgoing agrarian reform, precisely those tasks most desperately needed in China at the time. But rather than develop in accordance with its own indigenous impulses, as an Asian edition of the same bourgeois revolutions that transformed Europe in previous centuries, Chinese history was pushed down a different course thanks to the existence of the world market and British and French guns. The Taiping Rebellion was bloodily defeated in 1864, after 14 years of struggle, thanks in large part to imperialist intervention. Military and naval forces under the control of General Charles Gordon (‘Chinese Gordon’) were decisive in winning key battles. But why would the British bourgeoisie wish to halt a potential bourgeois revolution like that which had brought themselves to power in their homeland? Because the rebellion’s threatening of the lucrative status quo, the threat of Chinese capitalism developing independently, and the threat of ending the opium trade, were threats to the most powerful actor on the world market, Britain. Thus the supranational character of a powerful imperialist nation halted and altered the national development of another.
So in the historical background to the Chinese revolution and the creation of the CCP, we find an enormous validation of the Marxist proposition that capitalism develops into a world market, which is “not a sum of national parts” but “a mighty and independent reality which has been created by the international division of labour”. The world market sped up but also truncated the development of China. Rather than repeat the history of England or France, having its own national revolution like theirs, China found itself as a part of an already existing world market. Marx considered the creation of the capitalist world market as having been achieved precisely with the inclusion of China in that market, “the particular task of bourgeois society is the establishment of the world market... as the world is round, this seems to have been completed by the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan.” Thus the tasks of the Chinese revolution fell to the CCP as a particular phase of the world socialist revolution against the masters of this market, rather than as the task of establishing a Chinese national market.
Xinhai Revolution and the end of the Qing Dynasty
By the beginning of the 20th century, dissatisfaction with the old regime and a burning desire for change were reaching boiling point. There was a ferment of discussion in the youth on how to revive, renew and modernise China. The moral corrosion and undermining of the traditional state apparatus led to enormous dissatisfaction amongst the mostly privileged youth who would previously have enrolled in the Imperial exams for entry into the state apparatus. At first the dominant idea in these layers was to reform the Chinese state so that it could be a constitutional monarchy or modern parliamentary system like Britain or the USA. But it became apparent that the old regime would not reform itself and was determined to cling to its power and privileges. As a result, various revolutionary organisations and journals proliferated, especially in the South and East of the country. By and large, these organisations set themselves the goal of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and establishing a national Chinese republic. Socialist, and certainly Marxist ideas, had not yet really penetrated into Chinese society. From the perspective of posterity, two individuals and their respective organisations/journals stand out from the first decade of the 20th century – Sun Yat Sen and the Tongmenghui (latterly the Guomindang or Kuomintang, the nationalist party still leading Taiwan), and Chen Duxiu and his Anhui Common Speech Journal and New Youth Magazine.
By 1911 these republican, bourgeois revolutionaries were in the ascendency and had conquered Wuchang in Central China after a failed uprising in Guangzhou (Canton). This is known as the Xinhai revolution. The ruling Qing Dynasty had rotted from within, so thorough was its decline that it could find no source of strength even in the nobility. In 1912, the Emperor abdicated and a republic was declared, and governments the world over recognised the new regime. It would appear that China had finally had its bourgeois revolution, and the task of establishing real sovereignty based on a Chinese national market and land reform could begin in haste. Yet only nine years later, the Chinese Communist Party was to be formed and within another four years, a second, far more comprehensive revolution would begin. Why?
In the bourgeois revolutions of England and France, the capitalist class stood at the head of the nation, leading a genuine ‘urban democracy’ that united behind it the labourers and semi-proletarians of the cities, and the peasants of the countryside, both of which were the ground troops of the revolution. Cromwell’s New Model Army was a democratic, revolutionary army composed of these elements. It directly carried out the revolution. The Xinhai revolution, on the other hand, although gaining the sympathy of the masses, was actually carried out largely by disaffected local gentry, military men and bureaucrats. Because its leadership did not want to challenge capitalism (and imperialism) it had little social impact, and whereas the likes of Cromwell and Robespierre were characterised by enormous courage and determination to carry through a thoroughgoing transformation, buoyed on by the masses, the leaders of the Xinhai revolution, Sun Yat Sen and others, ultimately were compromising and deferential both to the old regime and the imperial powers. This was because they were led by those gentry and bureaucrats who, as described above, had a vital interest in preserving the social status quo. In order to force the abdication of Emperor Puyi, rather than mobilise the masses throughout the country on a social programme to overthrow the regime, Sun Yat Sen, now President of the new Republic in the South, struck a deal with Yuan Shikai (who was appointed Prime Minister of the Imperial Cabinet by the Emperor) that if he could deliver the Emperor’s abdication, then Sun would resign and give the Presidency to Yuan. And the terms of the abdication and establishment of the Republic were as follows:
- The Qing Emperor remains and will be treated as a foreign monarch by the Republic’s Government.
- The Republic will allocate 4,000,000 Yuan each year for royal expenses.
- The emperor will remain in the Forbidden City until he can be transferred to Yiheyuan (the Summer Palace).
- Royal temple and tombs will be guarded and maintained.
- The expenses of Guangxu's tomb will be disbursed by the Republic.
- Royal employees will remain in the Forbidden City with the exception of eunuchs.
- Private property of the royal family will be protected by the Republic.
- Royal forces will be incorporated into the army of the Republic.
In other words, the revolution resolved itself into a change of personnel at the top. Following this, a tussle for power broke out at the top of the regime and Yuan Shikai attempted, unsuccessfully, to reinstate the monarchy (with himself as Emperor!). The republican government was completely split, ultimately because there was no real national bourgeois class behind it, rather it was based on feudal warlords lending it support, in whom power really lay. The degeneration of the revolution into local warlordism, the inability to form a real national government, and to solve burning social questions, in particular land reform, is proof that the bourgeois, national revolution, whose two main tasks are precisely the formation of a national government and market, and land reform, could not be completed without breaking from the social basis of capitalism in China at the time – the landlord/compradore bourgeois class. The gentry who had supported the revolution insofar as it stopped at the Emperor’s abdication had no interest in leading the development and modernisation of Chinese society, and instead merely saw an opportunity to strengthen their own local power in the absence of a strong national government. Hence the splintering of China into local fiefdoms after 1911.
It was the failure of this revolution that led to a radicalisation within the Chinese youth and, crucially, the nascent Chinese proletariat. There was a crisis of confidence in the idea of Western parliamentary democracy as the way out. In 1919, many still looked with hope to the Versailles peace negotiations after World War I. They hoped that the redrawing of the world map in accordance with Woodrow Wilson’s ideals of national self determination would liberate China from the humiliating burden of imperial domination without the need for internal strife and a violent struggle against the powerful West. But their hopes were dashed when China was betrayed. Despite having supported the Allies in the understanding that, in the event of an Allied victory, the Shandong peninsula would be returned to Chinese national sovereignty after having been controlled by Germany, the Treaty of Versailles actually handed over control of Shandong to Japan. This harsh lesson in imperialism sparked a mass movement of Chinese students known as the May 4th Movement.
Above all the other members of the intelligentsia it was Chen Duxiu who understood the social question in the Chinese revolution. Whilst pushed into the background by the more ‘practical’ and political likes of Sun Yat Sen, Chen was founding and editing periodicals attempting to find a way out of China’s crisis. Whereas others reacted to imperial dominance either by advocating a return to traditional Confucian values as a means to escape the corrupting West, or alternatively the emulation of the Western political system, Chen sought a way to give the common, downtrodden Chinese people a voice and a way out. The Anhui Common Speech Journal which he founded was devoted to finding a way to transform Chinese written language, and as a result Chinese culture and life as a whole. Of course the vast mass of Chinese people were excluded from official culture as they were illiterate, and the written language had an extremely formal, rigid and conservative structure, was governed by anachronistic rules, and bore little relation to vernacular Chinese as spoken by ordinary people. This is the equivalent of a campaign in medieval Europe for literature and church services to be given in the vernacular languages of the common people rather than Latin. Indeed the translation of things such as the Bible into English, German etc. from Latin, and the invention of the printing press, did contribute substantially to the Reformation and the general undermining of the feudal class.
In essence, what Chen was doing was beginning, amongst a layer of Chinese youth, a theoretical discussion on how to liberate the masses of downtrodden Chinese. And despite temporarily experimenting with numerous different ideas, Chen in his journals came to the conclusion that it was not by a return to the past that China would be liberated, but that a fundamental break with ossified feudal traditions and relations was necessary. And his journals were extremely popular, “no other Chinese intellectual had the prestige and authority among China’s youth that Chen Duxiu had on the eve of the May 4th Movement” (Lee Feigon, Chen Duxiu). It is estimated that his New Youth Magazine may have had a circulation of 200,000. As Lenin said, without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. Just as the tumultuous theoretical debates within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (out of which the Bolsheviks came) laid the solid foundation for the successful taking of power in 1917, so Chen’s journals and student discussion circles in the period 1904-1921 were decisive in educating the young, founding cadres of the Chinese Communist Party.
As has been said, the Chinese Revolution had to be realised as part of a world socialist revolution, and not a national, bourgeois revolution, because China’s feudal ruling class was already tied by a thousand threads to the capitalist world market, preventing the emergence of any independent, national bourgeoisie to lead the fight against feudalism and imperialism. From the Marxist point of view, the dragging of China into the world market, albeit in such a destructive manner, is ultimately (and only ultimately) a progressive thing, because it led to the development of China’s productive forces, the creation of a Chinese proletariat, and made possible “a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia”, i.e. the establishment of socialism in Asia, so that mankind could “fulfil its destiny” – the world revolution – as Marx said.
It is quite fashionable nowadays to accuse Marxist thought of really being just another edition of arrogant, Western imperialist thinking coming out of the Enlightenment. It is said that Marx had a patronising contempt for non-Europeans and thought it their rightful destiny to always follow the West. But the truth is that Marx defended the Chinese people against the outrageous crimes of the British capitalist class, and in his articles in the New York Daily Tribune he appealed not to ‘the West’ as one bloc, but to revolutionaries and proletarians in the West to oppose their own imperialist governments and solidarize with the Chinese people. Marx understood that the British government was reactionary, and so the results of the colonisation of China were only progressive insofar as they resulted in the downfall of the Chinese ruling class and the Western ruling class – hence his enthusiastic anticipation of a European revolution being sparked by one in China, as quoted above. Furthermore, when reading Marxist literature that describes as backward a nation such as China, this is not a racial slander on the Chinese people but a correct characterisation of the antiquated mode of production and the antiquated Chinese ruling class, rather than the Chinese people. This is proven by the historical fact that it was capitalist Western states, by force, which opened up and undermined China, and not the other way around. Only now is China competing on a more or less even capitalist basis with the West. That it may soon overtake the West is also proof that this is not in any way a ‘racial’ question. It is not that Marxism considers imperialist domination of one over the other right or good, or an expression of national superiority, but simply that imperialism is an unavoidable phase in history. That world history has borne witness to imperialism is an undeniable fact. Long term historical development is the only test for the validity of corresponding theories, not the ‘anti-orientalist’ professor’s study.
A New Class
By the early 20th Century something fundamentally new and of enormous historic significance was happening in China – a modern, urban working class and industry were developing. For imperialism has a dual expression – certainly, as we have shown for China, it truncates and distorts the development of colonised nations, upholds, strengthens and even exaggerates antiquated social relations and means of production. But it does so only so that it may incorporate the nation into the world market, making it a part of the world division of labour involving the most developed technology. The pauperisation of the rural population may strengthen the old landlord class, but it also creates a large pool of cheap labour, ideal for exploitation by the large quantities of capital passing through the trading cities. So while, as described above, we see an intensification of feudal exploitation and a decline in agricultural productivity to pre-colonial levels, we also see in China, side by side with this, an industry and working class developing in places like Shanghai and Guangzhou based on the latest capitalist technology and methods. This phenomenon Trotsky termed ‘combined and uneven development,
“the accumulation of wealth by this class [the compradore, landlord class] could not fail in the nature of things to stimulate efforts to compete with the foreigners on their own ground. Imperialism had destroyed the old economic base. It could hinder but not entirely prevent the erection of a new one... The first rice-cleaning mill was established in Shanghai in 1863. The Kiangnan shipyard was established in 1865. Seven years later the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company was organised to compete with the foreign monopoly in coastal and river shipping... A modern coal mine began operations at Kaiping in 1878, and in 1890 the first cotton-spinning and –weaving mill was built at Shanghai and the first Ironworks at Wuchang. Match factories and flour mills had followed by 1896. The industrialisation of China had begun.” (Isaacs, op cit.)
Of course these modern factories did not run themselves and required large numbers of no doubt former peasants, thrown off the land, to do the work. In particular it was the impulse given to Chinese industry by World War I that developed the working class that was in the next few years to lead the second Chinese revolution and join the newly formed CCP. Whereas previously China had known a long history of peasant revolts that could only result in the swapping of one ruling Dynasty for another, (the Taiping rebellion of 1850-64 might have been different were it not for the imperialist intervention) owing to the scattered and variegated peasantry’s dependence on the leadership of an urban class, this formation of a new urban class, just as exploited as the peasantry but with the capacity for revolutionary political leadership, meant that the potential now existed to do away with Dynastic, landlord and even bourgeois rule once and for all.
The power that the working class possesses, thanks to its socialised conditions of existence, shared interests and vital economic role, was first really expressed in China in the already mentioned May 4th Movement in 1919. Started by students, the anti-Japanese and Western protests received a powerful and hitherto unknown fillip from the Shanghainese working class,
“At the end of 1916 there were already nearly 1m industrial workers in China and their number nearly doubled by 1922. An army of nearly 200,000 Chinese labourers had been sent to Europe during the war. Many of them learned to read and write and, even more significantly, came in contact with European workers and the higher European standard of living. They returned with new ideas about man’s struggle to better his estate... These workers played a key role in the creation of new labour organisations, in which they formed a solid and energetic nucleus... Their strikes in Shanghai and other cities in 1919 more than anything else forced the release of student demonstrators arrested in Peking and hastened the resignation of the offending government officials.” (Ibid, our emphasis)
Despite being only 7 years after the Xinhai revolution that ended the Qing Dynasty, this decisive entry of the Chinese working class onto the stage of history sparked off a new revolution and gave an enormous impulse to revolutionary ideas. After all, the 1911 revolution had been an indubitable failure. A crucial factor in the second revolution, a subtle detail that was not understood by the Stalin/Zinoviev dominated Comintern, was that for all their fame for having led the anti-Qing revolution, the Guomindang were at the same time tarnished as a revolutionary force precisely because of their compromising role in 1911. They led the pre-working class revolution, but by 1919 the working class had changed everything, “the Kuomintang, heir to the party of the 1911 revolution, had fallen into sterile impotence.” (Ibid)
These two characteristics – the new class division in Chinese society and its link to Western revolutionary, socialist ideas, cried out for a political expression able to complete what the Guomindang had failed to do in 1911 – a revolution that would restore Chinese national sovereignty and really unite and modernise China.
In Europe, the merciless exposure of the illusions and limitations of the ‘Enlightenment’ ideals of the bourgeois revolution, in particular the illusion of harmonious progress, by the cold realities of capitalism, led to an explosion in pessimistic thought amongst the intelligentsia. The likes of Nietzsche questioned whether progress really ever existed and sought purely individual solutions to the soulless conditions of capitalism. This has its modern equivalent in ‘post-modernism’ and those who speak of the futility of collective struggle and the ‘end of ideology’ (whilst happily dishing out their own eclectic ideology!). In doing so they only prove their short sightedness, their contentment with the status quo (despite the pessimistic talk of ‘no progress’) and befuddlement in the face of the most superficial trends. Likewise the failure of the first Chinese revolution in 1911, and the brutal, inhuman reality of ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ Western rule, caused many members of the Chinese intelligentsia to descend into pessimism, “reacting against what they saw as the hypocrisy of the West, many Chinese thinkers, like many Westerners of the time, began to question the value of progress... After a visit to Europe where he witnessed the devastation and demoralisation that had occurred as a result of the war, Liang [Qichao] returned to China in 1919 and denounced what he called “the dream of the omnipotence of science.” Liang and his associates insisted that the Chinese should respect their own civilisation by paying more attention to certain traditional “spiritual values.”” (Feigon, op cit.) Liang must have been left with his jaw on the floor when, immediately after making these statements, the Chinese working class gave him a lesson in how to restore Chinese dignity by borrowing ‘European’ methods of strike action to defeat the pro-Western government in 1919! Similarly, our 21st Century intellectuals must be dumbfounded by the good old revolutionary methods being rediscovered in the Arab world, Europe, and indeed China today.
Chen Duxiu on the other hand stood head and shoulders above other intellectuals of the time (apart from the other founders of the CCP such as Li Dazhao). Thanks to his decades in running journals dedicated to the revolutionary youth, always seeking a way out for China, Chen and his young followers had drawn the conclusion that traditional values were a part of the problem, (it was after all the traditional Chinese state, based on Confucian ideology, that had sold out to the ‘advanced’ West) and that new scientific ideas, ones not tainted by exploitative capitalism, were needed to liberate China, “Chen earlier had made the importance of science one of the focal points of his attacks... he was not willing to allow Liang to disparage Western scientific values. It was in this context that Chen, like many others who were disappointed with Western bourgeois democracy, began to take a second look at the Bolshevik Revolution.” (Ibid, our emphasis).
The Russian Revolution and the Founding of the CCP
The Russian Revolution had a profound effect on the consciousness of Chinese youth and workers, as elsewhere. It meant that the most forward thinking people would now look to Marxist ideas for a way forward, and not those of Liberalism. Having captured state power to enable the socialist reorganisation of society, the working class operates under a fundamentally different foreign policy to the capitalists. Instead of seeking to manoeuvre on the world stage to enhance their power at the expense of others, as any powerful national capitalist class must do, the working class must seek to extend their revolution across borders and extend active solidarity to workers elsewhere whenever they can, because that is the only way to consolidate and develop their own revolution. This principle has been witnessed very recently in the Arab Revolutions, and will also be crucial for the European working class in the present crisis. These are the principles on which the Communist International was founded, in the same year that the Chinese working class entered the stage:
“Internationalism is the subordination of the interests of the proletarian struggle in one nation to the interests of that struggle on an international scale, and the capability and readiness on the part of one nation which has gained a victory over the bourgeoisie of making the greatest national sacrifices for the overthrow of international capitalism.”
These noble words were put into practice in the same year, 1919, when the Soviet government enacted the Karakhan Manifesto, which relinquished the territories, rights and privileges that the Tsarist government had won from China in the past. In the context of the disgraceful handing of Shandong from German hands to the Japanese behind China’s back in the Versailles Treaty, along with all the other humiliations exacted from the Chinese people by the West, this act of the revolutionary Russian government must have had a massive impact on the Chinese at the time. Quite possibly it was this above all else that convinced many, in particular the followers of Chen Duxiu, to form the Chinese Communist Party and apply for affiliation to the Communist International in 1921.
By 1919 Chen’s New Youth Magazine had been advocating a form of Marxism and other socialist ideas for some time. He wanted to form a political party using his base amongst the youth to change China. In the disciplined and revolutionary Bolshevik party that had led Russia’s revolution and was changing the whole world, he found what he decided was a suitable blueprint. Li Dazhao, the other outstanding founder of the CCP, had also embraced the Russian Revolution and formed a Marxist study group amongst students. He made contact with the Comintern and joined with Chen Duxiu and his numerous followers to make preparations for founding the Chinese Communist Party.
The Manifesto of the CCP was published in November 1920, 72 years after the founding manifesto of the Communist movement, and it openly declared right from the beginning the intention to lead the working class to power in a socialist revolution, marking a fundamental break with the hitherto dominant idea of the need to form a Western style bourgeois, parliamentary democracy in China,
“The first step toward realising our ideal society is to eradicate the present bourgeois system. That can only be done by forcefully overthrowing the capitalists’ state... The Communist Party will lead the revolutionary proletariat to struggle against the capitalists and seize political power from the hands of the capitalists, for it is that power that maintains the capitalist state; and it will place that power in the hands of the workers and peasants, just as the Russian Communists did in 1917.”
It is worth noting that this manifesto, and the coming documents of the First Congress in 1921, were drafted with the explicit aid of the Comintern leadership in Russia. Peng Shuzhi describes the process whereby the party was formed:
“The first Communist group in China was established in Shanghai in May 1920, with the help of Grigori Voitinski, the first representative sent to China by the Communist International under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky... Two months after the establishment of the Shanghai Communist Group, a Socialist Youth Corps (SYC) was founded. The SYC recruited groups of young communists to be sent to study in Moscow. Beginning in August 1920, the Communist Group published a weekly organ, The Labourer. It was also responsible for spreading communist ideas among the workers and developing modern trade unions. By September, the famous New Youth monthly, edited by Chen Duxiu, became the organ of the Shanghai Communist Group and publicly advocated Marxism, while reporting on the true situation in Soviet Russia. Then, in November, the CG published a clandestine monthly, The Communist, in which Bolshevik ideas and revolutionary experience were introduced, along with writings about communist movements in other countries. This journal also printed the “Manifesto of the Communist International to the Workers of the World,” written by Trotsky, and Lenin’s report to the Second Congress of the Communist International... from about October 1920 other communist groups were set up in places like Beijing, Wuhan, Changsha, Guangzhou and Jinan.” (Peng Shuzhi, Introduction to Leon Trotsky on China).
Such was the extraordinarily rapid development of the party that would soon play such a decisive role in China. This speedy development was thanks largely to Chen Duxiu’s and others’ decades of preparatory work (the end result of the formation of the CCP they were of course unaware of at the time) and the earth shattering events in Russia in 1917. Without the formation of the Comintern there can be no doubt that the CCP would not have been formed, certainly not in such a timely fashion and with such a clear commitment to revolution. The founding programme of the CCP in 1921 is not only an immensely important historical document, but is still relevant to the needs of China today:
“Our party programme is as follows. (1) To overthrow the bourgeoisie with a revolutionary army of the proletariat and to rebuild the state with the toiling classes, until all class distinctions are abolished. (2) To introduce a dictatorship of the proletariat in order to achieve the goal of class struggle – an end to classes. (3) To destroy the system of bourgeois private property and to expropriate machines, land, factories, and the means of production, including semi-finished products. (4) To ally with the Third International.”
A relatively short span of time transpired between the first capitalist development in China and the maturing of the conditions for social revolution. In contrast, in Britain, where the working class first developed, almost exactly two hundred years passed between the bourgeois revolution of Cromwell and the beginning of the Chartist movement, the first working class movement in the world.
A further ten years transpired before the theory of Marxism was expressed in the Communist Manifesto, which was the first time that historical materialism, a scientific understanding of the class struggle, and the task of the working class to consciously overthrow capitalism and initiate a plan of production, was explicitly set forth.
In the meantime, the nascent working class was accumulating experience, developing class consciousness and forming the first trade unions. Many methods and ideas were tried out, including Luddism, which was a historical dead end. Innumerable anonymous proletarians sacrificed themselves in struggle before mass trade unions and mass working class parties that could fight for power could be formed. When the working class in the cities were still new and relatively numerically weak, the theories and experiments of utopian socialism were the only way in which the need for socialism could be expressed. Literally hundreds of years of these experiences had to be passed through before the ideas of Marxism could be formulated and fought for.
But the lessons of the history of the working class movement are global in their application, for the very reasons that were explained in Part One – the shared interests of the working class the world over, the interconnectedness of their struggle thanks to being tied through the same world market, and therefore the general validity of the most effective methods of struggle. These lessons can be, with an international leadership, quickly adopted in colonial or developing countries at their highest point of development. This is the essential task of Marxist theory and leadership – to generalise the global experiences of the working class and concretely apply them in specific conditions. That there is no need in such countries to repeat the mistakes and experiments once they have been made elsewhere is proven by the whole experience of the Chinese revolution and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Despite being more economically backward than Russia in 1917, not only did China go through no period of utopian socialism or reformism, it never even experienced a peasant revolutionary party in the style of the Russian Narodniks. Instead, almost as soon as the working class moved, they came to the ideas of Bolshevism, thanks to the existence of the very recent Russian Revolution.
The aid of the Comintern was absolutely essential in getting a real disciplined Bolshevik organisation capable of leading class struggle off the ground. Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao were not from working class backgrounds and had no experience of strikes or revolutions. Chen Duxiu was from a family of wealthy government officials and was now a university professor, Li Dazhao was from a peasant background. In fact, when the CCP was formed, the whole of China had little experience of strikes or open class struggle, and the experiences of Europe and other countries were only just beginning to be discussed. That the revolution was started by workers only four years after the founding of the CCP shows there was no time to waste for the party charged with leading the working class to power, and thus a substitute for decades of experience and debate had to be found. This substitute was of course the material and theoretical aid of the Comintern:
“Visits began in the summer of 1919, when a member of the Russian Communist Party, N. Burtman, who had been forced to take refuge in Tianjin, established contact with Li Dazhao... Over the next year, a number of other Russian émigrés called on Li Dazhao and others interested in Marxism. By late 1919, official Comintern representative had begun to arrive in China... Voitinski met with Chen, explaining to him the basic structures and purpose of a Chinese Communist party and helping him draft a programme for it. With Comintern assistance, Chen was able to construct the first official Communist cell, and in May 1920 he established a provisional Central Committee for the new Communist party... Even before the arrival of the Comintern representatives, Chen had taken steps to form a loose, new political party based on what he had assumed to be Marxist principles. But these Comintern representatives were important in helping Chen to reorganise the party and gradually build a Leninist style organisation, convincing him in 1921 to expel the anarchist elements from the party... In spite of his commitment to the idea of a Bolshevik-style organisation, it is clear that Chen was at first too naive about Leninist organisation to be able to organise the party without Voitinski’s help.” (Feigon, Chen Duxiu, our emphasis)”
Tasks equal in greatness to those carried out by the Bolsheviks fell onto the CCP four years after its founding, whereas the Bolsheviks had fully 19 years to prepare. For this reason the Chinese revolution depended on the leadership of the Comintern. As the above quote indicates, Chen Duxiu’s instinct was to form a more loosely organised party comprising many disparate elements. No doubt left to themselves such an organisation would have been a poll of attraction and would have played an important role in the coming revolution. But without a clearly defined perspective on what was to take place in China (a working class led revolution) and what tasks would fall on the revolutionary party as a result, it is likely that the nascent CCP would have lagged behind the mass of revolutionary Chinese workers. Indeed, as we shall see, this did in the end happen, although not because the CCP was isolated but precisely the opposite – because of an erroneous leadership imposed onto the party by Stalin. But the importance of the disciplined party, with a clear, implacable revolutionary position, was only really grasped in Europe by Lenin as a result of decades of experience and discussion in that continent. So it is unsurprising that Chen Duxiu should not instantly come to such a conclusion based purely on his own experiences.
The Independence of the Working Class
The need for a disciplined, professional revolutionary party flows from the need for the proletarian party to be completely independent of other classes. History has shown that there is a constant tendency for the leadership of workers’ parties to come under pressure from the bourgeois and petty bourgeoisie, and as a result to become reformist, to give up the struggle against capitalism. To combat this tendency what is needed is a disciplined cadre of committed, conscious revolutionaries. Tragically, it was precisely this lesson of Leninism which was to be forfeited by the Comintern precisely when the CCP needed it most.
The Chinese working class could not wait for the CCP to develop itself into the necessary instrument for taking power. We have already explained how the mass protests in 1919 involved mass strike action by the workers for the first time, and they got a taste of their own power by successfully freeing gaoled protestors. The May 30th Movement of 1925, which marks the ‘official’ beginning of the revolution of 1925-7, was like a more intense rerun of the movement of six years previously. In other words, the second Chinese Revolution was started by the working class. Militant strikes had been taking place at a Japanese owned cotton mill in 1925 in Shanghai. One of the Japanese foremen shot dead a protestor. During the mass student solidarity demonstrations that followed, British police shot at and killed several protestors, sparking off a massive nationwide anti-imperialist conflagration. The floodgates were opened, and over the next few months demonstration after demonstration and strike after strike shook China. The imperialists and their puppet government knew not what to do, so furious and comprehensive was the revolt, and several more shootings like the ones on May 30th followed. The working class was from the very beginning at the forefront of this militancy, a fact of enormous social significance and one that should have reminded leaders of the Comintern of the victorious Russian Revolution that brought them to power.
“In May 1922 the first national labour conference met in Guangzhou under the leadership of the triumphant seamen. The conference was attended by delegates of 230,000 union members... The labour movement grew with astonishing speed and militancy. On May Day 1924, in Shanghai, 100,000 workers marched through the streets and twice that number marched in Guangzhou... It is obvious that by the time the Kuomintang was reorganised in 1924, workers in China had already begun to organise themselves in a movement marked by its independent spirit and militancy... G. Voitinski reported at the time that the delegates ‘gave a cold and dubious reception to the declaration of the responsible representative of the Kuomintang, who called upon the workers to form a united front with the peasants and intellectuals, but not under the hegemony of the proletariat’.” (Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution)
The “hegemony” or leadership of a class in society is dependent on its social strength determined by its relationship to the means of production. By this time the Chinese working class was no doubt still numerically small, but had an enormous social weight, first of all in its essential economic role in carrying out the work in all the key areas of the economy – transport, manufacturing, extraction of raw materials and energy, and secondly in its ability to develop a consciousness of this power, an ability which was clearly realised by 1925 in the form of mass unions and militant strike activity that was largely victorious. Marxists do not measure a class’s political power and role from a moralistic standpoint, nor with some sort of arithmetical calculus which would automatically declare the most numerous class as the rightful ruling class. Instead we measure it by its objective economic strength in society. As the events of 1925-7 will show, the Chinese working class was already extremely powerful despite its small size. This social fact has remained the case in China ever since.
Ultimately, any class which is capable of wielding power and transforming society in accordance with its interests must manifest this capability in a powerful political party. But it is not sufficient to have a political party that some individual has merely given the abstract name of the class, rather the class in question, the working class, must see and understand that party as its own and express itself through such a party on a mass scale. Only then is the party really worthy of the name. In that case such a proletarian party has gigantic potential power; it is the mightiest leaver with which to change society. All that is then required is for the working class and its leadership to be conscious of this fact.
Looking at the facts it should be clear that by 1925, the Chinese working class was sufficiently economically strong to lead the revolution, for as we shall see their strikes had a decisive impact on society at that time. But it was also sufficiently conscious and politically organised to carry through the tasks of the revolution, i.e. to take power itself, rather than merely to support another class in its endeavours. For the Chinese Communist Party, with the publicly self-declared goal of leading the working class to take power and overthrow capitalism, and its open association with the Russian Revolution, had already gained a mass following and played a decisive role in establishing and leading the very unions that were organising the working class. According to Peng Shuzhi, “by the time the revolution had reached its greatest height (March-April 1927) the CCP had in fact become a mass party... it lead three million organised workers and fifteen million organised peasants.” Its own membership numbered in the hundreds of thousands only a few years after its founding. The combination of these factors, with the addition of the world’s first workers’ state with its powerful Communist International on the Chinese border, should have assured the victory of the second Chinese Revolution in 1925-7 as a workers’ revolution.
Incidentally, this experience of sudden, dramatic revolutionary developments in a country with no previous proletarian revolutionary or even reformist tradition is very instructive today, and not just for China. There is a constant and tedious chatter on “the left” about the parlous state of the very same official “left” the world over. The apparent disappearance of working class traditions and the electoral weakness of the workers’ parties are constantly drawn attention to as proof that no serious revolutionary movement may again occur. Yet not only is it an exaggeration to say these traditions have gone – indeed in many respects the working class has a greater awareness of its rights than ever before – but this fails to address the question as to how these traditions were created in the first place?
This period of Chinese history is extremely instructive on this matter. There was an explosive combination of revolutionary events elsewhere, a global crisis of imperialism (WWI), and the rapid creation of a new, urban and super-exploited class in sharp opposition to the anachronistic compradore bourgeois/landlord class. The objective necessity to better their conditions, and the perception of intolerable injustice engendered by imperialist occupation, forced the new working class to clash violently with the ruling class. It is these unavoidable clashes, historic events, which are the turning points in history after which all else is changed. One has to speak of China “before” and China “after” the 1920s. Unfortunately for the present bourgeois, the intolerable contradictions of capitalism the world over are evidently reaching the point at which dramatic events and class conflict are no longer postponable, and these events will serve to renew militant traditions and consciousness in a big way. Indeed, they already are.
A Revolutionary Policy
Thus the leadership of the working class in the Chinese Revolution by the early 1920s was fairly evident. Of course it is natural that the mass of these politically inexperienced workers would, despite their newfound militancy, tend to look to the “big names” of the bourgeois republican nationalist movement, such as Sun Yat Sen, for leadership in this outbreak of anti-imperialist struggle in 1925.
In the beginning of all revolutions there is an optimistic striving for unity with all the various progressive forces in society. It is only after these initial experiences that a polarisation then takes place, as the working class, unsatisfied with changes in personnel at the top, or the promise of coming elections, begins to place its own more radical demands on the agenda. As soon as the revolution begins there is an embryonic split in the movement along class lines.
For instance, in the case in question, the revolution was first set in motion by workers on strike. Although it is true that the new trade unions were already being organised by the CCP and not the Guomindang, their demands were generally formally acceptable to the bourgeois Guomindang leadership – simple economic demands for a shortening of the working day, union recognition, and political demands for national sovereignty.
However, the methods used by trade unions betrayed their class character, a class just as much in contradiction with the burgeoning Chinese capitalists and foremen as with the foreigners. Strikes would not be welcomed by otherwise “anti-imperialist” Chinese businessmen, to the extent that such nationalist businessmen even existed. With foresight of the inevitable coming split along class lines within the nationalist movement, the CCP could have lead the more uncompromising toiling masses away from a compromising bourgeois leadership that would, as we shall see, come to betray the nationalist movement.
Lenin’s awareness of this class logic within the anti-imperialist movements lead him to lay down the following formula for the Communist International’s strategy in the colonial world,
“With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:
“[...] the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries; the Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e., those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations. The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form.” (Lenin, Draft Theses on the Colonial and National Questions, presented to the Second Comintern Congress 1920)
Thus according to the programme of the Comintern under the leadership of Lenin, the overarching strategy of the CCP should have been to participate in the national movement under the leadership of the Guomindang only on condition that the party maintain its independence. It must freely criticise the Guomindang, and prepare always for the day when the CCP would be strong enough to openly oppose the Guomindang. As soon as the CCP was strong enough to do so, the Guomindang would quit the revolution precisely in order to make a pact with the imperialists to attack the too powerful CCP. As we have said, the Chinese bourgeois would always have more to fear from their own aroused working class than from British imperialism. At least with the latter in power they could retain some of their privileges. And finally, the CCP must not give the Guomindang a “communist colouring”, allowing the latter to fool the masses as a “friend” of the people. All this is exactly in accordance with the founding principles of the CCP as quoted in the previous part.
In reality, even this programme of the Comintern, which was of course not written for China but the colonial world in general, does not apply exactly to the details of China in 1925. For one could not really describe this revolution as “bourgeois democratic”, being led from the beginning as it was by the CCP, or at least the unions it helped create, and being carried out with working class methods in the towns and peasant-insurrectionist methods in the countryside.
Although they were linked with the Guomindang, which was the more well-known party, the peasant organisations were from the start more influenced by the working class than the merchants, “On May Day 1925, the 2nd National Labour Conference and the 1st Provincial Assembly of the Peasant Association took place simultaneously in Guangzhou... the delegates paraded jointly, together with thousands of Guangzhou workers and farmers who poured into the city from the countryside” (Isaacs, op cit.). Yes, immediately preceding the revolution in 1924, the Guomindang did manage to use the rising tide of the masses as a base to take control of Guangzhou, and yes, in the eyes of most workers and peasants, probably both the CCP and the Guomindang were to be supported as anti-imperialist. But considering that its membership ran into the hundreds of thousands, and had organised millions of workers, there was never really any need for the CCP to play second fiddle to the Guomindang, even if it was, as Lenin outlined, only to prepare itself for ultimately breaking with the Guomindang.
This was indeed the attitude of Chen Duxiu and the other original leaders of the CCP. “Chen... insisted that the Guomindang was the party of the bourgeoisie.” (Feigon, op cit.). So what was the problem?
The source of the problem lay outside China’s borders. The necessary internationalism of the socialist revolution works both ways – on the one hand, the emergent working class in the colonial world needed the speedy material help and experience of the Russian working class for their own liberation, but on the other hand, the victorious Russian proletariat desperately needed to export its revolution or suffer its degeneration in isolation. The Russian working class needed the victory of the German (and later the Chinese) working class to assist in the building of socialism. Since the German revolution was defeated in 1918 and 1923, the German working class could offer no assistance. It is no coincidence that only one year after this German defeat, Stalin’s bureaucratic power began to consolidate itself and expressed his theory of “socialism in one country”.
There is no time here to go into a lengthy explanation of how the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) abandoned Bolshevik methods and programme. Trotsky was of the opinion that in the mid 1920s Stalin’s policy was not to consciously betray or destroy revolutions elsewhere. Rather the outlook of “socialism in one country” expressed an inherent bureaucratic need to seek so-called “peaceful coexistence” with the powerful capitalist states. From the narrow point of view of preventing an immediate attack from the imperialists, of course seeking to appease them is the obvious answer. But the very existence of a successful revolution and planned economy was anathema to imperialism, especially one so disease ridden as European imperialism was in the first half of the twentieth century, such that no amount of compromising could avert their attempts to destroy the USSR. This is proven by the German invasion of Russia even after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as well the whole of the Cold War.
Furthermore, the whole existence of the Soviet Union and Russian Revolution should have been directed to the realisation of world revolution, the only thing that could build socialism in Russia. The conservative aim to simply maintain the existence of the Soviet Union and, most importantly, the power and privileges of its bureaucracy, was not only insufficient for realising world revolution, but directly harmful to that cause. The Russian bureaucracy, in establishing diplomatic relations and trade treaties with bourgeois nations, came to know only their own counterparts in those countries, namely the bureaucracies of bourgeois states. It follows necessarily that consciously aiding a revolutionary struggle of the toiling masses against the various bourgeois states would have a deleterious effect on relations with said bourgeois states. For this reason Stalin inverted Lenin’s formula of Internationalism, of the subordination of the USSR’s interests to those of the world revolution, into the subordination of the interests of the world revolution to those of the USSR (and its most immediate interests at that). Stalin began to use the Communist parties affiliated to the Comintern, such as the CCP, as mere tools of Soviet diplomacy with the West.
“In China, the line was directed toward a rapprochement with the ‘solid’ leaders, based on personal relations, on diplomatic combinations, while renouncing in practice the deepening of the abyss between the revolutionary or leftward developing masses and the traitorous leaders. We ran after Chiang Kai-shek [leader of the Guomindang by mid 20s] and thereby drove the Chinese communists to accept the dictatorial conditions put by Chiang Kai-shek to the Communist party.” (Trotsky, Chinese Revolution and Theses of Stalin)
These are the reasons, entirely external to China and the CCP, that the Stalin/Zinoviev line for the Chinese Revolution contradicted Lenin’s theses on work in colonial revolutions, directly contradicted Chen Duxiu’s view of the Guomindang and the whole experience of its role during the 1911 revolution. In spite of everything, the Stalin controlled Comintern was to continually order from 1923 onwards that the CCP and the working class could play no leading role in the coming revolution, could at best offer an auxiliary to the Guomindang and the Chinese bourgeoisie, and that the CCP must do everything in its power to join the Guomindang and convince the working class and peasantry of the Guomindang’s necessary and progressive role. All this was designed to persuade the bourgeoisie that the CCP presented them with no danger whatsoever in the hope that such friendly relations would win the USSR an ally in China.
Stalin’s leadership of the Comintern was too short sighted to understand the class dynamics of Chinese society, too short sighted to spot the signs that the Chinese working class would impress its own methods of strike action onto the revolution irrespective of Comintern pleadings. Blinded by his desire for a “respectable” ally in the form of the Guomindang, he could not understand that the militancy of the Chinese workers would inevitably drive the Chinese bourgeoisie away from the striking working class and the CCP and into the hands of the imperialists, barring any possibility of a meaningful Comintern/Guomindang alliance. Having embarked on this bureaucratically driven policy, Stalin would cling to it rather than cave in and admit that Trotsky and the CCP’s own leadership were right for the sake of his own prestige.
The Revolutionary Policy Betrayed
It is in no way an exaggeration to say that the source of the eventual bureaucratic degeneration of the CCP, including its present role in managing Chinese capitalism, is to be exclusively found in the bureaucratic degeneration of the Comintern. We have already outlined how without the leadership of the Comintern under Lenin and Trotsky, the creation of a healthy, democratic CCP clearly committed to overthrowing capitalism would not have taken place in 1921. Nevertheless, having been established, there is no doubt that this party, under the leadership of Chen Duxiu and committed to leading a socialist revolution in China, would not have taken the contradictory step of suddenly capitulating to the perspective of merely aiding a bourgeois national revolution were it not for the imposition of the bureaucratised Comintern.
This is proven by the opposition within the CCP to Stalin’s perspective of joining the Guomindang. Because of Chen Duxiu’s and others’ opposition to that erroneous perspective, the Comintern had to eventually force out the founding leadership and install an anti-democratic regime in the CCP to mirror that in the CPSU, creating an atmosphere of intolerance mixed with deference to the USSR. The party moved from having yearly conferences, a leadership freely elected from the membership and an open atmosphere of democratic discussion focused on the tasks at hand, to one of intrigues from Moscow, mass expulsions of those associated with the Left Opposition in Russia (many young CCP comrades were sent to Moscow to study, as a result of which a very large proportion joined or were sympathetic to Trotsky’s Left Opposition) and ignorance of the national and international situation as Moscow deliberately withheld from the CCP information that would contradict its line. At one point the CCP underwent 17 years without a conference!
“Most of the leaders of the CCP had only the sketchiest understanding of theory... the result was that Moscow did their thinking for them... But unfortunately those doing the thinking were no longer Lenin and Trotsky, who had brought the [Russian] revolution to fruition, but Stalin, who had betrayed it. Although Trotsky and his fellow thinkers had a strategy which could have led the Chinese Revolution to victory, their views were suppressed by the Stalinists, who advanced what amounted to a Menshevik line for China.” (Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary)
The freedom to criticise is inadmissible to the maintenance of any leadership whose existence is directly contrary to the needs of the party.
Peng Shuzhi, a participant in these events, describes the process whereby Chen Duxiu and the entire CCP leadership’s resistance to the new Guomindang policy was overcome:
“Just as the CCP was determining its policy toward the Chinese revolution at its Second Congress, the Communist International made a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn in its policy... In early August 1922, Maring arrived at Shanghai and, after meeting with Sun Yat Sen [i.e. the Comintern met with the leader of an opposing party over the heads of the CCP leadership], asked the CCP Central Committee to call a special meeting at which instructions from the Comintern would be discussed. These instructions were: CCP members were to join the Guomindang as individuals... all those in attendance at this meeting opposed this proposal, the main reasons being: the Guomindang represents the interests of the bourgeoisie.” (Peng Shuzhi, Introduction to Leon Trotsky on China)
Naturally the basis for an international leadership of the revolutionary movement is not the identity of conditions in each and every country, but rather the unity of the world economy through difference. The wealth and power of developed capitalist nations is not repeated elsewhere, but is precisely the precondition for the poverty and weakness of undeveloped nations. The one depends on the other. It is because of the specific conditions in various parts of the world that a genuinely revolutionary international leadership must take into account the experiences and points of view of the respective sections of the International, rather than arrogantly ignore them. Bureaucratically imposing a line onto a national section that does not agree will only damage that section and the International as a whole.
If it were the case that the CCP’s anti-Guomindang instincts were wrong (and they weren’t), the Comintern leadership should have respected the delicate condition of this new party and opened a democratic, friendly discussion on the matter with the CCP. Above all, despite their inexperience, no one could have known what the real situation on the ground was better than the Chinese communists, “domestic factors are, in the last analysis, decisive. We must base our fundamental orientation on the development of these internal forces.” (Trotsky, Problems of our policy with respect to China and Japan).
Instead they went behind their backs, essentially striking a deal with the Guomindang, and used this done deal as well as the prestige of the Comintern leadership to twist the young CCP’s arm into agreeing. “Since Chen Duxiu expressed this opposition when he attended the Fourth Comintern Congress, the chairman of the Comintern, Zinoviev, formally raised the question for discussion in the RCP Politburo in early January 1923. Except for Trotsky, all the others, such as Stalin, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, approved having CCP members join the Guomindang” (Peng Shuzhi, op cit.).
That they felt the need to use such underhand tactics betrays a lack of confidence in their own position. The resolution that came out of this meeting also expressed a criminal lack of confidence in the Comintern’s own section in China, compromising the whole purpose of the CCP as an independent party of the proletariat from the start:
“The only serious national-revolutionary group in China is the Guomindang, which is based partly on the liberal-democratic bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie... since the independent workers’ movement in the country is still weak... still being insufficiently differentiated as a wholly independent social force, the ECCI [executive committee of the Communist International] considers it necessary that action between the Guomindang and the young CCP should be coordinated.”
The agreed terms of this “coordination” were not at all equal, the CCP comrades having to join the Guomindang as individual members but were denied the right to criticise its leadership. So the Comintern was not only ignoring the fact that the workers’ movement was already independent and the strongest progressive force in society at that time, but was also producing a self-fulfilling prophecy – by tethering the CCP to a bourgeois party, gagging the former in the process, their strategy could only serve to prevent the CCP and workers’ movement from gaining the necessary independence and strength. Despite their correct misgivings the CCP submitted to the discipline of the Comintern leadership and embarked on the policy of Guomindang cooperation.
The Struggle for a (Bourgeois) Revolutionary Party
When a revolutionary party is being built, enormous attention must be paid to the education of its first layers of membership, to prepare them for the enormous tasks of the future but also so that they can carry out the painstaking work of party building itself, which requires a lot of time and patience. However, the effect of the policy of seeking greater participation with the Guomindang under the understanding that the CCP could not hope to lead the revolution and that it must instead merely pressurise the Guomindang into carrying out the bourgeois national revolution, was inevitably the neglect of the building of the CCP and an abdication of responsibility towards leading the workers’ movement.
Under the pressure of the Comintern, Chen Duxiu retrenched his earlier views regarding the Guomindang, saying that “cooperation with the revolutionary bourgeoisie is the necessary road for the Chinese proletariat.” Mao Zedong, at this point a young Central Committee member, expressed the party’s newfound hope that the bourgeoisie would take the lead that the CCP was so kindly giving them:
“This revolution is the task of the people as a whole. The merchants, workers, peasants, students should all come forward to take on the responsibility for a portion of the revolutionary work; but because of the historical necessity and current tendencies, the work for which the merchants should be responsible in the national revolution is both more urgent and more important than the work that the rest of the people should take upon themselves... The merchants are the ones who feel these sufferings most acutely and most urgently.” (Mao Zedong, quoted in Peng Shuzhi, op cit.)
This characteristic of pleading with the bourgeoisie, urging it to fulfil its “historical role”, signifies that the bourgeoisie was not playing this role, was shirking the coming revolution. If they were leading a struggle against imperialism, the natural thing to do would be to organise independently to place demands on them, not cheer them on from the rear. In truth it was the CCP and the workers’ movement that were at the forefront, and so it was necessary for them to issue a request that the bourgeois might take its rightful role at the head of the revolution now that all else was in place, like the sounding of the intermission bell calling theatre goers to take their seats. In the classical national bourgeois revolutions, the task of leadership naturally fell to the bourgeoisie since there was no organised working class to speak of. Here we have the farce of an organised, militant working class denying itself in the hope that the revolution may thereby retain its bourgeois character!
So the CCP chased after the Guomindang instead of building its own forces.
“Mao Zedong, a standing member of the Central Committee and organisational secretary, put all of his time into propaganda work for the Shanghai executive headquarters of the Guomindang and completely abandoned organisational work for his own party... In other provinces and cities, such as Hunan, Hupei, Sichuan, Beijing, and Tianjin, all CCP cadres worked hard to reorganise the Guomindang and directly took over the party’s work... thus putting a stop to the organisational work of the CCP. The workers’ movement was forgotten, even to the point of disbanding the CCP’s labour secretariat!” (Ibid)
Why was it necessary to do this? Surely this party which was to inevitably lead the revolution could organise itself? According to Gregor Benton, the first hand experience of the Chinese communists, experience which the Comintern should have sought out and listened to, taught them that the Guomindang was “’dead’ even in the early 1920s” (Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries). So weak was this famous party, that “early in 1924... Guomindang branches in most places came under Communist control” (Zheng Chaolin, Chen Duxiu and the Chinese Trotskyists). Only this “control” was purely organisational, i.e. not political, since the CCP, operating under the illusion of Guomindang revolutionary strength, used their work and influence in the party not to win over more people to a Marxist programme, but to win the approval of its leadership. In doing so they inevitably propped up that tottering leadership, gave it a life line and bought it time with which to reorganise in order to attack the labour movement it so feared.
Although the Guomindang leadership must have welcomed the material aid (with no strings attached!) from the Comintern, they maintained a class hatred for the communists in their own country (Sun Yat Sen explicitly states “it was not Chen Duxiu’s but Russia’s idea to befriend us”) and always strove for a deal with the West, just as they had in WWI in the hope of regaining Shandong Province, “since the Communist Party joined the Guomindang... all its propaganda against British, American, French, and Japanese imperialism has served to undermine the Guomindang’s international image... and that [propaganda] against militarism has served to destroy any chance for cooperation between the Guomindang and powerful internal forces.” (Chang Chi et al., quoted in Peng Shuzhi, op cit.).
So the CCP chased after the Guomindang, and the Guomindang chased after the militarists and imperialists, i.e. the sworn enemies of any change in the status quo! Truly, perceived dependence upon others has always been the greatest weakness of the global labour movement.
In this way, the CCP went from having the most promising of beginnings to finding itself criminally unprepared for the revolution. One can only imagine the confusion and demoralisation this process must have had on its membership as they struggled to make sense of and implement the Comintern’s mad policies. What could have been the world’s second successful proletarian revolution was as a result doomed from the very start.
In Part Two we described how the revolution began in 1925 with an explosion of strike activity and mass protests as a result of capitalist exploitation and imperialist oppression. This new high tide was prepared for by years of increasing proletarianisation and unionisation, victorious strikes, peasant land seizures and of course the experience of 1911. But the scope and militancy of the movement in 1925-6, strong enough to bring the workers to power in Shanghai and Guangzhou had the leadership been conscious of it, was breathtaking.
Guangzhou, probably the second most important economic hub of the country at that time, with amongst the highest concentration of workers, was immediately brought to its knees by a general strike that was the result of the May 30th Movement. In colonial, oppressed nations even more than in the West, everything in society is dictated behind the scenes by powerful, distant interests. Handfuls of apparently omnipotent people decide the fate of millions. The monotony of this fact gives rise to an illusion whereby the mysterious forces dictating our lives appear utterly unquestionable and unshakable. But then at special moments, known as revolutions, all this is turned on its head when suddenly the one condition for the ruling class’ power, the acquiescence of the exploited majority, disappears and is replaced with its opposite.
How could an unknown, uneducated, impoverished Cantonese person possibly hope to exercise any sway over how their city was run, let alone his or her own life, especially when the city was really owned by the imperialists? And yet in June 1925 we see that it was precisely these “nobodies” who held decisive control over the city by bringing it to a halt. Thanks to their heroic determination and unity as a class, there was nothing even the British could do to stop them.
It is worth quoting Harold Isaacs at length on this unstoppable movement to convey the scope, strength and militancy of it, just in case there were any doubts as to the independence and class consciousness of the workers’ movement, without which the revolution would never have begun. In particular, note the level of organisation, discipline and maturity displayed by the workers in whose hands Hong Kong and Guangzhou lay,
“Incomplete statistics gathered by a Chinese labour investigator recorded 135 strikes arising directly out of the May 30th shootings, involving nearly 400,000 workers from Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the south to Beijing in the north. At Hankou on June 11th, a landing party of British sailors fired on a demonstration, killing eight and wounding twelve. In Guangzhou, Chinese seamen employed by British shipping companies walked out on June 18th and three days later were joined by practically all the Chinese workers employed by foreign companies in Hong Kong and Shameen. On June 23rd, a demonstration of students, workers, and military cadets paraded in Guangzhou. As they passed the Shakee Road Bridge, British and French machine gunners on the concession side of the creek opened fire on the marchers. Fifty two students and workers were killed and 117 wounded.
“A boycott of British goods and a general strike were immediately declared. Hong Kong, fortress of Britain in China, was totally immobilised. Not a wheel turned. Not a bale of cargo moved. Not a ship left anchorage...The strike halted all foreign commercial and industrial activity. It drew 250,000 workers out of all principal trades and industries in Hong Kong and Shameen. In Guangzhou workers cleaned out gambling and opium dens and converted them into strikers’ dormitories and kitchens. An army of 2,000 pickets was recruited from among the strikers and a solid barrier was thrown around Hong Kong and Shameen. The movement was, by all accounts, superbly organised. Every fifty strikers named a representative to a Strikers’ Delegates’ Conference, which in turn named thirteen men to serve as an executive committee. Under the auspices of this body, actually the first embryo of workers power in China, a hospital and seventeen schools for men and women workers and their children were established and maintained...A strikers’ court was set up which tried violators of the boycott and other offenders against the public order.” (Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution)
This shows clearly that the embryo of a workers' state was being formed in China at this time. The workers were sending out a clear signal that this was their revolution. Unprompted by anyone else, they expressed a bold creativity, determination and fearlessness in the face of the mightiest military powers on earth, taking to the organs of workers' power, soviets (for that is what was being established), in an exemplary fashion. The Chinese working class was proving in action that it had not only learnt very quickly from the West, but that it was actually the most advanced proletariat in the world at the time.
“It is possible for constituent parts of society to hasten their retarded development by imitating the more advanced countries and, thanks to this, even take their stand in the forefront of development, because they are not burdened with the ballast of tradition which the older countries have to drag along.” (Kautsky, quoted in Trotsky, Results and Prospects)
Wang Fanxi, a direct participant in the movement at this time, describes the powerful effect it had on him,
“The strike committee of the Guangzhou-Hong Kong general strike...and its constituent bodies (the workers’ tribunals and militia, the huge strikers’ canteens, and so on), particularly impressed me. I had never seen anything of the sort before...On my second day in Guangzhou I looked across the creek to the British concession on the island of Shameen, where I saw all the doors and windows of the Western-style houses sealed and shuttered. There was not a sign of life, and in the open spaces between the houses the grass was growing knee-high. The effects of the strike were to be seen everywhere...I took part in lively mass meetings of the strikers. I remember vividly to this day the activities of the local strike-committee branches in Guangzhou. In each branch there was a long table covered with red cloth, and on the walls were the pictures of revolutionary leaders framed in red...I was amazed to see how knowledgeable and capable the Guangzhou workers were...the strike committee was in fact rivalling the authority of the National Government in a situation of dual power, and had even taken the law into its own hands. This was the first time I understood what the theory of the hegemony of the working class meant in practice.” (Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary)
The Straits Times, a mouthpiece of British Imperialism based in Singapore, reported a similar situation in Shanghai at exactly the same time, “June 4: Shanghai: no attacks on foreigners are reported today, but the strike is spreading. The newspapers report that roughly 100,000 men are out, chiefly coolies...Practically all the Chinese staffs of the Eastern and Great Northern Telegraph companies have joined the strike.” The CCP convened a General Council of Shanghai Trade Unions, whose call for a general strike was the cause of the above quoted actions. Thus Shanghai was also brought to a standstill.
As was the case in the Russian and countless other revolutions, this unplanned realisation of workers’ power was too sudden to be consolidated and transformed into a workers’ government. The vast majority of the country, i.e. the countryside, had not yet risen, was probably largely unaware of what was going on in the big urban centres, and was still under the control of the old state apparatus and landlords. The actions of the workers would inevitably inspire the peasants to their own insurrection, but not yet. Without a clear political programme of taking this power that lay in their hands and using it to complete the revolution, inevitably the political initiative was seized by the bourgeois Guomindang.
As has been mentioned in Part Two, the Guomindang had in 1924 taken power in the Guangdong area. The way in which they took this power is very instructive. Local feudal militarists had wanted to strike a deal with the Guomindang so that they could maintain the status quo in this strike afflicted region by wearing a “progressive” Guomindang mask. Instead pressure from workers and particularly peasants in the countryside provoked a struggle for power between the militarists and the Guomindang lead forces of the Whampoa Military Academy. The workers and peasants tipped the balance of forces for the Guomindang by actively sabotaging the militarists’ strategy. In other words a deal between the Guomindang leadership and the militarists over the heads of the masses was prevented by the mass forces of workers, peasants and rank and file officers, which combined on a class basis to sweep away the generals.
The Whampoa Academy
The Whampoa Academy was a military academy set up in 1924, which means it succeeded in driving out the forces of these two militarist generals in the very same year in which it was founded. Such military successes that appear to be against all the odds express a profound truth neglected by bourgeois historians and military strategists – that wars are fought for class interests, and in the wars between the classes, that class which represents the future has an enormous advantage despite often having technically inferior forces.
The Whampoa Academy had been planned by Sun Yat Sen and the Guomindang for years, with the aim of establishing a force with which to wage a war against the ruling warlords and to unite China into one modern republic, completing the failed aim of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911. But of course, if one wants to wage a war, in a country the size of China, against numerous warlords, one requires substantial funds, access to military hardware and plenty of soldiers, who need to be fed and paid. In other words, an army must have an economic and social basis. The class character of the Guomindang is summed up in the fact that, despite announcing the ambitious plan to overthrow the old regime, to unify and modernise China, they were obliged to seek financial and political support for this scheme from the various Western imperialist powers – the very same people who had been making deals with the old regime, bombing the Chinese people on behalf of the old regime, and plundering the country’s resources. This may sound ridiculous, but if a party does not base itself on the power of the working class, where else is it to find a reliable and powerful source of finance and technology, if not from the ruling class? That support was sought for from abroad also shows that there was no up-and-coming Chinese moneyed-class prepared to bankroll such an adventure. Unsurprisingly, the imperialist powers rejected Sun’s pleas for aid.
When the Whampoa Academy finally was formed, it was not on the Guomindang’s initiative – they had by then given up on the idea. Instead the idea had to be resuscitated by the Comintern. Comintern representatives as well as Li Dazhao from the CCP eventually persuaded Sun Yat Sen to set the Academy up, by making him an offer he couldn’t refuse – the Soviet Union would bankroll the project, provide it with military advisers, and the members of the CCP would help the academy in various ways, all without the Guomindang having to surrender political and military leadership. Under pressure from the Comintern the CCP even obligated itself not to criticise Sun Yat Sen and his “Three Principles of the People”, a petty bourgeois theory of class collaboration.
In other words, the Comintern went out of its way to ensure the success of this military academy on the class basis of the power of the Chinese working class and peasantry and with money from the Russian workers’ state. And yet the Comintern unnecessarily abnegated control of this powerful force to an alien political party. This party had not wanted to create the academy unless it had the backing of the very same imperialism that had sent its armies to invade Russia only six years previously. This academy was to be essential for the later successes and dictatorial rule of the Guomindang over the CCP and the Chinese people.
The victory against the Yunnanese warlords was clearly assured by the enthusiastic participation of workers and peasants. In a classical bourgeois revolution, such as in Britain or France, the movement would not go much further than this military victory over the reactionaries. In both cases, the new found power of the bourgeoisie was later used to make a compromise with the nobility. But one year after the establishment of Guomindang power through the Whampoa Academy, a new, far higher phase of the revolution swamped the city and completely overtook the Guomindang regime. The spontaneous movement of the working class in 1925 shows that there was a direct struggle for power between the bourgeoisie and the working class, something that was impossible in Britain and France in 1640 and 1789 respectively.
Nevertheless, as we have stated, this situation of dual power in Guangzhou between the bourgeoisie and the working class could not be sustained. Lacking a political expression of their power, the working class could not consolidate it or become fully conscious of it, and inevitably the Guomindang reasserted control. This was especially easy for them, since the Comintern and CCP failed in its basic task of helping the workers to understand the necessary political lessons. The whole purpose of the Comintern should have been to impart the invaluable experience of the Russian Revolution to workers throughout the world, i.e. the lesson that the working class cannot ally with the bourgeoisie, since the latter has diametrically opposed interests. As Lenin said of Russia:
“Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore the workers must open the eyes of the people to the deception practised by the bourgeois politicians, teach them to put no faith in words, to depend entirely on their own strength, their own organisation, their own unity, and their own weapons.”
Instead of bringing the workers to consciousness of the fact that they had control of Guangzhou, did not need to rely on the Guomindang, and must not trust the Guomindang, the Comintern deliberately suppressed any consciousness of this.
The “Three Principles of the People” and the “Four Class Party”
As a result, the Guomindang declared a new National Government in June 1925, although in reality it only had power in Guangdong. But thanks to the mass movement of workers and peasants in the province, which had consolidated the Guomindang’s power as against that of the militarists, the basis was now laid for the anti-warlord Guomindang led “Northern Expedition”, a march from Guangdong province in the far south up to Shanghai and ultimately Beijing in the North East. This would establish the national power of the Guomindang and its new leader Chiang Kai-shek 17 years after they had failed to do so in 1911. But it couldn’t have been done without the CCP.
Ever since the starting gun for the revolution had been fired by the working class and the Communist led trade unions, the strategy of the CCP should have been to win sections of the rank-and-file of the Guomindang (as well as non-aligned workers) to an open Communist programme. This could be done by fighting alongside and supporting the progressive steps that the Guomindang was obliged to take (such as taking power from the militarists in Guangzhou, or starting the Northern Expedition against Warlord rule), with the precondition that the CCP present itself as an independent party fighting for socialism. It could show in practice its commitment to the struggle for national independence, explaining that the best way to achieve this would be through mobilising the working class and peasantry to fight against the Warlords on a programme of land redistribution, etc.
Although seeking to work with and influence members of the Guomindang, the Communists should never have concluded from left statements by Guomindang leaders that the friendship with such a bourgeois party was guaranteed. As we explained in Part Two, the entire lesson of Bolshevism is the need for the class independence and discipline of the revolutionary party. Bourgeois parties, which in the era of the 20th Century could not be revolutionary, are not like this. The leadership determines its policy through its ties with the bourgeoisie and imperialists. It can hardly tell this truth to its own membership (who are mostly petty bourgeois) let alone the general public. So it has to lie to its membership/voters and cannot permit them any real control over its policy. It is for this reason that bourgeois parties are more loosely organised at the rank and file level.
“'Lefts' predominate in conferences, congresses, and the Executive Committee of the Guomindang, but this solacing circumstance is 'not reflected in the composition and politics of the Nationalist government.' How astonishing! But, after all, the left petty bourgeoisie exists only to display its radicalism in articles, and at conferences and banquets, while handing the power over to the middle and big bourgeoisie.” (Trotsky, Class Relations in the Chinese Revolution)
Despite the sudden successes of the CCP, there is no doubt that the party was in 1925 too weak to engage the revolution without appealing to the Guomindang masses, who were indubitably against imperialism but did not understand that the leadership of their party was not sincerely so. The task for the CCP then was to help them to understand that,
“'And what about the Kuomintang masses, are they mere cattle?' Of course they are cattle. The masses of any bourgeois party are always cattle, although in different degrees. But for us, the masses are not cattle, are they? No, that is precisely why we are forbidden to drive them into the arms of the bourgeoisie, camouflaging the latter under the label of a workers’ and peasants’ party.” (Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin)
Naturally the Guomindang right wing was concerned from the start about its partnership with the CCP, which they never trusted no matter how many compromises it made, so the situation of dual power in Guangzhou must have set the alarm bells ringing in all the cliques at the top. “How can our respectable party have allowed itself to be associated with this dangerous riff-raff?” they must have thought.
Of course without a leadership able to present a programme to take the movement forwards, the strike wave abated. As we said, in Guangzhou it cemented the Guomindang’s power, a step forward at least, but in Shanghai, where the workers' movement was initially supported by some merchants (they predictably left the movement before the workers), the strike fizzled out with no party, neither CCP nor Guomindang, strong enough to take power.
Despite the stunning power and organisation of the pickets in Guangzhou, there was little change in social conditions under the newly consolidated Guomindang government. Much like the current situation in Egypt and Tunisia, the masses were effectively told to be patient and not to expect any immediate change in life by the very people who had ridden to power on the backs of the masses. Instead, they should place their trust in their new leaders to sort everything out in time,
“These forces [of popular struggle] had been primarily responsible for the victory of the Guomindang in Guangdong. Only by grace of them did the Guangzhou government exist at all, a fact which Chiang Kai-shek even publicly acknowledged. Yet the government was not required to respond in any concrete manner to the interests of the workers and peasants. A few minor tax burdens were eliminated. The rest was in the realm of promise.” (Isaacs, op cit., our emphasis)
There are moments in history which are like great ruptures after which everything is changed, when all the previous social alignments are rearranged. Those who appeared as great friends suddenly showed themselves to be mortal enemies. Following the tumultuous events of June 1925, it was recognised not only within the corridors of Guomindang power, but also amongst the hitherto anti-Western merchants, that the working class, its powerful unions and the CCP that led them were their mortal enemies who threatened their entire existence.
The guiding theory of the Guomindang, as espoused by Sun Yat Sen, was that of the “Three Principles of the People”, which was basically a utopian theory of bourgeois national unity and harmony, directly inspired by Western liberal democracy. Mirroring the thinking of the Chinese bourgeoisie, it was anti-imperialist and “socialist” only insofar as these things could be granted peacefully and under the smooth leadership of the merchants. It never asked serious questions as to which social class and in which way such a break with imperialism might take place. If it had asked these questions, it would have stumbled across the unfortunate fact that China’s national independence could only be achieved through a determined revolutionary struggle in which all the masses would have to be brought to their feet.
Whenever the workers and peasants moved against imperialism, it was condemned by the Guomindang for not involving all the classes of China and for breaking from harmonious Guomindang leadership – in other words, they detested the real face of revolution which they could not lead. “The peasants, workers, owners of businesses, and merchants – are all allies in the national revolution...The Guomindang is placing before itself the task of freeing from oppression not only the workers and peasants, but also the industrialists and merchants.” (Left Guomindang statement, May 25th 1927, Hankou, our emphasis). As Trotsky commented “this is precisely why the left Guomindang is demanding that the workers observe “revolutionary discipline” – with respect to the industrialists and merchants” (Trotsky, It is Time to Understand, Time to Reconsider, and Time to Make a Change).
Abandoning Marxism, Stalin announced that the Guomindang was a “Four Class Party” or “Bloc of Four Classes”, in which the working class, peasantry, urban petty bourgeois and “national bourgeois” were united in a common cause. Only the landlords and the compradore bourgeois were excluded, although exactly how a line was drawn between these two and the national bourgeoisie was unclear. This idea is utopian and marks the rapid decline in political leadership and theoretical analysis under Stalin. Less than ten years previously the Bolsheviks had taken power on the basis of a political leadership that understood that there could be no dual class leadership of the peasantry and the working class (let alone with the bourgeoisie) because the peasantry’s scattered and varied interests meant they could never play a leading political role. They will always follow the leadership of the workers or bourgeoisie. Any party of dual class leadership would in reality mean the subordination of clear working class leadership to that of the bourgeoisie.
Of course the presence of irreconcilable class antagonisms within Chinese society was expressed in the fact that there was not one party of four classes, but two parties. And in each party a balance sheet was being drawn up for the mass working class led struggle in Guangzhou and the Guomindang government it had led to. On the surface, both the CCP and the Guomindang were in alliance, but these events had exposed the knife edge that these peaceful relations rested on. Whereas before the struggle broke out in Guangzhou and Shanghai, the class distinctions and balance of forces were unclear, allowing for the persistence of the illusion of a common struggle of all classes against imperialism, after these epoch changing events, the class contradictions and social tensions were plain to see, and it was only a question of which class had the necessary social strength and political leadership to recognise that fact. Consequently, a growing awareness of the danger of the working class and the Communists sprung up within the Guomindang:
“Various organisations for ‘saving the party’ sprang up. Their members attached themselves to the entourages of the various local militarists in North China and Manchuria. They scurried between Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, organising, propagandising, intriguing, and conspiring. After Sun Yat Sen died, they raised the slogan of rescuing ‘pure’ Sun Yat Senism from the ‘Bolshevism’ of the epigones...these groups considered themselves the guardians of the policy of compromise with the powers. In practice, they played the role of keeping open the path to such a compromise until the time when it would become propitious.” (Isaacs, op cit.)
Thus the future policy of the Guomindang would be determined by the balance of class forces in the heat of the Chinese revolution – if the workers took too many “excesses” against private property as in Guangzhou, those advocating an alliance with imperialism to crush the workers would win out.
A mirror image of this unease at the alliance was also felt in the CCP throughout 1925-7. We have already shown how the party was initially opposed to the alliance with (or rather subordination to) the Guomindang, and could only be convinced to carry it out under severe Comintern pressure. Within the ranks of the CCP there was a mood analogous to that point in all revolutions when the vanguard begin to feel that, despite the initial successes and apparent power of the masses, the revolution is beginning to slip through their fingers due to a toothless leadership unprepared to take power. This is being felt by revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia as we write these lines. This is a feeling of extreme unease, confusion and helplessness in the face of the most unforgiving of tasks. It is summed up in the phrase “A mountain was in labour, sending forth dreadful groans, and there was in the region the highest expectation. After all, it brought forth a mouse.” Wang Fanxi describes the frustration and confusion this policy led to in the ranks of the CCP, a policy which was not only false but must also have fatally weakened the CCP by undermining the confidence of its membership in the leadership and purpose of the party:
“There were two things that worried me: the relations between the Communist Party and the Guomindang, and the general contempt for theory in the party. Among the revolutionaries actively working underground in Beijing at that time there was not a single real member of the Guomindang...None of the young students had any confidence in the Guomindang or even respected Sun Yat Sen...we found much of what we read in his lectures on ‘Three People’s Principles’ – nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood – too laughable for words. Nevertheless we were forced to join the Guomindang..When I mentioned my reservations to leading comrades, they explained that this was necessary on account of the united front. ‘But there is no Guomindang to unite with’, I protested. ‘The whole thing is a farce.’” (Wang Fanxi, op cit.)
So in this uneasy stalemate between the classes, the party of the bourgeoisie and that of the working class were both experiencing a similar process of questioning, readjustment and sharpening of tools. However, whereas those opposed to the alliance in the Guomindang camp had not only great personal wealth and power but also the backing of the most powerful imperialist armies and economies on earth, their equivalents in the CCP, the real revolutionaries, were left utterly isolated throughout 1925-7, ignored by the Comintern and artificially deprived of the ability to reorientate the party through democratic discussion.
Tai Chi-tao, a leading member of the Guomindang, published a book titled “The Fundamentals of Sun Yat Senism” in July 1925, which was an attempt to draw a clear line of distinction between revolution and the Guomindang by stressing Sun Yat Sen’s traditional values, belief in property and “national interest” and attacking the role of the CCP and the notion of class struggle. This found a ready echo in sections of the party and the influential military leader of the Whampoa Academy in Guangzhou, Chiang Kai-shek. He organised the “Society for the study of Sun Yat Senism” amongst his military forces (which incorporated many CCP members) in the newly conquered territory in Guangdong. Its purpose was to combat the influence of the CCP. It is impossible to believe that amongst the hundreds and thousands of CCP members active in the Guomindang and under Chiang Kai-shek’s orders, none would have noticed these developments.
It is elementary for Marxists that the big bourgeoisie, the monopolists, tend always to dominate over the smaller bourgeoisie. The smaller bourgeoisie cannot effectively oppose the big bourgeoisie because on its own it is too weak – it lacks the money, political connections and control of the press, and above all it lacks social weight. The only way it can gain the latter is by appealing to the masses, but it will, as part of the capitalist class, only ever do so from within the confines of the bourgeoisie’s overall interest in maintaining capitalism. And in revolutionary situations, when the working masses are directly threatening capitalism, the smaller bourgeoisie’s room for manoeuvre is greatly diminished and they are reduced to tail-ending the big bourgeoisie, their opposition never being more than an empty pose.
Chiang Kai-shek, the general who held in his hands, unopposed by the communists, the armed bodies of men in revolutionary Guangzhou, and his ally Tai Chi-tao, quickly came to represent this layer of Guomindang rightists in their mission to re-establish ties with the big, compradore bourgeoisie and imperialists against the workers. Although this move was opposed by the Guomindang leftists (more so than by the CCP in fact!), what could they do to oppose it without mobilising the revolutionary masses?
Imperialism Steps in once again
Unless one takes the line that the Comintern was consciously sabotaging the revolution, which cannot be entirely ruled out, we must say that the imperialists displayed far greater intelligence, cunning and understanding of the class dynamics of Chinese society than the Comintern. We revolutionaries can ill afford light-mindedness and illusions.
No doubt thanks to their experience in managing colonial oppression, the more intelligent imperialists quickly understood what the outbreaks of mass strike action meant, and initiated a policy of rapprochement with the Chinese bourgeoisie, offering petty concessions to national sovereignty such as tariff autonomy. At the same time they played on the inevitable fears of the whole of the Chinese bourgeoisie, even the liberal, anti-imperialist sections, that the strikes were out of hand, threatened private property and represented foolish insolence on the part of the rabble, who would bring the whole of Chinese society down with them. And then the foreign and native big businessmen starved Shanghai and Guangzhou of supplies to let it be known that they too had economic and social might. They employed a “carrot and stick” tactic, where the carrot was dangled in front of the Chinese bourgeoisie, and with the stick the masses were given a good beating.
Trotsky very truthfully stated:
“It is a gross mistake to think that imperialism mechanically welds together all the classes of China from without... The revolutionary struggle against imperialism does not weaken, but rather strengthens the political differentiation of the classes... everything that brings the oppressed and exploited masses of the toilers to their feet inevitably pushes the national bourgeoisie into an open bloc with the imperialists. The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the masses of workers and peasants is not weakened, but, on the contrary, it is sharpened by imperialist oppression, to the point of bloody civil war at every serious conflict.” (Trotsky, The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Stalin).
Prior to these events one could be forgiven for thinking that this was not so. The imperialists managed to alienate the whole of Chinese society with their racism, cordoning off special areas of cities as “concessions” in which only rich westerners were permitted to move (except for their servants of course). Even the most illustrious of Chinese businessmen were denied entry to these gentlemen’s clubs.
But revolutions are good for bringing into sharp relief the real class relations. In this gravest of hours for imperialism, when these westerner only concessions were starved of resources and humiliated by the striking workers, the British, American and French suddenly forgot their racism. Eminent Chinese “gentlemen” were invited into a special meeting with the most powerful western businessmen on March 18th, 1926 in precisely the concession area in Shanghai from which they were previously denied access. This was only two days before Chiang Kai-shek would violently seize power from the more established Guomindang leaders in Guangzhou. High praise and sickly sweet compliments were exchanged from both sides, an hour of dire need was declared, and a common interest in preventing any future nonsense from the working class agreed. Interestingly, the American chairman of the meeting stated that a fatal “extreme credulousness of the Chinese working classes” had been displayed, and that therefore this must be “taken advantage of for their good and ours.”
In other words, from this point onwards, the Chinese bourgeoisie gave up its superficial anti-Westernism, it had now achieved “the kind of social revolution they wanted” (Isaacs, ibid), and had become fully conscious, along with the imperialists, of the need to exploit the weak leadership of the working class and to use their influence and connections to control the Guomindang leadership. They were able to fool the workers thus only because the CCP was artificially shackled within the Guomindang, unable to present an alternative leadership.
The manoeuvrings within the Guomindang continued. Liao Zhongkai, finance minister for the government in Guangzhou and the CCPs closest ally in the Guomindang, was executed in August 1925. As one of the most prominent Guomindang leaders and a representative of its far left, it is not hard to understand the significance of his murder, which resulted in the balance of forces shifting to the right in the top of the party. Hu Hanmin, a leading Guomindang right winger, was arrested for his murder, and shamefully Borodin, the Comintern representative in China, helped him escape punishment. Not only this, but he later was presented to the Comintern as a “sympathiser” and given a leading role in the “Krestintern”, the so-called international peasant union. This, along with many other facts, displays the extent to which the Comintern would fly in the face of the reality of the Chinese revolution in its desperate attempt to befriend the Chinese bourgeoisie.
This also raises certain questions of tactics. It would be false and one sided to say that the Guomindang, including its left wing, was one reactionary bloc. It is true that they were tied to the bourgeoisie, who were reactionary. But should communists who are only in the process of establishing a mass base in the working class, and in colonial countries which have not had a bourgeois revolution, adopt the same hostility toward bourgeois parties as in the West, where the national bourgeois is already firmly in control? One must recognise the continuing hold over the masses, still filled with illusions in the democratic bourgeoisie, that these parties have, especially in largely peasant countries where winning over the peasants is of the utmost importance to the working class.
In 1917 the Bolsheviks offered an alliance in government with the petty bourgeois Social Revolutionary Party (SR), or at least its left wing, and they adopted the SR’s land reform programme. This was absolutely correct in the circumstances, under the precondition that the Bolsheviks were clearly distinguished as a separate party of the working class. In certain circumstances it is tactically correct for communists to propagandise in favour of a revolutionary constituent assembly, that is a bourgeois parliament, so long as they explain its limitations and use it always to show the bourgeoisie’s real counter-revolutionary role by refusing to call such an assembly.
People such as Liao Zhongkai, as well as millions of ordinary Chinese who supported the Guomindang more passively, could have been won to the Communist cause provided the CCP were free to present an alternative leadership and to criticise the likes of Chiang Kai-shek. In the absence of this, such leaders either capitulated to the Guomindang right wing or were simply killed.
Chiang Kai-shek’s First Coup
A CCP member, Li Zhilong, who had been promoted to the leading position in the Navy Department of the new government, was thought by Chiang Kai-shek to be planning to capture him and send him on a ship as far away as Vladivostok in response to rumours of Chiang’s attempt to replace Li Zhilong with his own stooge. If this had happened it would have meant that a CCP member, breaking ranks with the intolerable line of the leadership, would have dealt a powerful blow to the right wing, as Chiang Kai-shek would then have been completely out of action.
If it is true that Li Zhilong planned this abduction, it was the first of three crucial moments in which the CCP had a favourable military opportunity to move decisively against Chiang Kai-shek as a counterrevolutionary. The other two opportunities both involved the radicalised Guomindang army commander Xue Yue, who in 1927 and again in 1936 offered to arrest Chiang Kai-shek for the CCP, which criminally rejected his proposal on both occasions.
After having foiled this supposed plot by arresting Li, Chiang Kai-shek, like a true military man and bonapartist, seized the initiative and took power in a coup in which the Guomindang leftwing as well as the CCP were openly defeated. He used the cover of darkness to secure all positions of power over the mass movement with his military forces, so that by the next morning his power was already cemented, leading to utter confusion and demoralisation both amongst the left Guomindang and the CCP.
The reactionary, counterrevolutionary character of this plot was expressed in its strategy – hundreds of communists were arrested, the strike committee headquarters were raided, left Guomindang political and military figures were also arrested, and all Soviet advisors were now under house arrest. And yet Stalin still refused to draw the conclusions, and he hid news of this embarrassment for his strategy from the whole Comintern for a year, sowing massive confusion among Chinese communists who did not know that ‘their man’ in the Guomindang had just organised a counterrevolutionary coup. This act alone proves that responsibility for the defeat of the CCP in 1925-7 lies in Moscow. And still after this Borodin and the Comintern accepted Chiang’s ridiculous and pathetic ‘apology’ for this ‘mistaken action’, gave him advice and continued to supply him with arms!
The ‘left’ Guomindang, under Wang Jinwei’s leadership, lost no time in fulfilling their role as little more than left-phraseologists puffed up only by the magnificent mass movement that lay beneath them. This movement having suffered a temporary setback, Wang Jingwei and the other Guomindang leaders not in Chiang’s camp knew not what to do, and so literally fled the scene, leaving Chiang’s authority utterly unchallenged, like an omen of Hitler’s rise to power seven years later, to which the communists and social democrats immediately capitulated without a fight. The Guomindang Executive Committee merely asked that Chiang ‘recognise his mistake’. Considering his coup’s extraordinary success, that would seem an unlikely conclusion for Chiang to draw.
The disorientation that followed in the ranks of the CCP is testament to the necessity of developing a correct Marxist, materialist perspective, through a democratic discussion, as to future developments in the class struggle. After all, revolutionary parties should be preparing for nothing other than dramatic changes in the situation such as this.
Two months after Chiang’s coup was established, the meeting of the Guomindang Central Executive Committee approved resolutions subordinating the entirety of the Guangzhou regime to Chiang Kai-shek’s personal power. Chiang himself moved resolutions aimed at exploiting the CCP’s policy of subservience – now all CCP members had to ‘not entertain any doubt on or criticise Sun Yat Sen or his principles’. A list of all Communists within the Guomindang was to be given to Chiang (and on Borodin’s orders the CCP speedily supplied him with this list), Communists were to be bureaucratically restricted in the number of posts they could hold, and a ‘joint party committee’ was to be set up to review all instructions from the CCP Central Committee! To voluntarily hand over your membership list to a newly established military dictator is a blunder of extraordinary proportions.
These alarming developments put to the test the relationship of the CCP to the Comintern, which constantly acted over the heads of the Chinese communists to secure what it wanted. Isaacs quotes Tang Liang Li as reporting that following this meeting in which Chiang openly attacked the CCP “Chiang’s relations with Borodin became more cordial than ever”. No doubt Borodin felt that he was having a decisive influence over Chiang Kai-shek, just like all yes-men entertain delusions of grandeur for telling their boss only what they want to hear.
We have, however, been a little one sided so far in neglecting the internal opposition of the CCP to Borodin’s (Stalin’s) policies. It is hardly surprising that there would be opposition to all this, given the CCP’s initial opposition to the Guomindang and its Bolshevik foundation, and given that Borodin, according to Chen Duxiu, said to the Chinese communists “the Communists should do coolie service for the Guomindang!”
Attempts to Break with the Guomindang
The CCP, formed as a party of revolutionary struggle against imperialism and capitalism and for a classless society, could hardly accept a policy of carrying out coolie service! For more than a year leading up to this leading members and bodies of the CCP had been trying to break with the Guomindang, and were halted by the Comintern. In August 1924, shortly before he died, Sun Yat Sen ordered that the Guomindang Central Committee place a review over all Comintern orders to the CCP. According to Peng Shuzhe this was sufficient to set the alarm bells ringing,
“Tsai Ho-sen told me about Sun’s motion regarding Guomindang review of all Comintern resolutions and orders to the CCP and asked what I thought about it. “Has the Central Committee accepted this demand?” I asked. Tsai replied “they are thinking it over now.” “The Central Committee must refuse Sun’s demand,” I said strongly, “otherwise, our party will become a mere appendage to the Guomindang.” Tsai talked this over with Chen Duxiu, and they sent a telegram to Qu Qiubai ordering him to refuse Sun’s demand.”
“After this, I presented three formal resolutions to the Central Committee: (1) we should assume a critical attitude toward the policies and activities of the Guomindang; (2) we must renew our local party organisations everywhere...(3) we should establish a Labour Movement Committee in order to plan for and lead the national workers’ movement. The Central Committee adopted these resolutions.” (Peng Shuzhi, Introduction to Leon Trotsky on China)
This was followed up with a resolution which passed the CCP’s Fourth National Congress in January 1925, which called “for proletarian leadership of the revolution, and plans were made to rebuild and develop the workers’ movement of the entire nation...This congress marked the return of the CCP to Bolshevism” (Ibid). According to Gregor Benton,
“At the CCP’s Third Congress in June 1923, there was almost a majority for an amendment calling for an independent workers’ party, but Sneevliet fought back and won the vote. In 1924, Chen Duxiu, Cai Hesen, and Mao Zedong actually advocated a break with the Guomindang and wrote to all committees and cells preparing them to vote for one. But Borodin and Voitinsky, representing the Comintern, were against the idea, so again nothing came of it...In October 1925, after the right wing of the Guomindang had begun to oppose the Communists’ presence in the Guomindang, Chen Duxiu is said to have proposed that “we should prepare ourselves immediately to withdraw from the Guomindang and become independent,” but once again his proposal was defeated. In July 1926 [i.e. a few months after Chaing’s coup] he called one more time for withdrawal; again the Comintern rejected him.” (Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries)
This burgeoning opposition in China, mirroring the development of the Left-Opposition in Russia, explains why the Comintern had to keep the fact of Chiang Kai-shek’s coup hidden from the Chinese Communists outside of Guangzhou as well as from the International. It was even necessary for Borodin to undermine the democratic rights of the CCP by demanding that “the question of leaving the Guomindang must be agreed upon by the left wing of the Guomindang” (quoted by Peng Shuzhi, op cit.). This statement is a tacit admission that the Comintern wished to dissolve the CCP, that it was by now really only a bargaining chip in their relations with the Chinese bourgeoisie. So desperate was Stalin for the CCP not to break with the ‘national bourgeoisie’ that he was chasing after it even after the bourgeoisie itself had broken with the CCP! The imposition of the Comintern on the CCP in these months laid the foundations for the development of a Trotskyist left opposition within the CCP.
Now that Chiang’s power was cemented and the possibility of any communist opposition, which he clearly feared, was dealt with, he began once again to show a left face and to organise the ‘Northern Expedition’, a war against the militarist warlords that controlled the rest of the country.
What should have been the attitude of the communists to this expedition? Despite Chiang Kai-shek’s reactionary, counterrevolutionary role in the Chinese revolution, which was by now an established fact, the content of this war under his leadership was progressive or even revolutionary, as Trotsky correctly argued at the time,
“China is an oppressed semicolonial country. The development of the productive forces of China, which is proceeding in capitalist forms, demands the shaking off of the imperialist yoke. The war of China for its national independence [i.e. the Northern Expedition] is a progressive war, because it flows from the necessities of the economic and cultural development of China itself, as well as because it facilitates the development of the revolution of the British proletariat and that of the whole world proletariat.
“But this by no means signifies that the imperialist yoke is a mechanical one, subjugating ‘all’ the classes of China in the ‘same’ way. The powerful role of foreign capital in the life of China has caused very strong sections of the Chinese bourgeoisie, the bureaucracy, and the military to join their destiny with that of imperialism” (Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution)
But since the so-called national bourgeoisie and the compradore and imperialist bourgeoisie will always put aside their differences for the sake of the common aim of defeating the workers movement, the Guomindang’s leadership of the Northern Expedition, whilst not altering the overall progressive character of that war, acted to limit the progressive outcome of the Northern Expedition’s victory by using it only as credit with which to buy a better deal with the imperialists to continue exploiting Chinese workers and peasants,
“The bourgeoisie participated in the national war as an internal brake, looking upon the worker and peasant masses with growing hostility and becoming ever readier to conclude a compromise with imperialism.
“Installed within the Guomindang and its leadership, the national bourgeoisie has been essentially an instrument of the compradors and imperialism. It can remain in the camp of the national war only because of the weakness of the worker and peasant masses...the lack of independence of the Chinese Communist Party, and the docility of the Guomindang in the hands of the bourgeoisie.” (Ibid)
That the bourgeoisie could only support and lead the Northern Expedition on the basis of the weakness of any communist opposition is proven by the fact that Chiang Kai-shek would not launch it without Borodin and the Comintern’s ‘advice’ and ‘support’. Of course Chiang was happy to show a left face in words in order to secure CCP backing and material aid from the Soviet Union, which came no-strings-attached. Undoubtedly Chiang’s pleas for support filled Moscow with joy as proof that they had won an ally against the West. This was true only in the negative sense, i.e. that Chiang Kai-shek and the bourgeoisie were too weak to rule without the unquestioning aid of the Comintern, and without shackling in advance the workers’ leaders. This is proof of the potential power of the Comintern and CCP. But that one has voluntarily submitted to one’s own imprisonment is not a manifestation of actual strength but of fatal and foolish weakness.
The Comintern’s backing of the Northern Expedition coincided with the implementation of martial law and the “forbidding of all labour disturbances for the duration of the Northern Expedition” which apparently amounted to “treason against the Guomindang.” Workers in Guangzhou, against the CCP leadership (which had of course submitted to and authorised the martial law), defended themselves against the shutting down of their unions, for which more than fifty workers sacrificed their lives.
Negotiations with the Imperialists and the Beginning of the Northern Expedition
Proof that absolute control over the Northern Expedition was necessary not for its unconditional triumph but to make deals with the imperialists in freedom, using the war as a bargaining chip, arrived as early as the war itself begun,
“A few days after the adjournment of the May plenary session of the Central Executive Committee of the Guomindang [i.e. the one that initiated the attack on the CCP following Chiang’s coup], the Guangzhou government officially approached Hong Kong [the British] to reopen negotiations. The British readily agreed. The delegates met in July [by now the Northern Expedition had begun].” (Isaacs, op cit.)
The negotiations led by the Guomindang, ostensibly to achieve the demands of the still striking Guangzhou workers for British withdrawal from Hong Kong, resulted only in the removal of some of the British gunboats outside Guangzhou harbour, which incidentally had by now already been used to break up the picket lines on the docks. So under the terms of Chiang’s martial law, which ended the strike on the pretext that the Guomindang could thereby negotiate better with imperialism and wage a war against the Warlords, none of the demands of the revolutionary movement were met. The British could not only stay in Hong Kong, but had now established friendly ‘connections’ with Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. The ending of the strike wave also enabled the routing of all other strikes and workers’ organisations in general, and with this came the loss of the material gains workers in the area had made.
If it was an error to give Chiang unconditional backing for his adventure against the northern Warlords, it would equally have been a mistake to oppose outright the Northern Expedition simply because it was led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang. Marxists must always proceed from what is, not what we would like things to be, in order that we be able to make things how we would like them to be. And it was a fact both that the war was objectively progressive, aimed as it was against the feudal/compradore warlords and imperialists, and at the same time that it was led by counterrevolutionaries. In such situations revolutionaries must participate in the struggle side by side with the masses also participating in it with the aim of winning the masses away from bourgeois leadership to a revolutionary proletarian one. That millions of workers and peasants voluntarily fought in the war against the Warlords is a sign both of the objectively progressive character of the war and that an opportunity existed for the CCP to win leadership of the movement away from Chiang Kai-shek.
What strategy then should the CCP have pursued? As we pointed out earlier, there is a close historical parallel between the relationship of the Russian Social Revolutionaries to the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks, and the Guomindang’s relationship to the Chinese Revolution and the CCP. Just as in the turmoil of the Russian Revolution the Social Revolutionaries split into a left and a right-wing, the former representing the more radicalised poorer peasants and urban petty bourgeoisie, the latter more the Kulaks, so the Guomindang had its right-wing, headed by Chiang Kai-shek and based around the need to wipe out the CCP to conclude a more favourable deal for the big bourgeoisie with imperialism, and its left-wing, headed by Wang Jingwei and more favourable to working with (or using the support of) the CCP.
Chiang’s coup had ousted Wang Jingwei from leadership of the Guomindang following Sun Yat Sen’s death, and for that reason the leftwing which was coalescing around his leadership opposed the coup in the phraseology of bourgeois democracy. As we have seen without the CCP’s opposition to this coup this wing was impotent.
We have also seen how Chiang Kai-shek did not feel confident enough to embark on the Northern Expedition without the material and political support of the CCP and Soviet Union. Therefore the Comintern and CCP should have publicly backed the progressive Northern Expedition as an independent party. Had Chiang Kai-shek then reneged on this pledge to struggle against Warlordism and imperialism, lacking the required acquiescence of the Communists, he would have been exposed as a faker seeking only to use the communist movement.
At this point an open struggle would have ensued between Chiang and the CCP, the latter calling for a revolutionary war against imperialism and Warlordism and able to count on the newly awakened mass support of the working class in Shanghai and Guangzhuo, as well as the resources of the Soviet Union. In order to win over the peasantry and urban petty bourgeoisie to their banner, the CCP could have proposed a bloc or united front with the left Guomindang, exploiting the open split in that party, in order to overthrow Chiang’s dictatorship and initiate a struggle against imperialism. The terms of this united front would have to be agrarian reform to give land to the peasants. It is true the left Guomindang would eventually have betrayed such a united front, just as the left Social Revolutionaries did, but only after the CCP had publicly come out in favour of land reform and against the openly pro-imperialist Chiang Kai-shek.
The Northern Expedition drove up through China from the nationalist base in the far South along two main fronts, the first (the ‘Western Route Northern Expeditionary Forces’) headed toward Wuhan (a conglomeration of three cities - Hankou, Wuchang and Hanyang) on the Yangzee River in Hubei Province, Eastern Central China), the other, led by Chiang Kai-shek (the ‘Central Route Northern Expeditionary Forces’), headed toward Nanchang in Jiangxi Province, which is slightly to the South East of Wuhan. Both offensives achieved relatively rapid success, but the former, more closely associated with the Guomindang left wing and the mass movement, was stunningly successful in defeating the Warlords, taking the key city of Wuhan, 1,000km from Guangzhou, three months after setting out, whereas the latter, associated with Chiang Kai-shek, was less so, taking an additional month to reach the nearer city of Nanchang and sacrificing more lives on the way.
The explanation for this lies in the class contradictions of Chinese society. The armies of the Northern Expedition enjoyed the active support of the masses of China, who rose up in anticipation of the coming armies, which they saw as liberators from landlord oppression. They sabotaged the defence of the militarists in countless ways – mini-uprisings of unorganised peasants took strategic villages on behalf of the armies, peasants acted as a sort of vast informal network of spies for the expedition, and workers struck in key industries in Wuhan and other cities. To this must be added the demoralisation in the ranks of the Warlord armies, swathes of whom must have had no desire to defend a rotten regime.
In other words the peasantry and new sections of the working class were following the example of the Guangzhou and Shanghai workers and taking the revolution into their own hands. Peasants were organising their own land reform and organising on a mass scale independently of the Guomindang (not only did new trade unions flourish in Hubei, but according to Isaacs 2m joined new peasant associations in neighbouring Hunan province). All of this confirms the Marxist thesis that the peasantry can play a decisive role in the revolution, and will always look to whichever urban class offers them a way out, which in this case was the revolutionary workers.
Furthermore, although clearly the workers and peasants here were inspired by the Northern Expedition and so looking to the Guomindang as the leadership of that movement, ignorant of its recent role in crushing the movement in Guangzhou, they were at the same time organising independently of the Guomindang and along class lines, in direct contradiction with that bourgeois party’s class basis and political line for the revolution. This contradiction between the masses and the Guomindang would shortly lead to further coups from both the right and left Guomindang against the revolution.
It was clearly the class content of the revolutionary overturn in Guangzhou, organised as it was by the CCP’s trade unions, that directly inspired these peasants and workers further north. A class basis existed then for the CCP to expand its influence in this new opening up of the struggle, and indeed it was one seized by the party’s rank and file,
“[the CCP] organised workers and peasants into all types of commando units to handle reconnaissance, spying and scouting. These units were also responsible for sabotage of communications behind enemy lines (railroads, electrical lines, ships, etc.), and for collection of abandoned weapons when the enemy retreated. Among the official positions in the National Revolutionary Army, there were dozens of CCP members acting as company commanders, battalion commanders, and regimental commanders...All of these quick and surprising victories were the direct result of the active aid rendered by the worker and peasant masses which had been mobilised by members of the CCP.” (Peng Shuzhi, op cit.)
The objective class character of the revolution was asserting itself in spite of its leadership. We can see very clearly the basis for the CCP to take over leadership of the revolution had it set itself this task. Its name, its founding objectives, its thousands of rank and file members, directly embroiled in the struggle alongside the masses, often leading them in military roles, its link to the victorious Russian Revolution and the access to arms (in addition to those already under its control through commanding Northern Expedition troops) that this enabled, its leading role in the unions all speak of the enormously favourable conditions for a CCP led revolution against the Guomindang provided it openly supported land reform and the social revolution.
It was precisely fear of the revolutionary independence of the masses and the role of the CCP that lay behind Chiang Kai-shek’s slower and bloodier conquest of Nanchang. Naturally there was less CCP influence in his ranks following his suppression of the CCP in Guangzhou. It was this continued policy of the suppression of the CCP and the mass movement which weakened his campaign. “Chiang had restricted the activities of the propagandists and had along the line of march already adopted repressive measures against the mass movement. This enabled Sun Chuanfang, militarist overlord of the five eastern provinces, to put up stiffer resistance” (Isaacs, op cit.).
The Character of the ‘Left’ Guomindang
The physical divergence of the two tendencies in the Guomindang, the left (or rather the vacillating) taking Wuhan and the right (or decisive) taking Nanchang, cemented the open split between them. We already know the character of the right-wing led by Chiang Kai-shek, thanks to his coup against the CCP in Guangzhou. This tendency was the clear Bonapartist one, that is to say it represented the tendency to raise the repressive state power above society in order to crush the revolution. But what was the character of this new ‘left’ Guomindang government in Wuhan led by Wang Jingwei?
It was undoubtedly a weak bourgeois regime, whose fear of the movement of the masses led it to pose as its friend rather than to crush it. It had not yet abandoned the petty bourgeois utopian Sun Yat Senist ideology of national harmony across the classes. But the leaders of this national harmony of course had to be the ‘natural’ leaders of the nation, that is the men of property, for to put the workers movement in the lead in their stead would mean to expropriate this property, to put it in the hands of the workers, and that already means an end to intra-class harmony. Hence the opposition from these leaders, and the Comintern in their wake, toward any independence of the workers, to strikes and to land reform, despite the fact that the strikes of the workers against the capitalists, and the land seizures by the peasants, were precisely what had brought the ‘left’ Guomindang to power in Wuhan.
Indeed a condition for work in the Guomindang laid down by the Comintern was that the CCP must only support land reform for land pertaining to militarist landlords. But if a party such as the Guomindang has a policy of not expropriating the land of any landlords that support it, then naturally all landlords will proclaim that they support the Guomindang as soon as it proves stronger than the Warlord regime. In this way an entire class and property system evaded the CCP.
A Marxist leadership bases itself on a materialist analysis of the fundamental antagonisms between the classes in order to understand which way the class struggle will develop. It would understand that the enormous proliferation of revolutionary, political strikes and land seizures in carrying out the revolution on the one hand, and the existence of a recent military coup against these tendencies on the other, would signify an extreme intensification of class struggle such that a harmonious class compromise is ruled out.
In these conditions it was an impossibility for the Guomindang to maintain a passive policy of class collaboration and democracy for any length of time. Therefore a Marxist party would gear all its efforts toward preparing itself and the masses for an open struggle against the bourgeois party. At every step the CCP should have “worked inside the Guomindang and patiently drawn the workers and peasants over to their side...by supporting every forward step of the Guomindang, by relentlessly unmasking every vacillation, every step backward, and by creating a real revolutionary foundation for a bloc with the Guomindang in the form of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ soviets” (Trotsky, op cit.). The CCP should have exploited the Guomindang’s attacks on the mass movement by acting as the latter’s chief defender.
But as we have explained, the Comintern had ceased to have a Marxist leadership which approached everything from the standpoint of the class struggle, and instead imagined it could order the class struggle out of existence in order to secure its coveted alliance with the Guomindang. Because the party was tied to the Guomindang above all else, it could not independently stand for land reform etc., and so could not win the masses who strove for land reform to its banner, fatally weakening itself and the revolution come the time when even the ‘left’ Guomindang would openly attack the revolution.
Voroshilov, a Comintern advisor in China, complained that “the peasant revolution might have interfered with the Northern Expedition of the generals”, failing to notice that it was precisely the peasant revolution which secured the revolution for the generals. As Trotsky correctly predicted, these ‘left’ Guomindang generals and political leaders, whose policy was to use the mass movement to wring concessions from and make a deal with imperialism, would have to turn sharply to the right and attack that mass movement once it had served its purpose of bringing them to power, just as Chiang had. This would be necessary in order to better negotiate access to foreign capital and weaponry rather than incur the embargo that the imperialists threatened.
Chiang Approaches Shanghai
It was Chiang Kai-shek that took the initiative in the struggle to consolidate power in the Guomindang following the split with Wang Jingwei by driving on with his ‘Central Route Northern Expeditionary Forces’ to Shanghai, which was slightly closer to his base of Nanchang than Wang Jingwei in Wuhan. Of course capturing Shanghai, which was not only a key strategic city in general, but also the epicentre of imperialist/compradore bourgeoisie relations, would practically cement Chiang Kai-shek’s dominance of the Guomindang.
Once again the objectively progressive character of the war against the Warlords was expressed in an unprecedented development of the labour movement in Shanghai as Chiang’s forces approached. Again, this shows both the support in the populace for the Guomindang (or at least support for what it was doing), but also the socially deeper support for the CCP. For it was the General Labour Union (GLU), founded and led by CCP comrades, which organised and coordinated the immense upturn in strike activity in the early months of 1927. According to Isaacs more than 350,000 heeded the GLU’s call for a general strike on 19th February 1927 with the intention of weakening the existing regime (Shanghai was under the control of the same Warlord, Sun Chuanfang, as Nanchang). Yes, these workers (for the time being at least) supported Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership – but only under the instructions of the leadership of the leaders of their own class, the CCP, to which they were far closer.
As we shall shortly see, on this basis the working class could have taken this key city even before Chiang Kai-shek arrived and with far less violence, so all embracing was the popularity of the revolution and the CCP amongst the Shanghainese working class. Under a correct strategy and with military aid from the Comintern there is no doubt that the workers of Shanghai could have successfully opposed Chiang Kai-shek, exploiting the splits and resulting weaknesses in the Guomindang, leaving Chiang adrift in the Zhejiang countryside as an historical footnote.
Instead thanks to the erroneous policy of subservience to the Guomindang, more nonsensical than ever now that the party was split and without leadership, the CCP was obliged to ingest and reproduce all the confusion, weakness and vacillation of the leaderless Guomindang. There was no clear policy regarding Chiang Kai-shek’s role just when the comrades in Shanghai needed it the most. Whenever the CCP was in the proximity of Chiang, they denied the existence of the split in the party, rallying the working class around him. They were incapable of taking even tentative steps beyond the confines of his leadership. But in Wuhan they were emboldened by the established fact of Chiang’s betrayal and openly attacked him. But just like the ‘left’ Guomindang they were incapable of offering any programme to take the revolution forwards against Chiang Kai-shek, once again terrified of taking an independent course.
By now of course the CCP leaders had been beaten into a habit of simply following Comintern or Guomindang orders. The spirit of independence had been suffocated. And yet at the same time the gravity of the revolution and its class dynamics compelled them to do something with the labour movement, hence the confused character of this general strike in Shanghai which despite its powerful social force aimed at nothing more than welcoming a would-be military dictator,
“the strike was effective but its leadership had no goals of its own. The slogans announced by the Communists were confined to: “Support the Northern Expeditionary Army!” “Overthrow Sun Chuanfang!” “Hail Chiang Kai-shek!” The Central Committee of the Communist Party simply waited on events and orders from outside” (Isaacs, op cit.)
Once a general strike has been organised and is taking place, there is no going back. The strike movement must boldly go forwards from one conquest to another, with a clear strategy and set of demands so that all participants understand what they are fighting for, which will strengthen their resolve. But calling out hundreds of thousands of workers on no independent programme, simply to welcome someone else, is extremely dangerous. It is akin to ordering an army into the no man’s land between trenches, and leaving them there with nothing to do.
The inability for the workers of Shanghai to use their strike to conquer any positions for themselves gave the ruling class the confidence to quickly counter-attack. And the lack of any strategy comprehended by the workers meant that, faced with the counter-attack, those workers had no means with which to reorient themselves and fight back. Disarray ensued. Indeed there is evidence that Chiang Kai-shek colluded with the Warlord regime in Shanghai, deliberately delaying his arrival in the city so that the police could slaughter the stranded workers. He certainly had every incentive to do this since it had the dual benefit of weakening the communists and keeping his hands clean. The fact that General Li, who commanded the counter-attack, was later made the commander of the 8th Nationalist Army under Chiang Kai-shek shows that Chiang was grateful for his actions whether or not he colluded in them.
Isaacs quotes the New York Herald Tribune in the midst of the general strike as it describes the brutality of the ruling class’ sudden counter-attack,
“After the heads of the victims were severed by swordsmen, they were displayed on top of poles or placed upon platters and carried through the streets...The executioners bearing broadswords and accompanied by a squad of soldiers, marched their victims to a prominent corner where the strike leaders were forced to bend over while their heads were cut off. Thousands fled in horror when the heads were stuck on sharp-pointed bamboo poles and were hoisted aloft and carried to the scene of the next execution.”
The tragedy is that with a correct leadership the millions of Shanghai could have been mobilised around the hundreds of thousands of striking workers and simply overwhelmed the executioners.
More than a month passed before Chiang Kai-shek entered the city, and in the meantime the workers once again took the initiative against the Warlord regime. The CCP led GLU called another general strike and on 21st March up to 800,000 came out, utterly paralysing the city and regime. It would seem that, despite the absence of national and international leadership, the local working class and CCP comrades had learnt from the harrowing experience one month previously,
“This time there were carefully laid plans for an insurrection based upon a workers’ militia composed of 5,000 picked and trained men, broken up into squads of twenty and thirty. According to one account, their total initial supply of arms consisted of 150 Mauser pistols. That meant less than one to a squad. The attack on the police and Shandong soldiery was made in the beginning only with clubs, axes, and knives.”
And yet through sheer numbers and determination this proved sufficient,
“The fight for control of police stations and local military posts was won by the workers by nightfall in all sections except Chapei. Many soldiers and policemen tore off their uniforms and surrendered arms and ammunition. Weapons were taken everywhere and by evening the attacking forces were comparatively well supplied...Soldiers and police caught in flight were disarmed. Many of them joined the pickets in setting up a Provisional Workers’ Bureau of Public Safety and in taking over the municipal offices of the whole district.” (Ibid)
So much for Chiang Kai-shek the all powerful and ‘gallant commander of the Cantonese’ to whom all communists must bow. In the end, the working class took over this great city in a manner far more comprehensive than any simple military occupation could ever manage, showing that in war the class struggle must not be postponed till after a military victory but used to ensure military victory. The organised Shanghainese working class was now in possession of that most precious prize of the class struggle – the armed bodies of men that make up the state. They had no reason to surrender their arms to anyone since there can be no social force more formidable than the armed, united and fully conscious working class.
In effect the workers of Shanghai had formed their own revolutionary government, and thus the call for Soviets to be built to put other cities such as Guangzhou and Wuhan under the control of the working class could have been launched. The CCP could have called on genuine left sections of the Guomindang and the army to join with them by forming peasant and soldier soviets as well. This would have taken the control of the revolution completely out of the hands of bourgeois leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek and Wang Jingwei.
In fact as Chiang Kai-shek approached the gates of Shanghai on March 26th 1927, an opportunity to realise this strategy presented itself to the CCP on a platter. Naturally the mass of the rank-and-file of the Northern Expeditionary armies, under the command of Guomindangists, were genuine revolutionaries like the CCP rank-and-file. They would not have understood the contradictions between the CCP’s class basis and the Guomindang’s, but upon entering Shanghai would inevitably have fraternised with the working class and been infected by the spirit of revolution there. After all, the working class was de facto in power.
Upon being ordered to attack the armed and revolutionary working class, this contradiction between the workers and Chiang Kai-shek would have made itself immediately apparent to these soldiers, and his cover would have been blown. Such soldiers could not be relied upon to follow Chiang’s orders. And so on entering the city Chiang ordered the First Division of his army, who had already been in the city amongst the workers for several days, to leave.
But this was already enough to expose Chiang in front of his armed bodies of men, and so their commander, Xue Yue, probably under pressure from below, visited the CCP Central Committee to inform them of Chiang’s manoeuvre and he then offered “to arrest and imprison Chiang on charges of plotting counterrevolution”, naively thinking that the CCP would take up this wonderful offer. According to Comintern representative Chitarov, who was in Shanghai at the time “[Xue Yue] was ready to remain in Shanghai and fight together with the Shanghai workers against the military overthrow that was in preparation.” (quoted in Isaacs, op cit).
By Xue Yue’s own proposal he was prepared to place his forces under the leadership of the CCP. But to break free from the Comintern imposed dogma in such a sudden and dramatic fashion was beyond the party leadership now. They hesitated and in the end betrayed Xue Yue by letting Chiang Kai-shek know that they knew of his plans. In fact several Comintern advisors, including Voitinsky, were apparently present at this moment and encouraged the fatal hesitation.
The CCP and Comintern now had to admit that Chiang, as a representative of the bourgeoisie, would ultimately break from the revolution. The excuse for not taking this opportunity to break with Chiang before he could break with them, was that the moment was too premature for a conflict with Chiang Kai-shek, despite the fact the he himself was obviously in the process of organising one. So Xue Yue’s forces were marched out of the city and replaced by the reactionary forces of a defecting Warlord general.
Similarly Chen Duxiu reports that the CCP’s appeal for the Comintern to “take 5,000 rifles out of those given to Chiang Kai-shek and Li Jishen, so that we might arm the peasants of Guangdong province” was refused by Borodin, under the excuse that “the armed peasants cannot fight... in the Northern Expedition, but they can incur the suspicion of the Guomindang and make the peasants oppose it.” (Chen Duxiu, Appeal to all CCP Comrades)
Following this slavish logic of appeasing Chiang to avoid a ‘premature conflict’, the Comintern ordered the workers to hide or bury all the weapons they had just taken at such heroic effort, again in order to prevent ‘premature conflict’. Chen Duxiu himself describes this farce thus: “the International telegraphed to us instructing us to hide or bury all the workers’ weapons to avoid a military conflict between the workers and Chiang Kai-shek” (Ibid).
So the Comintern voluntarily surrendered an armed conflict when they were in a position of strength, deliberately weakening themselves so that Chiang could launch such a conflict in full confidence. Just as Chiang was putting all his pieces in place for a coup against the workers in Shanghai, the workers were sending away sympathetic divisions of the army and burying their weapons! This shows that Stalin implicitly understood the existence of class contradictions and the likelihood of armed conflict, and that in this conflict he sided with the Chinese bourgeoisie. The only problem was that the Chinese bourgeoisie did not side with him!
There were no more than 17 days of dual power in Shanghai following Chiang’s entry to the city on 26th March. He used the stalling of the CCP and of the de facto workers’ regime to find time to meet and make deals with the leading Western and Chinese businessmen – as we said, Shanghai was the national centre for comprador bourgeois/imperialist power. He actually arrived in Shanghai via the foreign concession areas, which no other nationalist Chinese leader had ever been granted access to. He was welcomed not only by direct representatives of imperialism but also by the Chinese leader of the French gendarmerie police, ‘pockmarked Huang’, who also happened to be a leader of one of the most violent and powerful organised crime gangs in China.
Three days after his arrival on March 26th,
“more than fifty leading banks and firms and commercial associations banded together into a federation under the leadership of...one of Chiang’s old friends...A delegation of the new body waited the same day on General Chiang, “who very cordially received them.” Their spokesman “conveyed the greetings of the Chinese merchants of Shanghai and emphasised the importance of immediately restoring peace and order in this city. They assured him of the whole hearted support of the merchants. General Chiang responded in a few fitting remarks and took full responsibility upon himself for the protection of life and property, both Chinese and foreign, in Shanghai. He also assured the delegation that the relation between capital and labour will soon be regulated.” (Ibid, our emphasis).
The very next day the GLU headquarters at Hangzhou (just outside Shanghai) were broken into and several workers killed. Due to the militant response of the workers to this crime the Hangzhou GLU was ordered by Chiang to be closed down – just a matter of days after it had organised the taking of Shanghai! The day after that Chiang conducted an interview for a foreign paper in which he promised to ‘remove all obstacles’ to restoring ‘friendship’ between China and the West – a ‘friendship’ that required the termination of Chiang’s ‘friendship’ with the Chinese masses. Then in early April leading Chinese bankers offered Chiang 15m Shanghai dollars on condition he ‘suppress Communist and labour activities’. Regardless of these Chinese businessmen’s view of the decades long national oppression at the hands of Western imperialism, they clearly now knew who their real enemy was. There is no clearer expression of the community of interests between the colonial bourgeoisie and the imperialists against the colonial masses than this act.
Chiang’s Second Coup
China experienced its second and most decisive coup at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek on April 12th 1927, in the city of Shanghai, one year and 23 days after the first, in Guangzhou. The Comintern had laid the groundwork by preventing the Chinese masses from learning the lessons of the first coup. The coup in Shanghai was really a purge of communists in the city at the hands of criminal gangs recruited to his cause. It was the direct reversal of the CCP and GLU’s taking of Shanghai 22 days previously, except it was far bloodier. Hundreds of CCP comrades were killed that night, and it is estimated that around 12,000 CCP members and sympathisers were executed in Shanghai in April. The cunningly hidden weapons of the working class were now retrieved by Chiang’s men, leaving the working class defenceless.
A microcosm of later Comintern disasters took place when the local party leadership, suddenly realising the catastrophe that they had unconsciously helped to bring about, hastily organised a general strike to try and reverse the situation. Unsurprisingly, the accompanying unarmed and unprepared demonstration was massacred by machinegun fire. Tragically, this was only the beginning of the punishments meted out to the Chinese people thanks to Stalin’s leadership. Nor was it the last time that the CCP or other Comintern sections would turn a defeat into a rout by desperately swinging from a disastrously opportunist, capitulationist policy to a hasty revolutionary or pseudo-revolutionary one once it was too late.
Nevertheless, despite this disaster there are strong grounds for believing that the situation could still have been saved for the CCP. Even if it could not be turned around in the short term, it was more essential now than ever that the CCP remove itself from self-imposed subservience to the Guomindang and regain its open independence, so that it could begin the honest, Marxist appraisal of the lessons of its defeat, the better to prepare for the next opportunity. Such a situation would be comparable to the strengthening of Bolshevik theory following the defeat of 1905. But it was essential that the independence of the CCP and the freedom to discuss and make proposals within the party (rather than have them decided in Moscow) be re-established so that the party could learn and mature. But precisely because of the falsity of Stalin’s line for the party, which he would still peddle even after this coup, no real internal freedom could be allowed.
The traumatic experiences of these months in 1927 were a turning point in history. They fundamentally altered the character of the CCP and of Chinese history. Monumental, decisive events are like the junctions of history, the wrong decision can place a whole nation or even the world onto a different path. Because its own cadres were prevented from learning the lessons and adapting, the CCP would be transformed into a fundamentally different animal by these wrenching defeats. It is almost “better not to build a Communist Party at all than to compromise it in the epoch of revolution, i.e., precisely at the time when the ties between the party and the working masses are sealed with blood, and when great traditions are created which exert their influence for decades.” (Trotsky, Class Relations in the Chinese Revolution).
Despite this setback the Guomindang and Chiang Kai-shek remained extremely weak, in some respects actually became weaker. Although in leadership and results the Northern Expedition was ultimately a civil war between competing sections of the Chinese ruling class, the social content was provided by those who did the fighting – the masses and the CCP, without whom the war would never have begun.
When assessing his strength following his coup in Shanghai, we must bear in mind that Chiang was now exposed as a counterrevolutionary in front of his own troops, whole divisions of which Chiang clearly felt could not be trusted, as we have seen. “[Chiang] had to pay a price for turning on the mass movement, for without the popular support that made it real, the legend of Nationalist invincibility waned. Military victories came far less easily and the chances of defeat in the field loomed large before him.” (Isaacs, op cit).
His social ‘capital’ had already been spent, and he had further alienated the ‘left’ Guomindang at Wuhan for precisely this reason – his counterrevolutionary coups were undermining the masses’ illusions in the whole Guomindang. In fact it was partly due to this split that Chiang’s armies lost the city of Xuzhou to the warlord Sun Chuanfang, as he had stationed one of his armies away from the city to shield it from a feared attack from the ‘left’ Guomindang in Wuhan, weakening the defences against Sun Chuanfang. And Chiang’s forces were now long gone from the proletarian centre of Guangzhou, where the masses could certainly no longer entertain any illusions in his ‘progressive’ role thanks to his coup there one year previously.
This weakness of Chiang Kai-shek and the ‘left’ Guomindang, who had very publicly lost the initiative and folded to Chiang Kai-shek in Guangzhou, could and should have been exploited by the CCP even after their debacle in Shanghai. The reason they failed to was that they placed all faith in the sincerity of the ‘left’ Guomindang’s opposition to Chiang, and basically under instructions from Moscow merely transferred the policy of subservience from Chiang Kai-shek to Wang Jingwei.
History Repeats Itself First as Tragedy then as Farce
What was the reason for the existence of this ‘left’ Guomindang still holding out in Wuhan? Was it a principled opposition to Chiang Kai-shek as a traitor of the national revolution? Their sheer acquiescence to his Guangzhou coup would suggest otherwise. Indeed, they only existed as a ‘left’ because Chiang Kai-shek had imposed that on them. The difference between the two was that Chiang felt the need to move against the Communists in the party’s ranks earlier. The ‘left’ was more cautious, fearing such an act would expose them and risk losing the control of the movement that was needed to strike a deal with imperialism when the time was right.
They were wrong only because they miscalculated quite how subservient the policy of the CCP was. It is actually true that after committing his original sin in Guangzhou, Chiang himself feared reprisals from the communists and the masses which could topple his power, hence his immediate move to reconcile with Borodin by (insincerely) apologising for his actions.
Wang Jingwei’s hatred of Chiang Kai-shek was genuine, but largely because he had deprived Wang of his former prestige as the successor to Sun Yat Sen, and also because Chiang’s rash actions had placed the whole Guomindang in such a precarious position. It risked the whole party falling apart under the heat of the revolution, with the masses always liable to support the Communists against the Guomindang.
Ultimately this scenario would play out not with the CCP leading the masses against a weakened Guomindang but with the ‘left’ Guomindang severely attacking the CCP to eliminate it as a threat. But first these politicians who had their “leftness” thrust upon them had to reflect the popular anger against Chiang Kai-shek to maintain their power in Wuhan, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Shanghai coup. They were pushed to the left (in words) in their newly conquered power base in Wuhan – “on April 25th an immense protest meeting, presided over by Wang Jingwei and attended by 300,000 people, was held in Wuhan.” (Jacques Guillermaz, A History of the Chinese Communist Party 1921-1949).
Wang Jingwei, balancing carefully between the compromised Guomindang and the CCP, was in effect preserving the name and the structures of the party for a later reconciliation with Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists. He may not have realised this at the time, but that was the hidden meaning and inevitable outcome of the actions of a man prepared to work with the CCP and use their resources, but always unprepared to carry out revolutionary measures against any private property.
For instance, during these uneasy months the CCP and Wang Jingwei tossed and turned as they attempted to reach a compromise on exactly which landlords were big enough and counterrevolutionary enough to expropriate for the peasantry. “The Guomindang suggested a minimum figure of 500 ‘mou’, or 33 hectares, and the communists proposed 100 ‘mou’ (6.6 hectares).” In such matters the CCP always ended up folding, this particular difficulty being resolved by giving up the whole idea of land expropriations and instead simply fixing “a maximum land rent, amounting to 40% of the harvest.” (Ibid). Even this was never enforced, as that would have meant mobilising forces against powerful landlords whom the Guomindang really wanted to placate.
Once again the Comintern leadership is to blame for such capitulations – a resolution agreed at the CCP 5th Party Congress committed the party to a programme of confiscating the land of large landlords and counterrevolutionaries, all to be given to the peasants to work in addition to “publicly owned land and lands belonging to family or religious temples, schools, foreign churches and agricultural undertakings.” (Ibid). But this resolution was suppressed by the Executive Committee of the party under pressure from Moscow, for fear it would embarrass the party in front of Wang Jingwei. The political consequences of this botching on the land question in Wuhan, all to please the supposed revolutionary Wang Jingwei, are explained very clearly by Guillermaz,
“Faced with these two urgent duties – maintaining the political front with the Guomindang and the Wuhan government at all costs, and at the same time enlarging the scope of the peasant revolution, taking over the leadership of it, at the risk of damaging the front – Chen Duxiu and the Communist Party could neither find a middle way nor resign themselves to making a choice. Their irresolution finally checked the impetus of the peasant movement, while exciting the suspicion and hostility of a large proportion of the Guomindang left wing, and eventually of Wang Jingwei himself. The bourgeoisie rose in self defiance; as upholders of the theory of class struggle, the communists ought to have been better equipped than most to foresee this possibility.” (Ibid)
Wang Jingwei was actually testing how far he could push the CCP, and he saw that he could push them very far, and not only on the land question. The ‘self defiance’ of the bourgeoisie mentioned above consisted of economic sabotage against the revolution. 100,000 radicalised workers were locked out by factory owners in Wuhan in May. The response of Wang Jingwei was not to defend these workers but to lay the blame on the ‘excesses’ of those workers,
“It was an ‘excess’ when the workers of Hanyang [part of Wuhan] decided to open the factories and run them and when the workers in Puchih and other Hubei towns took over shops that had been deliberately closed down. It was an ‘excess’ when local peasant committees in Hunan and Hubei placed local embargoes on shipments of rice in order to resist the hoarders and speculators who were trying to starve them into submission. It was above all an ‘excess’ when the peasants seized the rice hoards of the landlords to feed their families...One of Wang Jingwei’s first official acts upon his return to Wuhan was to break up the workers’ cooperative that was operating 15 factories in Hanyang, force the surrender of the plants, and order the dissolution of the Hanyang Guomindang branch which supported the workers.” (Isaacs, op cit.)
Surely this branch, and many others like it, could have been easily won to the banner of the CCP during such events, had the latter only come out in defence of these Guomindang rank-and-file members?
Then Wang Jingwei’s government issued an open declaration of its alliance with the bourgeoisie, which reads like a confession of the correctness of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution as it says the following:
“Whether or not the revolution will be a success will depend on the measure of support given to it by the manufacturers and merchants. Whether or not they can effectively support the revolution will depend upon the willingness of the peasants and labourers to treat them as their allies...In order to carry out this policy, the National Government is ordered to...prohibit labourers and employees from making excessive demands and interfering of factories and shops.” (Guomindang Central Executive Committee May 20th manifesto all-class nature of the revolution).
But the only test for whether the revolution really did have an ‘all-class nature’ (whoever heard of a revolution involving ‘all the classes’?!) and manifested an alliance of the bourgeoisie and the workers is in these great events, in the movement of millions, which cannot be made to obey the schemas of any party leadership. That the Guomindang had to complain of mass disobedience by the workers and peasants towards the supposed bourgeois leadership of the revolution, is in itself proof that it was the workers and peasants who were leading the revolution.
But the CCP led GLU instantly complied, telling its members it would dutifully hand them over to the openly bourgeois government of Wang Jingwei for trial and punishment should they not comply. The reader will be forgiven for having a distinct sense of déjà vu at this moment, for these events almost exactly mirror those in both Shanghai and Guangzhou. As we said, the Stalinist Comintern could not permit the CCP to learn the lessons of those earlier mistakes.
But in this desperate atmosphere, the CCP comrades were learning, were questioning the whole line – how could they not? We should feel immense sympathy and solidarity for the Chinese Communists struggling with an imposed political line completely at odds with their own experience. Thousands of them paid with their lives for the crimes of Stalin’s leadership. The sheer disregard displayed by Moscow for those having to endure their policy in China provoked a panic in Wuhan as rumours filled the vacuum of leadership:
“Fear and anxiety were increasing within Communist Party organisations. There were all sorts of rumours flying about: it was said that the attitude of General Tang Shengzhi, supreme commander of the Wuhan forces, was questionable, that the leading Guomindang politician Wang Jingwei was not to be relied on, and that Sun Fo, Sun Yat Sen’s son, was secretly flirting with Chiang Kai-shek’s rival government in Nanjing. What should we do? This was the question in all our minds. It reminded us very much of the situation a year earlier: then we all looked in vain to Chiang Kai-shek, and despite his growing recalcitrance and his rapid shift to the right we had been incapable of moving a finger to stop him. Now we were looking the same way towards Wang Jingwei and Tang Shengzhi....the situation was worsening, and even we lower-level cadres could clearly see that the revolution was reaching a crisis.” (Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary).
The worst kind of defeat is one that is not understood, one where the potentially unstoppable power of the working class rears its head, only to not be realised due to a crisis of leadership. Each of the three cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan had experienced a situation of dual power in 1926 and 1927, that is a situation where the bourgeois state power is crippled by a parallel, embryonic form of workers’ power, which itself is semi-paralysed by its inability to recognise its own power. We have described how the workers had already begun to reorganise production and to keep order in these cities. The demands for the labour movement to be shut down now made by Wang Jingwei on the CCP, getting the latter to do the bourgeoisie’s dirty work for them, show that without the compliance of the CCP leadership the Guomindang government was in effect powerless because the workers were running things themselves.
A telegram from the CCP Central Committee in Wuhan in May 1927 talks of “the necessity of increasing discipline among the workers and of obedience to the national government [Guomindang] and declared that the trade unions have not the right to arrest anyone, and must always apply to the authorities when they consider the arrest of this or that person necessary.” As Trotsky pointed out, “the trade unions in the territory of the Hankou government are arresting the enemies of the revolution. This means that the trade unions, by the whole logic of the situation, are forced to assume the tasks of the revolutionary soviets.” (Trotsky, Is it not time to understand?)
The essence of revolutionary leadership is to understand the objective situation in the class struggle and to help the working class gain consciousness of this reality. As Trotsky says above, it was the logic of the situation that compelled the organised working class to arrest counterrevolutionaries in Wuhan. But they did not realise that in taking this step they were moving very close to having power in their hands. At the very least they did not have a collective realisation of how to tie together these revolutionary acts into a revolutionary government of the working class. The role of the CCP should then have been to show the workers how to take power.
Thus Trotsky’s proposal to save the revolution at this time was for the CCP to launch the call for the creation of soviets – revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ councils of power. Trotsky argued that this should have been presented to the masses not as a form of the dictatorship of the CCP, but as a multi-party system of revolutionary power in which the left Guomindang would be welcome to participate. The attitude of the soviets to the Guomindang would be determined by the Guomindang’s attitude to these organs of power, which latter would simply be the realisation of the fact that the working class had the consciousness, organisation and weapons to wield state power.
It would be necessary for the CCP to couch this proposal in such terms, as rejecting the Guomindang’s participation in soviets a priori would discredit the proposal in the eyes of the masses. But if the Guomindang rejected these councils of popular power and sought to prevent their creation, they would now come face-to-face with an armed working class conscious of its ability and need to form soviets thanks to the CCP putting this forward. Instead, under Moscow’s orders, the CCP buried the notion, serving to hinder the consciousness of the working class and to clear for the Guomindang all those obstacles to its power which it was incapable of removing itself.
By July 15th, Wang Jingwei, like Chiang Kai-shek before him, concluded that the CCP had served its purpose, had been ‘squeezed out like a lemon’ and was ready to be ‘thrown away’. On this day the Guomindang Political Council in Wuhan “ordered all Communist party members of the Guomindang to renounce their Communist party membership on pain of immediate extreme penalties.” CCP comrades were persecuted, even killed, and the trade unions completely closed down. Wang Fanxi’s fears had been realised. Once again the bourgeoisie had broken with the CCP, and the latter was beginning to resemble a permanently jilted lover!
This act laid the basis for reconciliation with Chiang Kai-shek and marks the real end of the Chinese revolution of 1925-7 and the end of the CCP’s leading role in the Chinese working class movement, bar one final debacle, the Canton Commune, which we will briefly come onto. The preparation for Wang Jingwei’s rapprochement with Chiang is extremely instructive as to the real nature of their previous split, which was little more than a personal power struggle in which Chiang Kai-shek was the victor.
Immediately prior to the CCP expulsion on July 15th, Wang Jingwei had been openly courting the Warlord Feng Yuxiang, who was flirting with ‘revolution’ (i.e. adapting to the new realities of power in China). If he could form an alliance with Feng, Wang could usurp Chiang Kai-shek’s role. But by July 15th Feng had concluded that, in order to crush the CCP, all the tendencies of the Guomindang would have to place themselves under the national leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, who was clearly the more decisive politician, was himself a military leader (unlike Wang Jingwei) and had very close relations with the imperialists. He implored Wang Jingwei to come over to Chiang Kai-shek for a united struggle against the CCP.
Hence Wang Jingwei’s subsequent move against the CCP, which was quickly followed on August 10th with a letter of complete reconciliation to Chiang Kai-shek. In doing so, Wang was merely recognising that his power struggle with Chiang was over, that he had lost and that the best he could now hope for was to be a puppet to Chiang’s puppet master – a habit he must have grown accustomed to, as Wang Jingwei ended his illustrious career as a puppet of the Japanese fascists in China.
That the forces of the revolution must now break with the bourgeois Guomindang was a conclusion that could no longer have failed to be drawn in Moscow. But the Russian bureaucracy, governed by the iron law of its short-sighted imperative to maintain political prestige, could not draw the more profoundly correct conclusion that the revolution had been defeated, and that the CCP must therefore retreat to minimise its losses and regroup. This would mean admitting their policy had failed and would be a humiliating climb-down from apparent international infallibility.
So instead the Guomindang’s betrayal was loudly proclaimed as merely the harbinger of a higher plane of the revolution in which the CCP would soon lead the workers to power. Communist led coups and military insurrections were suddenly ordered. According to Trotsky, “in a revolutionary period, a deviation towards putschism is often the result of defeats whose direct cause is to be found in an opportunist leadership.” (Trotsky, The Classic Mistakes of Opportunism). The cause of this newfound adventurism and impatient ultra-leftism foisted onto the party by Moscow lay “in the fact that the leadership [was] striving to cover up its past sins” and in doing so “monstrously forced the course of events.” (Trotsky, Three Letters to Preobrazhensky). It was the equivalent of lashing out wildly and impotently after having been defeated in battle.
The beneficiaries of this policy were in Moscow, who would milk it back home as evidence of their bold revolutionary leadership (in much the same way that, at the same time, Stalin adopted an extreme caricature of the Left Opposition’s more radical economic policies to cut across the latter’s support). The heavy price to be paid would be borne entirely by the heroic Chinese communists and workers.
The new line was agreed at a special meeting called and led by the new Comintern representative, Lominadze, on August 7th 1927. The strategy was very simple – to command a revolution from the masses. Peasant and workers’ insurrections would be initiated, not so much where the party had political strength, where it had done the political work of winning over and preparing the masses to take power, but where the party happened to be able to cobble together some military forces left over from its involvement in the Northern Expedition between Guangzhou and Wuhan/Nanchang.
The first uprising, at Nanchang, actually took place before this meeting, on August 1st. The city was taken very easily, the CCP having the benefit of surprise, but “the population understood little about what was going on and took scarcely any notice of it.” (Guillermaz, op cit.). This shows that the party had fully reaped what Stalin had forced it to sow – it had abandoned the materialist, class analysis of society and had already descended into bureaucratic ‘commandism’, having lost all roots among the workers. They had now embarked on a policy from which the party would not depart ever again, substituting a purely technical, military strategy for one based on the class balance of forces.
Such a policy, if it is successful, and it rarely is considering the enormous technical-military weakness of the communist movement in comparison with the forces of the bourgeois state, could only usher in a new regime with a Communist label but in which the working class played no active role. In other words the ‘Communist’ regime would lack the essential political prerequisite for socialism. Indeed, the revolutionary committee that was briefly established upon taking Nanchang was simply appointed over the heads of the working class. In fact the basis for the military success of a revolution is precisely the mass involvement of the working class and the winning over of sections of the military rank-and-file through political means, which more than compensates for the movement’s inferior financial and technical resources.
Needless to say, in the Nanchang Uprising as in those that were to briefly follow, the communists met with a crushing defeat. It would appear that, in their haste, spurred on as they were by Moscow, the CCP leaders had not even prepared for the possibility that the Guomindang might counter-attack. Because as soon as they did, the CCP forces immediately evacuated without a fight! “The rebel armies still under Ho Lung did not try to maintain their position in Jiangxi and Hunan within range of the Wuhan government, as might have been expected from a logical and political point of view. Nor did they turn for support to the hinterland, said to be in a great state of restlessness. They do not even appear to have considered looking for reinforcements in these two provinces.” (Ibid). The end result of this particular uprising was around 800 Communists killed and a further loss of sympathy amongst the Guomindang rank-and-file.
Following this by one month was the ‘Autumn Harvest Uprising’, which ended in much the same way, being carried out with the same methods. The significance of this event lies in that, being based in the countryside and the peasantry, and led by Mao Zedong, it paved the way for the future developments of the party as a peasant based guerrilla army. It should be noted that this first embryonic experiment in ‘Maoism’ was at the behest of Moscow as a desperate last throw of the dice. It was not an exciting new strategy thought out well in advance by Mao or anyone else. The resulting creation of the first rural ‘Soviet’ in Haifeng, the inspiration for Mao’s future policy of creating rural soviets wherever the Red Army seized territory, was in reality accidentally stumbled upon by the party’s military as it fled defeat in Changsha.
But the event which severed all ties with the Chinese working class and finished the revolution off once and for all was the ‘Canton Commune’. By 1927 the revolution had already been finished for one year in Guangzhou (Canton), Chiang Kai-shek’s coup having taken place in March 1926. This year of reaction had been put to good use by Tang Shengzhi, the former Wuhan general in whom to CCP had placed its faith so recently, who used the following methods to make sure the Guangzhouese working class would never forget the bitter taste of defeat:
“The usual methods of shooting and beheading have been abetted by methods of torture and mutilation which reek of the horror of the dark ages and the Inquisition. The results have been impressive. The peasant and labour unions of Hunan, probably the most effectively organised in the whole country, are completely smashed. Those leaders who have escaped the burning in oil, the burying alive, the torture by slow strangulation by wire, and other forms of death too lurid to report, have fled the country.” (Jui Fu San, quoted in Isaacs, op cit.)
Nevertheless this obvious crippling of the local working class was ignored and on December 11th (since the Guomindang had caught wind of the plan, the CCP was compelled to move the date forward by two days to maintain their one advantage, the element of surprise) Guangzhou was seized by an insurrection. Despite the fact that the Communists’ forces were outnumbered by 5 to 1, they succeeded in taking the city. Upon taking power, the rallying cry of ‘Down with the Guomindang’ was heard, and the insurrectionists outlawed all Guomindang tendencies in the city. Their programme given to the inhabitants of the city called for,
“The confiscation of the property of the big bourgeoisie, the banks, and the money exchange shops. The houses of the wealthy were to be turned into dormitories for the workers. The pawnshops were to be taken over and all the articles in them returned freely to their owners...The programme of the Canton Commune called for an eight-hour day; wage increases; state aid to the unemployed according to the regular wage scale: nationalisation of all big industries, communications, and banks; recognition of the All-China Labour Federation as the national organisation of the Chinese proletariat.” (Isaacs, op cit.).
As Trotsky pointed out, despite its adventurist character (i.e. being organised over the heads of the working class), these acts displayed the real objective character of the Chinese revolution, in that the only class that could really achieve independence for China was the working class, by nationalising industry. But it was too little, too late.
The Commune’s leadership, installed as it was with no participation from the exhausted and defeated Guangzhou masses, was not elected and could have no real authority amongst the workers. At best it could (had it not been busy fending off the immediate counter-attack) order the working class about. What unites the previous policy of opportunist subservience and this current ultra-left one is the underlying lack of faith that the working class can organise a revolution and take power itself. In the first instance, the working class was seen as too new, too weak, and would have to merely support the apparently revolutionary bourgeoisie. In the second instance, the working class was seen as a tap that could be turned on and off by the party at will, so that when the party (or rather, the Russian bureaucracy) felt it necessary to boost its prestige by having a revolution to its name in China, it could simply order one off the shelf.
But precisely because the revolutionary militancy of the working class is not available on tap, the CCP could no longer rely on it to defend the retaken Guangzhou. Having spurned the opportunity when the workers had moved mountains to take over the city in 1925, the CCP now expected the workers to do it once again after they had been smashed and their leaders executed. But they could not. As a result, the Canton Commune was crushed in only two days. The results were brutal enough to wipe the CCP completely out of China’s cities, not to return until 1949.
“Long after the fighting ended, the streets echoed the gunfire of executioners and were strewn with the blood and the bodies of the dead. A correspondent of the Ta Kung Pao saw women Communists ‘wrapped in cotton padded blankets, soaked in gasoline and burned alive.’ Soldiers seized any women they found with bobbed hair, which was regarded as infallible evidence of radicalism. Hundreds of girls were shot or otherwise killed after being subjected to indescribable indignities.” (Ibid.)
In 1925, the workers had seized and begun reorganising the entire city with barely a shot being fired and no persecution to speak of. In 1927, the very same workers were unnecessarily sacrificed in the most violent manner to satisfy the political imperatives of a bureaucracy thousands of miles away. Such is the cruel irony that ends the Second Chinese Revolution.