Leon Trotsky

A Strategy of Action
and Not of Speculation

Letter to Pekin Friends

What are, at Present, the Chief Elements of the Political Situation in China?

(October 1932)

Written: 3 October 1932.
First Published: 1934.
Source: Class Struggle Official Organ Of The Communist League Of Struggle (Adhering to the International Left Opposition) Volume 3, Number 6, June 1933.
Online Version: Vera Buch & Albert Weisbord Internet Archive.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Albert Weisbord Internet Archive/David Walters.

The two most important revolutionary problems, the national problem and the agrarian problem have again become aggravated. The pace of the peasant war, slow and crawling but generally victorious, is evidence that the dictatorship of the Kuomintang has proved incapable of satisfying the countryside or of intimidating it further. The Japanese intervention in Shanghai are the effective annexation of Manchuria have placed a relief the military bankruptcy of Kuomintang dictatorship. The crisis of power which at bottom, has not stopped for a single moment during these last years had to grow fatally worse. The struggle between the militarist cliques is destroying what remains of the unity of the country.

If the peasant war has radicalized the intellectuals who have connections in the countryside, the Japanese intervention, on the contrary, gave a political stimulation to the petty-bourgeoisie of the cities. This has only again aggravated the crises of power. There is not a single section of the bourgeoisie called “Nationalists” which does not tend to arrive at the conclusion that the Kuomintang regime devours much and gives little. To demand an end of the period of “education” of the Kuomintang is to demand that the military dictatorship give way to parlimentarism.

The Left Opposition press has sometimes labeled as fascist the regime of Chiang Kai Shek. This definition was formed from the fact that in China as in Italy, the military-police power is concentrated in the hands of one bourgeois party alone to the exclusion of all other parties and notably, of the workers organizations. But after the experience of the last years, an experience complicated by the confusion the Stalinists brought to the question of fascism, it would not be very correct, nevertheless, to identify the dictatorship of the Cementing with fascism. Hitler, as in his time Mussolini, supports himself, before all, on the counter-revolutionary petty bourgeoisie; there is the essence of fascism. The Cementing has not this point of support. Thus in Germany the peasants march behind Hitler and by this fact indirectly support Von Papen; in China the peasants carry on the raging struggle against Chiang Kai Shek.

The regime of the Kuomintang contains more of Bonapartist traits than of fascism: Not possessing a social base, no matter how small, the Kuomintang, is half between the pressure of the imperialists and compradores on the one hand, and the revolutionary movement on the other. But Bonapartism can pretend to stability only when the land hunger of the peasants is satisfied. This is not true in the case of China. Hence the impotence of the military dictatorship which maintains itself only thanks to the dispersion of its enemies. But under their growing attack even this begins to be unhinged.

It is the proletariat which in the revolution of 1925–1927 morally and physically suffered the most. That is why at the present time it is the workers who are in the rear of the other classes and in fact not only of the petty bourgeoisie, beginning with the students, but also in a certain sense, of the peasants. On the other hand it is just this which proves that the third Chinese revolution not only will win but will not even be produced as long as the working class has not again entered into the lists.

The Slogans of the revolutionary democracy correspond in the best possible way to the political pre-revolutionary situation in China.

That the peasants, whatever their banner, fight for the aims or agrarian petty bourgeois democracy is what, for a Marxist, does not have to be demonstrated. The slogan of independence of China, raised to a white heat by the Japanese intervention, is a slogan of the national democracy. The powerlessness of the military dictatorship and the partition of the country among the militarist dictatorship and the partition of the country among the militarist cliques put on the end of the day the slogan of political democracy.

The students cry: “Down with the Kuomintang government”. The groups of workers’ vanguard support this slogan. The “National” bourgeoisie demands they go on to a constitutional regime. The peasant revolt against the dearth of land, the yoke of the militarists, government officials and of usurious loans. Under there circumstances the party of the proletariat cannot favor any other political central slogan than that of the NATIONAL ASSEMBLY (Constitutional).

Does this mean, it will be asked, that we demand from the present government the convocation of the National Assembly or that we should strive to convoke it ourselves? This way of posing the question, at least on the present stage, it too formalistic. During a certain number of years, the Russian Revolution coordinated two slogans: “Down with Absolute ****” and “Long Live the Constituent Assembly.” To the question who will convoke the Constituent Assembly for a long time we answered: the future will show, that is to say, the relation of forces, as they are established in the process of the revolution itself. This manner of approaching the question remains equally correct for China. Will the government of the Kuomintang try, at the moment of its disappearance, to convoke such or such representative assembly, what will be the attitude that we shall adopt in regard to this, that is to say how shall we utilize it in the interests of the revolution, whether we should boycott the elections or whether we should participate in them; will the revolutionary masses succeed in giving rise to an independent government organism which will take upon itself the convocation of the National Assembly; will the proletariat succeed, in the course of the struggle for the slogans of democracy, in creating the soviets; will the latter not render superfluous the convocation of the National Assembly? This is what is actually impossible to foretell. After all the tasks consists not in making prognostications from the calendar but in mobilizing the workers around the slogans flowing from the political situation. Our strategy is a strategy of revolutionary action and not of abstract speculations.

Today, by the force of events, the revolutionary agitation is directed above all against the government of the Kuomintang. We explain to the masses that the dictatorship of Chiang Kai Shek is the main obstacle which stands in the way of the National Assembly and that we can clean China from the militarist cliques only by means of an armed insurrection. Agitation, spoken and written, strikes, meetings, demonstrations, boycotts whatever may be the concrete questions to which they are consecrated, must have a corollary the slogans: “Down with the Kuomintang, Long live the Constituent Assembly!”

In order to arrive at a real national liberation it is necessary to overthrow the Kuomintang. But this does not mean that we postpone the struggle until the time when the Kuomintang is overthrown. The more the struggle against foreign oppression spreads the more difficulties the Kuomintang will have. The more we line up the masses against the Kuomintang the more the struggle against imperialism will develop.

At the acute moment of Japanese intervention the workers and the students called for arms. From whom? Again from the Kuomintang. It would be a sectarian absurdity to abandon this demand under the protext that we wish to overthrow the Kuonintang. We wish to overthrow it but we have not yet reached that point. The more energetically we demand the arming of the workers the sooner we shall reach it.

The official Communist Party, in spite of its ultra-leftism. favors “the resumption of the Russian-Chinese diplomatic relations”. Now this slogan is addressed directly against the Kuomintang. To formulate it does not at all mean that one has “confidence” in the Kuomintang. On the contrary, this slogan has for object to render more difficult the situation of the latter before the masses. Certain Kuomintang loaders have had already to take up on their own account the slogan of the re-establishment of relations with the USSR. We know that with these gentlemen it is a long way between works and acts. But here, as in all the other questions, everything depends on the force that the pressure of the masses will attain.

If under the whip of the revolution, the Kuomintang government begins to make petty concessions of the agrarian question, tries to call a semblance of a National Assembly, sees itself obliged to give arms to the workers or to take up relations with the USSR it goes without saying that we will at once exploit these concessions, that we will cling to them firmly at the same time that we show with perfect correctness their insufficiency so as to make of the concessions by the Kuonintang a weapon to overthrow it. Such is in general the reciprocal relation of reforms and of revolution in Marxist politics.

Does not the scope the peasant war is reaching mean that there is no longer time nor place for the slogans and problems of parliamentary democracy in China? Let us go back to that question.

If the revolutionary Chinese peasants today call their fighting organizations “soviets” we have not reason to give up the name. We must simply not get intoxicated with words. To believe that the soviet power is essentially rural regions can be an important, stable revolutionary power is to give proof of great frivolity. It is not possible to be ignorant of the experience offered by the only country where the soviet power has effectively won. Although the Petrograd, Moscow and other industrial centers and basins of Russia, the soviet power has held firmly and constantly since November 1917, in all the immense periphery (Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, Transcaucasia, Urals, Siberia, Central Asia, Archangel Murmansk) this power has appeared and disappeared several times not only because of foreign interventions, but also as a consequence of internal revolts. The Chinese soviet power has an essential rural, peripheral character, and still entirely lacks a point of support in the industrial proletariat. The less stable and sure this power is, the less of a soviet power it is.

Ko-Lin’s article which appeared in the German paper Der Rote Aufbau, claims that in the red armies the workers represent 36%, the peasants 57%, the intellectuals 7%. I confess that these figures arouse in me serious doubts. If the percentages apply to all the armed forces of the insurrection, forces which according to the author reach 350,000 men, the result is that the army includes about 125,000 workers. If the 36% only applies to the red armies, it appears that of 150,000 soldiers, there are more than 50,000 workers. Is this really so? did they belong to the unions before, to the party, and did they take part in the revolutionary struggle? But even that does clinch the question. On account of the absence of strong, independent proletarian organizations in the industrial centers, the revolutionary workers, inexperienced or too little experienced, become fatally lost in the peasant, petty-bourgeois environment.

Van-Ming’s article, which appeared at the beginning of the year in the CI press, singularly exaggerates, as far as I can judge, the scope of the movement in the cities, the degree of independence of the workers in the movement and the importance of the influence of the Communist Party. The misfortune of the present official press is that its mercilessly deforms facts in the name of its factional interest. Hence it is not hard to realize, even by Van-Ming’s article, that the leading place in the movement which began in the autumn of last year (1931) belonged to the students or in general to the school youth. The university strikes had an appreciable importance, greater than the factory strikes.

To arouse the workers, to group them, to give them the possibility of leaning on the national and agrarian movements in order to take the head of both: such is the task that falls to us. The immediate demands of the proletariat as such (length of work day, wages, right to organize, etc.) must form the basis of our agitation. But that alone is not sufficient. Only three slogans can raise the proletariat to the role of head of the nation: the independence of China, land to the poor peasants, the National Assembly.

The Stalinists imagine that the minute the insurgent peasants call their organizations soviets, the stage of revolutionary parliamentarism has already passed. This is a serious mistake. The rebels peasants can serve as a point of support to the soviets if the proletariat only if the latter shows practically its ability to lead. Hence, without the leadership of the proletariat, the peasant movement can only assure the advantage of one bourgeois clique over another in order to break up finally into provincial fractions. The National Assembly, thanks to its centralizing importance, would constitute a serious stage in the development of the agrarian revolution. The existence of rural “Soviets”, and “red armies” would help the peasants elect revolutionary representatives. This is the only way at the present stage to link up the peasant movement politically with the national and proletarian movements.

The official Chinese Communist Party declares that its “principal slogan” is at present that of the national revolutionary war against Japanese imperialism (see Van-Ming’s article in the Communist International #1, 1932). That is a one-sided and even an adventurist way to pose the question. It is certain that the struggle against imperialism, which is the essential task of the Chinese proletariat, cannot be carried through to the end except by insurrection and revolutionary war. But it does not in the least follow that the struggle against Japanese imperialism constitutes the central slogan of the present moment. The question must be solved from the international angle.

At the beginning of this year, they thought in CI circles that Japan had entered upon its military action against China in order to push things immediately to war against the Soviet Union. I wrote then that the Tokyo government would have to be completely out of its head to run the risk of a war with the Soviet Union without having beforehand at least somewhat consolidated the military base which Manchuria constitutes for it. In reply to this estimation of the situation, the American Stalinists, the most vulgar and stupid of all, declared that I worked in the interest of the Japanese general-staff. – And yet, what have the events of these last months shown? The fear of Japan’s leading circles for the consequences of a military adventure was so great that the military clique had to send from life to death a certain number of Japanese statesmen in order to arouse the Mikado’s government to follow up the annexation of Manchuria to the end. That even today the war against the Soviet Union remains a very real perspective, there is not doubt, but in politices time has a great value.

If the soviet government considered war with Japan to be inevitable right now, it would have neither the right nor the possibility of carrying out a peace policy that is, an ostrich policy. In reality, in the course of the year, the Soviet government has concluded an arrangement with Japan to furnish Soviet naphtha to the Japanese war fleet. If war is right now inevitable, to furnish naphtha to Japan is equivalent to committing a real treason towards the proletarian revolution. We will not discuss here the question of knowing to what extent this or that declaration or step of the Soviet government is correct. One thing is clear: contrary to the American Stalinists whose zeal is beyond measure the Moscow Stalinists have been oriented towards peace with Japan and not towards war.

Pravda of Sept. 24th writes: “With vast impatience the world bourgeoisie was expecting a Nippo-Soviet war. But the fact that the USSR has rigorously abstained from mixing in the Sino-Japanese conflict and the firm peace policy she is following, has forestalled war” – admitting that the attitude of the American and other windbags has any political meaning at all, it had only one meaning: they pushed the Soviet power on the same road where the world bourgeoisie pushed it. We do mean that they consciously served the Japanese general staff. Suffice it to state they are incapable of consciously serving the proletarian revolution.

The Chinese proletariat inscribes on its banner not only resumption of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union but the conclusion of a close offensive and defensive alliance with it. This implies that the policy of the Chinese proletariat must be in conformity with the whole of the international situation and above all with the policy of the Soviet Union. If Japan were today to thrust war upon the Soviet Union, the fact of drawing China into that war would be a question of life or death for the Chinese proletariat and its party. The war would open up boundless horizons before the Chinese revolution. But to the extent that the international situation and internal conditions oblige the Soviet Union to make serious concessions in the Far East in order to avoid war, that is, to defer it as far as possible, and to the extent that Japan does not find itself strong enough to begin hostilities, the war against Japanese imperialism cannot constitute, in any case at the present time, the central fighting slogan of the Chinese Communist Party.

Van-Ming quotes the following slogans of the Left Opposition in China: “Reconstitution of the mass movement”. “Convocation of the National Assembly” and “Resumption of diplomatic relations between China and the Soviet Union”. Under the simple pretext that these slogans are it seems poorly motivated, in an article appearing in the legal organ of the opposition, Van Ming calls the Left Opposition in China a “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist-Chen Du Hsiu group”.

Now, even if we admit that the motivation of the revolutionary slogans was not fortunate, this does not give them, nor the organization which formulated them, a counter revolutionary character. But Van Ming and his like are obliged to speak of the counter-revolutionary spirit of the “trotskyists”. If they do not wish their posts and emoluments withdrawn.

At the same time that they declare themselves so severe against the Bolshevik Leninists who have proved they have been right in the course of the events which have taken place in China from 1932, the Stalinists show themselves as indulgent as possible towards themselves that is towards the uninterrupted chain of their errors.

In the days when Japan was attacking Shanghai, the Kuomintang supported “the united front of the workers, peasants, soldiers, merchants and students to combat imperialism”. But this is the famous “bloc of four classes” of Stalin-Martinov! Since the second revolution, foreign oppression in China has not weakened, but on the contrary has grown. The antagonism between the needs of the country’s evolution and the regime or imperialism has likewise become sharpened. Since then, all the old Stalinist arguments in favor of the bloc of four classes have acquired double strength. Now this time, the Stalinists have interpreted the Kuomintang’s proposal as a new attempt to deceive the masses. Very well! But they have forgotten to explain why from 1924 to 1927 the CI leadership helped the Chinese bourgeoisie deceive to the end, and why the philosophy which consisted in being at the Kuomintang’s beck and call has found expression in the program of the CI.

It is evident that we can and must support the slogan of democratic self-government of the election of functionaries by the people, etc. The program of democracy constitutes a great step forward in relation to the regime of military dictatorship. We must just bring together each time the isolated, partial democratic slogans with the essential slogans and attach them to the problems of revolutionary grouping and the arming of the workers.

The question of “patriotism” and “nationalism” like certain other questions contained in your letter, deal with terminology rather than with the essence of things. The Bolsheviks, favoring the national liberation of oppressed peoples by revolutionary means support by all means the movement of the masses of the people for national liberation not only against the foreign imperialists, but also against the bourgeois exploiters inside the national movement, in the nature of the Kuomintang.

Must we still introduce the term “patriotism” discredited and soiled enough? I doubt it. Must we not see in this attempt a tendency to want to adapt oneself to the petty-bourgeois ideology and terminology? If this tendency were to really appear in our ranks, we would have to fight it mercilessly.

Many questions of tactical and strategical character will appear insoluble if approached in a formalistic way. But they will fall into their right place if we pose them dialectically, that is, in the perspective of the living struggle of classes and parties. It is in real action that revolutionary dialectic is best assimilated. I do not doubt that our comrades in ideas and our Chinese friends the Bolshevik Leninists not only discuss passionately the complex problems of the Chinese revolution, but also participate not less passionately in the developing struggle. We are for a strategy of action – not for speculation.

L. Trotsky
Prinkipo, Oct. 3, 1932

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Last updated on: 8 December 2014