Leon Trotsky

Problems of the Chinese Revolution

The Sure Road

May 12, 1927

The Shanghai correspondent of the Daily Express reports:

“The peasants of Henan province are occupying the land and executing the big landlords who resist most stubbornly. Everywhere, control is in the hands of the Communists. Workers’ soviets are formed locally which take over administrative authority.” [1]

We do not know to what extent the telegram is correct in depicting the situation with such bold strokes. We have no other reports save the telegram. What is the real extent of the movement? Is it not deliberately exaggerated in order to influence the power of imagination of Messrs. MacDonald, Thomas, Purcell and Hicks with the intention of making them more pliant to the policy of Chamberlain? We do not know. But in this case, it has no decisive significance.

The peasants are seizing the land and exterminating the most counter-revolutionary big landlords. Workers’ soviets are formed locally which take over administrative authority. That is what a correspondent of a reactionary paper communicates. The editorial board of Pravda considers this report sufficiently important to incorporate it in the contents table of the most important daily events in the world. We too are of the opinion that this is correct. But it would naturally be premature to contend that the Chinese revolution, after the April coup d’état of the bourgeois counter-revolution, has already entered a new and higher stage. After a great defeat, it frequently happens that a part of the attacking masses, which was never submitted to any direct blows, passes over to the next stage of the movement and for a while outstrips the leading detachments which suffered with especial severity in the defeat. Were we to have before us such a phenomenon, the soviets of Henan would soon disappear, temporarily washed away by the general revolutionary ebb-tide.

But there is not the slightest reason to contend that we have before us only sharp rearguard encounters of a revolution which is ebbing for a long period. In spite of the fact that the April defeat was no separate “episode”, but a very significant stage in the development of the counter-revolution; in spite of the agonizing blood drawn from the vanguard detachments of the working class, there is not the least reason to contend that the Chinese revolution has been beaten back for years.

The agrarian movement, since it is more scattered, is less subject to the direct operations of the hangmen of the counter-revolution. There is the possibility that the further growth of the agrarian movement will give the proletariat the opportunity to rise again in the relatively near future and to pass over once more to the attack. Naturally, exact predictions on this point are impossible, especially from afar. The Chinese Communist Party will have to follow attentively the actual course of events and the class groupings in order to catch the moment of a new wave of attack.

The possibility of a new attack, however, will depend not only on the evolution of the agrarian movement but also upon the side towards which the broad, petty-bourgeois masses of the towns develop in the next period. The coup d’état of Chiang Kai-shek does not signify only the consolidation of the power of the Chinese bourgeoisie (perhaps less so), but also the re-establishment and the consolidation of the positions of foreign capital in China with all the consequences that flow from them. From this follows the probability, perhaps even the inevitability – and this in the fairly near future – of a turn of the petty-bourgeois masses against Chiang Kai-shek. The petty-bourgeoisie, which is subjected to great sufferings not only by foreign capital but also by the alliance of the national Chinese bourgeoisie with foreign capital, must, after some vacillations, turn against the bourgeois counter-revolution. It is precisely in this that lies one of the most important manifestations of the class mechanics of the national democratic revolution.

Finally, the young Chinese proletariat, by all the conditions of its existence, is so accustomed to privation and sacrifice, has so well “learned”, together with the whole of the oppressed Chinese people, to look death in the eye, that we may expect from the Chinese workers, once they are properly aroused by the revolution, highly exceptional self-abnegation in struggle.

All this gives us the full right to count upon the new wave of the Chinese revolution being separated from the wave which ended with the April defeat of the proletariat, not by long years but by short months. Naturally, nobody can establish the intervals for this either. But we would be incompetent revolutionists if we were not to steer our course upon a new rise, if we were not to work out any program of action for it, any political road or any organizational forms.

The April defeat was no “episode”, it was a heavy class defeat; we will not take up here an analysis of the reasons for it. We want to speak in this article of tomorrow and not of yesterday. The heaviness of the April defeat lies not only in the fact that the proletarian centres were struck a sanguinary blow. The heaviness of the defeat lies in the fact that the workers were crushed by those who until then had stood at their head. Such a violent turn must produce not only physical disorganization but also political confusion in the ranks of the proletariat. This confusion, which is more dangerous to the revolution than the defeat itself, can be overcome only by a clear, precise, revolutionary line for tomorrow.

In this sense, the telegram of the Shanghai correspondent of the reactionary British newspaper has especial significance. In it is shown what road the revolution in China can tread should it succeed in the next period in reaching a higher level.

We have said above that the peasants’ liquidation of the big landlords of Henan, like the creation of workers’ soviets, may be the sharp conclusion of the last wave or the commencement of a new one, since the matter is considered from afar. This contrast of two waves can lose its significance if the interval between them is long, namely, a few weeks or even a few months. However the matter may be (and here only advice can be given, especially from a distance), the symptomatic significance of the Henan events is thoroughly clear and incontestable, regardless of their extent and sweep. The peasants and the workers of Henan are showing the road which their movement can tread, now that the heavy chains of their bloc with the bourgeoisie and the big landlords have been smashed. It would be contemptible and philistine to believe that the agrarian problem and the workers’ problem in this revolution, gigantic in its tasks and in the masses it has drawn in its train, can be solved by decree from above and by arbitration committees. The worker himself wants to break the backbone of the reactionary bourgeoisie and to teach the manufacturers to respect the proletarian, his person and his rights. The peasant himself wants to sever the ties of his dependence upon the big landlords who exhaust him with their usurious practices and enslave him. Imperialism, which violently hampers the economic development of China by its customs, its financial and its military policy, condemns the worker to beggary and the peasant to the cruellest enslavement. The struggle against the big landlords, the struggle against the usurer, the struggle against the capitalists for better working conditions, is thus raised by itself to the struggle for the national independence of China, for the liberation of its productive forces from the bonds and chains of foreign imperialism. There is the principal and the mightiest foe. It is mighty not only because of its warships, but also directly by its inseparable connections with the heads of the banks, the usurers, the bureaucrats and the militarists, with the Chinese bourgeoisie, and by the more indirect but no less intimate ties with the big commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.

All these facts demonstrate that the pressure of imperialism is in no sense an external, mechanical pressure which welds all the classes together. No, it is a very deep-lying factor of internal action which accentuates the class struggle. The Chinese commercial and industrial bourgeoisie carries behind it the supplementary force of foreign capital and foreign bayonets in every one of its serious collisions with the proletariat. The masters of this capital and these bayonets play the role of more experienced and more adroit operators, who included the blood of the Chinese workers in their accounts just as they do with raw rubber and opium. If one wants to drive out foreign imperialism, if one wants to conquer the enemy, then his “peaceful”, “normal” hangman’s and robber’s work in China must be rendered impossible. This cannot be attained, naturally, on the road of compromise of the bourgeoisie with foreign imperialism. Such a compromise may increase the share of the Chinese bourgeoisie in the product of the labour of the Chinese workers and peasants by a few per cent. But it will signify the deeper penetration of foreign imperialism into the economic and political life of China, the deeper enslavement of the Chinese worker and peasant. Victory over foreign imperialism can only be won by means of the toilers of town and country driving it out of China. For this, the masses must really rise, millions strong. They cannot rise under the bare slogan of national liberation, but only in direct struggle against the big landlords, the military satraps, the usurers, the capitalist brigands. In this struggle, the masses are already rising, steeling themselves, arming themselves. There is no other road of revolutionary training. The big bourgeois leadership of the Guomindang (the gang of Chiang Kai-shek) has opposed this road with all means. At first, only from within, by means of decrees and prohibitions, but when the “discipline” of the Guomindang did not suffice, with the aid of machine guns. The petty-bourgeois leadership of the Guomindang hesitates out of fear of a too stormy development of the mass movement. By their whole past, the petty-bourgeois radicals are more accustomed to looking to the top, to seeking combinations of all sorts of “national” groups, than to looking down below, to the real struggle of millions of workers. But if vacillations and irresolution are dangerous in all things, then in the revolution they are disastrous. The workers and peasants of Henan are showing the way out of the vacillations, and by that, the road to save the revolution.

It is not necessary to explain that only this road, that is, the deeper mass sweep, the greater social radicalism of the program, the unfurled banner of workers’ and peasants’ soviets, can seriously preserve the revolution from military defeats from without. We know this from our own experience. Only a revolution on whose banner the toilers and the exploited plainly inscribe their won demands is capable of winning the living sympathy of the soldiers of capitalism. We experienced and tested this out in the waters of Archangel, Odessa and other places. The leadership of compromise and treason did not preserve Nanking from destruction, and gave the enemy ships access to the Yangtze. A revolutionary leadership, given a mighty social sweep of the movement, can succeed in making the waters of the Yangtze too hot for the ships of Lloyd George, Chamberlain and MacDonald. In any case, it is only along this road that the revolution can seek and find its defence.

We have repeatedly said above that the agrarian movement and the formation of soviets can signify the conclusion of yesterday and the beginning of tomorrow. But this does not depend upon objective conditions alone. Under present conditions, the subjective factor has an enormous, perhaps a decisive significance: a correct formulation of the tasks, a firm and clear leadership. If a movement like the one that has begun in Henan is left to its own resources, it will inevitably be crushed. The confidence of the insurrectionary masses will be increased tenfold as soon as it feels a firm leadership and greater cohesion with it. A clear-headed leadership, generalizing matters in the political field and connecting them up organizationally, is alone capable of preserving the movement to a greater or lesser degree from incautious or premature side-leaps and from so-called “excesses”, without which, however, as the experience of history teaches, no really revolutionary movement of the millions can reach its goal.

The task consists of giving the agrarian movement and the workers’ soviets a clear program of practical action, an internal cohesion and a broad political goal. Only on this basis can a really revolutionary collaboration of the proletariat and the petty-bourgeoisie be constituted and developed, a genuine alliance of struggle of the Communist Party with the Left Guomindang. The cadres of the latter can in general only constitute and steel themselves if they do it in most intimate contact with the revolutionary struggles of the peasants and the poor population of the city. The agrarian movement, led by peasants’ and workers’ soviets, will confront the Left Guomindang people with the necessity of finally choosing between the Chiang Kai-shek camp of the bourgeoisie and the camp of the workers and peasants. To put the fundamental class questions openly, that is the only way under present conditions to put an end to the vacillation of the petty-bourgeois radicals and to compel them to tread the only road which leads to victory. This can be done by our Chinese party with the support of the whole Communist International.


1. Pravda, May 11, 1927.

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Last updated on: 26.1.2007