Leon Trotsky

Class Relations in the
Chinese Revolution

(April 1927)

Written on April 3, 1927.
Published in New International [New York], Vol. IV No. 3, March 1938, pp. 87–89, and Vol. IV No. 4, April 1938, pp.123–124.
Transcribed by Heiko Khoo in 1997 for the Chinese Marxism Archive as part of the Leon Trotsky on China page.
Additional HTML markup and editing for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters.

April 3, 1927

Issue 11 of the Communist International (March 18, 1927) printed as an editorial an article on the Fifth Congress of the Chinese CP and the Kuomintang which is in every way an exceptional mockery of the basic elements of Marxist theory and Bolshevik politics. This article cannot be characterized otherwise than as the worst expression of right Menshevism on questions of revolution.

As its starting point the article takes the proposition that “the problem of problems of the Chinese revolution at the present moment is the position of the Kuomintang, the further development of the Kuomintang as a party at the head of the South China state” (p. 4). Thus the problem of problems is not the awakening and the unification of millions of workers under the leadership of trade unions and the Communist Party, nor the drawing of poor peasants and artisans into the mainstream of the movement, nor the deepening of the struggle of the CP to win over the proletariat, nor the struggle of the proletariat for influence over the many-millioned masses of the disinherited – no, “the problem of problems” (!) is the position of the Kuomintang, i.e., a party organization which embraces, according to official figures, some 300,000 members – students, intellectuals, liberal merchants in general, and in part peasants and workers.

“For a political party,” declares the article, “300,000 members is quite a considerable number.” A paltry parliamentary appraisal! If these 300,000 had emanated from the experience of past class struggles, and the experience of leading proletarian strikes and peasant movements, then, naturally, even a smaller number of members could successfully assume the leadership of the revolution on its new and broader mass stage. But these 300,000 represent in their majority the result of individual recruitment among the tops. We have here the unification of national-liberals or Cadets with right SRs, with an admixture of young communists who are compelled in the period of their political training to submit to the discipline and even the ideology of a bourgeois-nationalist organization.

“The development of the Kuomintang,” continues the article, “reveals alarming [!] symptoms from the standpoint of the interests of the Chinese revolution” (p. 4). And what is the nature of these “alarming” symptoms? Apparently it is this, that the power is in the hands of the Kuomintang center, and “the center has in the recent period gravitated in most instances definitely to the right.” It should be noted that all political definitions in this article are of a formal, parliamentary, and ceremonial character, emptied of all class content. What is the meaning of this gravitation-to the right? What kind of Kuomintang “center” is this? It consists of the tops of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, middle-ranking functionaries, and so on. Like all petty bourgeois, this center is incapable of carrying out an independent policy, especially in the period when millions of workers and peasants have entered the arena. This petty-bourgeois center can produce an ally for the proletariat only on the condition that the proletariat carries out an independent policy. But there cannot even be talk of such a policy in China in the absence of an independent class party there.

Communists do not simply “join” the Kuomintang but they submit to its discipline and even obligate themselves not to criticize Sun Yat-senism. Under these conditions, the petty-bourgeois intellectual center can only trail behind the nationalist-liberal bourgeoisie, which is bound up by imperceptible gradations with the compradorian, i.e., overtly imperialist bourgeoisie; and, in proportion as the struggle of the masses sharpens, go over openly to its side. Thus the Kuomintang is a party apparatus adapted for the political subjection of the mass movement through the medium of a top intellectual center to an out-and-out right, i.e., manifestly bourgeois leadership, which under these conditions unfailingly subjects the Nationalist government to itself, and will continue to do so. The article cites the fact that “lefts” predominate in conferences, congresses, and the Executive Committee of the Kuomintang, but that this solacing circumstance is “not reflected in the composition and politics of the Nationalist government.” How astonishing! But, after all, the left petty bourgeoisie exists only to display its radicalism in articles, and at conferences and banquets, while handing the power over to the middle and big bourgeoisie.

Thus the “alarming” symptoms in the Kuomintang consist in this, that the Kuomintang does not personify the pure idea of a national liberation revolution, which the author of the article sucked out of his thumb, but rather reflects the class mechanics of the Chinese revolution. The author finds “alarming” the fact that the history of the Chinese people is unfolding in the form of a class struggle, proving thereby no exception to the history of all mankind. The article further informs us that the “Kuomintang and the Nationalist government are seriously concerned [a remarkable expression!] about the growth of the labor movement.” What does this mean? It only means that the intellectual petty bourgeoisie has become scared by fear of the bourgeoisie before the awakening of the working masses. In proportion as the revolution extends and deepens its base, radicalizes its methods, sharpens its slogans, groups and layers of proprietors and intellectual burghers bound up with them will inevitably split from it at the top.

One part of the national government is joined with blood-ties to the bourgeoisie, and another part, fearful of breaking with it, becomes “concerned” about the growth of the labor movement, and seeks to harness the latter. By this delicate expression, “concerned,” as previously by the words “alarming symptoms,” the article refers to the sharpening of class relations, and to the attempts of the nationalist-liberal bourgeoisie, by using the Kuomintang as a tool and by issuing orders through it to the Nationalist government, to place a halter on the proletariat. When and where have we ever appraised class relations as is done by the lead article in the Communist International? Whence come these ideas? What is their source?

What methods are proposed in the article to overcome these “alarming symptoms”? On these questions the article polemicizes against the June (1926) plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese CP, which adopted the position that it was necessary for the CP as an independent organization to conclude a bloc with the Kuomintang. The article rejects this idea. It also rejects the proposal to organize a left faction in the Kuomintang as an ally of the CP. No, the task – it teaches – consists in “assuring a firm left orientation to the whole Kuomintang.” The question is solved easily. What is needed at the new stage of development, at a time when the workers are engaging in strikes against the capitalists, when the peasants are seeking, against the opposition of the Nationalist government, to drive out the landlords – what is needed at this new stage is to assure “a firm left orientation” to the Kuomintang, which represents the unification of a section of the bourgeoisie suffering from the strikes, a section of the landed intelligentsia suffering from the agrarian movement, the urban petty-bourgeois intellectuals who are fearful of “repelling” the bourgeoisie to the side of reaction, and finally the Communist Party which is bound hand and foot. It is this Kuomintang which must acquire “a firm left orientation.”

Nobody knows what class line this “firm left orientation” must express. And how is it to be attained? Very simply: It is necessary “to saturate it [the Kuomintang] with revolutionary worker and peasant elements” (p. 6). Saturate the Kuomintang with workers and peasants? But the whole trouble is that workers and peasants, unacquainted with the pure idea of national revolution, are trying to utilize the revolution in order to “saturate” themselves a little before they saturate the Kuomintang with themselves. To this end they are engaging in strikes and agrarian uprisings. But these unpleasant manifestations of class mechanics hinder the Kuomintang from acquiring “a firm left orientation.” To call a striking worker to join the Kuomintang is to run up against his objection: Why should I join a party that crushes strikes through the government appointed by it? The resourceful author of the article would probably reply to him: By joining a common party with the bourgeoisie, you will be able to push it to the left, you will eliminate “alarming symptoms” and dispel the clouds of its “concern.” In answer to this, the Shanghai striker will say that workers can exert pressure on their government and even achieve a change in government not through individual pressure on the bourgeoisie within the framework of a common party, but through an independent class party. Incidentally, it may well be that the Shanghai striker, who has already given evidence of advanced maturity, would not even continue to discuss any further, but shrug his shoulders, and give up his interlocutor as hopeless.

The article goes on to quote one of the leading communists who stated at the December 1926 party conference that the Kuomintang was dead and decomposing and that the communists have no reason for hanging on to a stinking corpse. In this connection the article says: “This comrade obviously (!!) had in mind the fact that recently the Nationalist government and especially government organs in the provinces have come out on a number of occasions against the development of the revolutionary struggle of the working class and peasantry” (p. 7).

The penetration of the author of this article is truly astounding. When a Chinese communist says that the bourgeois-nationalist tops are dead so far as the revolution is concerned, he “obviously” has in mind the fact that the Nationalist government has been shooting strikers on a small scale. “Obviously”! Of course, “alarming symptoms” are in evidence, but “this danger may be averted, if we do not look upon the Kuomintang as a stinking corpse” (p. 7). The whole thing depends, it seems, on how one looks upon the Kuomintang. Classes and their parties depend on how we view them. The Kuomintang is not a corpse, it is only ailing. What of? Of a lack of blood of revolutionary workers and peasants. It is necessary for the Communist Party to “assist in the influx of this blood,” etc. In short, what is needed is to perform the very-popular-of-late operation of blood transfusion, not on an individual but on a class scale. But, after all, the gist of the matter is that the bourgeoisie has begun to transfuse blood in its own way, by shooting, or helping to shoot, or winking its eyes at shootings of strikers and revolutionary peasants. In short, while fulfilling this splendid prescription we run up against one and the same difficulty, which is, the class struggle.

The gist of the entire article is in its desire to have the Chinese revolution make a detour around the class struggle, by taking an economic, rational, and expedient road. In a word by using the method of the Mensheviks, and at that, in the periods of their greatest backsliding. And this article appears in the theoretical organ of the Communist International which was founded on an irreconcilable break with the Second International!

The article upbraids the Chinese communists for not participating in the Nationalist government and its local organs. They would be able there to push the government to the left from within, guard it against false actions toward the masses, etc., etc. The entire experience of the past, and above all the experience of the Russian revolution, has been scrapped. The authority of the leadership of the revolution is handed completely over to the Kuomintang, the responsibility for violence over the workers must be assumed by the communists. Bound hand and foot within the Kuomintang, the communists are powerless to offer the many-millioned masses an independent line in the field of foreign and domestic politics. But the workers are justified in charging the communists, especially if they participate in the Nationalist government, with complicity in all antiproletarian and antipeople’s actions of the nationalist bourgeoisie. The entire experience of our revolution has been scrapped.

If the communists, despite the mass labor movement, despite the powerful growth of the trade unions and the revolutionary agrarian movement in the villages, are obliged as hitherto to constitute a subordinate section of a bourgeois party, and enter as an impotent appendage into a national government formed by this bourgeois party, then it must be flatly stated that the time has not yet come for the formation of the Communist Party of China. For it is far better not to build a Communist Party at all than to compromise it in the epoch of revolution, i.e., precisely at the time when the ties between the party and the working masses are sealed with blood, and when great traditions are created which exert their influence for decades.

Developing a scintillating program in the spirit of right Menshevism in its period of decline, the article refurbishes it in the modest modern spirit by consoling China with the fact that she possesses objective pre-conditions for “skipping over the capitalist stage of development.” Not a word is said in this connection to the effect that the anti-capitalist perspective of China’s development is unconditionally and directly dependent upon the general course of the world proletarian revolution. Only the proletariat of the most advanced capitalist countries – with the organized assistance of the Chinese proletariat – will be able to take in tow the 400 million atomized, pauperized, backward peasant economy, and through a series of intermediate stages lead it to socialism, on the basis of a worldwide exchange of commodities, and direct technical and organizational assistance from the outside. To believe that without the victory of the proletariat in the most advanced capitalist countries, and prior to this victory, China is capable with her own forces of “skipping over the capitalist stage of development” is to trample underfoot the ABCs of Marxism. This does not concern our author. He simply promises China a non-capitalist path – obviously in recompense for injuries she has borne, and also for the dependent character of the proletarian movement, and especially the degraded, disfranchised position of the Chinese CP. How can and must the question of the capitalist and socialist paths of China’s development be posed in reality?

Above all it must be made clear to the vanguard of the Chinese proletariat that China has no prerequisites whatever economically for an independent transition to socialism; that the revolution now unfolding under the leadership of the Kuomintang is a bourgeois-national revolution, that it can have as its consequence, even in the event of complete victory, only the further development of productive forces on the basis of capitalism. But it is necessary to develop no less forcefully before the Chinese proletariat the converse side of the question as well: The belated bourgeois-national revolution is unfolding in China in conditions of the imperialist decay of capitalism. As Russian experience has already shown – in contrast, say, to the English – politics does not at all develop in parity with economics. China’s further development must be taken in an international perspective. Despite the backwardness of the Chinese economy, and in part precisely due to this backwardness, the Chinese revolution is wholly capable of bringing to political power an alliance of workers and peasants, under the leadership of the proletariat. This regime will be China’s political link with the world revolution.

In the course of the transitional period, the Chinese revolution will have a genuinely democratic, worker-and-peasant character. In its economic life, commodity-capitalist relations will inevitably predominate. The political regime will be primarily directed to secure the masses as great a share as possible in the fruits of the development of the productive forces and, at the same time, in the political and cultural utilization of the resources of the state. The further development of this perspective – the possibility of the democratic revolution growing over into the socialist revolution – depends completely and exclusively on the course of the world revolution, and on the economic and political successes of the Soviet Union, as an integral part of this world revolution. If the Chinese revolution were to triumph under its present bourgeois-nationalist leadership, it would very quickly go to the right, demonstrate its good intentions to the capitalist countries, soon gain recognition on their part, offer them concessions on new bases, obtain loans, in a word, enter into the system of capitalist states as a less degraded, less colonial, but still profoundly dependent entity. Furthermore, the Chinese republic would hold in relation to the Soviet Union in the best variant the same position as the present Turkish republic.

A different path of development can be opened up only if the proletariat plays the leading role in the national democratic revolution. But the first and most elementary precondition for this is the complete independence of the Communist Party, and an open struggle waged by it, with banners unfurled, for the leadership of the working class and the hegemony in the revolution. Failing this, all talk of non-capitalist paths of development serves only to cover up right Menshevist politics by left SR phraseology of the [Russian] pre-revolutionary period – the most revolting of all conceivable combinations. A program of assisting in the “influx of workers’ and peasants’ blood into the Kuomintang” (what an infamous phraseology!) gives nothing and means nothing. There also happen to be different kinds of workers’ and peasants’ blood. The blood which is being shed by workers of China is not blood shed for class-conscious tasks. Workers who enter the Kuomintang will become followers of the Kuomintang, i.e., the proletarian raw material will be recast in the petty-bourgeois Sun Yat-senist mold. To prevent this from taking place, the workers must receive their education in a Communist Party. And for this, the Communist Party must be completely free from any outward restrictions to leading the workers in their struggle and opposing Leninism to Sun Yat-senism.

However, it may be the author of the article envisions, in the ancient and truly Martynovist style, the following perspective: first, the national bourgeoisie completes the national-bourgeois revolution through the medium of the Kuomintang which is, with the assistance of Chinese Mensheviks, infused with workers’ and peasants’ blood. And following this so-to-speak Menshevik stage of the national revolution will come the turn of the Bolshevik stage: the Communist Party withdraws from the Kuomintang, the proletariat breaks with the bourgeoisie, wins the peasantry away from it and leads the country to a “democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants.” It is very likely that the author is guided by a conception which is a result of his failure to digest the two stratifications in the 1905 period – the Menshevik and the Bolshevik. But such a perspective must be declared pedantic nonsense.

It is impossible to achieve the national democratic revolution twice: first in the bourgeois and then in the proletarian spirit. To be sure, if we were to hinder the proletarian vanguard from breaking with the bourgeoisie in time and utilizing the revolutionary situation to prove to the masses in the nonrecurring events of the supreme struggle its energetic and unwavering loyalty to the cause of the toilers; if we were to accomplish this end by further enslaving the CP to the Kuomintang, then the time would sooner or later come when the proletarian vanguard would break belatedly with the bourgeoisie, in all likelihood not under the banner of communism, and would perhaps renounce politics altogether. The past of the European labor movement would provide the revolutionary proletarians of China with a corresponding ideology in the shape of syndicalism, anarchism, etc. Under these conditions, the Chinese nationalist-democratic state would very easily arrive at methods of fascism or semifascism.

We have observed this in the case of Poland. Was it so very long ago that Pilsudski was one of the leaders of the petty-bourgeois revolutionary organization, the Polish Socialist Party? Was it so very long ago that he sat in the Peter and Paul Fortress? His entire past gave him influence and authority among petty-bourgeois circles and in the army; and he used this authority for a fascist coup directed wholly against the proletariat. Will anyone wish to deny that in the staff of the Kuomintang its own Pilsudskis will be found? They will. Candidates can already be designated. If the Polish Pilsudski required three decades to complete his evolution, then the Chinese Pilsudski will require an interval far more brief to accomplish his transition from the national revolution to national fascism. We are living in the imperialist epoch when the tempo of development is extremely accelerated, when convulsions follow upon convulsions, and each country learns from the experience of another. To pursue the policy of a dependent Communist Party supplying workers to the Kuomintang is to prepare the conditions for the most successful and triumphant establishment of a fascist dictatorship in China at that not very distant moment when the proletariat, despite everything, will be forced to recoil from the Kuomintang.

Menshevism, even in the period of its revolutionary “flowering,” sought to be not the class party of the proletariat which rises to all-national and then world tasks (Bolshevism) but a supervisor of national development, in which capacity the party of the proletariat was assigned in advance a subordinate place (to collaborate, to push, to effect blood transfusion, and so on). But aspiring to such pseudo-Marxist supervision of history has always proved in action to be pedantic idiocy. The Mensheviks completely revealed this as far back as 1905; Kautsky did likewise somewhat later but no less decisively.

A national revolution in the sense of a struggle against national dependency is achieved through the mechanics of classes. Chinese militarists represent a class organization. The compradorian bourgeoisie represents the most “mature” detachment of the Chinese bourgeoisie which does not want a Chinese February lest it arrive at a Chinese October or even a semi-October. The section of the Chinese bourgeoisie which still participates in the Kuomintang, constituting there an internal brake and an auxiliary detachment of the compradorian bourgeoisie and of the foreign imperialists, will on the morrow seek to lean upon the bombardment of Nanking in order to exert pressure on the revolutionary rank and file and above all to put a harness on the proletariat. They will succeed in doing so unless the proletariat is able to counteract them from day to day by a well-directed class resistance. This is impossible so long as the Communist Party remains subordinate to the Kuomintang, which is headed by the auxiliary detachment of the compradorian bourgeoisie and foreign imperialists. It is indeed embarrassing to have to explain this in the year 1927 and doubly embarrassing to have to direct these ideas against the lead article in the organ of the Comintern!

As the Chinese revolution extends geographically it at the same time deepens socially. Shanghai and Hankow – the two most important industrial centers which together embrace about three-quarters of a million workers – are in the hands of the Nationalist government.’ Nanking was subjected to a bombardment by the imperialists. The struggle immediately passed into a higher stage. Having captured Hankow and Shanghai, the revolution has thereby drawn into itself the most developed class contradictions in China. It will no longer be possible to orient the policies on the handicraft petty trade peasant of the South. It is necessary to orient either on the proletariat or the bourgeoisie.

The proletariat must orient itself on the many million rank and file in the struggle against the bourgeoisie. We have this on the one hand. And on the other, the imperialists show by their Nanking butchery that they are in no jesting mood. Are they hoping in this way to terrorize Chinese workers or to bring the agrarian movement to a halt? Hardly. In any case, this is not their immediate aim. They desire above all to compel the bourgeois tops of the nationalist movement to understand that the time has come for them to break with the rank and file if they do not wish to have the guns of world imperialism trained upon them. The bombardment of Nanking is propaganda for the ideas of compradorism, i.e., the salutary nature of ties with world capitalism which is mighty, united, and armed, which can provide not only profits but also armed aid against one’s own workers and peasants.

It is frivolous to assert that the bombardment of Nanking will fuse the whole Chinese nation as one man, etc. Such declamation suits middle-class democrats. The revolution has risen to a new level and a more profound differentiation within the nationalist camp. Its splitting into a revolutionary and a reformist-compradorian wing flows with iron necessity from the situation as a whole. The British guns, after the initial wave of “universal” indignation, will only speed this process. Hereafter, to drive workers and peasants into the political camp of the bourgeoisie and to keep the Communist Party as a hostage within the ranks of the Kuomintang is objectively tantamount to conducting a policy of betrayal.

Should the representatives of the CP participate in the Nationalist government? Into a government that would correspond to the new phase of the revolution, into a revolutionary workers’ and peasants government, they must unquestionably enter into the present Nationalist government, under no conditions. But before raising the question of communist representation in a revolutionary power, it is necessary to consider the question of the Communist Party itself. After the capture of Shanghai by the revolution, former political relations have already become absolutely intolerable. It is necessary to approve as unconditionally correct the resolution of the June plenum of the CC of the Chinese CP, which demands that the party withdraw from the Kuomintang and conclude a bloc with that organization through its left wing.

To deny the need for organizing a left faction within the Kuomintang and to recommend instead that the Kuomintang as a whole be made to acquire a left orientation, as is done by the leading article in the Communist International, is merely to occupy oneself with babbling. How can a political organization be given a left orientation if not by gathering within it the partisans of this orientation and setting them up against their opponents? The Kuomintang will, of course, object to this. It is quite possible that they will begin citing the resolution of our Tenth Party Congress against factions. We have already witnessed a masquerade of this kind on the question of the dictatorship of a single party. The arch-right-wingers in the Kuomintang insist upon its unconditional necessity, citing the AUCP as an example in point. Similarly they will insist that a single party effecting the revolutionary dictatorship cannot tolerate factions in its midst. But this only signifies that the right wing of the nationalist camp, which assumed power through the Kuomintang, seeks in this way to prohibit the independent party of the working class and to deprive the radical elements of the petty bourgeoisie of any possibility of obtaining within the party a real influence on its leadership. The author of the article which we analyzed above goes all the way in all these questions to meet the bourgeois wing of the Kuomintang.

We must clearly understand that the Chinese bourgeoisie is still trying to cover itself with the authority of the Russian revolution and that, in particular, it is plagiarizing from the forms of the future dictatorship of the Chinese proletariat in order to strengthen its own dictatorship against the proletariat. That is why it is of utmost importance today not to permit any muddling in the determination of the stage through which the Chinese revolution is passing. It is a question not of the socialist but of a bourgeois-democratic revolution. And within the latter, it is a question of the struggle between two methods. bourgeois-conciliationist as against worker-peasant. It is possible today only to speculate as to the manner and conditions in which the national democratic revolution can rise to the socialist revolution, whether it will occur with or without an interruption and whether this interruption will be long or brief. The further march of events will bring the necessary clarification. But to smear over the question of the bourgeois character of the present revolution with general considerations of a noncapitalist development is to befuddle the Communist Party and to disarm the proletariat. Let us hope we shall not live to see the International Central Control Commission calling the Chinese communists to account for an attempt to build a left faction in the Kuomintang.

From the standpoint of the class interests of the proletariat – and we take them as our criterion – the task of the bourgeois revolution is to secure the maximum of freedom for the workers in their struggle against the bourgeoisie. From this standpoint the philosophy of the leaders of the Kuomintang in regard to a single centralized party that permits neither any other parties nor any factions within itself is a philosophy hostile to the proletariat, a counterrevolutionary philosophy which lays down the ideological foundations for Chinese fascism in the future. It is absurd to say that the withdrawal of the Chinese CP from the Kuomintang signifies a break of collaboration. It is the termination not of collaboration but of servitude. Political collaboration presupposes equality between the sides and an agreement between them. Such is not the case in China. The proletariat does not enter into an agreement with the petty bourgeoisie but rather submits to its leadership under a veiled form, with an organizational seal set upon this submission. In its present form the Kuomintang is the embodiment of an “unequal treaty” between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. If the Chinese revolution as a whole demands the abrogation of unequal treaties with the imperialist powers, then the Chinese proletariat must liquidate the unequal treaty with its own bourgeoisie.

It is necessary to summon the Chinese workers to the creation of soviets. The proletariat of Hong Kong during the general strike created an organization very close in structure and functions to the elementary type of workers’ soviets. With this experience as a basis, it is necessary to go further. The Shanghai proletariat already possesses the priceless experience of struggle and is fully capable of creating soviets of workers’ deputies which will set an example for all China and thereby become the center of attraction for all genuinely revolutionary organizations.

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Last updated on: 10.1.2014