Leon Trotsky

Problems of the Chinese Revolution

The Strangled Revolution

February 9, 1931

The book by André Malraux, Les Conquérants, was sent to me from various quarters and I think in four copies, but to my regret I read it after a delay of a year and a half or two. The book is devoted to the Chinese revolution, that is, to the greatest subject of the last five years. A fine and well-knit style, the discriminating eye of an artist, original and daring observation – all confer upon the novel an exceptional importance. If we write about it here it is not because the book is a work of talent, although this is not a negligible fact, but because it offers a source of political lessons of the highest value. Do they come from Malraux? No, they flow from the recital itself, unknown to the author, and they go against him. This does honour to the author as an observer and an artist, but not as a revolutionist. However, we have the right to evaluate Malraux too from this point of view; in his own name and above all in the name of Garine, his other self, the author does not hesitate with his judgements on the revolution.

This book is called a novel. As a matter of fact, we have before us a romanticized chronicle of the Chinese revolution, from its first period to the period of Canton. The chronicle is not complete. Social vigour is sometimes lacking from the picture. But for that there pass before the reader not only luminous episodes of the revolution but also clear-cut silhouettes which are graven in the memory like social symbols.

By little coloured touches, following the method of pointillisme, Malraux gives an unforgettable picture of the general strike, not, to be sure, as it is below, not as it is carried out, but as it is observed from above: the Europeans do not get their breakfast, they swelter in the heat, the Chinese have ceased to work in the kitchens and to operate the ventilators. This is not a reproach to the author: the foreign artist could undoubtedly not have dealt with his theme otherwise. But there is a reproach to be made, and not a small one: the book is lacking in a congenital affinity between the writer, in spite of all he knows, understands and can do, and his heroine, the revolution.

The active sympathies of the author for insurgent China are unmistakable. But chance bursts upon these sympathies. They are corroded by the excesses of individualism and by aesthetic caprice. In reading the book with sustained attention one sometimes experiences a feeling of vexation when in the tone of the persuasive recital one perceives a note of protective irony towards the barbarians capable of enthusiasm. That China is backward, that many of its political manifestations bear a primitive character – nobody asks that this be passed over in silence. But a correct perspective is needed which puts every object in its place. The Chinese events, on the basis of which Malraux’s “novel” unfolds itself, are incomparably more important for the future destiny of human culture than the vain and pitiful clamour of Europe parliaments and the mountain of literary products of stagnant civilization. Malraux seems to feel a certain fear to take this into account.

In the novel, there are pages, splendid in their intensity, which show how revolutionary hatred is born of the yoke, of ignorance, of slavery, and is tempered like steel. These pages might have entered into the Anthology of the Revolution if Malraux had approached the masses with greater freedom and intrepidity, if he had not introduced into his observations a small note of blasé superiority, seeming to excuse himself for his transient contact with the insurrection of the Chinese people, as much perhaps before himself as before the academic mandarins in France and the traffickers in spiritual opium.

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Borodin represents the Comintern in the post of “high counsellor” in the Canton government. Garine, the favourite of the author, is in charge of propaganda. All the work is done within the framework of the Guomindang. Borodin, Garine, the Russian “General” Galen, the Frenchman Gérard, the German Klein and others, constitute an original bureaucracy of the revolution raising itself above the insurgent people and conducting its own “revolutionary” policy instead of the policy of the revolution.

The local organizations of the Guomindang are defined as follows: “groups of fanatics – brave of a few plutocrats out for notoriety or for security – and crowds of students and coolies”. (p.24) Not only do bourgeois enter into every organization but they completely lead the Party. The Communists are subordinate to the Guomindang. The workers and the peasants are persuaded to take no action that might rebuff the devoted friends of the bourgeoisie. “Such are the societies that we control (more or less, do not fool yourself on this score).” An edifying avowal! The bureaucracy of the Comintern tried to “control” the class struggle in China, like the international bankocracy controls the economic life of the backward countries. But a revolution cannot be controlled. One can only give a political expression to its internal forces. One must know to which of these forces to link one’s destiny.

“Today coolies are beginning to discover that they exist, simply that they exist.” (p.26) That’s well aimed. But to feel that they exist, the coolies, the industrial workers and the peasants must overthrow those who prevent them from existing. Foreign domination is indissolubly bound up with the domestic yoke. The coolies must not only drive out Baldwin or MacDonald but also overthrow the ruling classes. One cannot be accomplished without the other. Thus, the awakening of the human personality in the masses of China, who exceed ten times the population of France, is immediately transformed into the lava of the social revolution. A magnificent spectacle!

But here Borodin appears on the scene and declares: “In the revolution the workers must do the coolie work for the bourgeoisie,” wrote Chen Duxiu in an open letter to the Chinese Communists. The social enslavement from which they want to liberate themselves, the workers find transposed into the sphere of politics. To whom do they owe this perfidious operation? To the bureaucracy of the Comintern. In trying to “control” the Guomindang, it actually aids the bourgeoisie which seeks “notoriety and security” in enslaving the coolies who want to exist.

Borodin, who remains in the background all the time, is characterized in the novel as a “man of action”, as a “professional revolutionist”, as a living incarnation of Bolshevism on the soil of China. Nothing is further from the truth! Here is the political biography of Borodin: in 1903, at the age of 19, he emigrated to America; in 1918, he returned to Moscow where, thanks to his knowledge of English, he “ensured contact with the foreign parties”; he was arrested in Glasgow in 1922; then he was delegated to China as representative of the Comintern. Having quit Russia before the first revolution and having returned after the third, Borodin appeared as the consummate representative of that state and Party bureaucracy which recognized the revolution only after its victory. When it is a question of young people, it is sometimes nothing more than a matter of chronology. With people of 40 or 50, it is already a political characterization. If Borodin rallied successfully to the victorious revolution in Russia, it does not in the least signify that he was called upon to assure the victory of the revolution in China. People of this type assimilate without difficulty the gestures and intonations of “professional revolutionists”. Many of them, by their protective colouration, not only deceive others but also themselves. The audacious inflexibility of the Bolshevik is most usually metamorphosed with them into that cynicism of the functionary ready for anything. Ah! to have a mandate from the Central Committee! This sacrosanct safeguard Borodin always had in his pocket.

Garine is not a functionary, he is more original than Borodin and perhaps even closer to the revolutionary type. But he is devoid of the indispensable formation; dilettante and theatrical, he gets hopelessly entangled in the great events and he reveals it at every step. With regard to the slogans of the Chinese revolution, he expresses himself thus: “democratic chatter – ‘the rights of the proletariat’, etc.” (p.32.) This has a radical ring but it is a false radicalism. The slogans of democracy are execrable chatter in the mouth of Poincaré, Herriot, Léon Blum, sleight-of-hand artists of France and jailers of Indochina, Algeria and Morocco. But when the Chinese rebel in the name of the “rights of the proletariat”, this has as little to do with chatter as the slogans of the French Revolution in the eighteenth century. At Hong Kong, the British birds of prey threatened, during the strike, to re-establish corporal punishment. “The rights of man and of the citizen” meant at Hong Kong the right of the Chinese not to be flogged by the British whip. To unmask the democratic rottenness of the imperialists is to serve the revolution: to call the slogans of the insurrection of the oppressed “chatter”, is involuntarily to aid the imperialists.

A good inoculation of Marxism would have preserved the author from fatal contempt of this sort. But Garine in general considers that revolutionary doctrine is “doctrinaire rubbish” (le fatras doctrinal). He is, you see, one of those to whom the revolution is only a definite “state of affairs”. Isn’t this astonishing? But it is just because the revolution is a “state of affairs”, that is, a stage in the development of society conditioned by objective causes and subjected to definite laws, that a scientific mind can foresee the general direction of processes. Only the study of the anatomy of society and of its physiology permits one to react to the course of events by basing oneself upon scientific foresight and not upon a dilettante’s conjectures. The revolutionist who “despises” revolutionary doctrine is not a bit better than the healer who despises medical doctrine which he does not know, or than the engineer who rejects technology. People who without the aid of science, try to rectify the “state of affairs” which is called a disease, are called sorcerers or charlatans and are prosecuted by law. Had there existed a tribunal to judge the sorcerers of the revolution, it is probable that Borodin, like his Muscovite inspirers, would have been severely condemned. I am afraid Garine himself would not have come out of it unscathed.

Two figures are contrasted to each other in the novel, like the two poles of the national revolution; old Chen Dai, the spiritual authority of the right wing of the Guomindang, the prophet and saint of the bourgeoisie, and Hong, the young leader of the terrorists. Both are depicted with great force. Chen Dai embodies the old Chinese culture translated into the language of European breeding; with this exquisite garment, he “ennobles” the interests of all the ruling classes of China. To be sure, Chen Dai wants national liberation, but he dreads the masses more than the imperialists; he hates the revolution more than the yoke placed upon the nation. If he marches towards it, it is only to pacify it, to subdue it, to exhaust it. He conducts a policy of passive resistance on two fronts, against imperialism and against the revolution, the policy of Gandhi in India, the policy which, in definite periods and in one form or another, the bourgeoisie has conducted at every longitude and latitude. Passive resistance flows from the tendency of the bourgeoisie to canalize the movement of the masses and to make off with it.

When Garine says that Chen Dai’s influence rises above politics, one can only shrug his shoulders. The masked policy of the “upright man”, in China as in India, expresses in the most sublime and abstractly moralizing form the conservative interests of the possessors. The personal disinterestedness of Chen Dai is in no sense in opposition to his political function: the exploiters need “upright men” as the corrupted ecclesiastical hierarchy needs saints.

Who gravitate around Chen Dai? The novel replies with meritorious precision: a world of “aged mandarins, smugglers of opium and of obscene photographs, of scholars turned bicycle dealers, of Parisian barristers, of intellectuals of every kind”. (p.124.) Behind them stands a more solid bourgeoisie bound up with England, which arms General Tang against the revolution. In the expectation of victory, Tang prepares to make Chen Dai the head of the government. Both of them, Chen Dai and Tang, nevertheless continue to be members of the Guomindang which Borodin and Garine serve.

When Tang has a village attacked by his armies, and when he prepares to butcher the revolutionists, beginning with Borodin and Garine, his party comrades, the latter with the aid of Hong, mobilize and arm the unemployed. But after the victory won over Tang, the leaders do not seek to change a thing that existed before. They cannot break the ambiguous bloc with Chen Dai because they have no confidence in the workers, the coolies, the revolutionary masses, they are themselves contaminated with the prejudices of Chen Dai whose qualified arm they are.

In order “not to rebuff” the bourgeoisie they are forced to enter into struggle with Hong. Who is he and where does he come from? “The lowest dregs.” (p.36) He is one of those who are making the revolution and not those who rally to it when it is victorious. Having come to the idea of killing the British governor of Hong Kong, Hong is concerned with only one thing: “When I have been sentenced to capital punishment, you must tell the young to follow my example.” (p.36) To Hong a clear program must be given: to arouse the workers, to assemble them, to arm them and to oppose them to Chen Dai as to an enemy. But the bureaucracy of the Comintern seeks Chen Dai’s friendship, repulses Hong and exasperates him. Hong exterminates bankers and merchants one after another, the very ones who “support” the Guomindang, Hong kills missionaries: “those who teach people to support misery must be punished, Christian priests or others” (p.274) If Hong does not find the right road, it is the fault of Borodin and Garine who have placed the revolution in the hands of the bankers and the merchants. Hong reflects the mass which is already rising but which has not yet rubbed its eyes or softened its hands. He tries by the revolver and the knife to act for the masses whom the agents of the Comintern are paralysing. Such is the unvarnished truth about the Chinese revolution.

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Meanwhile, the Canton government is “oscillating, in its attempt to stay straight, between Garine and Borodin, who control the police and the trade unions, on the one hand, and Chen Dai, who controls nothing, but who exists all the same, on the other.” (p.68) We have an almost perfect picture of the duality of power. The representatives of the Comintern have in their hands the trade unions of Canton, the police, the cadet school of Whampoa, the sympathy of the masses the aid of the Soviet Union. Chen Dai has a “moral authority”, that is, the prestige of the mortally distracted possessors. The friends of Chen Dai sit in a powerless government willingly supported by the conciliators. But isn’t this the régime of the February revolution, the Kerenskyist system, with the sole difference that the role of the Mensheviks is played by the pseudo-Bolsheviks? Borodin has no doubt of it even though he is made up as a Bolshevik and takes his make-up seriously.

The central idea of Garine and Borodin is to prohibit Chinese and foreign boats, cruising towards the port of Canton, from putting in at Hong Kong. By the commercial boycott these people, who consider themselves revolutionary realists, hope to shatter British domination in southern China. They never deem it necessary first of all to overthrow the government of the Canton bourgeoisie which only waits for the moment to surrender the revolution to England. No, Borodin and Garine knock every day at the door of the “government”, and hat in hand, beg that the saving decree be promulgated. One of them reminds Garine that at bottom the government is a phantom. Garine is not disconcerted. Phantom or not, he replies, let it go ahead while we need it. That is the way the priest needs relics which he himself fabricates with wax and cotton. What is concealed behind this policy which weakens and debases the revolution? The respect of a petty-bourgeois revolutionist for a solid conservative bourgeois. It is thus that the reddest of the French radicals is always ready to fall on his knees before Poincaré.

But perhaps the masses of Canton are not yet mature enough to overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie? From this whole atmosphere, the conviction arises that without the opposition of the Comintern the phantom government would long before have been overthrown under the pressure of the masses. But let us admit that the Cantonese workers were still too weak to establish their own power. What, generally speaking, is the weak spot of the masses? Their inclination to follow the exploiters. In this case, the first duty of revolutionists is to help the workers liberate themselves from servile confidence. Nevertheless, the work done by the bureaucracy of the Comintern was diametrically opposed to his. It inculcated in the masses the notion of the necessity to submit to the bourgeoisie and it declared that the enemies of the bourgeoisie were their own enemies.

Do not rebuff Chen Dai! But if Chen Dai withdraws in spite of this, which is inevitable, it would not mean that Garine and Borodin will be delivered of their voluntary vassaldom towards the bourgeoisie. They will only choose as the new focus of their activity, Chiang Kai-shek, son of the same class and younger brother of Chen Dai. Head of the military school of Whampoa, founded by the Bolsheviks, Chiang Kai-shek does not confine himself to passive resistance; he is ready to resort to bloody force, not in the plebeian form, the form of the masses, but in the military form and only within limits that will permit the bourgeoisie to retain an unlimited power over the army. Borodin and Garine, by arming their enemies, disarm and repulse their friends. This is the way they prepare the catastrophe.

But are we not overestimating the influence of the revolutionary bureaucracy upon the events? No, it showed itself stronger than it might have thought, if not for good then at least for evil. The coolies who are only beginning to exist politically require a courageous leadership. Hong requires a bold program. The revolution requires the energies of millions of rising men. But Borodin and his bureaucrats require Chen Dai and Chiang Kai-shek. They strangle Hong and prevent the worker from raising his head. In a few months, they will stifle the agrarian insurrection of the peasantry so as not to repulse the bourgeois army command. Their strength is that they represent the Russian October, Bolshevism, the Communist International. Having usurped authority, the banner and the material resources of the greatest of revolutions, the bureaucracy bars the road to another revolution which also had all chances of being great.

The dialogue between Borodin and Hong (pp.182-4) is the most terrific indictment of Borodin and his Moscow inspirers. Hong, as always, is after decisive action. He demands the punishment of the most prominent bourgeois. Borodin finds this sole objection: Those who are “paying” must not be touched. “Revolution is not so simple,” says Garine for his part. “Revolution involves paying an army,” adds Borodin. These aphorisms contain all the elements of the noose in which the Chinese revolution was strangled. Borodin protected the bourgeoisie which, in recompense, made contributions to the “revolution”, the money going to the army of Chiang Kai-shek. The army of Chiang Kai-shek exterminated the proletariat and liquidated the revolution. Was it really impossible to foresee this? And wasn’t it really foreseen? The bourgeoisie pays willingly only for the army which serves it against the people. The army of the revolution does not wait for donations: it makes them pay. This is called the revolutionary dictatorship. Hong comes forward successfully at workers’ meetings and thunders against the “Russians”, the bearers of ruin for the revolution. The way of Hong himself does not lead to the goal but he is right as against Borodin. “Had the Tai Ping leaders Russian advisers? Had the Boxers?” (p.190) Had the Chinese revolution of 1924-27 been left to itself it would perhaps not have come to victory immediately but it would not have resorted to the methods of hara-kiri, it would not have known shameful capitulations and it would have trained revolutionary cadres. Between the dual power of Canton and that of Petrograd there is the tragic difference that in China there was no Bolshevism in evidence; under the name of Trotskyism, it was declared a counter-revolutionary doctrine and was persecuted by every method of calumny and repression. Where Kerensky did not succeed during the July Days, Stalin succeeded ten years later in China.

Borodin and “all the Bolsheviks of his generation”, Garine assures us, were distinguished by their struggle against the anarchists. This remark was needed by the author so as to prepare the reader for the struggle of Borodin against Hong’s group. Historically it is false. Anarchism was unable to raise its head in Russia not because the Bolsheviks fought successfully against it but because they had first dug up the ground under its feet. Anarchism, if it does not live within the four walls of intellectuals’ cafés and editorial offices, but has penetrated more deeply, translates the psychology of despair in the masses and signifies the political punishment for the deceptions of democracy and the treachery of opportunism. The boldness of Bolshevism in posing the revolutionary problems and in teaching their solution left no room for the development of anarchism in Russia. But if the historical investigation of Malraux is not exact, his recital shows admirably how the opportunist policy of Stalin-Borodin prepared the ground for anarchist terrorism in China.

Driven by the logic of this policy, Borodin consents to adopt a decree against the terrorists. The firm revolutionists, driven on to the road of adventurism by the crimes of the Moscow leaders, the bourgeoisie of Canton, with the benediction of the Comintern, declares them outlaws. They reply with acts of terrorism against the pseudo-revolutionary bureaucrats who protect the moneyed bourgeoisie. Borodin and Garine seize the terrorists and destroy them, no longer defending the bourgeois alone but also their own heads. It is thus that the policy of conciliation inexorably slips down to the lowest degree of treachery.

The book is called Les Conquérants. With this title, which has a double meaning when the revolution paints itself with imperialism, the author refers to the Russian Bolsheviks, or more exactly, to a certain part of them. The conquerors? The Chinese masses rose for a revolutionary insurrection, with the influence of the October upheaval as their example and with Bolshevism as their banner. But the “conquerors” conquered nothing. On the contrary, they surrendered everything to the enemy. If the Russian Revolution called forth the Chinese revolution, the Russian epigones strangled it. Malraux does not make these deductions. He does not even suspect their existence. All the more clearly do they emerge upon the background of his remarkable book.

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Last updated on: 26.1.2007