Victor Serge

First Letter:

The Class Struggle in the Chinese Revolution

(April 1927)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3.
Originally published in Clarté (new series), No. 9, May 1927.
Translated by Gregor Benton & Al Richardson.
Transcribed by Alun Watson.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

FOR some years now the Chinese Revolution has been looming on the horizon. The recent events in Shanghai brutally pose before the international working class the problems of class struggle within this great revolution, which up to now has all too often been regarded as essentially national and bourgeois. What has happened? This: on 21-22 March a working-class insurrection, headed by the trade unions and a few handfuls of courageous Communist militants, took Shanghai, China’s real industrial and commercial capital, after a bitter street battle waged against the troops of the Northern reaction. The proletariat carried out this exploit under the muzzles of English, French, American, Japanese and Italian cannon (not to mention the rest). Less than a month later, on 13-14 April, the Generalissimo commanding the revolutionary-nationalist armies of the Guomindang [1] had this proletariat treacherously disarmed and machine-gunned, defeated and strangled in a single night by his official allies. And this grievous blow – foreseen and announced for many weeks by the bourgeois press of every country – was a sad, frightful surprise for the working-class militants and Communists of all countries … To begin with, let us deplore the lamentable weakness of our information on the Chinese Revolution. What do we know of the internal struggles and social crises which produced these results? In a word, nothing. The interests of international Communism require on the contrary careful, complete and vivid reports, made possible by the existence of Soviet news agencies in China. But even in the USSR it is necessary to state that this information, whilst better than in all the capitalist countries, remains inferior to what it could and ought to be. Let us hope that there will be a remedy to this failing, which from now on is indisputable.

I cannot hope in these very hasty notes to deal with the immense problem of the Chinese Revolution. The next Enlarged Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International will no doubt study it. [2] It seems useful to me, on the eve of these deliberations of our international party, to bring out some information and some aspects upon which the attention of militants has not been focused until now. This is all I can aspire to.

The ‘Driving Forces’ of a Revolution

Everyone agrees that the Chinese Revolution has the character of a bourgeois, nationalist and anti-imperialist revolution. The economic enslavement of China to the foreign powers has become an obstacle to the development of the national bourgeoisie. The big industries, transport, the financial establishments and the customs are in the hands of foreigners; the national bourgeoisie feels all the more frustrated, and cannot, in these conditions, set up the solid state that it needs. Youthful Chinese industry cannot be guaranteed any customs protection against foreign competition. The armed contests of the generals in the pay of foreign powers have also contributed to preventing the creation of a modern, centralised, ordered and well-administered state essential to the successful development of business … Hence the aims of the national revolution, as the Chinese bourgeoisie understands them: cancellation of the old enslavement treaties, independence and national unity, and the creation of a firm, ordered and enlightened central government, preferably conceived upon the American model (with, however, a military president with a firm hand, the better to hold the proletariat in check …).

But the Chinese bourgeoisie is too weak, too few in numbers and too unpopular to lead the revolution, which it counts on depriving of a part of its fruits in order to organise the country immediately after the victories paid for with the blood of the toiling classes, and come to an agreement with the imperialist bourgeoisie. What are the real driving forces of the revolution?

To begin with there is the proletariat (between three and four million strong), outrageously exploited by foreign and native capitalists, a proletariat organised, intelligent and matured in the struggles of these last few years, which has shed rivers of blood as well as scoring memorable victories – in Guangzhou (Canton), Hankou, Hongkong, Shanghai and Tianjin …

Then there are the natural allies of the proletariat, the peasant masses – hundreds of millions of people who are among the most wretched inhabitants of this planet – surviving on the intensive but still primitive cultivation of tiny plots of land, exploited by the large landowner, the first-rank tenant (the land is often sub-let), the moneylender, the military leader, the bureaucrat and the merchant. The system of internal customs barriers, the result of the foreigners’ stranglehold on the external customs, is a terrible cause of poverty to the Chinese peasant; the generals impose upon him conscription, troop maintenance and arbitrary taxation. The poverty of the peasant masses is such that, according to foreign researchers, their normal income is considerably below the minimum subsistence level … with the result that their very existence poses a constant problem, testifying to a record of brute endurance. Entire strata of the rural population are literally reduced to the condition of animals. What is necessary for the Chinese peasants to be able to become human beings again? An end to the rule of the feudal lords – generals, landowners – and the moneylenders kept in being by imperialist rivalry; the unity of the country, a well-ordered administration and a fair taxation system. We see that these minimum demands coincide with those of the bourgeois national revolution – and go beyond them, since they do not limit themselves to the abolition of the vestiges of feudalism, but strike at the property of the capitalist moneylenders.

The industrialisation of the country, even though slowed down during the last 10 years, is forcing more and more of the very numerous artisans into poverty, and is proletarianising them. The misery in the countryside and the unceasing internal wars are calamities for small trade. The fairly numerous intellectuals – students, literati, people of the liberal professions – bring to our notice the complaints and aspirations of the middle classes. They provide the revolutionary movement with its leaders and cadres.

So brief an account of social classes so varied, divided and subdivided in very different environments in a country as vast as a continent, with an extremely complex economic structure, can only be lamentably schematic. Such as it is, it nonetheless enables some deductions to be made.

The basic interests of these various classes at present rouse them against imperialism. On the other hand, they nonetheless remain antagonistic and must even enter into conflict over how to complete the national revolution and organise its future. What benefit will the workers get from it? How far will they push their gains? How far will the agrarian revolution go, which only the proletariat can guide and support? These are vital questions for all the classes involved.

In these conditions, the bourgeoisie and the upper strata of the commercial and intellectual petit-bourgeoisie possess a formidable capacity for betrayal and reaction, at the same time as representing a factor for moderating the drive of the revolution and for compromise with the foreigners (the Chinese bourgeoisie would doubtless gladly accommodate to an ‘invisible’, delicate economic penetration by foreign capital that is respectful of its ‘national interests’, in short comparable with that of French, British, German and Belgian capital in Russia from 1890 to 1914). But neither proletarians, artisans nor poor peasants – and they are the majority – can be satisfied with a moderate revolution that would stop short, overcome with pious respect, in face of large industrial property, cash boxes and land registers … And this deep conflict of interests confirms that the only revolutionary classes capable of ensuring the victory of the national revolution over feudal survivals within and foreign imperialism without are precisely the toiling classes that can no longer carry out the bourgeois democratic revolution without going beyond it and directing themselves towards Socialism all the more forcefully since betrayals, attempts at reaction, the plotting of the bourgeoisie with the foreigner, and even war might call for responses that are difficult to foresee …

To sum up, the bourgeoisie cannot accept the leadership of the proletariat in the national revolution; now this leadership is a precondition for the victory of this revolution and, by the same token, of its progress towards Socialism. Either the national revolution, strangled by the national bourgeoisie, will be aborted and will have to start all over again in a few years, or it will triumph, led by the proletariat supported by the middle classes of the towns and the poor peasant masses; but in this case it could no longer confine itself to carrying out the democratic programme of the radical bourgeoisie, even as Sun Yat-sen formulated it; it will have to go further, it will go towards Socialism following the example of the Russian Revolution and with the support of the international proletariat. Moreover, in our period there are no longer clearly defined limits between a bourgeois revolution and a Socialist revolution: there are only questions of power and of class consciousness.

The Beginnings of the Peasant Revolution

The inner history of the Chinese Revolution is – naturally – dominated by the class struggle. From 1922 Sun Yat-sen, then subject to American influence, was only able to maintain himself in power in Guangzhou thanks to the workers, who forced the merchants to accept the banknotes issued by the governmental bank. But the strikes set the proletariat and the leaders of the Guomindang against each other. Sun Yat-sen attempted to control the workers’ movement, demanding that its congresses be subject to governmental authorisation, etc. … A gulf opened up between the Guomindang and the Cantonese working class. The latter did not understand the alliance of Sun Yat-sen with Zhang Zuolin [3] against Wu Peifu [4], then master of central China. The police chief Hai Ho-Ping, sheltered by Sun Yat-sen, suppressed the workers’ movement in Canton, which did not react when the army of the reactionary demagogue Chen Jiongming [5] drove Sun Yat-sen from power (15-16 June 1922).

Sun Yat-sen’s evolution to the left dates from this painful experience. His thought, until then attached to Wilsonian ideas [6], henceforth turned itself towards Lenin. The tireless old revolutionary initiated a new and fruitful policy of rapprochement between the Guomindang and the toiling masses and the Soviet Republic, of alliance with the Communists, and of support for the peasant masses against the feudal lords and the large landowners. The following year (1923) Sun met Joffe [7] the Soviet ambassador to China, in Shanghai. Shortly afterwards he again became head of the Guangzhou government. His last thoughts on his death bed – he died in Beijing in March 1925 – hailed the Russian Revolution.

The southern capital, however, remained the arena of ceaseless social struggles exacerbated by armed conflicts that set the peasants and the large landowners against each other in the neighbouring provinces. At the end of 1923 the struggle polarised between the counter-revolutionary organisation of big business and the bosses, the Paper Tigers [8] and the working class and the lower strata of artisans. In January 1924 the Tigers slit the throat of the leader of the rice workers; soon afterwards, they prevented with armed force the circulation of banknotes issued by Sun Yat-sen; and on 1 May they fired on demonstrations. In May-June their congress in Guangzhou mobilised 15,000 men. The British trade and finance of Hongkong and the foreigners of the Shamin – the concessionary quarter in Guangzhou – accorded them official protection. They prepared for the seizure of power. Always manoeuvring, at the end of June Sun Yat-sen offered them a silk banner in the name of the Guomindang. That did not prevent him from having their arms seized; the merchants obtained their restitution by a strike. The Tigers soon put them to use. They fired on the people’s demonstrations, attempted a coup d’état, and were defeated on 14-17 October, thanks to ready support for the Guomindang government from the proletariat and the common people. General Chen Jiongming ‘went to war to free Guangzhou from Bolshevism’. A period of troubles, military plots and confused betrayals began. In May 1925 the situation was so critical that the government had to take refuge in the Huangpu Military Academy. [9] The working-class movement showed its strength in the strikes of the Shamin and of Guangzhou, marked on 23 June by the Shamian shooting, where the British killed 57 and wounded more than 200 on the threshold of the foreign concessions… The Guomindang government was caught between the workers’ and peasants’ movement and the counter-revolution. It had to choose. Wang Jingwei [10] and Liao Zhongkai (who was assassinated on 20 August 1925) adopted a left popular policy. Helped by Russian advisers, they reorganised the army, and formed sections for political education and propaganda within it; the Huangpu Military Academy was conceived on the model of the military academies of the Red Army; China, a country of mercenary armies, with neither faith nor law, witnessed the birth of an army whose strength lay in its conviction, its consciousness, its moral discipline and its intelligence.

Even more than the workers’ movement and the aggressions of the counter-revolution, it was the outbreak of the agrarian revolution that obliged the Guomindang to choose between reaction and revolution. A few facts allow us to judge the poverty of the Chinese peasant. The American researcher Taylor fixed a living standard of a minimum income of 187 Mexican dollars per annum below which poverty begins for the Chinese peasant. Now 41 per cent of the peasant families studied have an income less than 40 dollars a year. ‘The survival of this class requires such an exertion of strength that the struggle for a daily pittance kills the germs of all intellectual, spiritual and even physical development’, writes another foreigner, Mr Dittmer. [11] These observers have studied northern China: but the situation is the same throughout this huge country. The peasant masses are driven by it to depravity, bestiality – or revolt. All who have any energy in them rebel – ‘banditry’ is on the increase.

Eighty-five per cent of the land in Guangdong (Guangzhou’s province) belongs to the large landowners who have formed powerful mercenary militias in order to squeeze the peasants. Our comrade Alsky has described the beginning of the peasant revolution in this country in 1924-25 in a remarkable chapter of his little book Canton Victorious. [12] From time immemorial there have existed a large number of secret societies in the Chinese countryside. One of these societies, set up in Haifeng (Guangdong) adopted as its motto ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’, another, ‘Take from the rich and give to the poor’, and a third ‘Do good in the name of the Almighty’. There was always in Haifeng – this town is a centre of the peasant movement – a party of the poor that wanted ‘to become the vanguard of the workers’ revolution’. Some of these organisations were clearly semi-Anarchist. In 1924 the Guomindang felt threatened and appealed to the peasants, and its appeal was heard. But from then on it was forced to take up a position on the incessant armed conflicts between the landowners and the peasant organisations. On many occasions the Cantonese troops sent against the landowners passed over to their side. Even Sun Yat-sen’s own bodyguard went over to the landowners. The Guomindang broke down this resistance and this is also one of the reasons why it succeeded in holding on to power. By the end of 1925 the Guangdong peasant associations, strengthened by their victories, already had 200 000 members. The Guomindang decreed that land rent could not exceed half the harvest, and should be divided up as follows: 25 per cent to the landowner, 12.5 per cent in taxes, and 12.5 per cent reimbursement made by the government to the cultivator. We do not know if this measure was applied, or to what extent. But it is certain that since the coup d’état of 20 March 1926 (the coming to power of Chiang Kai-shek [13] and the Centre-Right within the Guomindang) the agrarian policy of the southern government has above all attempted to contain the peasant movement.

As regards the Chinese Communist Party, Comrade Tan Pingshan [14] explained at the Seventh Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI that one of its main mistakes was that it had elaborated no agrarian programme whatsoever; he noted that the peasant movement had developed spontaneously, outside the influence of the party. ‘We must defend the interests of the peasantry’, he added, ‘but we must also maintain the united front of the national revolutionary movement.’ Some Chinese Communists, fearing the breakup of this front, showed themselves hostile to the agrarian movement. [15] The resolution of the Seventh Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI on the Chinese situation condemned this mistake and emphasised the decisive role of the peasants in the revolution.

The Struggles of the Working Class

Comrade S. Dalin, who knows China well, has published from Canton two exceptionally interesting articles in Moscow’s Pravda on the labour policies of the Guomindang government. [16]

It is known that at the end of 1926 the London cabinet attempted to initiate a policy of rapprochement with the Guomindang government, which responded by lifting the blockade of Hongkong. But the boycott of the British ships was enforced by unionised workers’ pickets. The Cantonese trade unionists whom Mr Eugene Chen, Minister of Foreign Affairs [17] failed to consult, maintained a successful continuous boycott for 16 months. When being interviewed, Mr Eugene Chen declared to the journalists that the government well knew how to make itself obeyed by the workers. The British governor of Hongkong for his part declared himself prepared to support the reassertion of order in Guangzhou and … had a search made by British customs officials of a ship flying the Soviet flag in the port of the revolutionary nationalist capital. The diplomatic courier of the USSR was harassed. It was necessary for the Cantonese proletariat to come out onto the streets to make Mr Eugene Chen swallow his words and for British hopes to be dashed yet again. ‘At the time we were in Guangzhou’, wrote Dalin, ‘power belonged to the revolutionaries in the streets … The Central Committee of the Guomindang and the government had become rather like arbitration commissions.’

These arbitration commissions had to work hard, torn as they were with internal divisions! There were demonstrations by bosses, workers and merchants – all of them threatening – and delegations of poor peasants and landowners besieged the commissions with urgent and contradictory demands.

At the time of the start of the great Northern Expedition [18] that was to end in the taking of Shanghai, the Guomindang Central Committee launched an appeal for social peace for victory, and the military authorities forbade strikes and workers’ meetings. The Cantonese proletariat supported the military effort but continued its wage struggles, and not without success. The threat of a management lockout in the Guangzhou arsenal was broken by a call for a general strike. The greater part of the Cantonese workers are organised (there are more than 200,000 trade unionists; these are, for the most part, handicraft workers, not industrial). Their wages have hardly risen since 1917, even though the cost of living has risen sharply. The working day varies between 11 and 15 hours. Incessant struggles are also necessary to maintain these wretched living conditions. The workers are obliged to set up armed detachments (pickets) to protect strikers and their organisations against the attacks of the bands formed by the bosses, and so as not to be at the mercy of a coup d’état. There have been several attempts to disarm them. On 6 August 1926 the Commander in Chief of the Southern army ordered the disarming of the workers; in December 1926, after the first great victories of the revolutionary nationalist army in the Yangtse region, there was an attempt to disarm the proletarian organisations in Guangzhou (but without success or any attempt to do the job thoroughly). The government brought in compulsory arbitration in clashes between capital and labour. But it soon turned out that this arbitration would only be compulsory for the workers. A law of 5 January 1927 limited the right to strike, and in some cases forbade the use of strike pickets. [19] Whilst the government was subjecting the working class to these pressures, the employers were forming and arming a confederation of scab trade unions in Guangzhou. To conclude with the words of the Russian magazine of the Red International of Labour Unions [20], ‘the toiling masses had to sustain a relentless struggle for the improvement of their economic conditions within the territory of the Nationalist government’. [21]

Now these are the masses who gave the Chinese Revolution its greatest victories: the great strikes of Hankou and Shanghai, which ended in massacres; the 16 month boycott of Hongkong; the victories of the Guomindang over reaction; the seizure of the British concession in Hankou – it was occupied by the trade unions – and the taking of Shanghai. These are the most outstanding features of their activity.

And what, in these circumstances, was the policy of the Chinese Communist Party? Nothing has been published on this subject. But the disproportion in membership between the trade unions (1.5 million) and the party (15 000) is striking. [22]

The Proletarian Victory and the Shanghai Ambush

On 21-22 March Shanghai fell into the hands of the Reds. This is how. The Southern army was approaching. The Northern troops of Shandong were occupying the town. The day of the 21st had been calm. At 11 o’clock at night a mysterious signal, a cannon shot, rang out. Immediately there was a general strike. After laying down their tools, the proletarians got out their guns. The insurrection began, as always, with an attack on the police stations. The Chinese city was covered with barricades. General Pi Shucheng bombarded the working-class districts. According to the China Courier, the bombardment destroyed some 1500 houses. But on the morning of the 22nd the insurgents carried out an attack on the railway station where the armoured train of the general was stationed, defended, moreover, by White Russians. [23] That night the defeated White Russians and Northerners had to seek refuge in the foreign concessions after 24 hours of battle. [24] The Nationalist army of General Chiang Kai-shek was able to enter the city. After it entered, its first aim was to attempt to disarm the real liberators of Shanghai!

The taking of Shanghai could not fail to intensify the class struggle within the Chinese Revolution and internal dissensions in the Guomindang. With Hankou and Shanghai, powerful working-class cities, now added to Guangzhou, the hegemony of the proletariat in southern China was beginning to become a reality. It was necessary to subdue this proletariat, which had just carried off two striking victories by the occupation of the British concession in Hankou and the Shanghai uprising. The bourgeoisie, the Guomindang right, understood that its fate was in the balance. The Times and Le Temps repeated ad nauseam their formula for salvation: compromise, and an agreement between the moderate right of the Guomindang and Zhang Zuolin; ‘but’, they asked themselves anxiously, ‘will Chiang Kai-shek be able to subdue the extremists?’. The roar of the Anglo-American cannon let loose in Nanjing effectively underlined the burden of the advice in the imperialist press. It was a classic situation, an interval between two dictatorships, either that of the right, with a brave general at its head, or that of the left, with the working class in charge. People manoeuvred. The revolutionaries and the Chinese Communist Party, concerned for the unity of the national anti-imperialist movement, and doubtless also hoping that the bourgeoisie ‘would not dare’, allowed themselves to be fooled. A Guomindang conference held at Hankou decided on the return of the left leader Wang Jingwei, sympathetic to the Communists – but to what extent? – who had been exiled since the Guangzhou coup d’état of 20 March 1926 that had given power to the right. A new government was formed including two right-wingers, four centrists and two Communists (Tan Pingshan as Minister of Agriculture, and Su Zhaozheng [25] as Minister of Labour); the modest Chiang Kai-shek solemnly declared that he would confine himself to his military functions; on 5 April Wang Jingwei, barely returned from exile, in the name of the Guomindang signed a splendid joint manifesto with the Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Duxiu [26] which said that ‘the colonial and semi-colonial countries are not at the stage of transition from capitalism to Socialism’, and added with obvious self-satisfaction that ‘the military authorities in Shanghai have declared that they will submit to the central authorities’. [27] In the meantime, Chiang Kai-shek was quietly replacing unreliable troops with reliable ones, negotiating with foreign agents, allowing or organising the surveillance of the Soviet consulate, and, in short, carrying out the preparations for his sinister coup …

Moreover, other quite singular things happened that should have served as a warning. In Hankou on 30 March an attempt was made to dissolve the trade unions (a riot, with eight workers killed). The newspapers announced numerous executions of ‘rioters’ in Shanghai. In Hankou they carried out executions of militant workers accused of having taken part in the invasion of the British concession … Whose heads were the executioners of Chiang Kai-shek cutting off in Shanghai? We don’t know. The Echo de Paris spoke of ‘Communist vermin’ being massacred. Some newspapers reported 300 executions. ‘Clashes’ between ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ occurred in the night of 4-5 April, and martial law was declared in Shanghai (on the 5th). Martial law in a centre of the working class world is always an unpleasant thing, and most significant … It was barely mentioned in the workers’ press.

Moreover, the head of the Guomindang army had a rather suspect past, having been one of the main perpetrators of a coup d’état carried out in Guangzhou on 20 March 1926, which had resulted in the formation of a right-wing leadership in Sun Yat-sen’s party, the exile of Wang Jingwei, and a semi-military dictatorship. A Russian comrade, L. Heller [28], amongst the better-informed on Chinese affairs, was able to say recently: ‘Those Chinese Communists who had not stopped emphasising that, despite his verbal radicalism, Chiang Kai-shek in no way differed from the Guomindang rightists, were absolutely correct.’ [29]

However this may be, the disarming and bloodbath inflicted on the Shanghai proletariat amounted to a heavy defeat that in no way appears to have been inevitable. It was possible to foresee it, and perhaps even to prevent it. The revolutionary proletarians of Shanghai allowed themselves to be led into an ambush by the liberal bourgeoisie and the military who make up the Guomindang right. The Communist International will not fail to study the mistakes made and to draw lessons from these facts.

The Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang

Within the Chinese Revolution the proletariat and its party have shown themselves to be extremely anxious to maintain the unity of the national revolutionary movement – a unity that was to make it invincible – but the bourgeoisie and its top brass did not hesitate to break up this unity with machine-gun fire and severed heads. There is no room for surprise: the reverse would have been surprising. ‘Selfish class interests have gained the upper hand among the Chinese capitalists; they prefer bargaining and then an alliance with the imperialists to the struggle for the freedom of their country’, wrote l’Humanité on 16 April. [30] For heaven’s sake! Communists must never forget that capitalists only obey, always obey and can only obey their class interests; to expect we know not what generosity from them toward the national revolution is to drift into the dangerous illusions of utopian Socialism cultivated by opportunism, and so often refuted by Lenin.

The editorial in Communist International no. 11 informs us how the Chinese Communist Party viewed the problem of the unity of the national revolutionary movement from the time of the session of its Central Committee of June 1926 onwards. At this session the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in fact took some important decisions concerning relations between the Communist Party and the Guomindang:

  1. To pass from a policy of affiliation to that of alliance.
  2. To have its own distinctly Communist policy.
  3. To attempt to provide a base for the Guomindang in the urban petit-bourgeoisie.
  4. To consider the Guomindang not as having to be a centralised party as before, but a party made up of local clubs.

The editorial in Communist International no. 11 considered these decisions to be wrong and contrary to those of the Seventh Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI which upheld the affiliation of the Chinese Communist Party to the Guomindang. [31] It is not for me to enter into the merits of this debate, which to me seems to be dominated by two basic truths: inside or outside the Guomindang, the Communist Party cannot cease being itself and following its own proletarian policy; secondly, this question is really far more about the real relationship of forces than of formal affiliation to the party of Sun Yat-sen. The proletariat is strong and active enough in the national revolution for its party to be able – assuming it knows how to go about it – to develop into a real leading party of the national movement, whether it uses the method of allying with the Guomindang or affiliating to it, without renouncing any of its principles.

True, the bourgeoisie, very alert to this danger, strove to avoid it by imposing a ‘monolithic’ unity of the Guomindang upon the Communists on the basis of the purely bourgeois liberal teachings [32] of Sun Yat-sen (nationalism, democracy and Socialism – the word Socialism being understood rather in the same way as the French Radical Socialists understand it in regard to poor people). This meant denying Marxism even the right to exist. But the question really came down to – and still comes down to – interpretations that can only be based upon the real relationship of forces. The great Sun was no doubt the ideologist of the advanced bourgeoisie and of the revolutionary middle classes; his militant Wilsonism had no doubt nothing in common with Communism; but his last thoughts were of homage to the Russian Revolution, and his final advice to his followers was to collaborate with international Communism and the Soviet republic. Hence the arguments about the compatibility or incompatibility of Sun Yat-senism and Communism are equally valid depending on whose class interests it is a question of defending. But what is certain is that a Communist party neither can, nor ever should – on pain of losing its reason for existence, and its members – allow in the course of its daily activities its own programme to be replaced by that of a party representing other classes. But it could not be better put than by Lenin in his draft theses on colonial and national questions presented to the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, which served as the basis for the resolution adopted:

The Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be Communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, that is, those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations. The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form. [33]

Given this principle, in other words, ensuring the correctness of the class policy of the Chinese Communist Party, the choice between affiliation to the Guomindang or forming a bloc with it seems to me to be of no more than tactical or formal significance. From another point of view, the Guomindang appears to us to be more like the governmental apparatus of the national revolution than a party in the proper sense of the word; and it follows from this that the party of the proletariat must try to get its hands on at least some of the levers of this apparatus; but such results, as Communists know all too well, cannot be obtained by diplomatic transactions. They can only be the result of a firm and far-sighted proletarian policy of constantly appealing to the masses, and of organising their activity.

Towards the Democratic Dictatorship of the Workers and Peasants

When, on 22 January 1905, Emperor Nicholas II had the proletarians, who had come in procession to present a petition at the feet of the ‘little father’, machine-gunned in front of the windows of the Winter Palace, he had no idea that he was signing at one and the same time his own death warrant, that of his dynasty, and that of his regime. By shooting the Shanghai proletarians in the back, the Chinese bourgeoisie could very well have committed a similar blunder – only the future will show. The military actions of Chiang Kai-shek demonstrate to the Chinese proletarians that they can only rely upon themselves. If they still had illusions in the liberal bourgeoisie, those illusions were now shot down. This lesson will be understood, of that there can be no doubt. During the present struggles the Chinese proletariat has provided evidence of an astonishing revolutionary maturity. Are we aware that workers locked out of a Japanese factory in Hankou decided some weeks ago to restart production themselves? [34] We have seen that the proletariat has peasant masses as allies whose activities have at times been astonishing. The exploits of the Red Spears, those Robin Hoods of that part of the world who expropriate the rich on the spot, and often defeat the regular armies of the counter-revolution, show the potential of the agrarian revolution. A large part of the petit-bourgeoisie, linked by its interests to the proletariat and peasantry, is compelled to follow them. Even inside the Guomindang itself the treachery of the bourgeoisie (which the teaching of Sun Yat-sen will not easily justify) – the compromise with the Northern counter-revolution, and the compromise with the foreign imperialists whilst unleashing class war within – could very well provoke a purge and a change of line favourable to the leadership of the proletariat. The Chinese bourgeoisie, an accomplice of foreign imperialists, is striving with blind perseverance to teach the implacable laws of class struggle to the workers. It will reap what it sows.

Henceforth, the national revolutionary movement is split. Perhaps there will even be two Guomindangs, just as there are at present two southern governments. [35] The class struggle is reclaiming its rights. From now on doctrinal intransigence on the part of the Communist Party, the arming of the workers and peasants – it was wrong, so it seems, not to have made this demand until now one of the basic slogans of the activity of the proletariat (the party would have done better to have drawn its inspiration from the directives issued by Lenin in March 1917 at the time of the fall of the Russian autocracy) [36] – the leadership of the proletariat in the revolution, the leadership of the Communist Party in the revolutionary Guomindang, the extension of the agrarian revolution, an appeal to the masses, control by the masses over the revolutionary government, and the creation of mass organisations that would allow this control, are the only ways forward, and these ways lead from bourgeois democratic revolution to Socialist revolution.

Obviously a temporary victory of the bourgeoisie allied with foreign imperialists, who are quite anxious, so it seems, to salvage their present position by means of a policy of concessions to reactionary nationalism, cannot be excluded. It is necessary to take into account the possibility of a movement inspired by Fascism that would recruit its troops among the middle classes, and, armed with British rifles, would provide shock troops and a true class army to the Chinese bourgeoisie, which is numerically rather weak, but relies upon the middle traders who are very rich and numerous, with many different subdivisions. If the working class and peasant masses who come to the revolution with immense hopes were to be deceived, if they saw the fruits of their labour escape them, if they felt misled by some and betrayed by others, a backlash would occur, and the counter-revolution would win. That is the greatest danger.

However that may be, China’s economic and social situation, even in the event of the victory of the bourgeoisie, does not allow us to count on a really lasting stabilisation. The Chinese bourgeoisie can solve neither the agrarian problem nor the ‘labour problem’. [37] And the Chinese Revolution is not, in its present phase, at the mercy of a pronunciamento. It requires rather broader and more radical solutions than that of the sabre. Chiang Kai-shek will last for a few weeks or a few months. The tide will sweep him away. Economic necessity, historical precedent, the deep impetus that drives hundreds of millions of exploited forward towards victorious revolts – all this leads us to think that the rising of the Chinese workers is only at its beginning… The counter-revolution’s military adventurers will tomorrow perhaps appear to have been the involuntary architects of the democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants.

End of April 1927


1. The Guomindang was the Chinese Nationalist Party founded by Sun Yat-sen in August 1912.

2. The Eighth Plenum of the ECCI met in Moscow on 18-30 May 1927. It considered that the previous policy of subordinating the Chinese Communist Party to the Guomindang had been correct, and supported a further alliance with the ‘Left’ Guomindang government in Wuhan.

3. Zhang Zuolin (1873-1928) was a warlord of the north. He was assassinated by the Japanese.

4. Wu Peifu (1874-1939) was warlord of the Henan, Hubei and Hunan area in central China, and a protegé of the British.

5. Chen Jiongming (1878-1933) was the early republican governor of Guangdong who attempted to arrest Sun Yat-sen.

6. Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), President of the USA from 1913 to 1921, came from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

7. Adolf Abramovich Joffe (1883-1927) was the first ambassador of the Soviet Union to China, and a supporter of the Left Opposition. He later committed suicide in protest at the expulsion of Trotsky from the Communist Party. Cf. L.D. Trotsky, In Memory of A.A. Joffe, The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1926-27, New York 1980, pp. 470-2.

8. The Paper Tigers were a movement of compradors and capitalists in 1924 against the Nationalist government in Guangzhou. They were quickly defeated.

9. The Huangpu Military Academy was opened in 1924 in order to train the officers of the Guomindang army along the lines of the Red Army, and was a product of the discussions between Joffe and Sun Yat-sen. Its principal was Chiang Kai-shek.

10. Wang Jingwei (1883-1944) was Chairman of the Guomindang government in Guangzhou in 1925, and a leader of the party’s left wing. He went into exile in Europe after Chiang Kai-shek’s Guangzhou coup in March 1926, but returned in the following year to lead the Nationalist government in Wuhan.

11. Clarence Gus Dittmer (1885- ) published his Estimate of the Standard of Living in China in 1918.

12. M. Alsky, Canton Victorious, published by the Communist Academy, Moscow 1927. [Author’s note] – A.D. Alsky (1892-1939), an Old Bolshevik, was a hero of the Russian Civil War and a supporter of the Left Opposition. His book is discussed in Trotsky’s Letter to Alsky, Leon Trotsky on China, New York 1976, pp. 128-32. Alsky was deported to Siberia in 1928.

13. Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) was ruler of China from 1927 to 1949, when he was overthrown on the mainland by Mao Zedong. After that he continued to be President of the Nationalist Chinese regime on Taiwan.

14. Tan Pingshan (1887-1956) was head of the organisation department of the Guomindang and Communist Minister of Agriculture in the Wuhan government. He was later made a scapegoat for the failure of the 1925-27 Revolution, and was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party.

15. Report of the Seventh Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI. [Author’s note]

16. Canton, Pravda, 3 March, and Workers’ Canton, Pravda, 3 April. [Author’s note] – Sergei A. Dalin had gone on a mission to China in April 1922 for the Communist Youth International to meet Sun Yat-sen and to argue for collaboration between the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang. On his return he was considered as a specialist on Chinese affairs, and wrote In the Ranks of the Chinese Revolution (1926) with a preface by Radek.

17. Eugene Chen (1878-1944) was Minister of Labour in the Guomindang government.

18. The Northern Expedition was an advance of the Guomindang armies begun in summer 1926 to destroy the warlords and unite China.

19. Cf. the editorial of Communist International, no. 11. [Author’s note]

20. The Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) was set up in July 1921 to compete with the Amsterdam-based International Federation of Trade Unions, which was associated with the Social Democracy. Its General Secretary was Solomon Abramovich Lozovsky (1878-1952).

21. A. Markov, Letter from China, The International Workers Movement, Moscow, no. 13, 31 March 1927. [Author’s note]

22. It was said at the Seventh Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI that the Chinese Communist Party had about 13,000 members. I have since picked up the number of 15,000 in the press. Bukharin has just written 30,000 (Pravda, 20 April). [Author’s note]

23. The Whites were the counter-revolutionary armies led by ex-Tsarist commanders that attempted to overthrow the Bolshevik regime during the Russian Civil War (1918-21). After Kolchak’s army in Siberia collapsed, many of them fled eastwards into China.

24. Kan-Wei, Letter to the Moscow Pravda, 15 April 1927. [Author’s note]

25. Su Zhaozheng (1885-1929) was Communist Minister of Labour in the Wuhan Guomindang government.

26. Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) was the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, who later went over to the Left Opposition.

27. International Correspondence, no. 14, 13 April 1927. [Author’s note]

28. Leo Heller was the Far Eastern representative of the RILU.

29. Trud, Moscow, 18 April 1927. Report to the Bureau of the RILU. [Author’s note]

30. l’Humanité was the daily newspaper of the French Communist Party.

31. The Seventh Enlarged Plenum of the ECCI took place in November-December 1926, and supported the subordination of the Chinese Communist Party to the Guomindang. Trotsky described the editorial in Communist International, no. 11, as ‘an exceptional mockery of the basic elements of Marxist theory and Bolshevik politics’, and ‘the worst expression of right Menshevism’ (L.D. Trotsky, Class Relations in the Chinese Revolution, 3 April 1927, Leon Trotsky on China, p. 136).

32. Lenin defined it in these terms from 1912 onwards. Cf. also S. Dalin, In the Ranks of the Chinese Revolution, Moscow, 1926. In 1922 Dalin had numerous interviews with Sun Yat-sen. [Author’s note]

33. V.I. Lenin, Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions, 5 June 1920, Collected Works, Volume 31, Moscow, 1966, pp. 149-50.

34. We should no doubt connect this fact, mentioned in a letter in the Moscow Trud, with telegrams that announced the execution of extremists in Hankou who had attacked Japanese property. [Author’s note]

35. The Guomindang government moved into Wuhan in December 1926, against the objections of Chiang Kai-shek. After his Shanghai coup of April 1927, Chiang set up a rival government in Nanjing, so that there were now two Guomindang governments in China. The original government is variously referred to as the ‘Left’, Wuhan or Hankou regime (Wuhan is a triple city made up of Hankou, Hanyang and Wuchang). The two governments reunited shortly afterwards.

36. Cf. Letters from Afar written by N. Lenin in March 1917 [cf. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 23, Moscow 1966, pp. 295-342]. A decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR dated 3 March 1927 evaluates the situation in almost these same terms. [Author’s note]

37. In this article I have no choice but to proceed by way of unsupported affirmations. May I draw the attention of the reader to the interesting analyses of the Chinese Revolution formulated by K. Radek and N. Bukharin? Let us hope that they will be translated into French. [Author’s note]

Last updated on 16.3.2011