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Guerrilla Warfare: The Lesson of China

Letter from a Chinese Trotskyist

[From International Information Bulletin Number 7, September 1970. Published as a fraternal courtesy to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International by the US Socialist Workers Party.]

[In her reply to this article, Chen Bilan (Chen Pi-lan) attributes the article to “Wang,” who presumably is Wang Fanxi (Wang Fan-hsi).]

31 July, 1969
My Dear Friend:

I find it quite understandable that the proposed new Statutes were not adopted at the recent World Congress of the Fourth International. The draft, in my opinion, is too formalistic and does not correspond to the realities of our world organization, which, old as it is, is still in the formative stage, if one judges by the substance..

The resolution on Latin America contains not a few valuable ideas. Yet in some respects it represents the opposite of the position held by Comrade Peng. It fails to emphasize the importance of mobilizing masses and of political-educational work among them. By attaching undue importance to the role of guerrilla warfare in the revolution, it raises the danger of the revolutionary vanguard becoming isolated in action. This could lead to military putschism.

As set forth in the resolution, the question of guerrilla warfare is posed in direct opposition to the Transitional Program in the sense that it implies rejection of the traditional way to the arming of the proletariat formulated in that fundamental document. Needless to say, we must now give increasing attention to the question of armed struggle in the light of new experiences. Guerrilla warfare is just one form of armed struggle. We must now supplement our old position—but not substitute guerrilla warfare for the traditional method of arming the proletariat.

Comrade Peng’s opinions about guerrilla warfare are absurd. During the past forty years, if he has not forgotten anything, he has learned nothing either. What he has steadfastly remembered is the criticism made by Trotsky at the end of 1927 with regard to Stalin’s China policies. After betraying the Chinese revolution by his opportunism, Stalin aggravated the disaster by ordering the Chinese Communists to engage in military adventures. Having helped strangle the revolutionary struggles in the cities, he sought to make up the losses overnight by inciting peasant insurrections in the villages.

Recognizing the new situation resulting from the revolutionary catastrophe, Trotsky called on his Chinese followers to put forward a program of democratic demands, capped by the demand for an all-powerful national assembly to be elected by free, equal and universal suffrage. This was to provide a realistic counter to the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and to enable the revolutionary vanguard to gain time for recovery from the defeat instead of exhausting themselves in hopeless struggles. This “transitional” program would enable the Communists to restore their connections with the working masses in the conditions of a triumphant counterrevolution and thus prepare for a new upsurge of the revolution, which Trotsky considered inevitable.

Trotsky’s criticism of Stalinist policies and the program he advanced in opposition to them proved completely correct. It is to Comrade Peng’s credit that he has not forgotten them. What is unfortunate is that he forgot, or never understood, the precise circumstances in which Trotsky set forth his ideas. He forgot, or never understood, that while condemning military adventurism and proposing a program of democratic demands, Trotsky repeatedly counselled his Chinese followers (circumstances permitting) to support and where possible participate in armed struggles against the Kuomintang and also to support and take part in the struggle against Japanese imperialism.

Here are just two examples of Trotsky’s advice, retranslated into English from Chinese:

1. “Of course, we shall not ourselves be engaged in the guerrilla war (against the Kuomintang). We have another field of action, other tasks to perform. Yet we very earnestly hope that at least we should have our own men in some of the most powerful armed detachments of the Red Army. The Oppositionists should live and die together with these armed detachments. They should help maintain contact between the detachments and the peasants and should have the (guidance of the) organization of the Left Opposition when carrying on this kind of work.” (Letter to the Left Opposition of China, January 8, 1931)

2. “I said all workers’ organizations in China should participate in the present war against the Japanese invasion. They should put themselves in the front lines. At the same time, they should not give up their program and their independent activities.” (Letter to Diego Rivera, September 23, 1937)

For Comrade Peng, however, both in the fight against the Kuomintang regime and in the war against the Japanese invaders, the only way we could intervene was by writing articles. Nevertheless, during the years of the anti-Japanese war, there were some Chinese Trotskyists engaged in the armed struggle.

In two places—one in Kwantung, the other in Shantung province—we even had our comrades leading their own armed detachments. In neither of these two situations was anything of consequence achieved. The detachments were disbanded or destroyed either by the Japanese troops or by Stalinist forces. Reasons for these defeats were many, but this was the main one: the actions were the result of individual initiatives, not an organizational decision; the activity was neither endorsed nor supported by the organization; it therefore lacked political direction and control.

The Chinese Trotskyists formally organized themselves into a unified political group in 1931. When the Chinese Communist Party seized power, they had existed as a political tendency, if not as a party, for twenty years. Yet they had carried out no significant action or any work of great influence. One could advance many reasons, whether real or imaginary, to explain this regrettable fact. The most important, or one of the most important, however, was our erroneous position toward armed struggles. While condemning the Stalinist policy of building “Soviet areas” in the countryside and organizing a “Red Army” from among the peasants, we actually went over to the extreme of opposing, or at any rate being indifferent to, armed struggle. We did not, of course, reject armed struggle in principle. But we did regard it as something very, very remote, to be seriously considered only after a revolutionary situation had matured nationally and workers in the cities had gone out in a general strike. As long as this had not happened, any attempt to take up arms was considered unthinkable and branded as “military opportunism” or “military putschism.” Hence we never thought of sending some of our comrades to work in the anti-Kuomintang armed detachments as Trotsky had counselled us to do. We did not participate in the anti-Japanese war, except by manifestoes and articles, although the conditions for such participation were excellent.

For this false attitude toward armed struggle, Comrade Peng is not, of course, alone responsible. I, as one of the leading members of the organization, bear a share of the responsibility, although I did once attempt to enter the armed struggle and Comrade Peng condemned it. However, it was Comrade Peng who insisted most stubbornly on the false line of the Chinese Trotskyists in the question of armed struggle. He has not examined his attitude in retrospect and still clings to it.

In our epoch, as Trotsky pointed out nearly every class struggle tends to become transformed into civil war. This was especially true of China under the military dictatorship of the Kuomintang. Under such circumstances, any underestimation of armed struggle, or an incorrect attitude toward it, can be fatal to a revolutionary organization. This bitter truth has not dawned on Comrade Peng even yet. That is why he still cannot comprehend the major reason for the victory of the Chinese Communist Party and our failure. The reasons he gave in his article, “Return to the Road of Trotskyism,” in which he tried to explain why the Chinese Communist Party was victorious, seem to me absurd and ridiculous. He wrote:

“...the taking of power in 1949 by the CPC, however, was in no way a result of the guerrilla warfare strategy itself, but rather, a result of the exceptional historical circumstances created as a result of the Japanese invasion of China and World War II. First of all, the Soviet Union’s occupation of Manchuria, the most industrialized part of China, dealt a heavy blow to the forces of Chiang Kai-shek, and the modern weapons which the Red Army obtained from disarming the Japanese were used to arm the Fourth Army of the CPC commanded by Lin Piao. Most important also was the inability of US imperialism to intervene. US imperialism even cut off aid to Chiang Kai-shek’s regime many months before its defeat (that is, in fact, one of the major reasons for the defeat).”

This “explanation” hardly seems to have been given by a revolutionist, but rather by one of Chiang Kai-shek’s apologists: We were defeated only because the United States was unable to intervene and deprived us of aid, while the Communists triumphed only because of the help they got from the Soviet Union!

Anyone who observed and experienced what happened during 1945-49 could not accept Comrade Peng’s “explanation.” It was obvious to everybody that a civil war was raging between the forces of revolution and counterrevolution, between the broad toiling masses on the advance, and the landlord-bourgeois classes in decline. Failing to see this fundamental fact, Comrade Peng attributed the victory of the Chinese Communist Party to “modern weapons” obtained through the Russians and Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat to cutting off the supply of such weapons by the United States. Even Gen. George C. Marshall understood that giving greater supplies of weapons to Chiang would simply mean giving them to the Communists. That was why “US imperialism even-cut off aid to Chiang gai-shell’s regime many months before its defeat.”

Here I will not argue further with Comrade Peng about the reasons for the victory of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, let me ask him a few questions: If the Chinese Communist Party had not engaged in armed struggle against the Kuomintang during the preceding twenty years, how would they have been able to take advantage of the “exceptional historical circumstances created as a result of the World War II?” If the Chinese Communists had not trained themselves as “soldier-revolutionaries,” how could they have utilized the modern weapons given them by the Russians? And if the Communists had not been able to make use of the aid they received, how could they have taken advantage of their enemy’s lack of aid?

Obviously, whoever wishes to turn favorable historical situations to his advantage, must prepare himself for that purpose. Such situations, by the way, have not been rare, and more are bound to occur. If, however, we do as Comrade Peng would have us do—if we confine our work to publishing a magazine and to theoretical discussions—if the weapon we can use is that of criticism only—if we do not prepare, or allow others to prepare, to transform the “arms of criticism” to the “criticism of arms”—then all favorable situations will pass us by without our being able to make the slightest use of them.

In the previously quoted article by Comrade Peng, he says: “’We do not reject guerrilla warfare as a tactic, but rather as a strategy. Definitely, when the situation in any country matures to the point that we must immediately prepare the masses for armed insurrection to seize power, guerrilla warfare by the peasants might be the most useful tactic.”

This brief passage, in my opinion, contains several grave errors:

1. Owing to the “peculiarities of our epoch” the question of armed struggle (including guerrilla warfare as one of its forms) must be considered and dealt with on the level of strategy.

2. The experiences of revolutionary struggles in many countries during the past forty years attest that guerrilla wars were not necessarily conducted entirely by peasants. Nor were the rise and maintenance of guerrilla detachments seen only during and after an uprising by the urban proletariat. On the contrary, such detachments have arisen and existed prior to the maturing of a revolutionary situation in the cities. Experience has shown that guerrilla activity in the countryside can serve as a powerful stimulant to revolutionary action in the cities.

3. If we consider guerrilla warfare purely as a “tactic” when the situation is maturing to the point where it is necessary to prepare the armed uprising for the seizure of power, then we will prove unable either to organize and direct the insurrection in the cities or to organize and direct guerrilla warfare in the countryside, for we shall have done nothing to prepare ourselves for this kind of struggle.

Comrade Peng has not drawn any lesson either from the history of -the Chinese revolution in general or from the experiences of the Chinese Trotskyists in particular. Instead he persists in his false position on the question of armed struggle. What is worse, he is now trying to “export” this false position to the International. That is why I have had to write these comments, which I hope you will transmit to our friends abroad.


Last updated on 11.19.2005