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The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution:

An Essay on the different editions of that Work

From Revolutionary History, Vol.2 No.4, Spring 1990. Used by permission.

This short resume of the ideological odyssey of the various editions of Harold Isaacs’ classic work appeared in Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.15, September 1983, pp.71-6, and is here translated by Ted Crawford, with the results carefully collated against the original texts in English and their pagination accordingly aligned.

Harold Isaacs (1910-1986) went out to China as a journalist, and there he edited a magazine, China Forum, that was favourable to the Chinese Communist Party. But whilst he was in China he encountered Frank Glass (cf. Revolutionary History, Vol.1, no.2, Summer 1988, pp.3-4) who won him over to the Trotskyist position. The first – and best – edition of the book was published in 1938 by Seeker and Warburg, probably as a result of C.L.R. James’ influence with Frederick Warburg, who was his publisher. All subsequent editions were published in the USA after he had left the Trotskyist movement in disillusionment at Trotsky’s murder in 1940. He belonged for a while to Max Shachtman’s Workers Party before becoming a Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He returned to China after many years in 1980, a visit he described in Re-encounters in China: Notes on a Journey in a Time Capsule, 1985. His old comrade Liu Renjing, who had provided much of the documentation for The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution whilst hiding in Isaacs’ apartment in Peking, died a year later than he did, after serving in a university post under Mao’s regime from 1949 onwards. A very revealing obituary of Harold Isaacs appeared in Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.27, September 1986, pp.110-11.

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 is only 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. – Leon Trotsky, Prinkipo, 9 February 1931. [1]

In 1938 when the first edition of The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution appeared, Harold Isaacs wished to refute ‘the gross falsehoods in which the Communist International tried to bury the facts of what actually happened in the critical years 1925-27.’ [2] [3]

This production was the answer to a work already in existence for some time, China’s Millions by Anna Louise Strong  [4] and a book by Pavel Mif, Heroic China. [5] It had two later editions, the first in 1951 and the second in 1961.  [6] In the course of these three ‘versions’ Isaacs’ views on the international Communist movement changed. It is this evolution, as much on account of cuts in the work rather than changes in the analysis, which it is interesting to study.

In 1930 at the age of 20 Harold Isaacs arrived in China, joined the Communist Opposition in 1934 and immediately started his work on the consequences of the failure of the Chinese revolution. Within a year, helped by his friend Liu Renjing [7], he collected the necessary materials for his book and then in 1935 left for Europe where he met Treint, Sneevliet (Maring) and eventually, in August of that year, the exiled Trotsky at Honefoss in Norway. The manuscript of The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution was ready in January 1936, and in February Trotsky promised the author a preface for which he traced out the broad outlines.  [8] Finally, the book came out in 1938 in London with a long introduction by Trotsky datelined Coyoacan, Isaacs then being a member of the Socialist Workers Party.  [9]

It is certainly true, as Isaacs wrote in 1951, that the 1938 text is a committed ‘Trotskyist’ one. Trotsky introduced it thus:

What are the classes which are struggling in China? What are the interrelationships of these classes? How, and in what direction, are these relations being transformed? What are the objective tasks of the Chinese Revolution, i.e. those tasks dictated by the course of development? On the shoulders of which classes rests the solution to these tasks? With what methods can they be solved? Isaacs’ book gives the answers to precisely these questions. [10]

What is the fate of the answers to these questions thirteen years later? First of all the author removes Trotsky’s introduction. He explains himself in his preface of 23 April 1951:

Although I reject the Bolshevism of which Trotsky became the most authentic spokesman, I still have great respect for some of Trotsky’s conceptions of what the Socialist revolution was meant to be ... But I could hardly feel free, because of this, to include in this edition the Introduction in which Trotsky warmly endorsed the original work...I cannot assume that he would agree with the views I now hold and which have been written in this book. Nor would I presume to reprint the Introduction with his endorsement deleted. [11]

This rejection of ‘Bolshevism’ led Isaacs to recast the greater part of his work. He changed the structure and the text as a result of what he called the ‘changes in his “point of view”’. Furthermore, as he explained:

‘Point of view’ is another phrase for interpretation, interpretation is another word for bias, and bias is another word for outlook. Every writer is conditioned by all the individual and social factors that shape his writing about man’s affairs ... All historical and political questions are the products of conflict, and are therefore controversial. They all concern unresolved human problems on which all thought is subject to contradiction and revision ... Thus the basic approach in this work is one that seeks to contribute to a radical transformation of all social relations and political institutions ... It involves, further, the effort to find a way out of the blind alley of national sovereignty into some broader and more internally co-operative organisation of the world in which all peoples can hope to thrive. [12]

Then, while he cut about 20 pages of the chapter on Problems of the Chinese Revolution to replace it by a part entitled The World Crisis: The Russian Impact he abandoned as well his Trotskyist analysis of the role of the Russian proletariat and Bolshevik Party in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Here is what Isaacs wrote in 1938:

This bureaucratic stratum which began to solidify on the outer crust of the newly-formed Soviet State took Russia’s national isolation as its starting point... Lenin fought this tendency in his last years, but it was stronger than he. Too soon this struggle ended and power fell to representatives of the new bureaucratic caste personified in Joseph Stalin. The Bolshevik opposition to the usurpers centred around Trotsky and the best elements of the proletarian core of the Bolshevik Party. They swam against the current but could not dam or divert it ... The defeats of the Revolution in Europe, above all the defeat in Germany in 1923, engendered moods of disillusionment and punctured the confidence in the capacity of the Western proletariat to win power. Out of these roots and these moods sprang the theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’ brought forward by Stalin for the first time in 1924 ...
This Nationalist degeneration, proceeding under the corrosive influence of Soviet isolation, led inevitably to a departure from the proletarian basis of Soviet policy at home and abroad. [13]

The 1951 version is quite otherwise:

We know the Soviet Union in 1951 as a supernationalist totalitarian state, which rules by brute force and police terror and cynically manipulates other peoples to further its own national-strategic ends. An oligarchic bureaucracy rules the people and the economy of Russia under conditions of total tyranny ... They believed they were launching this great effort by establishing in Russia the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. This is a term and an idea that was never very precisely defined by Marxists from the time Marx first used it in 1852 ... In later years the evolution of the Russian state under Stalin provided its own definition of the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. The historic reality usurped the claims of the theoretical concept, and despite the possible appeal to the real democratic content of many other aspects of Marxist thought, no restoration on this score seems possible.’ [14]

Thus there disappeared from Isaacs’ thought the notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, the nature of the bureaucracy considered as a caste and the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state.

Again, when he changed the titles of his chapters about the Wuhan government [15], he there modified his approach to the policies of the Communist International and the Chinese Communist Party within the class collaborationist government of the Communists and the Left Guomindang in 1927. In particular, while keeping in the quotations from Trotsky, he cut out his past references to the policy of the Comintern as regards workers’ councils. Let us join his vigorous advocacy in 1938:

Had not Stalin wired, as far back as October 1926, to check the peasants in order not to alienate the generals? Was not the Comintern, in these very days, opposing the creation of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ Soviets? ... In Wuhan, at the other end of wires from Moscow, were Borodin, Roy, Mif, Lozovsky, Browder, Doriot and a host of other ‘Bolshevik’ advisors. Not one of them raised his voice – in time. None of the contemptible evasions and falsehoods with which Moscow sought to thrust responsibility on the shoulders of Chen Tu-Hsiu and the Chinese Central Committee, can conceal the identity of the political path designated by the Communist International and followed by the Chinese Communist Party ...
‘Concede, concede!’ cried Borodin, Roy, and all the minions of the Communist International when as never before the Chinese revolution needed to unfurl upon its banners the immortal slogan of Danton, ‘de l’audace, de l’audace, encore de l’audace!’ But Moscow ordered the Chinese Communists to bow before the Left Guomindang. The Left Guomindang kow-towed before the militarists, the landlords and the bourgeoisie. This treachery would in the end strangle the Chinese revolution, but not all the vacillation and cowardice of these leaders could cloud the grandeur and the might of the masses in action. [l6]

The 1951 version dealing with the same events comes to grips with them in quite a different way:

The Comintern would soon be denouncing this course and charging the Chinese Communists with exclusive responsibility for the debacle which followed. But the record shows that the Chinese Communist Party was with literal fidelity carrying out directives it had received from Moscow ... Moscow had imposed a formula which cancelled itself out: victory was impossible without the cooperation of the Left Guomindang. But, as we have seen, under the leadership of the Left Guomindang, it was impossible to have the agrarian revolution. Hence on Moscow’s terms victory was impossible. [l7]

Furthermore, in 1951 Isaacs profoundly modified his last three 1938 chapters. His study on Fruits of Defeat which takes up a large part of the work in 1938 is replaced in 1951 by The Imprint of the Chinese Revolution and henceforth serves as a conclusion to the edition of 1961.

The chapter on the Jiangxi period, from 1928 to 1934, The Rise and Fall of ‘Soviet China’, missing in 1951, reappears in an appendix in 1961. By contrast the conclusion of the first edition, The New ‘National United Front’, is simply abandoned in 1951 for a synthesis, The Blind Alley of Totalitarianism, which is likewise suppressed in 1961.

The political analysis developed in The New ‘National United Front’ seems to have as its source the report of Liu Renjing, Five Years of the Left Opposition in China, sent to Trotsky in August 1935. [18] In the final chapter in 1938, the author grapples with the slogan ‘For a National Assembly’, as opposed to the slogan ‘A People’s Soviet Government’ or the ‘National United Front’:

Although the Trotskyists never gathered enough strength to exert any direct influence on events, they hammered insistently on the need for an elementary democratic programme as the indispensable starting point for the revival of the Labour movement...Generalised into the slogan for a National Assembly, elected by the universal suffrage of the people, this programme offered a common starting-point for all sections of the population oppressed and terrorised by the Guomindang military dictatorship.
Events forced the Stalinists to take half a step, despite themselves, in this direction. Their own programme of ‘Soviet power’ possessed no immediate significance that the workers could grasp. Their slogans, ‘Support the Red Army’, ‘Support the Soviets’ bore no relation to the immediate interests or demands of the workers. Frightened by the impotence to which this condemned it, the Communist Party suddenly introduced in the fall of 1931 the slogan of an ‘elected People’s Power’ which sounded dangerously like the Trotskyist position of an elected National Assembly.  [19]

He goes on:

The ‘national united front’ was recreated in 1937 on a new historical plane. In 1927 the Communist Party stood at the head of a mighty mass movement. In 1937 it stood at the head of a peasant army of 100 000 men, isolated from the great masses of the people. In 1927 the Communists believed the working class would win “hegemony” in the bloc with the bourgeoisie and would lead the national liberation movement to victory. In 1937 the Communists formed a bloc based upon the Guomindang’s absorption of the Red Army and the conduct of an anti-Japanese struggle which would serve the immediate interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. [20]

Instead of this analysis of 1938, Isaacs substitutes a chapter in 1951 where all reference to the struggle of the Left Opposition has disappeared, where any polemic about the ‘National United Front’ is absent and where class struggle does not exist. The Blind Alley of Totalitarianism is marked by the Cold War, and makes what looks like an appeal to the ‘Free World’:

It is perhaps the ultimate paradox of this history that the hopes for future world growth on a humanly tolerable basis still lie with the Western world, which did so much to bring Asia to its present pass, and, above all with the United States, which has inherited the world Europe so largely made ... The latest and most formidable of these is the barrier of Russian totalitarian imperialism ... In any case, we will either transform our paretic world and create a global society in which Asia and Africa can thrive with us, or else they will, out of intolerable frustration, create a new set of tyrannies, of which Russia’s will have been but the first and China’s the second. [21]

In coming to this conclusion Isaacs decisively rejects en bloc the lessons which he drew in 1938. It is even in contradiction to the central point of his analysis, which while amending the 1938 edition, continues to be the core of his developing work. His leaving the Socialist Workers Party in 1940, his abandonment of all political struggle, then the incredible American political climate because of McCarthyism in the ’fifties explain this surprising conclusion, which the author has had the wisdom not to put in the edition revised for the second time in 1961.

Even after its evolution through three editions and their signposts 45 years after it first appeared, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution is, nonetheless, one of the indispensable works for an understanding of the Chinese Communist movement and the Communist International in the years 1925-27. In spite of the author’s wish, he has not been able to rip out the stamp of Trotsky which gives this book all its great value.

Paul Collin



1. L.D. Trotsky, The Strangled Revolution, a review of Andre Malraux. Les conquerants, 9 February 1931, in Leon Trotsky on China, New York, 1976, p.509.

2. Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Seeker and Warburg, London, 1938. An abridged Chinese edition appeared in 1947.

3. Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Stanford University Press, 1951, preface by Harold Isaacs, p.viii.

4. Anna Louise Strong, China’s Millions, New York, 1928. A new edition in 1936 had the sub-title The Revolutionary Struggles from 1927 to 1935.

5. Pavel Mif, Heroic China, New York, 1927, Moscow Russian edition in 1932. New English edition in 1937 with the sub-title Fifteen Years of the Communist Party in China.

6. Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Stanford University Press, 1961, second revised edition.

7. Liu Renjing (1899-1987), a personal friend of Isaacs who lived clandestinely with him, was one of the principal leaders of the Communist opposition in China. The author cites him in the 1951 preface under the initials JCL.

[His obituary in the Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.38, June 1989 is as follows: ‘In 1934 he hid with Harold Isaacs in Peking, where he documented his book on China. He was arrested in 1935 and broken by torture. In 1937 he joined the Guomindang and repudiated Communism, and bowed before Mao in 1949 and obtained a minor post in a University Institute.’ – Editors’ note]

8. Letter of Trotsky to Isaacs, 11 February 1936. Oeuvres Leon Trotsky, Tome 8, EDI, Paris 1980, p204. [This letter does not appear to be in any English edition. – Editors’ note]

9. Born in 1910, on his arrival in China in 1930, Harold Isaacs became involved in politics, where he published China Forum, which was close to the Chinese Communist Party. When he came back to Europe in 1935 he wrote in New International and was associated with Fenner Brockway, then leader of the left wing of the ILP. After his interview with Trotsky in Norway in the autumn of 1935 he joined the Workers Party of the United States, or WPUS. With his wife Viola Robinson he was active in the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. Very close to Trotsky until the latter was assassinated, and he left the SWP soon afterwards. [For a time he was associated with Shachtman. – Editors’ note]

10. L.D. Trotsky, Revolution and War in China, Preface to the first edition of Harold Isaacs’ book, 5 January 1938, in Leon Trotsky on China, New York, 1976, pp.581-2.

11. Op. cit. (1951 edition), pp.xii-xiii. [It seems a pity that Collin omitted the following interesting passage from Isaacs’ 1951 Introduction: ‘First published in England in 1938, this book has led an eventful life of its own. The plates and surviving copies of the original edition were destroyed in the Nazi bombing of London in 1940. A pirated edition published in Shanghai had a much wider circulation, copies of it turning up in different parts of the world in later years. In India in 1944 I came across a condensed version circulating in mimeographed form. – Editors’ note]

12. Op. cit., 1951 edition, pp.viii-ix.

13. Op. cit., 1938 edition, p.50. Passage cut in 1951.

14. Op. cit., 1951 edition, pp.37-39.

15. Wuhan – the Revolutionary Centre became in 1951 Moscow the Revolutionary Centre and the Revolutionary Centre at Work became in 1951 Wuhan – the Revolutionary Centre.

16. Op. cit., 1938 edition, pp.257-9. Passage cut out in 1951.

17. Op. cit., 1951 edition, p.220.

18. L.D. Trotsky, Discussions with Harold Isaacs, in August 1935, in Leon Trotsky on China, New York 1976, pp.541-66.

19. Op. cit., 1938 edition, p.434.

20. Op. cit., 1938 edition, p.451.

21. Op. cit., 1951 edition, p.339. [In this translation all Isaacs’ texts have been taken from the English originals and their page references checked. References to Trotsky’s works are also from the English editions, where this is possible. All the notes are from the original article except where otherwise stated. – Editors’ note]


Note on the Transliteration of Chinese names

Except in the case of the titles of old books, or in quotations or citations of authors’ names from such books, names have been given in the new Pinyin system wherever possible. In most cases the names are easily recognised by those well acquainted with the old Wade-Giles system, but a number differ widely in their Pinyin English transcriptions, so we list them here for the convenience of our readers.








Chen Duxiu

Chen Tu-Hsiu

Feng Yuxiang

Feng Yu-hsiang





















Li Dazhao

Li Ta-Chao

Li Lisan

Li Li-San

Liu Renjing

Liu Jen-Ching

Mao Zedong

Mao Tse-Tung

Peng Shuzi

Peng Shu-Tse

Qu Qiubai

Ch’u Ch’iu-Pai









Tan Pinshan

Tang Ping-Shan

Wang Fanxi

Wang Fan-Hsi

Wang Jingwei

Wang Ching-Wei



Zheng Chaolin

Ch’eng Ch’ao-Lin

Revolutionary History,Vol.2 No.4, Spring 1990

Editor: Al Richardson
Deputy Editors: Ted Crawford and Bob Archer
Reviews Editor: Keith Hassell
Business Manager: Barry Buitekant
Production and Design Manager: Paul Flewers
Editorial Board: John Archer, David Bruce, William Cazenave, George Leslie, Sam Levy, Jon Lewis, Charles Pottins, Jim Ring, Bruce Robinson, Ernest Rogers and Ken Tarbuck

ISSN 0953-2382

Copyright © 1990 Socialist Platform, BCM 7646, London WC1N 3XX 
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