Ralph Fox

The Commune of Canton

First Published: The Communist, March 1928.
Source: Ralph Fox: A Writer in Arms
Publisher: Lawrence & Wishart, Ltd., London, W.C.1.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

VERY little has appeared in England concerning the three days’ heroic struggle of the Chinese workers in Canton on 10 to 13 December of last year. One or two articles in the capitalist press, containing the usual percentage of foul lies and well-disguised facts, are all the materials we have so far seen. But now the full story has come through from those who fought and suffered on the inside. It is a story of passionate interest for the revolutionary workers of the whole world, but its interest must not blind us to its immense political importance. For the Canton rising marks a turning-point in the history of the world revolution. It is the first time that in a country controlled by foreign imperialism the workers and peasants have seized and held power for a period of days against the combined forces of imperialism and their allies, the native bourgeoisie and militarists. Not only is it the turning-point of the Chinese revolution, it is a historic moment in the history of the revolt of the Eastern peoples against their exploiters.

To understand fully the significance of the Canton rising it is necessary to know the circumstances in which the rising took place, what were the forces behind the revolt, why it took place, when it did and where it did.

* * * * * *

Kwantung province, in which is the city of Canton, is the cradle of the Chinese nationalist movement and also the home of the most advanced elements in the revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ movement in China. When Sun Yat Sen was alive, Kwantung province was the centre of intense working class and peasant activity.

The first great strikes took place here. Here also came the first clashes with British imperialism entrenched in its fortress of Hong-Kong, clashes which struck heavy blows at the prestige of the British, and were responsible for the great revolutionary mass movement, which has convulsed China since 1925. In 1924, during Sun Yat Sen’s fight with Fascists financed by British bankers in Hong Kong, the Labour Government of MacDonald sent gunboats to Canton to protect the Fascists against the nationalist revolutionary government, an act of intervention which started a bloody process that was to end in the Shanghai and Shameen massacres the following year.

In Canton, under Sun Yat Sen’s rule, the trade unions and Communist Party acquired a legal existence for the first time, the effects of which were seen in the great seamen’s and dockers’ strikes of 1924, 1925, and 1926, and in the strikes and boycott in Hong Kong which reacted with such deadly effect on the British imperialists in Hong Kong.

When the dissolution of the nationalist movement began in 1926, it was natural that in Canton the bourgeois and landlord reign of terror should fall heaviest upon the organizations of the working class, here stronger, more militant, and more active than anywhere else in China. The coup d’état of the general Li Ti Sin in the spring of 1927 cost more than 4,000 workers their lives, and, for a moment, it seemed possible that the workers’ movement might be stamped out. Fortunately, the degeneration of the nationalist movement and the Kuomintang Party into cliques of squabbling militarists intent on plunder, representing more or less roughly the different bourgeois and landlord interests, prevented this.

Li Ti Sin had his work cut out to keep the rich prize of Canton in his hands. Moreover, in the countryside the revolutionary movement was far from dead. In the autumn Communist-led peasant armies captured and held for a few days the near-by port of Swatow, and, though they were defeated, their action allowed Chang Fat Kwei, a rival general, to come to Canton and occupy it jointly with his troops. Each now sought to oust the other from control of the city and an intensely interesting situation arose. Li Ti Sin openly depended for funds on the big bourgeoisie of Canton and the British bankers in Hong Kong. Chang Fat Kwei, on the other hand, posed as a “leftist,” using the politician Wang Chin Wei, the Lansbury of Chinese politics, as his tool. He sought, and partly obtained, the support of the middle classes and better-paid artisans.

On 17 November, a cleverly laid plot of Wang and Chang removed Li Ti Sin from Canton. A plenum of the Kuomintang was to take place at Shanghai to restore “unity” in the Party, and Wang persuaded Li to accompany him. As soon as they had left, Chang Fat Kwei moved his troops into the strategic positions necessary to hold the city, disarmed his adversaries, and ousted all Li’s men from office. He now had Canton. The problem was to keep it. He had tried to gain the support of the workers and artisans by the use of “left” phrases, but the Communist Party did not allow the workers to be deceived. Mass demonstrations against him in the streets under the revolutionary slogans of the Communists, and the demand for the release of the political prisoners (all workers, of whom thousands were in jail), exposed Chang Fat Kwei completely to the workers.

He, therefore, next tried to win over the bourgeoisie who were regarding him with considerable suspicion as an unstable factor and a possible menace to their prosperity. Chang Fat Kwei had a particularly urgent reason for winning the confidence of the merchants and bankers—he needed their money. Had he succeeded in deceiving the workers it is certain that it would only have been to use them as a weapon with which to blackmail the bourgeoisie. Repelled by the workers, he was compelled to impress the money powers by appearing as a supporter of “law and order,” as even more ruthless than Li Ti Sin. So his next step was to attempt what Li had never dared, to break the powerful organization of the Hong Kong strikers, cut off their strike pay, arrest their leaders, occupy their premises and dining-rooms.

The reply of the workers was swift and clear. Red candidates were everywhere elected in the trade union elections, strikes broke out among the seamen, postal workers, printers and tram and omnibus men. The economic situation at the end of November was bad, the situation of the workers wretched in the extreme, and the strike movement began to assume very big proportions. Nor was this unrest confined to the towns. In the countryside a fairly good harvest had been followed by increased exactions from the militarists and officials, with the result that the peasants everywhere were in more or less open revolt. To the north-east of Canton this revolt expressed itself in a Soviet Government covering many districts, grouped round the remains of the revolutionary army of Swatow, and led by Communists. By the time of the Canton uprising nearly half a million peasants were grouped round this Government, which had expropriated the rich landlords and moneylenders.

Finally, within Canton itself discontent was rife among the unpaid soldiers of the garrison. In such circumstances the question of the seizure of power in alliance with the peasantry and soldiers was inevitably placed before the Communist Party and the Canton workers. The Government of Chang Fat Kwei was rotten and feeble, it had not yet won the confidence of the bourgeoisie, it was detested by the workers and peasants, while its own armed forces could no longer be relied upon. The will to fight of the workers had never been greater, their enemy never weaker. The only alternative to a rising was to submit to the ferocious white terror Chang was preparing to let loose on the workers to win the praise of the bourgeoisie. There was really no choice before the workers, since they could not hope to live in even semi-tolerable conditions under the Government of Chang Fat Kwei.

So much being clear, the preparation for revolution became the immediate task of the Party in Canton. The objective situation offered no matter for doubt or hesitation. The organization of revolt must next be worked out as completely as possible, from a military point of view, in so far as the relative disposition of forces was concerned, and, also, the arming of the workers, from a political point of view, in relation to the correct slogans to rouse the masses and bring the widest number of them into the insurrectionary movement, and, finally, from the mixed military-political point of view of linking the insurrection up with the peasant movement and bringing in the peasant forces from the country to Canton as quickly as possible. The situation was at its height, for whole regiments of the garrison were permeated by the Party propaganda, peasant detachments were already on the outskirts of the city, and the workers’ will to fight was at its peak.

Only one thing was uncertain, would Chang Fat Kwei be able to rally to his help those other militarists whose troops held the suburbs and especially the island of Honam, or would they stand by and watch him suffer extinction at the hands of the workers? The latter was unlikely, though possible, but in any case if the city could be held long enough to allow the main force of the peasant army, six days’ march away, to arrive, the disparity in numbers could be overcome. The Party and the trade unions, if they were to retain their leadership of the masses, could not refuse battle, and, for the first time in the history of the Chinese working class, they were being led into direct and violent conflict with the bourgeoisie and landlords, and eventually, if successful, with their suzerains the imperialists. Whatever the issue the step had to be taken and a new era of class conflicts inaugurated.

The slogans which roused the masses to the banner of insurrection were well and carefully chosen to express the most immediate and pressing needs of the Canton workers, viz.: liberation of political prisoners, the arming of the workers, liberty of the press and public meeting, the right to combine, and to strike, return of their premises to the revolutionary unions, dissolution of the “yellow” unions, out-of-work pay for the unemployed, increase of soldiers’ pay from 12 to 20 dollars a month, the land for the peasants, against the reactionary generals, and the closest relations with the Soviet Union and the world proletariat. For a week the preparatory work of rallying the masses round these revolutionary slogans was actively carried out, but on the eve of the insurrection more concrete slogans of action had to be found. These were: rice for the workers, land for the peasants; down with militarist wars; all power to the Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Soviets.

A revolutionary War Council of delegates from the Communist Party, and the trade unions, the revolutionary soldiers and the provincial peasants was formed as a subcommittee of the Canton Soviet, which was itself elected in a delegate conference, and consisted of ten workers, three peasants and three soldiers. The insurrection was under the sole direction of the Soviet, the War Council being a technical military body subordinated to it. Connexion with the masses was arranged through the trade unions, and there were also excellent contacts with the soldiers of the garrison (but not with those in the suburbs and district of Canton), while contact was kept up with the peasants through their partisan (guerilla) forces, though unfortunately the main body was a considerable distance away.

* * * * * *

On the night of 10 and 11 December, the rising began. At half-past three in the morning the Secretary of the Communist Party Provincial Committee for Kwantung province, comrade Chang Ta Lai (who was killed the next day), went to the barracks of one of the so-called model regiments of the garrison, and placed the slogans of the insurrection before the waiting soldiers. They were enthusiastically adopted, and fifteen reactionary officers were shot at once. With this nucleus the attack on all the police stations was at once begun, and a company of Workers’ Guards carried the central police station after an hour’s struggle.

The rising now proceeded swiftly and easily. The transport workers came out and carried the armed detachments from point to point of the city in trams and buses, and by nine in the morning every strategic point was occupied except the Bund (the wide avenue along the water-front). This last exception in the end proved a bad military blunder, though in the general success it was not immediately noticed as an important omission. The many thousands of active trade unionists and Communists in the jails were freed and armed, and two regiments of the garrison came over to the workers’ side, enabling the artillery park to be captured.

The Bund was not carried till the afternoon of the 11th, a delay which allowed the initiative to pass into the enemy’s hands during the most critical period of the rising. Having unhampered control of the river, the troops of Li Fou Lin, the so-called “king of Honam,” were able to concentrate across the water opposite the city, and start a counterattack the same night. Although this attack was beaten back the next morning it hindered the development of the insurrection, preventing the planned offensives against the outlying districts of Whampoa, Cheklong and the island of Honam itself, all strongholds of the counter-revolution. Further, the counter-revolution was enabled to bring up gunboats to cover the counter-attack.

The Red Army counted about 6,000 men, not many of them regular soldiers, and its arms and equipment were naturally poor, whereas the militarists, once they had sunk their differences, were able to employ three divisions when they renewed their counter-attack on the night of the 12th. The attack took place from three sides, and, by morning, had succeeded in penetrating the city. By the afternoon of the 13th resistance had become hopeless, and the only thing left was to attempt to cut a way through to the friendly countryside. Two thousand Red soldiers and armed workers succeeded in doing this and making good their escape to the peasant Soviets of Hai Fong and Lu Fong.

The Canton Soviet had a heroic existence of three days. Though it was hemmed in on all sides, it was not content to be a mere directing body of the insurrection, but functioned as a real organ of working-class power. The very first day of its existence it published a series of decrees which will live as vital documents of Chinese working-class history. Printed in large quantities, the decrees were everywhere spread among the workers and petty bourgeoisie, proclaiming the eight fundamental acts of the new power.

The first three dealt with the establishment of the Soviet power, the armament of the proletariat and peasantry, and the red terror against counter-revolution. In view of the atrocious terror practised by the militarist generals, often in the name of the Kuomintang, the legalization of the red terror and the declaration that the Kuomintang was an illegal Party hostile to the revolution, became necessary in order to preserve the lives of many thousands of valuable workers. Though the arrest of the Kuomintang leaders and confiscation of their property were ordered, nevertheless the Soviet endeavoured to create the widest possible democracy in the conditions of civil war for the masses of workers, peasants and petty bourgeoisie.

A fourth decree established an eight-hour day. It further granted help to the unemployed, granted a general rise in wages and re-established the rights of the Hong Kong strikers.

A fifth decree dealt with economic measures. Industry was nationalized; the land divided among the poor peasants and revolutionary soldiers; the big landlords, village moneylenders and all exploiters of the peasants to be destroyed; mortgages, rents, contracts, etc., annulled; the village Soviets legalized; and contact established with the peasant government of Hai Fong and Lu Fong.

The sixth decree dealt with the property of the bourgeoisie. Houses and house properties were to be confiscated for the workers, rent agreements cancelled, and the goods in the pawnshops nationalized for the very poor (as in the Paris Commune).

The seventh decree referred to the army. The soldiers’ pay was to be raised, revolutionary soldiers’ committees were to be set up in the different units, and the army reorganized on a voluntary basis.

The eighth decree was that on the trade unions. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions was legalized as the official organ of the trade union movement. Scab unions were to be dissolved and their rank-and-file members brought into the ordinary unions, the transfers being effected by special reorganization committees of the red unions.

This workmanlike programme met with a tremendous response among the Cantonese workers, and a good proportion of the petty bourgeoisie, as well as those peasants within reach of the town. More than two thousand peasants armed with pikes and pitchforks took part in the insurrection, occupying the railway stations in the outskirts, seizing the safes and sending them under guard to the revolutionary War Council to finance the rising. It is certain, from the support given by the masses, especially by the youth and the women, who were everywhere in the forefront, that, had the Soviet been able to hold out for only six days, the revolution would have been successful and Canton won for the workers and peasants. Why then did the revolt collapse so quickly? Largely because in the short time available this mass enthusiasm could not be turned into military organization and consequently the counter-attack of the bourgeoisie could only be resisted by the spear-head of the revolution, instead of by the whole working population; and this lack of time in turn was in part due to the initial military mistake of failing to get control of the Bund, and thus of the water-front, and the banks built along it. The military organization of the bourgeoisie was too strong, for in addition to the three divisions of regular troops they were able to rely on the reactionary militia of the rich peasantry (yeomanry).

This overwhelming strength in turn is explained by the immediate and complete united front of the militarist groups, who showed a decision very rare in recent Chinese military history. Moreover, political work among the troops of these generals was very weak, almost non-existent, and the soldiers had no knowledge of the objects of the revolution. In addition must be counted the indirect help given by the imperialist forces. The British, French, Japanese and American warships in the Canton River cleared for action and moved into positions enabling them to hinder the movements of the workers, and cover those of the “White” forces. Their guns were trained on the red positions. Japanese sailors were even landed on the Bund and opened fire on the workers. By yet another military blunder the Tonshan quarter, where the wealthy Cantonese live, was not immediately occupied and the heads of the counter-revolution thus escaped and were able to organize their forces.

All these factors, vital though they were for the success of the insurrection, in no way diminish the world importance of what was accomplished. For three days a great city in an eastern country dominated by imperialism was seized and held by the oppressed classes ruling through their Soviet. Technical and military errors there were, but, politically, no mistakes were made. The Communist Party of China, which led and organized the revolt, has reason to be proud of its application of Lenin’s teachings in the difficult cirucmstances of China. The work of the Party in the insurrection showed not only that it had the closest contacts with workers, peasants, petty bourgeoisie and soldiers, but that it understood how to rally the widest masses of all these classes to the support of the revolution by correct slogans and a sure political line. The comparison of the programme of the Party as expressed in the decrees of the Commune compared with the fruits of one year’s Kuomintang government cannot fail to make a profound impression on the Chinese masses. The Communist Party of China emerges from the bloody but heroic trial of Canton as the acknowledged leader of the oppressed classes in China, and as the only enemy of imperialism and its allies the landlords, militarists and bourgeoisie of China. Henceforth, the class nature of the Chinese revolutionary movement cannot be disguised, nor its inevitable class solution questioned.

* * * * * *

But what of the future? Has the insurrection’s failure caused a turn of the tide against the Party and the workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary movement in China? Already it is possible to answer, no. The Soviet movement in Kwantung province alone has grown and strengthened since December and the Soviets are regarded by the people with extraordinary enthusiasm. An immense wave of peasant insurrections, commencing before the events of December, has continued since with increasing vigour. In eastern Kwantung, between Canton and Swatow, the districts of Hai Fong, Lu Fong, Pulin, Hoyuan and elsewhere have set up a Soviet Government. The island of Hainang, in the south of the province, is also reported to have been conquered by the peasants and the Soviets established.

More than this, the movement is widely spread outside Kwantung province. In Hunan province, the Tsalin, Kwitong and Lincheng districts have Soviets; in western Kiangsi, near the famous mines of Ngan-Yuan, there are Soviets in Tsuichuan and Hailing districts; and, in eastern Hupeh, the district of Huang-Mei has a Soviet administration. The establishment of Soviets is carried out in an orderly way, and the widest forms of worker and peasant democracy observed. Delegate meetings of peasants, workers and soldiers are summoned, the questions of distribution of the land, the eight-hour day, workers’ control of the factories, election of the Soviet and measures against counter-revolution are carefully worked out. In every district a red workers’ and peasants’ army has been organized.

All this is in the vast territory across which the nationalist armies swept in 1926 and 1927. But in the north, in the very strongholds of feudal and imperialist reaction, a similar huge movement round the slogan of conquest of political power by the workers and peasants is growing.

There is immense hope for the future of the Chinese revolution under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party now that it is purged of its opportunist errors on the peasant question. The mercenary troops of the military cliques of the Kuomintang, unpaid for long months, are tending to degenerate into demoralized hordes, and either allowing themselves to be disarmed by the peasants or passing over to the side of the revolution. This process will be accentuated, though the possibility of temporary alliances of militarist leaders, such as occurred in Canton, may cause temporary checks in the development of the disintegration of the mercenary armies.

The immediate tasks of the Chinese Party are to hasten this process as much as possible by its revolutionary agitation and even military action, where possible, and the unification of the peasant movements of north and south. Already, the Party possesses big influence in two of the largest secret societies, the “Red Spears” and “Heavenly Gate.”

As the differentiation on the lines of the class struggle in China becomes more marked, the need for the world proletariat to rally to the support of the revolution will become more urgent. Especially vital will be the work of the British Communists and the British working class in this connexion. Unceasing vigilance and the strongest support for the revolutionary workers and peasants of China against British imperialism must remain our watchwords. The nearer the revolution approaches to victory, the wider and more relentless will be British imperialist intervention. It is our task to defeat this.