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On the Nature of Revolution

by Zheng Chaolin

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

On the Nature of Revolution is an extract from an article published in the bulletin of the minority tendency of the Chinese Trotskyist movement, the Internationalist, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. The article was probably written by Zheng Chaolin who, together with Wang Fanxi, edited and wrote most of the articles for the bulletin. It began publication after the split from Peng Shuzi in the summer of 1941.

The split in the organisation was over their characterisation of the war of resistance against Japan and the revolutionaries’ attitude to Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership in the struggle. There were arguments over Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, the nature of the coming Third Chinese Revolution and its implications for the tasks of revolutionaries.

However, as the Chinese Trotskyist organisations at that time were mainly propagandist because of their size (approximately 400 in total), the disagreements were never tested in practice.

Zheng Chaolin (1901- ) joined the Chinese Communist Parts as early as 1922 while still in Paris, returning in 1924 to edit the party’s Hsiang-tao (Guide Weekly). During the Second Chinese Revolution he served on the Hubei Provincial Committee of the CCP. In 1929 he joined the Trotskyist movement, and represented the Proletarian Society at the unification of the Chinese Trotskyists in May 1931, where he was put in charge of propaganda, only to be arrested three weeks later by the Guomindang. He was not released until 1937. During the Sino-Japanese War he held the position that it was part of the coming world war, and that to support China against Japan would be tantamount to supporting American against Japanese imperialism. When the Chinese Trotskyists split in May 1941 he shared the publication work of the Internationalist group with Wang Fanxi. He was arrested by the Maoist secret police during the general round-up of the Trotskyists in 1952, and was kept in prison without trial until 1979. A gifted and brilliant translator, he was responsible for the appearance of many of the classic works of Marxism in the Chinese language.

The Trotskyist movement campaigned for years to secure the release of its martyrs in Chinese prisons. In 1974 Frank Glass and Peng Shuzi issued a pamphlet, Revolutionaries in Mao’s Prisons, and appeals for their release became increasingly frequent as the 1970s wore on (cf. InterContinental Press, 8 May 1972, 28 April 1975, 4 October 1976; Workers Vanguard, 28 February 1975; Chartist, December 1977). Particularly was this the case with Zheng, who might have been expected to have been treated more leniently after the utter discredit of Mao’s faction following his death (cf Gregor Benton, What Became of Cheng Chao-Lin? in Inprecor, new series no.18, December 1977, pp31-2, and in InterContinental Press, 28 November 1977). The survivors were finally released in 1979 (cf. Amnesty International Newsletter, Vol.ix, no.9, September 1979; Socialist Challenge, 23 August 1979; and Workers Vanguard, 12 October 1979), and fortunately Zheng Chaolin was among them (Gregor Benton, Trotskyist Leader Zheng Chaolin Released in China, in InterContinental Press, 1 October 1979).

A tendency in the Chinese section of the Fourth International which holds the defencist (defence of China against Japanese occupation) position argued that, even though the leadership of the anti-Japanese war of resistance is in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the struggle itself is a manifestation of the national liberation struggle, and, as the fight for national liberation is the main content of a bourgeois democratic revolution, it is a stage that cannot be skipped over on the road to a proletarian Socialist revolution. However, in order to distinguish themselves from the Stalinists’ position on the [forthcoming] Chinese revolution, they added that there is no Chinese wall between the bourgeois democratic revolution and the proletarian Socialist revolution.

We have discussed on many previous occasions, in concrete and factual terms rather than in theoretical terms, whether the anti-Japanese war of resistance can be considered as a struggle for national liberation. So we will not dwell on this question here. However, we need to examine another question, that is, whether the waging of a revolution for national liberation in China is a stage in a bourgeois democratic revolution. In other words, we need a broad discussion on the nature of revolutions.

Is a national revolution bourgeois democratic or proletarian Socialist? This question did not arise in the era of classic bourgeois democratic revolutions. The fact that this question is being posed points to the fact that we are talking about revolution in a backward country. Indeed, this question about the nature of national revolutions is being raised and discussed in many backward countries. Furthermore, we can observe a common feature in these revolutions – all reactionary policies are carried out with the excuse that ‘the national revolution is a bourgeois democratic revolution’.

We can begin with the Russian Revolution. From the outset, the Mensheviks had maintained that the Russian Revolution would be a bourgeois democratic revolution. They therefore supported the seizure of power by the party of the liberal bourgeoisie, the Cadets, whilst limiting themselves to being an opposition party and waiting for the right conditions for a Socialist revolution to develop in Russia. After the February Revolution, the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ also used the same excuse that the democratic tasks had not been fulfilled, and therefore the revolution must still be bourgeois democratic in nature. They opposed Lenin’s new line in the April Theses, and maintained their slogan of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’.

Let us turn to China. The Guomindang is not against all revolutions. It opposes only a proletarian Socialist revolution in China. Indeed, it massacred the worker and peasant masses in the name of ‘national revolution’ (that is a bourgeois democratic revolution in English). It was the Stalinist party that in 1927 suppressed the so-called ‘excesses’ of the peasants and workers, that refused to break with the Guomindang, that opposed the building of soviets, all based on the theory that ‘the Chinese revolution will be a bourgeois democratic revolution’. Ten years on, this party is still using this as a reason for following [Sun Yat-sen’s] ‘Three People’s Principles’ and accepting the leadership of the bourgeoisie.

At present, the defencists argue for support for the defence of the Chinese motherland [against the Japanese] on the basis that ‘the present stage of the Chinese revolution is bourgeois democratic’. The only thing that distinguishes them from the Stalinist party is that they believe that the coming third revolution will be a proletarian Socialist revolution, whereas the Stalinist party thinks that there must still be a bourgeois democratic stage that cannot be skipped over, and that we are at this stage now. The defencists and the Stalinist party both oppose any attempts to bring about a proletarian Socialist revolution in China at the moment.

Almost all the ills of a backward country can be blamed on the ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’!

Unfortunately, Lenin and Trotsky are quoted in defence of these positions. Just as the Old Bolsheviks quoted Lenin’s past writings to oppose the living Lenin, our defencists are now using dead and past writings of Lenin and Trotsky to oppose the living, present day revolution, to resist the path forced upon them by a living revolution. If Lenin had died earlier, or had stayed abroad unable to return to Russia to initiate the struggle, it would not be difficult to imagine the confusion there would have been in revolutionary Russia. We can see this by comparison with the confused state of revolutionary ideas in China at the moment.

This confusion is rooted in political theory, and we must first clarify it. Our method of clarification is the same method used by Lenin in April 1917.



The Old Bolsheviks, as represented by Kamenev, opposed the April Theses. ‘We cannot accept Comrade Lenin’s theses, because the starting point of these theses is to accept that the bourgeois democratic revolution has been completed, and that we must immediately turn this revolution into a Socialist revolution.’ Lenin’s reply was cut and dry: ‘State power in Russia has passed into the hands of a new class, namely, the bourgeoisie and landowners who had become bourgeois. To this extent, the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia has been completed.’ In these sentences, Lenin spelt out clearly that the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia belonged to the past, that there would be no more such revolutions in the future.

Was Lenin correct in saying this? Certainly. Did his few words change the minds of the Old Bolsheviks? No. The Old Bolsheviks pointed to the fact that land reform had not yet begun (even Lenin admitted this). Yet Lenin had always considered the land question in Russia as central to the bourgeois democratic revolution. Before February, Lenin believed that the bourgeois democratic revolution was the revolution that could resolve the land question. Even after the October Revolution, when writing in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky in 1918, he still maintained that the bourgeois democratic revolution was a revolution to resolve the land question. He wrote:

Yes, our revolution is a bourgeois revolution as long as we march with the peasants as a whole ... Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning. First, with the whole of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a Socialist one.

In other words, Lenin, both before and after 1917, characterised the revolution by the tasks to be fulfilled. However, during the revolution in 1917, he characterised the revolution according to which class had control of state power. The conclusions might be different, but that is because the criteria used to determine the character of the revolution were different, and there is no contradiction between the two positions.

For the purpose of general theoretical analysis, Lenin had always characterised a revolution by its tasks. He did so before the eruption and after the success of the [1917] revolution. Yet, during revolutionary struggle, when there was contention about the way forward, particularly when those arguing for the wrong direction based their position entirely on the formula ‘the bourgeois revolution is not yet completed’, general criteria for analysis were insufficient. At that moment, we must look to the mechanics of the revolution as the criteria. (‘Mechanics’ refers to the action and interaction between classes, and includes the revolution’s motive force, but is more than the revolutionary motive force. There has never been a suitable translation. Some people translate it as ‘structure’, but this is not very fitting – author’s note).

Why is a general definition not sufficient in this situation? Why is it not possible to determine the character of a revolution by its tasks? As Lenin had said, it was not certain at that time whether the peasants would follow the lead of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. To solve the land question, the proletariat had to break with the petit-bourgeoisie and take the step towards the seizure of state power. It was only then that they could gain the trust of the peasants and resolve the land question once and for all. Because of this, they had to declare that ‘the slogan of the "democratic dictatorship of the peasants and workers’’ is obsolete, it is dead and cannot be resurrected’. For the same reason, they also had to proclaim that ‘the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia is over’.

This was Trotsky’s position as well as Lenin’s. The Old Bolshevik Preobrazhensky (though he later joined the Left Opposition) did not understand Lenin’s method. He wrote to Trotsky saying that ‘Your basic error lies in the fact that you determine the character of a revolution on the basis of who makes it, which class, i.e. by the effective subject, while you seem to assign secondary importance to the objective social content of the process’ (Leon Trotsky on China, p.278). Preobrazhensky represented the spirit of Kamenev in 1917, whilst Trotsky used Lenin’s method to counter his position.

Sociological definitions of a bourgeois democratic revolution cannot foretell which class will bring about this revolution. This problem was at the root of the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks advocated a proletarian revolution, yet in the midst of revolutionary struggle they could not solve this problem, and still characterised the revolution as bourgeois democratic on the basis of its historical tasks. We can learn from this that anyone who dogmatically holds the position of a bourgeois democratic revolution, or that of a bourgeois democratic stage that cannot be skipped over, can be misled into criminal policies.

If we apply Lenin’s method to the Chinese revolution, the agrarian question in China has not been resolved, and the country has not been unified and gained independence. In sociological terms, that is, in terms of historical tasks, the Chinese revolution should be bourgeois democratic, and it could be said that at present we are in that bourgeois democratic stage. However, what are the implications of such a sociological definition? Does it clarify revolutionary theory and strategies? No, in fact it sows confusion, and is used by the Chinese Constitutional Democratic Party, the Chinese Mensheviks and the Chinese Old Bolsheviks to support their defencist position, and send the revolution to an early grave. We must therefore proclaim loudly, like Lenin, ‘State power in China is now in the hands of the bourgeoisie and the landlords who have become bourgeois, therefore the bourgeois democratic revolution in China has been completed’.

Even if we do not use Lenin’s method and characterise the revolution by its tasks rather than by the control of state power, it can still be argued that the revolution is not bourgeois democratic. It is open to question, whether or not a task which had historically been completed by a bourgeois democratic revolution can be completed by another class in a future revolution, or whether it can still be completed within the confines of a democratic revolution. Unless these points are clarified, it would merely cause more confusion just mouthing the formulation of ‘bourgeois democratic tasks’.



What are these ‘bourgeois democratic tasks’? They all boil down to national liberation and land reform.

To view the question of national liberation in China as a bourgeois democratic task comparable to that of Holland, the United States, Italy, Norway and Belgium is to be concerned merely with form and not with content. The gaining of the national independence of these countries was undoubtedly a bourgeois democratic task, because they were seeking independence from what are generally capitalist or feudal ‘strong states’, but not from imperialist states, especially not from post World War imperialist states. It is possible to win independence from ‘strong states’ within the limits of a bourgeois democratic revolution. But to liberate China from the various imperialists is to strike a blow at the foundations of imperialism, and is characteristic of the proletarian revolution. This project cannot be carried out by the Chinese bourgeoisie. In historic terms, even the bourgeois democratic revolution (let alone a bourgeois democratic revolution led by the proletariat) cannot be completed. To complete this project, the revolution must rise above the limitations of bourgeois democracy. In doing so, it is necessary to bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat.

What of land reform in China? Trotsky told us:

The peasants’ revolt in China, much more than it was in Russia, is a revolt against the bourgeoisie. A class of landlords as a separate class does not exist in China. The landowners and the bourgeoisie are one and the same. The gentry and the tuchens [large landlords], against whom the peasant movement is immediately directed, represent the lowest link to the bourgeoisie and to the imperialist exploiters as well. In Russia the October Revolution, in its first stage, counterposed all the peasants as a class against all the landlords as a class, and only after several months began to introduce the civil war within the peasantry. In China every peasant uprising is, from the start, a civil war of the poor against the rich peasants, that is, against the village bourgeoisie. (Leon Trotsky on China, p.482)

In other words, the Chinese revolution is at a different level from the Russian Revolution, it has even less bourgeois democratic content.

Even assuming that an agrarian revolution in China could be realised as it was in Russia, would we still consider land reform as a bourgeois democratic task? Yes, if we use a sociological definition. Both Lenin and Trotsky had always maintained this. However, we should cast off sociological viewpoints and examine historical facts. In historical terms the French Revolution was a bourgeois democratic revolution that resolved the agrarian question most fundamentally. However, how did the French Revolution solve the land question? Did it distribute land equitably to all peasants? No, the land was sold to peasants, and not only to peasants but to anyone with money. Peasants with no money still did not have land. The French Revolution commercialised land, to be freely bought and sold. This was the historic limit that could be achieved by a bourgeois agrarian revolution.

It would be correct to say, judging from theoretical analysis and sociological definitions rather than from looking at historical events, that confiscation and equitable redistribution of land by the state to the peasants was not beyond the limits of a bourgeois democratic revolution. Lenin, writing in 1912 (Democratism and Nationalism in China) criticised Sun Yat-sen’s land reform programme:

Is this land reform [nationalisation of the land] possible within capitalism? Not only is this possible, it will be the most perfect and most thorough-going ideal capitalism. Marx made this point in the Poverty of Philosophy, and demonstrated it in Capital Volume 3, and clearly expanded it especially in the debate with Rodbertus on the theory of surplus value.

Yet we have never seen this ‘most pure and most absolutely perfect ideal capitalism’ being realised in any capitalist country, and we will never see it. However, this [perfect] ‘capitalism’ was realised. Where? In Russia after the October Revolution, under the leadership of Lenin, when the revolution had gone beyond capitalism, and was no longer within the bounds of capitalism.

To see agrarian revolution in China as a reliable bourgeois democratic task is to want to resolve the Chinese land question as in the French Revolution – to ask the peasants to buy the land, to make land a commodity to be bought and sold. We do not need a new revolution for this. This is already happening in China.

The future agrarian revolution in China must take on the character of the October Revolution in Russia, an agrarian revolution that cannot in practice (and not in theory) be carried out by capitalism. To realise this revolution, we must go beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy and set up the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Chinese revolution cannot be bourgeois democratic, not only in terms of state power but also in terms of the two important tasks of national liberation and land reform.

Strictly speaking, these two important tasks cannot be seen as bourgeois democratic tasks, yet they will play vital roles in the Chinese revolution. Also, it would be incorrect to say that this is a stage that cannot be skipped over. Revolutionary struggle in China will develop along the lines of these two tasks. The proletariat will seize state power at the height of the struggles for national liberation and land reform. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that there can be another future – when the balance of forces in the world and in China can create a situation where the proletariat, as ordinary people, understand the need for a Socialist revolution and seizes state power. What we will have then is not just Chinese national independence, but a world or Asian soviet federation; not just equitable distribution of land to poor peasants, but a Socialist land system. This is a slim possibility, but it would be entirely wrong to deny that it could ever happen.

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

Editor: Al Richardson
Deputy Editors: Ted Crawford and Bob Archer
Reviews Editor: Keith Hassell
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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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