Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy

9. The Chinese Revolution

THE EVENTS in China had enormous influence on the mood of party members in Russia. Serge remembers: ‘The Chinese revolution galvanised us all. I have the impression of a positive wave of enthusiasm heaving up the whole Soviet world – or at least the thinking part of it.’ [1]

The revolution, however, was decapitated in 1927, when the Shanghai working class was massacred by Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang and chief of its army. A short survey of the Chinese revolution is warranted.

First interventions of Moscow in China

In August 1922 the representative of the Comintern, Maring (the Dutch Communist Sneevliet) arrived in Shanghai, and after meeting with Sun Yat-sen, leader of the bourgeois nationalist party, the Kuomintang, he then met the Communist Party. At the time the Kuomintang was a formless and ineffective body dependent on the tolerance of the local ‘progressive’ warlord. Maring proposed that the Communist Party should join the Kuomintang. Prominent leaders of the party, including its General Secretary, Ch’en Tu-hsiu, opposed the plan on the ground that it deprived the party of its class independence. Maring countered these objections by advancing the novel view that the KMT was, in fact, a multi-class party representing ‘a bloc of four classes’ – that is, a bloc of the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, workers and peasants. [2] When the Central Committee of the CCP continued to resist, Maring invoked the discipline of the Comintern. Under this threat, the Central Committee reluctantly agreed. Although the CCP was young and inexperienced its leaders still demonstrated a more consistently revolutionary stance than Maring. When Ch’en Tu-hsiu came to Moscow for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern he was upbraided as ‘ultra-left’ for his resistance to joining the KMT. Karl Radek told the Chinese delegates to the Congress that it was the task of the CCP to ‘bring the workers into a rational relationship with the objectively revolutionary elements of the bourgeoisie’.

You must understand, comrades, that neither the question of Socialism nor of the Soviet Republic are on the order of the day. Unfortunately, even the historic questions of national unity and of the united national republic are not yet on the order of the day in China. The present state of China reminds us of the eighteenth century in Europe, especially in Germany where capitalist development was too weak to allow the establishment of a united national centre. [3]

As the resistance in the ranks of the CCP to joining the KMT was very strong, the ECCI on 12 January 1923 issued a formal resolution on CCP-KMT collaboration, drafted by Zinoviev.

  1. The only serious national revolutionary group in China is the Kuomintang, which is based partly on the liberal- democratic bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, partly on the intelligentsia and workers.
  2. Since the independent workers’ movement in the country is still weak, and since the central task for China is the national revolution against the imperialists and their feudal agents within the country, and since, moreover, the working class is directly ‘interested in the solution of the national- revolutionary problem while still being insufficiently differentiated as a wholly independent social force, the ECCI considers it necessary that action between the Kuomintang and the young CCP should be coordinated.
  3. Consequently in present conditions it is expedient for members of the CCP to remain in the Kuomintang. [4]

Parallel to Maring’s activity on behalf of the Comintern was the activity of the representatives of the Soviet government.

As early as 25 July 1919 the Soviet government had proclaimed its readiness to renounce all the imperialist privileges held by Tsarist Russia in China. It renewed this offer in a further declaration on 27 October 1920, and unofficial Soviet representatives began making efforts in Peking to negotiate a new treaty on this basis. The Russian offer to treat China on a basis of complete equality greatly heightened the prestige of the newly established Soviet power.

In January 1923 the Soviet government sent Adolf Ioffe, one of its first rank diplomats, to establish formal contacts with Sun Yat-sen in Shanghai. On 26 January 1923 Ioffe and Sun Yat-sen issued a joint manifesto, the first part of which stated:

Doctor Sun is of the opinion that, because of the non-existence of conditions favourable to their successful application in China, it is not possible to carry out either Communism or even the Soviet system in China. M. Ioffe agrees entirely with this view. He is further of the opinion that China’s most important and most pressing problems are the completion of national unification and the attainment of full national independence. [5]

This formula was interpreted to mean further support for the subordination of the CCP to the KMT.

Sun Yat-sen was in no doubt that the members of the CCP had to accept the discipline of the KMT. He told Ioffe:

If the Communist Party enters the Kuomintang it must submit to discipline and not criticise the Kuomintang openly. If the Communists do not submit to the Kuomintang I shall expel them; and if Soviet Russia should give them secret protection, I shall oppose Soviet Russia. [6]

Sun Yat-sen made it clear that he envisaged the relationship between the CCP and KMT to be the relationship of subordinate to master. In December 1923 he wrote: ‘If Russia wants to cooperate with China she must co-operate with our Party and not with Ch’en Tu-hsiu. If Ch’en disobeys our Party, he will be ousted.’ [7]

The Third Conference of the CCP in June 1923 issued a manifesto stating: ‘The KMT should be the central force of the national revolution and should assume its leadership’. [8]

Initially, the KMT encouraged anti-British strikes and nationalist agitation gave an impetus to the mass struggle which the nationalists then tried to stop. It was this which made it very easy for an initially very small and very middle class communist party to liquidate itself into the nationalist movement – ignoring the warning on this in the theses of the Second Congress of the Comintern (as did the bureaucratised Comintern itself).

The Communists gained admittance to the KMT in January 1924 by pledging individual allegiance to its principles and submission to its disciplin. Under a system of dual party membership, designed for the occasion, they bound themselves to keep faith simultaneously with Sun Yat-sen’s platform negating the class struggle and with their own platform enjoining the class struggle. In the words of the Third Congress of the CCP, this meant ‘... a two-fold struggle within the national ... as well as ... the class movement.’ [9]

To strengthen the military prowess of the KMT the Russians founded the Whampoa Military Academy in May 1924 to lay the basis for a corps of officers for a new Nationalist Army. The Academy was supplied and run with Russian funds. Before long shiploads of Soviet arms were coming into Canton harbour to supply the KMT armies.

In the military ranks of the KMT a special place was held by Chiang Kai-shek. He was sent by Sun Yat-sen to Moscow to study Red Army methods and the Soviet system. Chiang left China in July 1923 and remained in Russia for six months. On his return to Canton at the end of the year, he became the darling of Mikhail Borodin, the Soviet representative, and the Russian military advisers. He also became director of the Whampoa Military Academy.

The beginning of the Chinese Revolution

In the first month of 1925 strikes spread throughout China. Since the larger factories were almost all directly or indirectly under foreign ownership, this was an anti-imperialist as well as an anti-capitalist movement.

A wave of strikes in Shanghai in the early months of 1925 led to the shooting of a number of workers by the Japanese police on 30 May. This was followed by a mass demonstration in which twelve students were killed by the British police. The reaction to this was a general strike that spread from Hong Kong and Canton in the South, to Shanghai and then further north to Peking. In Hong Kong and Canton 250,000 workers came out on a strike that lasted a whole year. The general strike was accompanied by a boycott of British goods.

The Communist Party influence grew very rapidly. At the same time the KMT was able to consolidate its power in Kwangtung. At the end of June 1925 it proclaimed itself the National Government of China.

Stalin’s and Bukharin’s views on the KMT

Stalin and Bukharin argued that because of the national oppression of China by imperialism the national unity of the proletariat, the peasantry and the bourgeoisie was imperative. The coming revolution would be a bourgeois revolution; the bourgeoisie and the Kuomintang were revolutionary. The CP had to maintain unity with the Kuomintang, not to estrange it. In January 1926 Stalin and the other members of the Presidium of the Fourteenth Party Conference of the Soviet Communist Party sent the following telegram to the Presidium of the Second Congress of the KMT:

To our Party has fallen the proud and historical role of leading the first victorious proletarian revolution of the world ... We are convinced that the Kuomintang will succeed in playing the same role in the east, and thereby destroy the foundation of the rule of the imperialists in Asia ... if the Kuomintang strengthens the alliance of the working class and the peasantry in the present struggle, and allows itself to be guided by the interests of the fundamental forces of the revolution ... ’ [10]

The KMT was admitted into the Comintern as an associate party, and the ECCI, amid loud applause, elected Chiang Kai-shek as an honorary member. This was just a few weeks before Chiang Kai-shek carried out his first anti-Communist coup. Bukharin told a Leningrad Party Conference:

What is essentially new and original is that now the Chinese revolution already possesses a centre organised into a State power. This fact has enormous significance. The Chinese revolution has already passed the stage of evolution in which the popular masses struggle against the ruling regime. The present stage of the Chinese revolution is characterised by the fact that the forces of the revolution are already organised into a state power; with a regular disciplined army ... the advance of the armies, their brilliant victories ... are a special form of the revolutionary process. [11]

Bukharin told the Fifteenth Soviet Party Conference (October 1926) that it was necessary ‘to maintain a single national revolutionary front’ in China as ‘the commercial-industrial bourgeoisie was at present playing an objectively revolutionary role.’

It was necessary to prevent the peasantry from going to excesses in its struggle for land as this could antagonise the bourgeoisie. The over-riding duty of the CCP was to safeguard the unity of all the anti-imperialist forces, the unity of the KMT. [12]

Some time later, on 30 November, Stalin, speaking at the Chinese Commission of the ECCI, extolled Chiang Kai-shek’s armies.

The revolutionary armies in China are a most important factor in the struggle of the Chinese workers and peasants for their emancipation ... the advance of the Cantonese means a blow at imperialism, a blow at its agents in China; it means freedom of assembly, freedom to strike, freedom of the press, and freedom to organise for all the revolutionary elements in China in general, and for the workers in particular.

The Communists should submit completely to the KMT and its ideology.

The student youth (the revolutionary students), the working class youth, the peasant youth – all this constitutes a force that could advance the revolution with giant strides, if it was subordinated to the ideological and political influence of the Kuomintang.

Stalin went on to warn the Chinese Communists against any attempt to set up soviets. [13]

Stalin and Bukharin invoked Lenin to give the mantle of authority to their theory: in 1905 Lenin urged socialists in Russia to aim at a ‘democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants’ as the immediate aim of the revolution. Stalin and Bukharin waved the banner of the democratic dictatorship for the CCP.

Trotsky criticises Stalin’s and Bukharin’s schematism

The assumption of Stalin and Bukharin that the Chinese people, oppressed by imperialism, would be pressurised into a national unity of conflicting classes was completely mechanistic. They argued that under imperialist oppression the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, peasantry and proletariat, would all feel equally the need for a united anti-imperialist struggle. Thus the internal struggles between the classes would be dampened. Logically following from this was the slogan of a ‘Bloc of Four Classes’ – the bulwark of the fight against imperialism.

Trotsky tore this argument to pieces, arguing that the pressure of imperialism does not only not weaken the class struggle among the Chinese people but on the contrary strengthens it. He wrote in May 1927:

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. Imperialism is a highly powerful force in the internal relationships of China. The main source of this force is not the warships in the waters of the Yangtse Kiang ... but the economic and political bond between foreign capital and the native bourgeoisie ...

... 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 ...

A policy that disregarded the powerful pressure of imperialism on the internal life of China would be radically false. But a policy that proceeded from an abstract conception of national oppression without its class refraction and reflection would be no less false. [14]

Again, Stalin and Bukharin assumed that because the Chinese bourgeoisie was nationally oppressed it was more progressive than the Russian bourgeoisie, which had belonged to a ruling nation. Trotsky wrote:

Historical experience bears out the fact that the Polish bourgeoisie – notwithstanding the fact that it suffered both from the yoke of the autocracy and from national oppression – was more reactionary than the Russian bourgeoisie and, in the State Dumas, always gravitated not towards the Kadets but towards the Octobrists. The same is true of the Tartar bourgeoisie. The fact that the Jews had absolutely no rights whatever did not prevent the Jewish bourgeoisie from being even more cowardly, more reactionary, and more vile than the Russian bourgeoisie. [15]

Dampening the class struggle of the proletariat and peasantry, Trotsky argued, would weaken the anti-imperialist struggle. The anti-imperialist revolution could win only if the proletariat, leading the peasantry, crushed the bourgeoisie’s attempt to compromise with imperialism.

The victory over foreign imperialism can only be won by means of the toilers of town and country driving it out of China. For this, the masses must really rise millions strong. They cannot rise under the bare slogan of national liberation, but only in direct struggle against the big landlords, the military satraps, the usurers, the capitalist brigands. [16]

The class struggle of the proletariat would inevitably push the Chinese bourgeoisie into the arms of imperialism:

The Chinese bourgeoisie is sufficiently realistic and acquainted intimately enough with the nature of world imperialism to understand that a really serious struggle against the latter requires such an ‘upheaval of the revolutionary masses as would primarily become a menace to the bourgeoisie itself ...

A democratic or national liberation movement may offer the bourgeoisie an opportunity to deepen and broaden its possibilities for exploitation. Independent intervention of the proletariat on the revolutionary arena threatens to deprive the bourgeoisie of the possibility to exploit altogether. [17]

When Stalin and Bukharin spoke of the revolution in China as being bourgeois democratic, they made even less sense than the Mensheviks did when they made a similar characterisation of the Russian revolution.

There was no separation between capitalists and landlords in China. The Chinese merchants stemmed, to begin with, from the landed gentry. The new wealth accumulated through trade went largely into land. There was an organic link between Chinese capitalism and semi-feudal exploitation. As Trotsky wrote a few years after the Chinese revolution:

While at the bottom, in the agrarian bases of the Chinese economy, the bourgeoisie is organically and unbreakably linked with feudal forms of exploitation, at the top it is just as organically and unbreakably linked with world finance capital. The Chinese bourgeoisie cannot on its own break free either from agrarian feudalism or from foreign imperialism. [18]

Stalin and Bukharin argued that the revolution which had begun in China, being a bourgeois revolution, could not set itself socialist tasks; that the bourgeoisie supporting the Kuomintang was playing a revolutionary role, and therefore it was the duty of the CCP to maintain unity with it. In seeking support for this strategy from Lenin’s concept of the Democratic Dictatorship of Workers and Peasants’ they completely distorted Lenin’s position. In 1905 Lenin did not seek an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie against Tsarism; on the contrary he argued very strongly that the bourgeois revolution could conquer in Russia only under the leadership of the working class, in an inevitable clash with the liberal bourgeoisie.

When Lenin argued that the coming revolution would be bourgeois democratic, he meant that this revolution resulted from a conflict between the productive forces of capitalism on the one hand and Tsarism, landlordism and other relics of feudalism on the other. The task of the democratic dictatorship was not to create a socialist society but to get rid of the dead wood of medievalism.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks claimed for the proletariat the role of leader in the democratic revolution. The Mensheviks reduced its role to that of an ‘extreme opposition’. They interpreted the bourgeois revolution in a way in which the role of the proletariat would be subordinate to and dependent upon the bourgeoisie. [19] Lenin wrote:

Social Democrats ... rely wholly and exclusively on the activity, the class-consciousness and the organisation of the proletariat, on its influence among the labouring and exploited masses. [20]

From the independence and hegemony of the proletariat in the bourgeois revolution it is only one step to Lenin’s position that in the process of the revolution the proletariat may overstep bourgeois democratic limitations.

... from the democratic revolution we shall at once and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way. [21]

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, therefore, the workers must support the bourgeoisie, say the Potresoves, Gvozdyovs and Chkheidzes ...

Ours is a bourgeois revolution, we Marxists say, 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. [22]

Even the Mensheviks, who did seek an alliance with the bourgeoisie, did not dream of accepting the discipline of a party dominated by the bourgeoisie. Stalin’s and Bukharin’s policy, as Trotsky pointed out, was a caricature not of Bolshevism, but even of 1905 Menshevism.

Finally, about the class nature of the KMT: it did not matter how many petty bourgeois, or workers or peasants were in the KMT, it was still fundamentally a party of the bourgeoisie led by representatives of that class.

The course of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27 completely disproved the stand of Stalin and Bukharin while confirming to the hilt the analysis of Trotsky.

The coup of 20 March 1926

A few weeks after the Kuomintang was admitted into the Comintern as an associate party and Chiang Kai-shek became an honorary member of the ECCI (Trotsky was the only member of the Politburo who voted against this) – he showed his gratitude by carrying out his first anti-Communist coup.

Several hours before dawn, on the morning of 20 March 1926, Chiang Kai-shek’s troops arrested all political commissars attached to the army, who were mostly members of the CCP. Other prominent Communists, including the members of the Hong Kong strike committee, were also arrested. All Soviet advisers in the city were placed under house arrest. Teng Yen-ta, a Communist sympathiser who was political director of the Whampoa Military Academy, was also detained.

What was the reaction of Stepanov, the leading Soviet adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, to the coup of 20 March? He argued that the Communists had committed errors, using,

inappropriate radical propaganda in the Army on the problems of imperialism, the peasantry, and communism and thus antagonising the KMT leadership.

The above points naturally and unavoidably caused unpleasant feelings among high-ranking military officers ... [The Communists] only try as their primary policy openly to expand the Chinese Communist Party and to grab complete control over everything everywhere. Thus, they have alienated the KMT and have aroused jealousy on the part of KMT members. [23]

Everything should be done, Stepanov argued, to keep on good terms with Chiang Kai-shek.

The possible future appointment of Chiang to the post of Commander-in-Chief should sufficiently satisfy his lust for position and power ...

It would naturally be unfortunate both for the revolution and for himself if Chiang wants further to attack the Left. Yet Chiang can never destroy the Left for, warmly received everywhere, the Left has substantial force. For Chiang to fight such force is to seek self-extermination.

Chiang, a man of intelligence and ambition, will surely not resort to such a course. He claims he has learned an invaluable lesson from the incident of March Twentieth. His action was not influenced by the Left but was instigated by counter-revolutionaries of the Right. If we could inject into him a small dose of revolutionary ideology and surround him with the brave influence of the Left, we would ensure against repetition of the March Twentieth Incident. We are now creating conditions unfavourable to the occurrence of another such incident. We are trying to make Chiang cooperate with us again by satisfying his desire for glory and enabling him to achieve greater power and strength than he now enjoys. [24]

Another Soviet adviser, Nilov, said a little later, on 10 April:

Under no circumstances should communism be stressed; this might arouse fear among the people.

On the surface, we should take an interest in and not assume the attitude of neglecting Sun Yat-senism ...

In principle, the CCP should be entirely open in the Army and therefore it is proposed that complete lists of Communist members be handed over to the respective commanders ... [25]

And a further Soviet adviser stated: Chiang Kai-shek,

is a very clever statesman. I believe that when the [KMT] Central Executive Committee plenary session meets, all traces of the March 20th incident will be wiped out and Chiang can be persuaded to lean to the Left. [26]

And Stepanov again. Chiang Kai-shek,

is filled with revolutionary ideas far superior to the other militarists. I believe that trivial details of his behaviour are but signs of his weakness for self-aggrandisement and self-glorification. They may be overlooked.

The incident of March Twentieth is perhaps not entirely without benefit. I agree with Hei-hsing. The incident is like cancer, for which it is wise to have an operation. Sores remain, however, and we should by all means see that they are cured.

No one can guarantee at present that Chiang will always be one of us, but we must utilise him for the cause of the National Revolution. [27]

Following the coup a meeting of the Central Executive Committee of the KMT was called for 15 May. Isaacs records its response to events:

At the opening session Chiang introduced and hammered through a special resolution ‘for the readjustment of Party affairs’. It was framed to limit and define within the closest possible bounds the organisational activity of the Communist members of the Kuomintang. Communists were required ‘not to entertain any doubt on or criticise Dr. Sun or his principles’. The Communist Party was required to hand over to the Standing Committee of the Kuomintang Executive a list of its membership inside the Kuomintang. Communist members of municipal, provincial, and central party committees were limited to one-third of the committee membership. Communists were banned from serving as heads of any Party or Government department. Kuomintang members, on the other hand, were enjoined ‘not to engage in any other political organisation or activity.’ That is, Communists could join the Kuomintang, but members of the Kuomintang could not join the Communist Party without forfeiting their Kuomintang cards. All instructions henceforth issued by the Communist Central Committee to its own members were to be submitted first to a special joint committee of the two parties for approval ...

Chiang was formally put at the head of the Party. Plans for launching a northern military expedition were also approved and Chiang Kai-shek was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all the expeditionary armies. Subsequently a set of special decrees conferred emergency power upon Chiang for the duration of the campaign. All Government and Party offices were subordinated to the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief. The Military Council originally conceived as a civilian check on militarist ambitions, passed entirely into Chiang’s hands. He became arbiter of the Government’s finances. He controlled the political department, the arsenals, the general staff, the military and naval schools. The Canton Government was transformed into a military dictatorship. Chiang’s victory was complete. [28]

On 29 July

Chiang Kai-shek’s headquarters proclaimed martial law. Public organisations, assemblies, the press, workers’ and peasants’ voluntary corps, strikes, all came within the orbit of military authority. Three days later an order was issued ‘forbidding all labour disturbances for the duration of the Northern expedition.’

... On 9 August the authorities stepped in with regulations for the compulsory arbitration of all labour disputes under Government auspices. Workers were forbidden to bear arms of any description, to assemble, or to parade. [29]

On 12-18 July the Central Committee of the CCP adopted a comprehensive set of resolutions on the peasant movement aimed at mollifying the KMT leadership. The resolutions argued that the peasant movement had developed the disease of ultra-leftism, of extremism. It was important to fight against the idea of expropriating the landlords. Instead,

Rent ceilings to be fixed by the government. Peasants to receive at least 50 per cent of the crops.

... In case of conflict between landlords and poor peasants, we should find means to utilise the old peasant organisations as the mediating party.

... Our policy toward landlords is to unite the self-cultivating peasants, hired farm labourers, tenant farmers, and middle and small landlords in a united front. Those big landlords who do not actively engage in oppressive activities are to be neutralised. Attacks should be concentrated on the most reactionary big landlords. In case of big landlords who are members of the bad gentry or local bullies, we should not simply propose the slogan, ‘Down with the landlords’ ... [30]

The CCP was told to attack only the bad landlords. Instead of Lenin’s alliance of the proletariat with the poor peasantry while neutralising the middle peasants, and fighting against the landlords and the kulaks, we have here an alliance of workers, poor peasants, middle peasants, kulaks and ‘good landlords’.

Stalin’s and Bukharin’s reaction to the March Twentieth Coup

Stalin and Bukharin concealed the fact of the coup from the ranks of the International. Isaacs writes:

They suppressed all news of its occurrence. The facts were kept not only from the Russian workers and the other sections of the Comintern, but from its Executive Committee and even from the other members of the Executive Committee’s praesidium ... When news of the coup appeared in the imperialist press in China and abroad ... the centrally-geared machinery of the Comintern press started turning our vehement denials.

Reuter’s Telegraphic Agency ... recently issued the statement that in Canton, Chiang Kai-shek, the supreme commander of the revolutionary troops ... had carried out a coup d’état. But this lying report (emphasis in original) had soon to be denied. The Kuomintang is not a tiny group with a few members, but is a mass party in the true sense of the word and revolutionary Canton and the revolutionary Canton Government are founded on this basis. It is, of course, impossible there to carry out a coup d’état overnight’, wrote the central organ of the Comintern on April 8, 1926. (International Press Correspondence, 8 April 1926).

Far from being converted into an instrument of bourgeois policy, the Canton government was more than ever ‘aiming at the world revolution’ and extending its power into the neighbouring provinces as a Soviet government’.

‘The perspectives for the People’s Government in Canton were never so favourable as they are now ...’ the same Comintern report continued. ‘The province of Kwangsi will shortly form a Soviet Government ... the power of the generals, as a result of the national revolutionary movement, is beginning to disappear. (Emphasis in original). The Kuomin Government is now proceeding to organise all district and town administrations within the province of Kwantung according to the Soviet system.’

‘The reactionary British Press at Hong Kong and in London have spread sensational stories of disruption within the Nationalist Government in an effort to further their imperialist propaganda,’ said a Moscow dispatch to the New York Daily Worker on April 21, 1926. ‘These reports have no real basis. They are nothing but provocative manoeuvres of British imperialism. There has been no insurrection in Canton. The basis of the reports seems to be certain differences (!) between a general of the Canton Army, Chiang Kai-shek and the Canton Government. These differences were not concerned with matters of principle and had no connection with an armed struggle for power. The differences have since been abolished and Canton remained the stronghold of the movement for the emancipation of the Chinese people. The attempt of British imperialism to utilise the unimportant differences in Canton in its own interests has failed ...’ [31]

But the coup of March Twentieth could not be hidden from the Chinese Communists. Isaacs writes:

This cringing policy did not go unchallenged in the ranks of the Communist Party. In Shanghai a group of comrades raised the demand for the immediate withdrawal of the Party from the Kuomintang, declaring it was impossible for the Communists to work effectively under the conditions laid down by the May 15 Kuomintang plenary session. Both the Central Committee in Shanghai and the Kwangtung Party organisation vigorously opposed this instinctively correct proletarian demand ...

The voices that called for resumption of independence made themselves heard to such an extent that even Chen Tu-hsiu wrote to the Comintern proposing substitution of a two-Party bloc outside the Kuomintang instead of work within the Kuomintang. A decision to this effect was actually adopted by the Communist Central Committee at its plenary session in June 1926. It was immediately and drastically condemned by the Comintern. [32]

And what conclusion did Mikhail Borodin, the representative of the Politburo of the CPSU to the KMT, draw from the coup? The Communists should be more submissive: ‘The present period is one in which the Communists should do coolie service for the Kuomintang,’ he declared. [33]

The massacre of the workers of Shanghai

After concentrating political and military control over Canton in his hands at the time of the coup, Chiang Kai-shek took to the field in July 1926 for the conquest of Central and North China, aided by Russian arms, a staff of Russian military advisers and a vast propaganda machine lubricated and propelled by the CCP.

The Northern March coincided with the rise of a vast mass movement in the provinces of Kiangsi, Hunan and Hupeh, drawing fresh millions into the struggle and before long engulfing Wuhan and Shanghai.

In the actual fighting peasant detachments were found wherever the clash was fiercest. Railway and telegraph workers paralysed the enemy’s communications. Peasant intelligence made all the enemy staff secrets almost instantly available to the advancing Nationalists. [34]

The growth of the peasant movement was spectacular.

By the end of November there were in Hunan fifty-four organised hsien with a total registered membership in the peasant associations of 1,071,137. By January 1927 this number had passed 2,000,000. The peasants first demanded rent reduction, abolition of the miscellaneous tax burdens, and arms to fight the village gentry. Village authority fell largely to the peasant associations and in Hunan the step from refusal to pay all rent to the outright seizure of the land was quickly taken. [35]

What was Moscow’s attitude to this rising mass movement? It was so eager not to antagonise the KMT that on 29 October 1926 the Politburo sent a telegram to Voitinsky, the Comintern representative in Shanghai, urging the CCP to keep the rebellious peasant movement in check. [36] Despite the situation in Canton since the coup of 20 March, Stalin had the audacity to say: the advance of the Canton troops meant ‘freedom of assembly, freedom to strike, freedom to organise for all the revolutionary elements in China in general and for the workers in particular.’ [37] In December 1926 the ECCI passed a resolution stating:

The machinery of the national-revolutionary Government provides an extremely effective channel for approaching the peasantry, and the Communist Party must make use of it. In the recently liberated provinces a State apparatus of the Canton type will be established. The task of communists and their revolutionary allies is to permeate the new government apparatus; in order to give practical expression to the agrarian programme of the national revolution ...

In order to intensify their activities in the ranks of the Kuomintang with the object of influencing the further development of the revolutionary movement, communists must enter the Canton Government ... The extension of the Canton Government’s power to large areas gives this question of communist participation in the National Government greater urgency than ever.

The Communist Party of China should seek to make the Kuomintang a genuinely national party, a firm revolutionary bloc of the proletariat, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie, and other oppressed strata who are waging an energetic struggle against imperialism and its agents ...

The Canton Government, despite its bourgeois democratic character, basically and objectively contains within itself the germ of a revolutionary petty-bourgeois State of the democratic dictatorship of the revolutionary bloc of proletariat, peasantry and urban petty bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeois democratic movement is becoming revolutionary in China because it is an anti-imperialist movement. The Canton Government is a revolutionary one primarily in virtue of its anti-imperialist character. [38]

It seemed the coup of 20 March had never happened. The Northern March proceeded.

In Shanghai the workers had responded to the victorious advance of the Northern Expedition with a strike wave of unexampled depth and militancy. [39]

The Nationalist troops occupied Hangchow on 17 February and next day advanced to Kashing, less than fifty miles from Shanghai. The vanguard moved up the railway as far as Sungkiang, only twenty-five miles away. In Shanghai all grew taut. The General Labour Union issued orders for a general strike effective the morning of the 19th in expectation of a further Nationalist advance. The workers answered the call with machine-like precision.

... The strike was complete. Practically every worker in Shanghai came out onto the streets. Their ranks were swelled when they were joined by shop employees and the hordes of the city poor. Between 500,000 and 800,000 people were directly involved. [40]

On 21 March the CCP led the Shanghai workers in an armed insurrection which succeeded in destroying the control of the Northern warlords; the armed workers now maintained order throughout Shanghai (except for the foreign concessions). Armed workers took control of the police stations and local military posts, the telephone and telegraph offices. [41]

On the eve of Chiang Kai-shek’s entering Shanghai, Chen Tu-hsiu again appealed to the leadership of the Comintern to allow the CCP to leave the KMT. Again he was pressed to reaffirm allegiance to the KMT and grant control of Shanghai to Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese Communists were very disciplined and abided by the Comintern instruction. The central slogan of the victorious insurrection in Shanghai was ‘Hail the national revolutionary army! Welcome to Chiang Kai-shek!’

On 26 March Chiang Kai-shek entered Shanghai. How did the Communist leaders react to this event?

A big meeting called by the French Communists in Paris on March 23, 1927, at which the leaders of the Communist Party of France, Semard, Monmousseau, Cachin and others appeared, sent the following telegram to the Kuo Min Tang: ‘The workers of Paris greet the entry of the revolutionary Chinese army into Shanghai. Fifty-six years after the Paris Commune and ten years after the Russian, the Chinese Commune marks a new stage in the development of the world revolution.

The organ of the German Communists, Die Rote Fahne prints a picture of Chiang Kai-shek on March 17 1927, and presents him as the leader of the revolutionary workers of China ... [42]

Pravda of 22 March exclaimed: ‘The keys to Shanghai were handed over by the victorious workers to the Canton army. In this fact is expressed the great heroic act of the Shanghai proletariat!’ [43]

On 5 April Stalin spoke to a large meeting of 3,000 officers in the Hall of Columns in Moscow answering the warning of Trotsky and the Opposition:

Chiang Kai-shek is submitting to discipline ... The Kuomintang is a bloc, a sort of revolutionary parliament, with the Right, the Left, and the Communists. Why make a coup d’état? Why drive away the Right when we have the majority and when the Right listens to us? The peasant needs an old, worn-out jade as long as she is necessary. He does not drive her away. So it is with us. When the Right is of no more use to us, we will drive it away. At present we need the Right. It has capable people, who still direct the army and lead it against the imperialists. Chiang Kai-shek has perhaps no sympathy for the revolution, but he is leading the army and cannot do otherwise than lead it against the imperialists. Besides this, the people of the Right have relations with the generals of Chang Tso-lin and understand very well how to demoralise them and induce them to pass over to the side of the revolution, bag and baggage, without striking a blow. Also, they have connections with the rich merchants and can raise money from them. So they have to be utilised to the end, squeezed out like a lemon, and then flung away. [44]

Compare this with Trotsky’s stand as expressed in a memorandum sent to the Politburo on 31 March. Trotsky emphasised the rising strength of the insurgent workers and peasants who, if organised in Soviets, could save the revolution from a military coup.

The officer cadre, as far as one can tell from the available materials, is characterised by bourgeois and landlord origins and by sympathies tending to favour those same classes. Apprehensions regarding a Chinese variant of Bonapartism are apparently rather strong among revolutionary circles in China, nor can one say by any means that these fears are unfounded. Under existing conditions it would seem there is no more effective measure for countering such dangers than the establishment of soldiers’ sections of soviets, beginning with the garrisons in the major proletarian centres. [45]

Three days later Trotsky submitted a very strong article to Pravda that did not get published. He reiterated and emphasised that Chiang Kai-shek was preparing a coup.

It was quite symptomatic that on 18 April – six days after Chiang Kai-shek’s massacre of Shanghai workers – the Comintern Secretariat sent Trotsky a routine circular inviting him to autograph, as other Soviet leaders did, a picture of Chiang Kai-shek as a token of friendship. Trotsky later published his outraged reply. [46] It did not take long for Chiang Kai-shek to show how ‘revolutionary’ he was.

At four o’clock on the morning of 12 April a bugle blast sounded from Chiang Kai-shek’s headquarters ... A Chinese gunboat at anchor off Nantao answered with a toot on its siren. Simultaneously the machine guns broke loose in a steady roll’. The attack was launched in Chapei, Nantao, the Western District, in Woosung, Pootung, and Jessfield. It came as no surprise to anyone except the workers because all the authorities concerned, Chinese and foreign, after midnight were secretly made cognisant of the events which were to take place in the morning.

Mobilised for action at all points, the gangsters, dressed in blue denim uniform; and wearing white arm-bands bearing the Chinese character kung (labour), ‘had feverishly worked through the night organising secret parties to appear at dawn as though from nowhere ...’ [47]

Every worker who resisted was shot down in his tracks. The remainder were lashed together and marched out to be executed either in the streets or at Lunghua headquarters ... Foreign forces co-operated in the reign of terror now instituted throughout the city ...

Everywhere rigid house-to-house searches were conducted and wholesale arrests made. Prisoners were handed over in batches to the military headquarters at Lunghua. [48]

Tens of thousands of Communists and workers who had followed them were slaughtered.

Bedfellows of Wang Ching-wei

Chiang Kai-shek’s Shanghai coup d’état dealt a staggering blow to the revolution [wrote Isaacs], but it need not have been mortal. Immense reserves still existed in Hunan and Hupeh where the revolutionary tide was just sweeping in, where the peasants were rising to seize the land and the workers in organisation and power were already capable of becoming the leaders of the agrarian revolt and the guardians of its conquests. There was still time to mobilise and weld these forces for a new offensive, to crush the reaction which ruled in the east with Shanghai as its centre. [49]

A counter-offensive against Chiang Kai-shek would have demanded a radical change in the policy of the Comintern. Instead Stalin and Bukharin repeated the same line as hitherto, now orienting themselves on the ‘Left Kuomintang’ government of Wuhan headed by Wang Ching-wei. The Left Kuomintang was temporarily in conflict with Chiang Kai-shek and was anxious to benefit from Communist support.

On 21 April Stalin wrote the following:

Chiang Kai-shek’s coup means that from now on there will be in South China two camps, two governments, two armies, two centres, the centre of revolution in Wuhan, and the centre of counter-revolution in Nanking.

This means that the revolutionary Kuomintang in Wuhan, by a determined fight against militarism and imperialism, will in fact be converted into an organ of the revolutionary­democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry ... [We must adopt] the policy of concentrating the whole power in the country in the hands of the revolutionary Kuomintang ... It further follows that the policy of close cooperation between the Lefts and the Communists within the Kuomintang in this stage acquires special force and special significance ... and that without such co-operation the victory of the revolution is impossible. [50]

On 30 May at the Eighth Plenum of the ECCI Bukharin moved a resolution on the Chinese question:

The ECCI observes that the course of the Chinese revolution has confirmed the evaluation of its moving forces given at the last (seventh) enlarged plenum ...

Despite partial defeat and the counter-revolution of Chiang Kai-shek and Co. the revolution has moved to a higher stage; the bloc of bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, peasantry, and proletariat has broken down and has begun to change into a bloc of proletariat, peasantry, and petty bourgeoisie, in which the leading role of the proletariat is steadily growing ... The ECCI believes that the tactics of a bloc with the national bourgeoisie in the period of the revolution that has now closed were completely correct ...

The Wuhan Government and the left Kuomintang express in their basic tendencies the revolutionary bloc of the urban and rural petty bourgeois masses with the proletariat ...

The ECCI believes that the Chinese CP should apply all its efforts, jointly with the left Kuomintang, to a vigorous campaign for the mobilisation and organisation of the masses. The most energetic recruiting of workers into the party, the most energetic recruiting, in town and village, of the labouring masses into the Kuomintang, which it is necessary to change as quickly as possible into the broadest mass organisation – that is the chief task of the Chinese CP at the present moment ... [51]

The ECCI ‘decisively rejects the demand [of the Opposition] to leave the KMT’.

The Kuomintang in China is the specific Chinese form of the organisation in which the proletariat works together with the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry. [52]

Regarding the Wuhan government the resolution stated:

The ECCI considers incorrect the view which underestimates the Wuhan Government and in practice denies its powerful revolutionary role. The Wuhan Government and the leaders of the left Kuomintang by their class composition represent not only the peasants, workers and artisans, but also a part of the middle bourgeoisie ...

The ECCI believes that the Chinese CP should take a most energetic part in the work of the Wuhan ‘provisional revolutionary Government’ ... [53]

To ‘strengthen the centre of the revolution in Wuhan’ two CCP members joined the KMT Government: T’an P’ing-shan as Miniser of Agriculture, and Su Chao-cheng as Minister of Labour, ‘the classic posts of hostages’, to use Trotsky’s phrase. In fact their role turned out to be to restrain the peasants and workers.

Trotsky’s speech to the Eighth Plenum of the ECCI sharply attacked the Stalin-Bukharin policy.

The workers of Shanghai and Hankow will surely be surprised when they read that the April events developed in complete harmony with the historical line of march that Comrade Bukharin had previously outlined for the Chinese revolution.

... We do not want to assume even a shadow of responsibility for the policy of the Wuhan government and the leadership of the Kuomintang, and we urgently advise the Comintern to reject this responsibility. We say directly to the Chinese peasants: the leaders of the left Kuomintang of the type of Wang Ching-wei and Company will inevitably betray you if you follow the Wuhan heads instead of forming your own independent soviets. The agrarian revolution is a serious thing. Politicians of the Wang Ching-wei type, under difficult conditions, will unite ten times with Chiang Kai-shek against the workers and peasants. Under such conditions, two Communists in a bourgeois government become impotent hostages, if not a direct mask for the preparation of a new blow against the working masses. We say to the workers of China: the peasants will not carry out the agrarian revolution to the end if they let themselves be led by petty bourgeois radicals instead of by you, the revolutionary proletariat. Therefore, build up your workers’ soviets, ally them with the peasant soviets, arm yourselves through the soviets, draw soldiers’ representatives into the soviets, shoot the generals who do not recognise the soviets, shoot the bureaucrats and bourgeois liberals who will organise uprisings against the soviets. Only through peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets will you win over the majority of Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers to your side. [54]

Isaacs writes the following on the activities of the Communist Minister of Agriculture in the Wuhan Government:

After assuming his post, Van P’ing-shan immediately issued instructions to the peasants forbidding ‘rash acts’ against the Tuhao and gentry, threatening ‘severe punishment’ ...

The Government therefore announces its policy that all irresponsible acts and illegal deeds of the peasants be nipped in the bud ... peace must reign in the villages. It must not be annihilated by the peasants’ excessive demands. [55]

Similar language was used by the Communist Minister of Labour who, in a circular issued a few days after he took office, complained of the ‘infantile activity on the part of the newly liberated sections of labour and the peasantry.’ [56] On 1 June Stalin sent a telegram to the Comintern delegates in China urging them to keep the agrarian revolution within the limits necessary to preserve the alliance with the KMT. [57]

A few days after the Eighth Plenum of the ECCI praised the revolutionary character of the Wuhan Government, the left KMT general Hsü K’e-hsiang began a massacre of Communists and trade unionists in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. Following this the CCP was suppressed by the Wuhan Government and the two Communist members resigned. On 15 July the KMT Political Council expelled the Communists from the KMT and in the next few days many Communists were arrested and executed.

It took some three years to expose the Stalin-Bukharin policy of reliance on Chiang Kai-shek. It took a couple of months to do the same for the policy of reliance on Wang Ching-wei.

The Canton Putsch

To cover up the crimes committed towards the Chinese revolution by the policy of tail-ending the KMT, Stalin and Bukharin now swung into an adventure, which again was paid for by the blood of thousands of Chinese workers.

After opposing the slogan of the soviet while the revolution was rising, now, after its shattering defeat, Stalin and Bukharin became enthusiastic about it. Pravda declared: ‘The crisis of the KMT places the question of soviets on the order of the day. The slogan of soviets is correct now ...’ [58]

Trotsky, who had argued for the slogan of soviets up to now ridiculed this new late turn of Stalin and Bukharin: ‘To use the slogan of soviets in a period of bourgeois reaction is to trifle, i.e, to make a mockery of soviets.’ [59]

At the Fifteenth Congress of the CPSU Stalin completed his conquest of the Opposition and got through the wholesale expulsion of its members from the party. ‘By accident’ a Communist insurrection in Canton was made to coincide with this Congress.

On 11 December 1927 the insurrection began. To lead it a soviet was appointed:

Four days before the insurrection fifteen men were selected at a secret meeting, nine of them representing the tiny groups of workers under Communist leadership or influence, three of them representing the cadets’ regiment, and three who were supposed to represent the peasants of Kwangtung. These fifteen men constituted nothing less than the Canton Council of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies! [60]

What a fraudulent soviet! The whole essence of the soviet is that it is democratically elected, rooted in the working class, and workers identify with it.

The workers were hardly involved in the Canton insurrection. As Isaacs writes:

The great majority of the workers and artisans of Canton stood apart from the struggle. No general strike call was issued. Only a few handfuls of chauffeurs, printers, ricksha coolies and some others quit work eagerly to grasp rifles. Railway workers and river sailors continued at their jobs. They transported troops rushing to crush the uprising. They helped Kuomintang officials flee the city. [61]

The insurgents held their ground for some fifty hours.

By the afternoon of 13 December the last of the defenders of the Canton Commune had been wiped out ... The final toll of the counted dead was 5,700. [62]

Trotsky wrote that the Canton insurrection was timed to give the Stalinist majority a ‘victory’ in China ‘to cover up the physical extermination of the Russian Opposition.’ [63]

After the massacre of Shanghai, wrote Trotsky,

Every mistake of the leadership is made ‘good’, so to speak, through measures against the Opposition. The day the dispatch on Chiang Kai-shek’s coup was made known in Moscow we said to each other: The Opposition will have to pay dearly for this ... [64]

Now, after the debacle of the ‘Canton Commune’ the price the Opposition had to pay was even stiffer.

The development of Trotsky’s stand in the Chinese Revolution

The most complete collection of Trotsky’s articles, speeches and notes on China, many never published previously, is taken from the Trotsky archives in Harvard and put together in the book Leon Trotsky on China.

A number of aspects of the collection strike the reader forcibly. First of all, prior to 4 March 1927, i.e., five weeks before the Shanghai massacre, there are only four entries.

The first is a very short and quite light article, written for the Soviet press in response to the May Thirteenth Incident of 1925.

The second is entitled Problems of our Policy with respect to China and Japan. This was the report of a special Politburo Commission charged with preparing recommendations for Soviet foreign policy in the Far East. Trotsky chaired the commission, whose other members were Chicherin, Dzerzhinsky and Voroshilov, all supporters of Stalin and Bukharin. The Commission made its recommendations in strictly diplomatic terms, without any reference to the objectives and policies of the CCP; it contained no sustained analysis of developments in China. The report was approved by the Politburo.

The third item is a letter to Radek of 30 August 1926. This was the first systematic presentation of Trotsky’s views regarding the problems of the Chinese revolution.

As against these three articles written up to the end of August 1926 – i.e., during the fifteen months since the beginning of the Chinese revolution – there are 30 articles, notes and speeches delivered in the next fourteen months. Completely missing from these is any consideration of the foundation of the CCP in 1921, its joining of the KMT in 1923-4, the mass awakening of the Chinese proletariat demonstrated in the over a year-long general strike in Hong Kong-Canton, or Chiang Kai-shek’s coup of 20 March 1926.

This lacuna has to be explained.

The first element in any explanation is Trotsky’s complete resignation from active politics between the end of the ‘literary debate’ at the end of 1924 and the formation of the United Opposition in June 1926.

As early as 1923 Trotsky opposed the CCP’s entering the KMT, and in the following two years he restated his view on a few occasions at meetings of the Politburo. But being completely isolated in the Politburo he did not repeat his position before the wider forum of the Central Committee. Nor did he once speak about China at meetings of the ECCI. Not once did he allow himself to express any differences with the Politburo on the question of China.

When the United Opposition was formed Trotsky’s writing on China suffered from the necessity of compromise with Zinoviev, who as President of the Comintern until May 1926 had a large responsibility for the policy of the Comintern on China. In his own faction too Trotsky had a number of individuals who advocated the adherence of the CCP to the KMT, including Ioffe, Radek, Preobrazhensky and Smilga.

Ioffe signed the agreement with Sun Yat-sen on 26 January 1923 which included the statement that ‘it is not possible to carry out either communism or even the Soviet system in China’. (See p.189) (It is significant that Maring-Sneevliet, who played a crucial role in pushing the CCP to join the KMT, later became a prominent member of the Trotskyist Opposition).

As regards Radek, we have already referred to his attack on the CCP leadership at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern for opposing entry into the KMT; they needed to grasp the fact that ‘neither the question of Socialism, nor that of the Soviet republic are now on the order of the day’. [65]

Radek was in a very exposed position: since May 1925 he had headed the Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow, and had to explain Comintern policy to its Chinese students. As late as 3 March 1927 we find a letter from Radek to Trotsky arguing for the continuing adherence of the CCP to the KMT. [66]

Besides the inter-factional calculations leading Trotsky to fudge his differences with Zinoviev, Radek and Co., there could have been another, related factor. Trotsky wanted to avoid allowing past policy differences to impinge upon the dispute with Stalin and Bukharin on current policy. This short-termism encouraged a ‘rotten compromise’ (to use Lenin’s description of such arrangements).

It is not clear from Trotsky’s writings and speeches when he became convinced that the theory of permanent revolution applied not only to Russia but had wider, international significance and so applied also to China. It is difficult to be clear on this point, because again and again Trotsky declared the theory irrelevant to China, but obviously under pressure from the Zinovievites and Radek.

In his letter to the CC resigning from the post of People’s Commissar of War (15 January 1925) Trotsky wrote:

I absolutely deny that the formula ‘permanent revolution’, which applies wholly to the past, in any way caused me to adopt a careless attitude toward the peasantry in the conditions of the Soviet revolution. If at any time after October I had occasion, for private reasons, to revert to the formula ‘permanent revolution’, it was only a reference to party history, i.e., to the past, and had no reference to the question of present-day political tasks. [67]

In a speech to the Fifteenth Conference of the CPSU on 1 November 1926 Trotsky said:

I have no intention, comrades, of raising the question of the theory of permanent revolution. This theory – in respect both to what has been right in it and to what has been incomplete and wrong – has nothing whatever to do with our present contentions. In any case, this theory of permanent revolution, to which so much attention has been devoted recently, is not the responsibility in the slightest of either the Opposition of 1925 or the Opposition of 1923, and even I myself regard it as a question which has long been consigned to the archives. [68]

In a speech to the Seventh Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI on 9 December 1926 Trotsky said:

The theory which is now dragged into discussion (quite artificially and not in the interests of the cause) – the theory of permanent revolution – I have never considered (even at the time when I did not see the inadequacies of this theory) – never considered it to be a universal doctrine applicable generally to all revolutions ... The concept of permanent revolution was applied by me to a definite stage of development in the historical evolution of Russia. [69]

On 14 December 1926 a letter to the Praesidium of the ECCI signed by Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, stated:

It is not true that we defend ‘Trotskyism’. Trotsky has stated to the International that on all the fundamental questions over which he had differences with Lenin, Lenin was right – in particular on the questions of permanent revolution and the peasantry. [70]

It would be a mistake to assume that Trotsky was always absolutely clear about the role of the theory of permanent revolution in analysing the prospects of the Chinese revolution, and his formulations contradicting the theory appear long before the bloc with the Zinovievists. Thus, for instance, in a speech to the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, entitled Prospects and Tasks in the East, on 2 April 1924, Trotsky said:

There is no doubt whatever that if the Kuomintang Party in China succeeds in uniting China under a national-democratic regime, the capitalist development of China will make enormous strides forward. And all this leads to the mobilisation of countless proletarian masses which will immediately emerge from a prehistoric, semi-barbarian state and will be thrust into the whirlpool of industrialism. [71]

This is far from permanent revolution.

It is only in September 1927, in his New Opportunities for the Chinese Revolution, New Tasks, and New Mistakes that Trotsky for the first time clearly and openly uses the theory of permanent revolution for analysing the perspectives of the Chinese revolution.

... the retreat from the revolution by the bourgeoisie – the big bourgeoisie and the middle and upper petty bourgeoisie in the city and the countryside, and the intelligentsia as well, is an accomplished fact. Under these conditions, the call for a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry – given a new revolutionary upsurge – will prove to be vague and amorphous. And any vague and amorphous slogan in a revolution becomes dangerous for the revolutionary party and the oppressed masses ...

The Chinese revolution at its new stage will win as a dictatorship of the proletariat or it will not win at all. [72]

Trotsky repeats the same argument in his The Chinese Question after the Sixth Congress (4 October 1928):

The solution of fundamental bourgeois and democratic problems in China ends entirely in the dictatorship of the proletariat. To oppose to it the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry is to devote oneself to a reactionary attempt that seeks to drag the revolution back to stages already traversed by the coalition of the Kuomintang. [73]

Again, on the question of the CCP being inside the KMT Trotsky over time expressed very conflicting views.

Although he was against the CCP being in the KMT since 1923 [74] not only were the mass of the workers or the rank and file of the party not cognisant of Trotsky’s real position, but even the leading bodies of the party and the Comintern – the Central Committee and the ECCI – knew nothing about it. Trotsky’s public statements contradicted his real position. Thus, on 25 March 1926 Trotsky wrote:

With regard to the people’s armies it is necessary to conduct comprehensive political, educational, and organisational work (in the Kuomintang and Communist Party) in order to convert them into an effective stronghold of the popular revolutionary movement independent of personal influence. ... The Canton government should concentrate all its efforts on strengthening the republic internally by means of agrarian, financial, administrative, and political reforms; by drawing the broad popular masses into the political life of the South Chinese Republic, and by strengthening the latter’s internal defensive capacity. [75]

In his article, The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin (7 May 1927) Trotsky wrote:

A revolutionary Kuomintang has yet to be formed. We are in favour of the Communists working inside the Kuomintang and patiently drawing the workers and peasants over to their side.

But Trotsky makes it clear that politically the CCP should preserve its independence.

The Communist Party can gain a petty bourgeois ally not by prostrating itself before the Kuomintang at every one of its vacillations, but only if it appeals to the workers openly and directly in its own name, under its own banner, organises them around it ... [76]

Trotsky goes on to spell out what is involved in the political independence of the CCP from the KMT.

For this it is necessary:

... to reject categorically such forms of the bloc which directly or indirectly hinder the independence of our own party and subordinate it to the control of other classes; ...

to reject categorically such forms of the bloc in which the Communist Party holds down its banner and sacrifices the growth of its own influence and its own authority in the interests of its allies; ...

to establish the conditions and limits of the bloc with thorough precision and let them be known to all; ...

for the Communist Party to retain full freedom of criticism and to watch over its allies with no less vigilance than over an enemy without forgetting for a moment that an ally who bases himself upon other classes or depends upon other classes is only a temporary confederate who can be trans­formed by the force of circumstances into an opponent and an enemy; ...

finally, to rely only upon ourselves, upon our own organisation, arms, and power. [77]

For the first time Trotsky argues openly in writing for the CCP to leave the KMT in a document entitled The Communist Party and the Kuomintang (10 May 1927).

This document appears to have been written for circulation to the Trotskyist Oppositionists or perhaps to the United Opposition as a whole.

By remaining in the same organisation with the Wang Ching-weis, we are sharing the responsibility for their wavering and betrayals.

It is necessary to formulate the reasons we have remained in the Kuomintang up to the present. At the present time – and this is most important of all – it is necessary to formulate with just as much clarity and accuracy the reasons we must now leave the Kuomintang. The reasons for leaving it multiply by the day ... [78]

In public Trotsky was still not as clearly for the break of the CCP from the KMT. Thus in his speech to the Eighth Plenum of the ECCI (May 1927) Trotsky, as spokesman of the United Opposition, said:

I can accept remaining within the really revolutionary Kuomintang only on the condition of complete political and organisational freedom of action of the Communist Party with a guaranteed, common basis for actions of the Kuomintang together with the Communist Party ...

The alliance between the Communist Party and the real revolutionary Kuomintang must not only be maintained but must be extended and deepened on the basis of mass soviets. [79]

In private correspondence Trotsky was far more critical of the CCP’s remaining in the KMT. Thus in a letter to Radek on 4 March 1927 he writes:

When should the communists have withdrawn from the Kuomintang? My memory of the history of the Chinese revolution in recent years is not concrete enough and I do not have the materials at hand; therefore, I will not venture to say whether it was necessary to pose this question point-blank as early as 1923, 1924, or 1925 ... we are dreadfully late. We have turned the Chinese Communist Party into a variety of Menshevism ...

We must recognise that for the Communist Party to remain in the Kuomintang any longer threatens to have dire consequences for the proletariat and for the revolution; and above all, it threatens the Chinese Communist Party itself with a total degeneration into Menshevism. [80]

Typically Zinoviev argued for the CCP to remain inside the ‘Left KMT’ even after the Shanghai massacre. His ideas were extremely muddled, as can be seen from a comparison of two quotations from one and the same ‘Theses on the Chinese Revolution’ delivered to the Politburo on 15 April 1927. First,

The Chinese revolution will be victorious under the leadership of the working class or not at all. Otherwise, the bourgeoisie will take the whole affair in its hands, in one way or another it will come to an agreement with foreign imperialism ...

The second quote:

In the present military and political situation the Communist Party of China can and must remain in the Kuomintang, but only in order to gather its forces, to begin immediately to rally the masses under its banner, to conduct a relentless struggle against the Right Kuomintang and to strive for their expulsion and destruction. Our slogan under the present circumstances is not withdrawal from the Kuomintang, but the immediate announcement and realisation of the complete and unconditional and organisational independence of the Communist Party of China from the Kuomintang, that is, the complete political and organisational autonomy of the Communist Party of China.

And to cap it all Zinoviev called for the immediate establishment of Soviets. [81]

Zinoviev, Kamenev, and even Radek, Preobrazhensky and possibly also Rakovsky, still rejected the theory of permanent revolution and stuck to the formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship’.

For Trotsky, the hesitation, the hedging about, must have gone against the grain, as a main characteristic of his thinking was sharpness, decisiveness. Tragically, he was completely unaware of Chen Tu-hsiu’s appeal to the Comintern leadership for the CCP to split from the KMT. Stalin and Bukharin kept this secret. It is ignorance of this fact that explains Trotsky’s writing to Radek as late as 4 March 1927: ‘If ... the Chinese Communist party does not want to leave the KMT under present conditions of large-scale class struggle ... then we have before us a Martinovite party’. [82] Trotsky was not acquainted at all with the confidential communications that passed between Moscow and Wuhan. Not only did he not know about the stand of the CCP leadership, but none of the Chinese leaders knew of Trotsky’s position, as was made clear many years later by Peng Shu-tse, a member of the Central Committee of the CCP and a future Trotskyist. [83] This lack of knowledge must have had a very damaging effect on Trotsky’s grasp of the situation in China and of his ability to adopt a clear stand.

On 23 June 1927 Trotsky sent a circular to members of the United Opposition entitled Why Have We Not Called for Withdrawal from the Kuomintang until Now? In this document he is brutally clear:

The reasons we have not called for withdrawal from the Kuomintang until now (a serious blunder) can be correctly formulated in only one way that will account for both past and present. That is approximately as follows:

We have proceeded from the fact that the Communist Party has spent too much time in the Kuomintang and that our party and the Comintern have been overly occupied with this question, but that openly calling for immediate withdrawal from the Kuomintang would even further sharpen the contradictions within our own party. We formulated the kind of conditions for the Chinese Communist Party’s remaining in the Kuomintang, which – in practice, if not on paper – essentially excluded the possibility that the Chinese Communist Party would remain within the Kuomintang organisation for a long period. We tried in this way to devise a transitional formula that could become a bridge our Central Committee could use to retreat from its erroneous course to a correct one. We posed the question pedagogically and not politically. As always in such cases this turned out to be mistake. While we were busy trying to enlighten a mistaken leadership, we were sacrificing political clarity with respect to the ranks. Because of this, the very way in which the question was raised was distorted. The Central Committee did not use our bridge, crying that the Opposition was in fact in favour of withdrawal from the Kuomintang. We were compelled to justify’ ourselves and argue that we were not in favour of withdrawal ...

Our mistake was in pedagogical watering down, softening and blunting our position on the basic question. It has yielded nothing but minuses for us: vagueness of position, defensive protestation, and lagging behind the events. We are putting an end to this error by openly calling for immediate withdrawal from the Kuomintang! [84]

In the document entitled New Opportunities for the Chinese Revolution, New Tasks and New Mistakes (September 1927) Trotsky comes out openly for withdrawal of the CCP from the KMT:

We must openly announce a break of the Communist Party with the Kuomintang, openly declare the Kuomintang an instrument of bourgeois reaction, and expel it in disgrace from the ranks of the Comintern. [85]

For a long time the Opposition was willing to attack the policy of Stalin and Bukharin which subordinated the CCP to the Kuomintang and led to the smashing of workers’ strikes and peasant risings, but it still held that the Communists should remain in the KMT. This was a contradictory and self-defeating attitude. For if it was considered that the Communists should stay in the KMT, then it was inevitable that they would have to abide by KMT policy.

Trotsky explained the long delay in coming out openly for the CCP to leave the Kuomintang in a letter to Max Shachtman of 10 December 1930:

You are quite right when you point out that the Russian Opposition, as late as the first half of 1927, did not demand openly the withdrawal from the Kuomintang. I believe, however, that I have already commented on this fact publicly somewhere. I personally was from the very beginning, that is, from 1923, resolutely opposed to the Communist Party joining the Kuomintang, as well as against the acceptance of the Kuomintang into the ‘Kuomintern’. Radek was always with Zinoviev against me. The younger members of the Opposition of 1923 were with me, almost to a man. Up to 1926, I always voted independently in the Political Bureau on this question, against all the others ...

In 1926 and 1927, I had uninterrupted conflicts with the Zinovievists on this question. Two or three times the matter stood at the breaking point. Our centre consisted of approximately equal numbers from both of the allied tendencies, for it was after all only a bloc. At the voting, the position of the 1923 Opposition was betrayed by Radek, out of principle, and by Piatakov, out of unprincipledness. Our faction (1923) was furious about it, demanded that Radek and Piatakov be recalled from the centre. But since it was a question of splitting with the Zinovievists, it was the general decision that I must submit publicly in this question and acquaint the Opposition in writing with my standpoint. [86]

Trotsky made concessions to the Zinovievites, and to Radek, Preobrazhensky, Piatakov and Smilga – and thus indirectly to Stalin and Bukharin – by not openly promoting the theory of permanent revolution as it applied to China. While avoiding the term, he nevertheless used the theory in all his analysis of events and the main proposals for action. He demonstrated a genius of insight, a sound grasp of events, a faultless prognosis, and his warnings against the crimes of Stalin and Bukharin were clear clarion calls. The theory of permanent revolution dominated his thinking even when he gave lip service to the ‘rotfen compromise’ with Zinoviev and Co.

Sadly, the compromise with the Zinovievites and Radek did nothing but muddy the water. In the end it did not consolidate the United Opposition around Trotsky. In a letter of 8 January 1931 To the Chinese Left Opposition he wrote:

It is worthy of note that all the Russian Oppositionists who adopted the Zinovievist or a conciliatory position ... subsequently capitulated. On the other hand, all the comrades who are today in gaols or in exile were from the very beginning opponents of the entry of the Communist Party into the Kuomintang. This shows the power of a principled position! [87]

The path of conciliation and compromise taken by Trotsky was particularly sad because the Chinese revolution pre-eminently exposes the bankruptcy of the Stalin-Bukharin policy in the Comintern and confirms the theory of permanent revolution.

In retrospect it is very clear that while the theory of permanent revolution had been positively confirmed in the Russian revolution of 1917, it was confirmed again – in a negative sense – in the Chinese revolution of 1925-27.

While the rise of the Chinese revolution gave a strong fillip to the Opposition in Russia, the defeat of this revolution dealt it a massive blow. Many members of the Opposition, on seeing the bankruptcy of the Stalin-Bukharin policy on China, thought this would lead to success for the Opposition. Trotsky was never of this view. In his autobiography he wrote:

Many younger comrades thought the patent bankruptcy of Stalin’s policy [in China] was bound to bring the triumph of the opposition nearer. During the first days after the coup d’état by Chiang Kai-shek, I was obliged to pour many a bucket of cold water over the hot heads of my young friends – and over some not so young. I tried to show them that the opposition could not rise on the defeat of the Chinese revolution. The fact that our forecast had proved correct might attract one thousand, five thousand, or even ten thousand new supporters to us. But for the millions the significant thing was not our forecast but the fact of the crushing of the Chinese proletariat. After the defeat of the German revolution in 1923, after the breakdown of the English general strike in 1926, the new disaster in China would only intensify the disappointment of the masses in the international revolution. And it was this same disappointment that served as the chief psychological source for Stalin’s policy of national-reformism. [88]


1. Serge, p.216.

2. C. Brandt, B. Schwartz and J.K. Fairbank, A Documentary History of Chinese Communism, London 1952, p.52.

3. Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale, Hamburg 1923, p.632.

4. Degras, Vol.2, pp.5-6.

5. Brandt et al., p.70.

6. C. Brandt, Stalin’s Failure in China, 1924-1927, Cambridge, Mass. 1958, pp.32-33.

7. Brandt et al, p.75.

8. Ibid., p.71.

9. Ibid., pp.68-9.

10. International Press Correspondence, 7 January 1926, H.R. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, London 1938, p.94.

11. Ibid., p.138.

12. Piatnadtsaiia konferentsiia VKP(b), pp.27-9.

13. Stalin, Works, Vol.8, pp.387-9, 385, 390.

14. Leon Trotsky on China, New York 1976, pp.160-1.

15. Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, p.178.

16. Leon Trotsky on China, pp.207-8.

17. Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, pp.172-174.

18. Leon Trotsky on China, p.403.

19. Lenin, Works, Vol.13, p.111.

20. Lenin, Works, Vol.8, p.27.

21. Lenin, Works, Vol.9, p.314, Cliff, Lenin, Vol.1, London 1986 pp.205-6.

22. Lenin, Works, Vol 27, pp.305-6.

23. C.M. Wilbur and J.L. How, eds., Documents on Communism, Nationalism, and Soviet Advisers in China, 1918-1927, New York 1956, p.251.

24. Ibid., pp.252-3.

25. Ibid., pp.259-60.

26. Ibid., p.264.

27. Ibid..

28. Isaacs, pp.107-8.

29. Ibid., pp.119-20.

30. Wilbur and How, pp.297-8.

31. Isaacs, pp.110-11.

32. Ibid., p.117.

33. Ibid., p.118.

34. Ibid., p.126.

35. Ibid., p.128.

36. Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, p.173.

37. Degras, Vol.2, p.337.

38. Ibid., pp.345-6.

39. Isaacs, p.148.

40. Ibid., pp.151, 157.

41. Ibid., p.157.

42. Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution, Ann Arbor 1967, p.357.

43. Isaacs, p.191.

44. Leon Trotsky on China, pp.225-6.

45. Ibid., p.134.

46. Biulleten Oppozitsii, July 1932, pp.21-22.

47. Isaacs, p.202.

48. Ibid., pp.203, 208.

49. Ibid., p.215.

50. The Questions of the Chinese Revolution: Theses of Comrade Stalin for Propagandists, Approved by the CC of the CPSU, International Press Correspondence, 28 April 1927, emphasis added. Leon Trotsky on China, pp.64-5.

51. Degras, Vol.2, pp.384-7.

52. Ibid., p.388.

53. Ibid., p.389.

54. Leon Trotsky on China, pp.223, 234-5.

55. Isaacs, p.279.

56. Ibid.

57. Degras, Vol.2, p.391.

58. Pravda, 25 July 1927.

59. Leon Trotsky on China, pp.410-11.

60. Isaacs, p.360.

61. Ibid., p.366.

62. Ibid., pp.370-1.

63. Leon Trotsky on China, p.460.

64. Ibid., p.221.

65. Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommunistische Internationale, p.632.

66. T. 933, Arkhiv Trotskogo, Moscow 1990, Vol.2, pp.192-3.

67. Trotsky, Challenge (1923-25), p.305.

68. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), p.45.

69. Ibid., p.176.

70. Ibid., p.193.

71. Leon Trotsky Speaks, p.201.

72. Leon Trotsky on China, pp.265, 269.

73. Ibid., p.348.

74. Ibid., pp.490-1.

75. Ibid., p.107.

76. Ibid., pp.182-3.

77. Ibid., pp.183-4.

78. Ibid., pp.199, 202-3.

79. Ibid., pp.228, 232.

80. Ibid., pp.122, 124.

81. G. Zinoviev, Theses on the Chinese Revolution, in Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution, p.307ff.

82. T934, Arkhiv Trotskogo, Vol.2, p.194.

83. See Peng Shu-tse, Introduction to Leon Trotsky on China.

84. Leon Trotsky on China, pp.249-50.

85. Ibid., pp.262-3.

86. Ibid., pp.490-1.

87. Ibid., p.493.

88. Trotsky, My Life, p.530.

Last updated on 31 July 2009