Max Shachtman


China’s Tragedy

(December 1938)

From The New International, Vol. IV No. 12, December 1938, pp. 381–382.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution
By Harold R. Isaacs
Introduction by Leon Trotsky
xxv+457 pp. London. Secker & Warburg. 18s.

In his introduction to this book Leon Trotsky rightly points out that one would “seek in vain in the library of the Communist International for a single book which attempts in any way to give a rounded picture of the Chinese revolution”. The reason for this striking failure to give an account of the revolution or to sum up its lessons is not that it lacks importance or that the Comintern did not participate in its unfoldment. Rather does it lie in the fact that it is a political impossibility for the Stalinists to write a history of the Chinese revolution – an even greater one than would face a Fundamentalist charged with writing a scientific textbook on the evolution of man.

This is demonstrated beyond dispute by the book of Harold Isaacs, who shows in its pages that the most rigid objectivity in giving the history of the events which opened up a new epoch for the whole Oriental world is not adversely affected but is on the contrary only made possible by a revolutionary Marxian analysis. It is entirely natural and understandable that while no social democrat or Stalinist has produced a history of the Chinese revolution worthy of the name – and it is the most important occurrence of our times since the seizure of power by the Russian proletariat – an absorbing, perspicacious, solid and enduring (one is tempted to add: the definitive) history has been written by one whose views are identical with those of the Fourth International.

The prevailing theory in the pre-war (and post-war) Second International declared that it was at once Utopian and inadmissible for the young and not very numerous proletariat in the colonial or semi-colonial countries, where feudal relationships existed to one extent or another, to have as its next goal the establishment of working class rule. These countries were doomed to pass mechanically and uniformly through all the stages traversed by the modern capitalist lands. Some of the more knavish “Marxists” of this school enunciated the doctrine that since capitalism was a higher social and economic form than feudalism, the imperialist penetration of the backward colonies was progressive and needed only the elimination of its “excesses” to acquire the support of the socialist movement The less avowed agents of imperialism merely insisted that the native colonial bourgeoisie would have to come to power in the form of an independent democracy, and after long years of “normal” rule train up an industrial proletariat before the latter could lay claim to the execution of its historic socialist mission.

Lenin’s great contribution to the movement, both in the practise of the Bolshevik revolution with regard to the semi-colonial and backward peoples of the old Czarist empire and in the theories he formulated at the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, was to demonstrate the possibility and necessity of a “non-capitalist” road of development for the nations, the peoples, and specifically the proletariat, of the East – in general for the colonial and semi-colonial countries.

Basing himelf upon the theory of the permanent revolution worked out more than a decade before the Bolshevik revolution, and upon the concrete evidence of that revolution itself, Trotsky elaborately expanded, enriched and concretized Lenin’s concept to the point where, in its first application on the grand scale of the Chinese Revolution, it was able to pass every scientific political test to which a theory, which is but a guide to action, can be submitted.

The tragedy of the Chinese revolution, as Isaacs shows with a crushing yet never tiresome or repetitious mass of evidence discerningly assembled from original sources – his studies of the Chinese situation continued for years after his long residence in China – lies in the fact that the movement which led the Chinese proletariat and a large section of the peasantry and was guided by the Kremlin with all the authority of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern behind it, pursued not the policy of Lenin but, fundamentally, the classic policy of the social democracy, or more exactly, a debased version of that policy. In a word, the tragedy of the Chinese revolution was the crime of Stalinism.

Animating Trotsky’s theory of the law of combined development with the living realities of Chinese social and economic relationships, Isaacs presents a picture which in no way resembles the old social-democratic abstractions. Because of its unique combination of backwardness and modernity, China was confronted with the need of fulfilling its democratic tasks – national independence, uprooting of feudalism, establishment of representative democratic institutions, etc. – without having any other class to make possible the consistent achievement of these aims save the modern proletrait. At the same time, the national bourgeoisie, unlike its Western prototype of a century ago, was so bound up with feudalism on the one side and decadent imperialism on the other, that it could not even play its “classic” role of leader of the bourgeois democratic revolution. The “non-capitalist” road of which Lenin spoke meant in China that the democratic tasks of the country could be solved only under the independent leadership of the proletariat but only as a byproduct of its socialist struggle for power. The crime of the Stalinist leadership consisted in deliberately subordinating the proletariat and peasantry to the Kuomintang, that is, to the party of the Chinese national bourgeoisie which was, in turn, only a subordinate of one or another imperialist group. The result of this policy was that both the socialist tasks and the democratic task of the Chinese revolution remained – and remain – unfulfilled. The entire Chinese working class was horribly disoriented; and countless thousands of truly heroic revolutionists were turned over to the sadistic slaughterers of the native bourgeoisie and its chief, Chiang Kai-shek.

A review, if it were twice as long as this one, could only begin to deal adequately with the book. To summarize it would be almost as difficult a job as was the writing of it, and when it was done it would be no substitute for the original. It should be read and read again. The Chinese proletarian revolutionary movement will rise again strong and victorious only on the basis of carefully studying the record which this book makes and the lessons it indicates, and an early translation into Chinese will prove to the movement there that it is even more indispensable a textbook for it than for us. But it is more than a textbook. It is a story, a gripping, dramatic story, told without superfluous flourish or windy agitation.

The reader of this review should not leave it with the impression that the book concludes with the defeat of the first big revolutionary movement in 1927. It is much more timely than that. Its chapter on the so-called “Soviet China” movement could stand by itself as a monograph. Certainly, it is the best, most thorough, most revealing and most scrupulously documented work on that movement that I know of in any modern language, and I am not unacquainted with what has been written on the subject in recent years. The concluding chapter of the book is as up-to-date as today’s newspaper, but how much superior it is to the superficial journalese of so many appointed and self-appointed Chinese experts! It deals with the Japanese invasion of China, the dissolution of “Soviet China” and the second edition of the Stalinist policy of subjecting the working class and peasantry to the domination of the Chinese bourgeoisie.

Unhesitatingly and most ardently, this book is recommended to every militant in the movement; for that matter, to everybody who has an interest in or is concerned with the situation in China. It is deplorable that the publisher found it necessary to put so steep a price on the book – not everyone can afford 18 shillings; the American edition, let us hope, will make this indispensable work more accessible to those who want it most by putting a more modest price-tag on it.


Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 11 September 2015