Leon Trotsky

The Peasant War in China

The Standpoint of the Red Proletariat in the Present Situation
A Letter to the Chinese Bolshevik-Leninists

(September 1932)

Written: 22 September.
First Published: The Militant, Vol. V No. 42, 15 October 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2014. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Dear Comrades,

Following a considerable lapse, we received your letter of June 15. There is no need of stating how much we were overjoyed by the revival and the renascence of the Chinese Left Opposition after the most ferocious police persecutions it had endured. Insofar as one may judge from here, handicapped as we are by extreme lack of information, the position expressed in your letter corresponds to ours.

The irreconcilable attitude to the vulgar democratic view taken by the Stalinists towards the peasant movement has, of course, nothing in common with a careless or a passive attitude to the peasant movement itself. The Manifesto of the International Left Opposition (The Tasks and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution) that was issued two years ago and that evaluated the peasant movement in the southern provinces of China, declared, “The Chinese revolution, betrayed, crushed and drained of its blood, gives us proof that it is alive. Let us hope that the time is not far off when it shall once again lift up its proletarian head.” Further on, it says, “The far-flung flood of peasant insurrections will indubitably provide the impulse for the revival of political struggles in the industrial centers. On this we bank firmly.”

Your letter bears witness to the fact that under the influence of the crisis and of the Japanese intervention, against the background of the peasant war, flares up once again the struggle of the city workers. In the Manifesto we wrote on this score with the requisite circumspection, “None can foretell beforehand whether the bulwarks of the peasant uprisings will maintain themselves without a break through the course of that extended period which will be required by the proletarian vanguard in order for it to gather its own strength, to lead the working class into the battle, and to bring into accord its struggle for power with the general offensive of the peasants against their most immediate enemies”. At the present time, it is obvious, there are substantial bases for expressing the hope that – under a correct policy – it will be possible to fuse the workers, and the urban movement, in general, with the peasant war; and this would constitute the beginning of the third Chinese revolution. But meanwhile this still remains only a hope and not a certainty. The most important work lies ahead.

In this letter I should like to pose only one question, which appears to me, or at any rate from the distance, to be important and acute to the greatest degree. Once again I must stress that the information at my disposal is altogether insufficient, accidental and disjointed. I would indeed welcome all amplifications and corrections.

The Peasant Army and the Industrial Centers

The peasant movement has created its own armies, has seized upon great territories, and has placed at their head its own institutions. In the event of further successes – and all of us, of course, passionately desire such successes – the movement will become linked up with the urban and industrial centers and through that very fact it will come face to face with the working class. What will be the nature of this encounter? Is it certain that its character will be peaceable and comradely?

At first glance the question might appear to be superfluous. At the head of the peasant movement stand Communists or sympathizers. Is it not self-evident that in the event of their coming together the workers and the peasants must unanimously unite under the Communist banner?

Unfortunately the question is not at all so simple. Let me refer to the experience of Russia. During the years of the civil war the peasantry in various parts of the country created its own guerilla detachments, that sometimes grew into whole armies. Some of these detachments considered themselves Bolshevik, and often had workers at their head. Others remained non-party and most often had at their head former non-commissioned officers from among the peasantry. There also was an “anarchist” army under the command of Makhno. So long as the guerilla armies operated in the rear of the White Guards, they served the cause of the revolution. Some of them were distinguished by exceptional heroism and trustworthiness. But within the cities these armies often came into conflict with the workers and with the local party organizations. Conflicts also arose during the encounters of the partisans with the regular Red Army, and in some instances they took on a painful and an acute character.

The grim experience of the civil war demonstrated to us the necessity for disarming peasant detachments immediately after the Red Army occupied those provinces that were purged of the White Guards. The best, the most class-conscious and disciplined elements were on the occasion absorbed into the ranks of the Red Army. But a considerable portion of the partisans strived to maintain an independent existence and often came into direct armed conflict with the Soviet authority. Such was the case with the anarchist, entirely kulak in spirit, army of Makhno. But that was not the sole instance; many peasant detachments, which fought splendidly enough against the restoration of the landlords, became transformed after victory into the weapons of counter-revolution.

Peasants’ Outlook and the Workers

The conflicts between armed peasants and workers, no matter what their origin was in each isolated instance, whether called forth by the conscious provocation of the White Guards, or the tactlessness of the Communists or by an unfavorable concatenation of circumstances, had underlying them one and the same social soil: the difference between the class position and the bringing-up of the workers and of the peasants. The worker approaches questions from the socialist standpoint; the peasant’s viewpoint is petty bourgeois. The worker strives to socialize the property that is taken away from the exploiters; the peasant seeks to divide it. The worker desires to put to common use palaces and parks; whereas the peasant, insofar as he cannot divide them, leans toward burning the palaces and cutting down the parks. The worker strives to solve problems on a national scale and in accordance with a plan; the peasant, on the other hand, approaches all problems on a local scale, and is inimical in his attitude to the plans from a center, etc., etc.

It is understood that a peasant also is capable of raising himself to the socialist viewpoint. Under a proletarian regime ever larger masses of peasants become educated and brought up in the socialist spirit. But this requires time, years, even decades. When one deals with the initial stages of the revolution, then the contradictions between proletarian socialism and moujik individualism often take on an extremely acute character.

But is it not a fact that at the head of the Chinese Red Armies are none other than Communists? Doesn’t this alone exclude the possibility of conflicts between the peasant detachments and the workers’ organizations? No, that does not exclude it. The fact that individual Communists stand at the head of the peasant armies does not at all transform the social character of the latter, even if the Communists at the head bear a definite proletarian stamp. And how do matters stand in China? Among the Communist leaders of the Red detachments there are indubitably to be found many declassed intellectuals and semi-intellectuals who have not gone through the severe school of proletarian struggle. In the course of two or three years they live the lives of partisan commanders and commissars, they wage battles, seize territories, etc. They absorb the spirit of the environment that surrounds them. Meanwhile the majority of the rank and file Communists within the Red detachments consists, indubitably, of peasants, who assume the name Communist in all

honesty and sincerity but who remain in actuality revolutionary paupers or revolutionary petty proprietors. He is lost who judges in politics according to denominations and labels and not according to social facts. All the more so when the matter deals with politics in which hands are equipped with weapons.

The Danger of Peasant-Worker Conflicts

The true Communist party is the organization of the proletarian vanguard. One must not forget that the working class of China during the last four years has been held in an oppressed and amorphous condition and only recently does it evince signs of reviving. It is one thing when the Communist party, firmly leaning upon the flower of the urban, proletariat, strives through the workers to load the peasant war. It is an altogether different thing when a few thousand or even tens of thousands revolutionists assume the leadership of the peasant war and are in reality Communists or take on the name, without having serious support from the proletariat. This is precisely the situation in China. This acts in the extreme to augment the danger of conflicts between the workers and the armed peasants. In any event, there will be no dearth, one may rest assured, of bourgeois provocateurs.

In Russia, in the epoch of civil war, the proletariat was already in power in the greater part of the country; the leadership in the struggle was in the hands of a strong and tempered party; the entire commanding apparatus of the centralized Red Army was in the hands of the workers. Notwithstanding all this, the peasant detachments, incomparably weaker than the Red Army often came into conflict with it, after it victoriously moved into the sector of peasant partisanship.

In China the situation differs radically, and thereto entirely to the disadvantage of the workers. In the most important regions of China the power is in the hands of bourgeois militarists. In other regions, in the hands of armed peasants. Proletarian power is as yet nowhere. The trade unions are weak. The influence of the party among the workers is insignificant. The peasant detachments flushed with knowledge of victories they have achieved stand under the wing of the Comintern. They call themselves, “The Red Army”, i.e., they identify themselves with the armed forces of the Soviets. What results consequently is that the revolutionary peasantry of China, through the medium of its ruling stratum, seems to have accrued to itself beforehand the political and moral values which should by the nature of things belong to the Chinese workers. Isn’t it possible that things may turn out so that all these values will be directed at a certain moment against the workers?

Of course, the peasant poor – and in China they constitute the overwhelming majority – to the extent to which they think politically – and these compose a small minority – sincerely and passionately desire alliance and friendship with the workers. But the peasantry, even when armed, is incapable of directing an independent policy.

Bourgeoisie Leads or Proletariat

Commonly occupying as it does an intermediate, indeterminate and vacillating position, the peasantry, in decisive moments, can follow either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. Its road to the proletariat the peasantry does not find so easily and only after a series of mistakes and defeats. The bridge between the peasantry and the bourgeoisie is composed by the urban petty bourgeoisie, chiefly by the intellectuals, who commonly come forward under the banner of Socialism and even Communism.

The commanding stratum of the Chinese “Red Army” has no doubt succeeded in cultivating in itself the psychology of commanders. The absence of a strong revolutionary party and of mass organizations of the proletariat make control over the commanding stratum factually impossible. The commanders and commissars appear in the guise of absolute lords of the situation and upon occupying cities will be rather apt to look down from above upon the workers. The demands of the workers might often appear to them either inopportune or ill-advised. Nor should one forget such “trifles” as the fact that within cities, the staffs and the offices of the victorious armies are established not within the proletarian slums but within the finest buildings of the cities, within the houses and apartments of the bourgeoisie; and all this facilitates the inclination of the upper stratum of the peasant armies to feel itself as a part of the “cultured” and “educated” classes, nowise the proletariat.

(To Be Continued)

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Last updated on: 8 December 2014