Felix Morrow

China in the War

(August 1942)

Source: Fourth International, New York, Vol.3 No.8, August 1942, pp.280-282
Transcribed: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: David Walters
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2005. You can freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & proofreaders above.

China’s war of national liberation against Japanese imperialism entered its sixth year on July 7. The “China Incident” Japan’s militarists contemptuously called it when at last, under the pressure of the masses and faced by the prospect of complete subjugation, the Chiang Kai-shek government embarked on resistance. But, despite its vast superiority in equipment, despite its capture of the principal cities and practically the entire seacoast, Japan has been unable to terminate the incident. Japan’s perspective of a short war in China was based on an accurate enough analysis of the weaknesses of the reactionary Chiang Kai-shek regime and its isolation from the Chinese masses. The error in the Japanese analysis, which may yet prove the undoing of the Japanese Empire, was its failure to realize that China’s masses would fight on despite their lack of confidence in Chiang Kai-shek and despite Chiang’s conservative and timid conduct of the war.

If they hoped that their exhausting war would be eased after December 7, when Japan clashed with its Anglo-American imperialist rivals, the Chinese people were soon disillusioned. The white man’s prestige was quickly destroyed in all Asia, as he was driven out of Hongkong, Malaya, Singapore and the Indies. Disappointed and bitter indictments of British and American strategy were voiced by Chiang Kai-shek’s press—the bitterness exacerbated undoubtedly by the thought: And these people treat us as inferiors! Typical of Chungking’s comments was this in Chiang’s daily, Ta- Kung Pao on January 13: “There are two vital Allied mistakes. First, failure to carry out a true scorched-earth policy, and second, failure to accomplish mobilization of native populations, resulting in most effective fifth-column activity.” Chungking called these mistakes; but no doubt understood very well that imperialist greed made impossible both a scorched-earth policy and winning native support. Far from easing China’s burden, the entry of its Anglo-American allies into war with Japan brought China its worst disaster in five years, when the Burma Road fell to Japan. As the sixth year of the war began, all China knew that China’s salvation depended primarily on itself.

On top of the military disasters of the Anglo-American forces came Britain’s refusal to make any concessions to India, toward which China was frenziedly building the Indo-China Road to replace the lifeline lost in Burma. Despite the collapse of the white man’s prestige, despite the consequent new note of national self-confidence to be heard in India and throughout Asia, Britain would not surrender an iota of its control of India. The widespread sympathy of the Indian people for China was thus deprived of the means to come to China’s aid. This latest lesson as to the real attitude of British and American imperialism toward the peoples of Asia has scarcely been lost on the Chinese people. Sharing the new national self-confidence of India, China’s masses now know more than ever that only they can will freedom for China.

The Program of the Fourth International

As its struggle for national independence continues tinder the new conditions, China’s war justly continues to receive the wholehearted support of the Fourth Internationalists of China—who met and confirmed this policy once again last fall when the outbreak of war between Japan and the Anglo-American imperialists was clearly imminent—and of the Fourth International throughout the world. This continued support of China is not a position hastily formulated after the events, hut was prepared for in advance. Our attitude toward the various countries involved in the present war was formulated most authoritatively in September 1935 at the Founding Conference of the Fourth International. The program there adopted, entitled “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, “ formulates this attitude in the following words:

“The imperialist bourgeoisie dominates the world. In its basic character the approaching war will therefore be an imperialist war. The fundamental content of the politics of the international proletariat will consequently be a struggle against imperialism and its war...

“But not all countries of the world are imperialist countries. On the contrary, the majority are victims of imperialism Some of the colonial or semi-colonial countries undoubtedly attempt to utilize the war in order to cast off the yoke of slavery. Their war will be not imperialist but liberating. It will be the duty of the international proletariat to aid the oppressed countries in war against oppressors. The same duty applies in regard to aiding the USSR, or whatever other workers’ government might arise before the war or during the war. The defeat of every imperialist government in the struggle with the workers state or with a colonial country is the lesser evil.

“The workers of imperialist countries, however, cannot help an anti-imperialist country through their own government no matter what might be the diplomatic and military relationship between the two countries at a given moment. If the governments find themselves in temporary, and by very essence of the matter, unreliable alliance, then the proletariat of the imperialist country continues to remain in class opposition to its own government and supports the non-imperialist ‘ally’ through its own methods...

“In supporting the colonial country or the USSR in a war the proletariat does not in the slightest degree solidarize either with the bourgeois government of the colonial country or with the Thermidorian bureaucracy of the USSR. On the contrary it maintains full political independence from the one as from the other. Giving aid in a just and progressive war, the revolutionary proletariat wins the sympathy of the workers in the colonies and in the USSR, strengthens there the authority and influence of the Fourth International, and increases its ability to help overthrow the bourgeois government in the colonial country and the reactionary bureaucracy of the USSR. (Founding Conference of the Fourth International, Program and Resolutions, 1939, pages 31-35. Our italics.)

When the war broke out and unfolded, this unambiguous political conception motivated our opposition to all the imperialist powers and our support of the USSR and China in the sense indicated in the program. This is the course that all sections of the Fourth International without exception have followed.

Shachtman’s New Theory

Among those who voted for this policy in 1935 at the Founding Conference was Max Shachtman who, indeed wrote an introduction to the program in which he—true to form—called for “sticking doggedly to the principles” of the program. A year later the same Shachtman—again true to form—abandoned the defense of the USSR and split from the Fourth International on this question. Now—still true to form—the dogged fighter abandons the defense of China against Japan. Naturally, he pretends that our defense of China is new policy unwarranted by the doctrines of the Fourth International. It will not be difficult to refute this impudent subterfuge.

The Founding Conference program, quoted above, clearly says: “Some of the colonial or semi-colonial countries will undoubtedly attempt to utilize the war in order to cast off the yoke of slavery. Their war will be not imperialist but liberating.” Semi-colonial China was engaged in attempting to cast off the yoke of slavery of Japan at the time the imperialist war was extended into the Pacific. Since then China has attempted to utilize the war—i.e., the conflict among the imperialists—to cast off the yoke of slavery, accepting aid from and entering into an alliance with Japan’s imperialist rivals—an alliance which the program termed “temporary and, by very essence of the matter, unreliable.” The program declared that we would support a semi-colonial country like China in spite of such an alliance, and that our aid in such a just and progressive war would increase the ability of the Fourth Internationalists of China to help overthrow the reactionary regime of Chiang Kai-shek. All this Shachtman agreed with in 1938 and signed his name to it. But his signature was not worth much.

Shachtman does not present any facts to justify his change of position. All that he does is put a minus now when in 1938 he accepted the plus of Trotsky and the Fourth International. The program of the founding Conference—with Shachtnhan’s vote—said that it was correct to support a colonial or semi-colonial country which would “utilize the war” in its struggle against its principal imperialist oppressor (China against Japan, India against Britain), despite the fact that the leadership was in the hands of the colonial bourgeoisie, and despite its alliance with imperialist powers. Shachtman now blithely renounces all that. Now he says:

“Is there then no future for China’s struggle against imperialism? Is the struggle for freedom of the colonial countries and peoples in general a hopeless one, at least while the World War is on?

“Yes, the struggle of the colonies for freedom is utterly hopeless during the present world War if they continue the course of serving one imperialist camp against the other. That is today the course of the bourgeoisie in every colonial and semi-colonial country...

“The Second World War, imperialist to the marrow, is total and all-dominating. In its first stage, at least, it was inevitable that it draw into the grip of its iron ring... all the isolated national wars and struggles for national freedom...

“Yes, the struggle for national emancipation of the colonies has been deserted—by the Chiangs and the Nehrus and the Boses and the Wangs, by the people who led and directed it and then, at the showdown, brought it into the imperialist war camp...

“... only the leadership of the proletariat can re-launch the just wars of the colonies against imperialism.” (New International, July 1942, pages 171-2. Shachtman’s italics.)

Thus Shachtman says that a progressive struggle of a colonial or semi-colonial country led by its bourgeoisie is impossible during an imperialist war. During the war Shachtman will support only that colonial country in which the leadership of the proletariat has been established of course a proletariat already under revolutionary and not reformist leadership. This revelation has nothing in common with Lenin and Trotsky’s reiterated and reiterated position that revolutionists should support a colonial struggle against imperialism even if the colonial bourgeoisie leads it.

The False Analogy with China in 1914

Let us attempt to come to grips with Shachtman’s theory, such as it is. He learned from Trotsky that the second World War is a continuation of the first on the part of all the imperialist powers. Shachtman’s grasp of the Marxist concept of imperialism as a stage of capitalism is extremely tenuous as he showed when he suddenly announced that the Soviet Union is “imperialist.” Shachtman perverts Trotsky’s conception to mean that the second World War is a continuation of the first on the part of all the countries participating in it. After that he needs only to repeat: “as in 1914.” So, in the case of China, Shachtman writes:

“In the concrete situation, today as in 1911, the immediate rulers of China, Chiang and his national bourgeoisie, prevent the masses from fighting the main enemy, imperialism. Chiang makes the Chinese masses fight one imperialist power on behalf of another imperialist power—which is an altogether different thing from fighting imperialism. (New International, June 1942.)

What in “the concrete situation” today in China is identical with the situation in 1914? Shachtman does not tell us and cannot tell us. For there is no analogy between China’s role in the two wars, as we shall easily establish by the facts.

In 1917 a dismembered China which was not resisting any imperialist power entered the war on the side of her principal oppressors who then constituted a form of international trust dominating China—Britain, the United States, France, Japan—and proclaimed a formal state of war against Germany, a power then without holdings in China and without any forces in the Pacific. In December 1941 a semi-unified China which had conducted a war of national liberation for four and a half years against its principal oppressor, Japan, continued this war when the conflict among the imperialist powers extended to the Pacific, and accepted supplies from and an alliance with Japan’s imperialist rivals. Where Shachtman invents an analogy between 1917 and 1941, there is actually a decisive contrast.

The difference between China’s role in the two wars is worth describing at length, quite apart from refuting Shachtman’s preposterous analogy. For the contrast illumines the significance for today of our 1938 programmatic statement that “Some of the colonial or semi-colonial countries will undoubtedly attempt to utilize the war in order to cast off the yoke of slavery.” To utilize the war is only possible where there is war. But in 1914-18 the war except for the very secondary fighting in Palestine and Mesopotamia it was fought on European battlefields—did not extend into the Pacific. China and India are today for their own ends able to utilize the war—i.e., the contradictions among the imperialist powers at the stage of armed conflict—precisely because this time the Pacific has become one of the chief areas of conflict. Yet, in Shachtman’s world of shadows, China’s and India’s struggles are transformed into mere appendages of imperialism by just this extension of the war into the Pacific! China’s and India’s opportunity to win freedom while the imperialists are fighting among themselves becomes for Shachtman their chain of slavery!

In 1914-18 all the Pacific powers and oppressors of China were ranged on one side in the imperialist conflict hence the colonial and semi-colonial peoples of Asia and Africa had little or no opportunity to take advantage of the imperialist conflict to free themselves. The power of the Allied imperialists remained unshattered in the Far East, in no way challenged there by Germany and her allies. Britain therefore remained undisputed master in India. China likewise experienced no lightening of the pressure of her imperialist masters. Peace in the Pacific meant a continuation of the “normal” oppression of Asia and Africa.

In 1917 China was compelled, under pressure of the Allies, to break off diplomatic relations and then declare war against Germany. The war was far away and the Chinese people were indifferent to it; so far as they had opinions about it they were for Germany for, as the great power with the smallest holdings in China, Germany had appealed to the Chinese people as the more friendly power. Germany’s holdings—treaty ports in Shantung province—had been seized by Japan in 1914 without consulting China. China’s participation in the war consisted primarily of “permitting” the hiring of about 200,000 coolie laborers who were sent to France. Despite pressure and threats from its “allies.” China was extremely reluctant to close German banks and sequester German ships in China, for German business offered China more favorable terms than the other powers. It was not until March 1919—nearly five months after the end of the war—that China finally deported all Germans—obviously a step not dictated by war necessities but solely designed to provide Britain, Japan, France and the United States with the business formerly conducted by Germans.

When the United States “invited” China to join it in breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany, Sun Yat-sen telegraphed to Lloyd George on March 10, 1917, protesting against the Allied move to drag China into a war which did not concern her. Sun’s action was extremely popular in China. The first president of the Republic of China, set up in 1911 when the Manchu dynasty was overthrown, Sun had been replaced by the northern militarist Yuan Shih-kai in 1912, but had a majority in the impotent Parliament. Yuan convened the Parliament on May 10, 1917, and tried to force it to vote for war, but it refused. Only by dispersing the Parliament and putting an end to the pretense of representative government, setting up a pro-Japan government in the capital at Peking, was China declared in the war on August 4, 1917. Sun Yat-sen and the nationalist Kuomintang refused to go along, and with the help of the southern war-lords set up their own government in the south, in Canton in Kwangtung province. The China which formally participated in the war thus merely consisted of the northern war-lords. The break with the south over the war question served to clarify the fact that the revolution of 1911, in toppling the dynasty, had not created a united China; on the contrary, the provincial militarists now ruled, more openly than ever, as the agents of the imperialist powers. The principal spheres of influence were: Yunnan and southern Kwangsi—France; the great river valleys economically controlled by Hong Kong and Shanghai—Britain; Manchuria and the north—Japan; with the United States pushing its way in everywhere.

With no hostilities in the Pacific, far from finding the war period an opportunity to push back imperialist pressure, China found it a period of further imperialist inroads, especially by Japan, which had the backing of a secret agreement with Britain. Japan served its 21 Demands on China and followed it up with an ultimatum; on May 25, 1915, helpless China was forced to sign an agreement granting many of the demands. The pleas of a Chinese delegation for a reversal of this situation got short shrift at the Peace Conference at Versailles. The Allies decided in favor of Japan and the rest of themselves, and the Chinese delegation refused to sign the Versailles Treaty.

Under the conditions of the first World War, then, the idea of armed resistance to any of the imperialist powers was beyond the thought of China’s leaders. When Sun Yat-sen became president, his attitude was one of cringing servility to the great powers, promising them that their perquisites and privileges would remain intact. Even after the disappointment at Versailles, Sun saw hope for China only in some form of benevolent cooperation among the powers, for which he pleaded in his book, The International Development of China (1922).

Such, in brief, is the picture of China in the first World War. Let Shachtman try to draw an analogy between it and the present—not one of his empty generalities, but a concrete analogy. Let him show the identity between Germany of 1914 and Japan of 1941 in relation to China!

Basing himself on the writings of Trotsky and our Chinese comrades, Shachtman proves irrefutably that Chiang Kai-shek’s regime is reactionary; that it has led the fight against Japan largely under the pressure of the masses, etc., etc. All this, however, was also true before Pearl Harbor, yet then Shachtman conceded that China’s struggle was progressive despite the Chiang Kai-shek regime. He is under the obligation, therefore, to prove that the character of the war now being conducted by the regime is decisively different than it was before Pearl Harbor.

For the most part Shachtman does not venture beyond empty generalities about China’s “complete capitulation to Anglo-American imperialism”—which is precisely what is incumbent upon him to prove. One proof he does venture to give that China is now being “directed by” the imperialist powers: “The Chinese Army is... already fighting on Burmese soil to maintain the imperialist rule of the British bourgeoisie...” (Labor Action, March 6, 1942.) Very well, then, let us examine the events in Burma.

The Test of the Events in Burma

If it is correct to defend China at all, then there is no reason why the Chinese army should not have defended the Burma Road, including the section of it in Burma and the port of entry for Chinese supplies, Rangoon. No doubt British imperialist interests would have been aided as against the Axis powers by China’s successful defense of the Burma Road, but the same thing might be said about every Japanese or German soldier killed by China or the Soviet Union. The irrefutable fact is that the maintenance of the Burma Road, including its outlet in Burma, was vital both for supplies and for the defense of China in general, as has been proven since by the deadly inroads Japan has made precisely through this back-door into China. Shall China, a non-imperialist country, leave undefended a vital area extending beyond its borders, simply because some imperialist rival of Japan would also benefit by its defense? This is the logic of the madhouse of petty-bourgeois radicalism. It has nothing in common with the real interests of non-imperialist China.

The Chinese army’s crossing the frontier into Burma is the sole evidence offered by Shachtman in accusing it of serving British imperialism there. Shachtman has always had a queasy attitude toward frontiers. He once conducted a bitter fight against comrade Cannon because Cannon had, declared, when Hitler became Chancellor, that the Red Army. should be mobilized. The idea of a degenerated workers’ state violating the German frontier horrified Shachtman; in the same spirit he now condemns the Chinese army for crossing the border into Burma. A war of national defense, according to Shachtman’s logic, can be fought only by sticking within one’s own frontiers; to sally out beyond them changes the character of the war. Of a Shachtman of his time who in war of national defense disapproved an offensive into enemy territory Marx wrote that he “confuses a defensive war with defensive military operations. So if a fellow falls upon me in the street I may only parry his blow but not knock him down, because then I should turn into an oppressor! The want of dialectic comes out in every word these people utter...”

So much we could say before the events Burma. Now we must add the facts as to the actual relations between the Chinese and the British. General Alexander, the British commander, appears to have been abysmally ignorant of the fact so well known to Shachtman, that the Chinese wanted to enter Burma merely to serve British imperialism. On the contrary Alexander refused to let Chinese troops into Burma except in token numbers. Not until after the fall of Rangoon did he finally agree to a “closer military understanding” reported in an AP dispatch from Chungking, April 24, which added that “there now is no limit to the number of Chinese troops which may be sent into Burma.” This dispatch, declared the April 25 New York Herald Tribune editorially, “confirms the suspicion that China has not been able or permitted to throw her full strength into the struggle for Burma.” But that “close military understanding” was not observed by the British, we now learn from a letter (New York Times, July 10 1942) of Lin Yutang who speaks unofficially for the Chinese government. “China wanted to defend Burma at all costs, but was not permitted to do so, “ he writes. He gives the astonishing information that “the Chinese mechanized units”—apparently all that China had—were waiting at Kunming during the Burma campaign while the Chinese vainly sought British agreement to let them into Burma. In the end, the British authorities refused to agree to provide the mechanized units with oil to operate with in Burma.

Why did not the British permit Chiang to send as many Chinese troops as he could into Burma? The British sent as many Indian troops as they could transport—why not Chinese? for a simple reason: the Indians came as vassals of British imperialism, the Chinese would come as representatives of Free China. Every Chinese soldier would be proof to the Burmese that there are peoples of Asia who are freeing themselves. A victory for Chinese troops in Burma would have been understood everywhere as a victory for the colonial peoples and not for British imperialism. That is why, for example, the anti-British masses of India are wholeheartedly pro-Chinese. And that is also why the British preferred to lose Burma to Japan, with the hope of winning it back later, than let China hold Burma against Japan. The line of demarcation is so clear that the backward peasant in India understands it as well as does Central Alexander from the opposite side of the class line. But Shachtman does not understand the class line, as he already showed by his position on the Soviet-Finnish war.

The events in Burma demonstrate that China, far from complete capitulation to Anglo-American imperialism,” is feared and thwarted by its imperialist “ally.” The events bear out the Fourth International’s estimation of such an alliance between non-imperialist and imperialist countries as “temporary and, by very essence of the matter, unreliable.”

Apart from his unhappy reference to the Burma events, Shachtman offers no proofs of his position. For the rest he offers such resounding generalities as this: “When the World Imperialist War broke over its head, the Chinese bourgeoisie did not waver for a moment. It took out a commission in the camp of imperialism and brought its `national struggle’ along with it as useful camouflage.” These generalities are safer for Shachtman than his reference to Burma only in the sense that they are irrefutable because they are empty of content. No one could reasonably ask Shachtman for a copy of the commission which China took out in the camp of imperialists. It is a literary metaphor which is enough for him and which, Shachtman hopes, he might some day exchange for facts.

We work to prevent such facts from coming into being. Our comrades in China, fighting in the front ranks in the armed forces and seeking to arouse the workers and peasants to the greatest possible effort for the defense of China, are striving to make impossible what Shachtman insists has already happened. If China can maintain its owns front against Japan then there is the possibility of a Chinese victory over the oppressor. But if China’s war effort collapses, or is so weakened that in the end the land front in China is dominated by Anglo-American troops, then victory over Japan would not be a victory for China. It would he a victory for those who would simply replace Japan as the imperialist oppressor of China. The Chinese Trotskyists, and the entire Fourth International with them, struggle against such an outcome. Shachtman, as in the case of the Soviet Union, abandons the struggle, proclaiming it already lost.

Perhaps the most: important factor weighing in China’s favor today is the Indian revolution, now in its opening stages. Were India soon to free itself from imperialist domination, the weight of its 400 millions would be added to and would galvanize the 450 millions of China—together they constitute nearly half the human race!—against imperialist domination by either warring camp. It is obviously the duty of every revolutionist to support India’s fight for freedom. We must support it even if the Indian bourgeoisie leads the struggle at present, and no matter what imperialist powers find it expedient to aid India. By all means it is correct for India to utilize the war to throw off the yoke of Britain. But in the Indian struggle, as in China, we are separated from Shachtman by an unbridgeable gulf. We support the struggle: he brands it as “serving one imperialist camp against the other. That is today the course of the bourgeoisie in every colonial and semi-colonial country.” (New International, June 1942, p.171.)

Thanks to the existence of the first workers’ state and China’s armed resistance to imperialist domination, we have new immediate tasks and possibilities in this war which the revolutionists did not have in the first World War. We look forward to the task of defending the Indian revolution. These three gigantic tasks—the defense of the Soviet Union, of China against Japan, and of India against Britain—have no place in the wretched literary scheme of Shachtman and his kind. Their veto will nevertheless not interfere with the revolutionary struggle of the Fourth International to carry out these world historical tasks.


Last updated on: 8.1.2006