MIA: History: ETOL: Documents: International Communist League/Spartacists—Chinese Trotskyism

Permanent Revolution vs. the “Anti-Imperialist United Front”

The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism

Written: 1997
Source: Permanent Revolution vs. the “Anti-Imperialist United Front”: The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism, Spartacist, No. 53, Summer 1997
Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman.
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2007. You can freely copy, display and otherwise distribute this work. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & editors above.

To build the revolutionary proletarian party which is necessary to lead a socialist revolution, the working class must be armed with the consciousness of its historic role and an understanding of the victories and defeats in the class struggles of the past which have shaped the world we confront today. Not the least of the crimes of the Stalinist bureaucratic clique which usurped the mantle of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International was the undermining of the historically acquired class consciousness of the vanguard of the world’s proletariat. Lacking real continuity with the aims and program of the founders of the Communist International, Stalin and his epigones had to create for themselves an ersatz legitimacy, twisting and perverting beyond recognition not only the real history of the international communist movement but the essential concepts and terminology of Marxism itself.

In the Stalinist-ruled states, the cynical manipulation of the great liberating ideals of socialism in the service of bureaucratic regimes of repression, lies and privilege has engendered widespread demoralization and cynicism among the working people. In 1991, the workers of the Soviet Union did not fight to defend the remaining gains of the 1917 October Revolution, doubtless because they saw no way to do so as their own rulers joined in the chorus that “communism is dead,” but also because of the deep erosion of basic pro-socialist consciousness.

Not only by alienating the working masses from “socialism” but equally by degrading the meaning of every essential idea of revolutionary Marxism, the Stalinists have robbed the proletariat of its own history. To sell as “Marxism-Leninism” the anti-Leninist program of “socialism in one country,” Stalin and his heirs had to totally falsify the past while emptying the language of Marxism of any real meaning. So the struggles between classes are rewritten as a moral battle between “progressives” and “reactionaries”; the “united front” becomes a formula for subordinating the proletariat to its class enemies.

The Chinese Stalinists led by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) developed a particularly demented version of Stalinist doublespeak. “Capitalism” ceased to mean a concrete form of property relations; “following the capitalist road” became an epithet to be thrown at Mao’s opponents in the bureaucracy. Students were hailed as “proletarian revolutionaries” while being cynically mobilized to break workers strikes during the intrabureaucratic war known as the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” In Mao-speak, the struggle against supposed “Soviet social-imperialism” justified China’s rapprochement with the real American imperialists at the height of their dirty, losing war against the Vietnamese Revolution.

The bureaucrats who rule in the Forbidden City continue to call themselves “Communists” as they scramble to enrich themselves and their progeny and seek to become part of a new class of capitalist exploiters on the Chinese mainland. Like their Russian and East European counterparts who handed the former deformed workers states over to capitalist counterrevolution, the Chinese ruling caste must be swept away by proletarian political revolution. Those who seek today to defend and extend the social gains which resulted from the smashing of capitalism by the third Chinese Revolution of 1949 must reappropriate the program and goals which animated the founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who sought to build a party representing the revolutionary class interests of the proletariat.

Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution provides the cornerstone of revolutionary strategy in countries of belated capitalist development. It anticipated and was confirmed by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, when for the first time in history the proletariat under revolutionary leadership took and held state power. In China in particular, the theory of permanent revolution, and Trotsky’s subsequent devastating critique of the Stalinized Communist International’s program of subordinating the Chinese proletariat to the bourgeois Guomindang (Kuomintang [KMT]), had an electrifying impact on many Chinese Communists.

The theory of permanent revolution was developed during the period 1904-1906 by Trotsky and A.L. Helfand (Parvus), as a projection of the likely future course of revolutionary development in tsarist Russia. As finally codified by Trotsky, the theory held that the Russian Revolution would be proletarian socialist in character; that the solution of the bourgeois-democratic tasks (such as destruction of the tsarist autocracy, land to the tiller, democratic solution of the national question) was conceivable only in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat would inevitably place on the order of the day not only democratic but socialist tasks as well. The Russian revolution would be a powerful impetus to proletarian revolutions elsewhere, especially in the advanced imperialist countries of Europe; workers revolutions there would, in turn, provide the vital material assistance necessary to open the road to building a socialist society in Russia.

Within the Russian Social Democracy prior to the February 1917 revolution, there were two other viewpoints. The Mensheviks asserted that the revolution would occur in distinct stages: first a bourgeois-democratic revolution and then later a socialist revolution. They argued that the victory of the Russian bourgeois revolution was possible only under the leadership of the liberal bourgeoisie and must put the latter in power.

Lenin’s Bolsheviks were closer to Trotsky’s view, in that they insisted that the Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of leading a democratic revolution. The Bolsheviks argued that what was necessary was an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, culminating in the establishment of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” Lenin believed that this revolutionary regime would necessarily be confined to a bourgeois-democratic program, but he argued that the Russian revolution would help spark socialist revolution in the West, enabling the Russian proletariat to come to power on a socialist program in a comparatively brief historical period.

The victorious October Revolution of 1917 fully confirmed Trotsky’s position on the character of the revolution in Russia. Lenin’s slogan was flawed in any case because it projected the creation of a state defending the interests of two different classes, the proletariat and the peasantry; in April 1917 he rejected it. In his “Letter on Tactics” Lenin stated: “The person who now speaks only of a ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques.” However, as the International Communist League has pointed out:

“The party, led by Lenin and aided by the more radical Petrograd committee, semi-empirically overcame the limitations of this ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ because their political appetite was clearly for proletarian power and that’s what they fought for despite the theoretical ambiguity. But in fact the Bolsheviks never adopted Trotsky’s correct and essential theory of permanent revolution. This theoretical failure, and the failure to explicitly repudiate the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,’ then became a conduit for the forces later posturing as the Bolshevik ‘old guard’ (e.g., Stalin) to attack Trotsky, the theory of permanent revolution, and the revolutionary internationalist premises and implications of the Bolshevik revolution itself.”

— Letter from the ICL to the LQB of Brazil, 11 June 1996
(International Bulletin
No. 41, April 1997)

During the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, the Comintern, under the leadership of first Zinoviev and then Bukharin/Stalin, regenerated the Menshevik theory of stages and applied it to the young Chinese Communist Party. The Comintern’s policy of liquidating the CCP into the party of the national bourgeoisie, the Guomindang, was imposed despite the doubts and opposition that were repeatedly raised by leading Chinese cadres, who deferred to Moscow’s authority. The result was the bloody defeat of the revolution, as the Guomindang drowned the Chinese working class in blood, a catastrophe which decapitated the Chinese working class.

For Trotsky, who had fought against this betrayal, the Chinese events of 1925-27 were pivotal, enabling him to generalize the theory of permanent revolution to countries outside Russia. The Chinese Revolution proved by negative example that the path of permanent revolution was the necessary course for revolutionary change in all the countries of belated capitalist development. After 1927 Trotsky waged the struggle against the Stalinist usurpers under the banner of the permanent revolution.

The Early Comintern and the Colonial Question

When the Comintern (CI) first sought to address the question of the relationship between Communist parties and bourgeois-nationalist movements in the countries of the East, it was breaking new ground. The Bolsheviks’ expectations for extension of October were focused on Europe, where proletarian revolutions were imminently possible. With a few exceptions, there was little or no tradition of Marxist workers parties in the countries of the colonial and semicolonial world, and most of the bourgeois-nationalist parties, like the Chinese Guomindang, were also of relatively recent origin. The proletarian movement in the colonial world was itself new and small. Hence the CI’s early work on the national and colonial question was largely directed at the workers movement of the advanced countries, to draw a hard programmatic line between the Communists and the chauvinist cesspool of the Second International. The “Twenty-One Conditions” adopted at the Comintern’s Second Congress demanded that the Communist parties in the imperialist countries support “every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds,” and carry out “systematic propaganda among their own country’s troops against any oppression of colonial peoples.”

Revolutionary struggles had been sweeping through much of Europe. Lenin and Trotsky expected that proletarian revolution would triumph in several advanced capitalist countries in Europe within a relatively short period of time. The Comintern tended to view the possibility of socialist revolution in the colonies as an outgrowth of successful revolutions in the imperialist heartland. In a report to Russian Communist Party delegates to the Tenth Congress of Soviets in December 1922, Trotsky asserted that “the colonies, if taken independently and isolatedly, are absolutely not ready for the proletarian revolution. If they are taken isolatedly, then capitalism still has a long possibility of economic development in them. But the colonies belong to the metropolitan centers and their fate is intimately bound up with the fate of these European metropolitan centers” (Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2).

The Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, passed at the Second Congress of the CI in 1920, asserted the importance of “establishing the closest possible alliance between the West-European communist proletariat and the revolutionary peasant movement in the East, in the colonies, and in the backward countries generally. It is particularly necessary to exert every effort to apply the basic principles of the Soviet system in countries where pre-capitalist relations predominate—by setting up ‘working people’s Soviets,’ etc.”

In addressing the question of organizing peasant soviets in the report of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions, Lenin gave the example of Turkestan, part of Soviet Central Asia. The achievement of workers rule in Russia had facilitated the establishment of the soviet system in parts of the old tsarist empire where the proletariat barely existed. Lenin asserted more generally that the extension of proletarian rule in the metropolitan countries might make it possible for the colonies to skip the capitalist stage of development: “If the victorious revolutionary proletariat conducts systematic propaganda among them, and the Soviet governments come to their aid with all the means at their disposal—in that event it will be mistaken to assume that the backward peoples must inevitably go through the capitalist stage of development.”

The 1920 Theses dealt with the relationship between the Communist parties and bourgeois-nationalist movements in a fairly algebraic manner. They asserted that “The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is in its most embryonic form.” In particular, the Theses pointed to “the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, and mullahs, etc.”

By the time of the Fourth Congress of the CI in late 1922, the situation had changed. The postwar revolutionary wave in Europe had receded. By now, as the new “Theses on the Eastern Question” noted, Communist parties had been formed in many of the countries of the East. The question of these young communist organizations’ relations with bourgeois-nationalist movements demanded concrete answers. Although the Theses condemned the colonial bourgeoisie, the section entitled “The Anti-Imperialist United Front” provided an ambiguous answer to the problem of communist perspectives in the colonial world:

“The proletariat supports and advances such partial demands as an independent democratic republic, the abolition of all feudal rights and privileges, the introduction of women’s rights, etc., in so far as it cannot, with the relation of forces as it exists at present, make the implementation of its soviet programme the immediate task of the day.”

While criticizing the colonial bourgeoisie, the Fourth Congress Theses clearly went beyond recognizing the possibility of common actions with bourgeois nationalists, such as a military bloc against an imperialist power. The Theses were mooting a call for a political bloc with bourgeois nationalism around a minimum program of democratic demands. Implicitly they posed a Menshevik, two-stage program for the colonial revolution, with the first stage being a democratic struggle against imperialism (the “anti-imperialist united front”). It was of course a sharp descent from these opportunist impulses expressed at the Fourth Congress of the revolutionary Comintern to the full-blown catastrophic betrayal subsequently carried out in China by Stalin and Bukharin. But already some Comintern leaders, like Zinoviev, were coming to the conclusion that proletarian revolution in the East was not a possibility except in the distant future. The First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East, which had taken place several months earlier (January 1922), had adopted “Theses on the Tasks of Communists in the Far East” which stated:

“Although under the present international conditions the division of the program of the Communist Parties into a minimum program and a maximum program is important only under certain circumstances, such a division must be considered valid in the immediate future particularly for the countries of the Far East, to the extent that the next stage of development of these countries is the democratic overturn and the independent—political and economic—class organization of the proletariat.”

The Fourth Congress Theses provide almost no concrete detail about the work of sections in the colonial countries. But the import of what was going on is clear from the speeches of the delegates to the Congress. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) had already entered the Islamic League, Sarekat Islam. After the communists were expelled by Sarekat in 1921, the PKI attempted unsuccessfully to launch its own “Red Sarekat Islam” groups. The Indonesian delegate to the Fourth Congress, Tan Malaka, argued for a “united front with revolutionary nationalism,” defended pan-Islamism as corresponding “to the national liberation struggle” and justified the PKI’s entry into Sarekat Islam. The Fourth Congress Theses revised the hard line against pan-Islamism taken at the Second Congress, neutrally observing that “As the national liberation movements grow and mature, the religious-political slogans of pan-Islamism will be replaced by political demands.”

Significantly, the Fourth Congress took place only a few months after Comintern envoys had persuaded the reluctant leadership of the Chinese Communist Party to shelve their opposition to entry into the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang. One Chinese delegate at the Fourth Congress declared:

“On the assumption that the anti-imperialist united front is necessary to get rid of imperialism in China, our party has decided to form a national front with the national revolutionary party of the Kuomintang.... If we do not enter this party we shall remain isolated, preaching a communism which is, it is true, a great and sublime ideal, but which the masses do not follow.”

— Jane Degras, ed., The Communist International 1919-1943:
Vol. I (1956)

The Founding of Chinese Communism

Only the theory of permanent revolution enabled Marxists to transcend the confusion, limitations and in some instances errors of early Comintern policy on the colonial and national questions. The early CT resolutions did not answer the essential question confronting the new Communist parties in the East: What would be the class character of the coming revolution? Permanent revolution projected that short of the establishing of the dictatorship of the proletariat, even the most basic democratic tasks could not be resolved. The competing programs of permanent revolution or class collaboration were fought out in the Communist movement over policy toward China and the bourgeois Guomindang.

It was the economic developments accompanying World War I which gave flesh and blood to the perspective of permanent revolution in China, and also India. The war choked off the supply of consumer goods and capital from the West European powers, giving a powerful impetus to local capitalist industry. In China, both Chinese- and Japanese-owned enterprises burgeoned during the war, supplying the huge domestic market, with most new investment centering in the coastal urban centers and concentrated in cotton and silk mills, as well as food processing. By 1919 there were some 1.5 million industrial workers, most of them newly urbanized and retaining strong links with the countryside. While still a tiny minority of the population, the proletariat was concentrated in large enterprises in a few urban centers, giving it enormous social power.

Imperialist penetration had introduced the most modern techniques in production, but the imperialists simultaneously perpetuated the backwardness of the country. The existence of the foreign “spheres of influence” prevented China from achieving any real degree of national unification. The vast majority of the population still lived in the countryside. Over half of the Chinese peasantry was entirely landless, and another 20 percent were holders of land inadequate for bare subsistence. The title to much of the land was held by absentee landlords, government officials, banks and urban capitalists, who controlled the commercial capital penetrating to the remotest villages via the local merchants and usurers, and who were in turn dominated by foreign finance capital and the regime of the world market.

It was the recent and explosive growth of the Chinese working class which opened up a perspective of the proletariat leading the peasant masses in social revolution. The first union in China wasn’t organized until 1918. But seven years later, a million Chinese workers participated in strikes, many of them directly political in character (Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution). Two years after that, Chinese unions counted three million members, and in Shanghai the workers carried out a victorious insurrection which placed political power within their grasp. The young CCP quickly gained hegemony in this volatile workers movement.

The first Marxist study circles were organized in China in 1918. Marxism and Soviet Russia became attractive to students and other intellectuals, as their illusions in the “democratic West” were dashed. The founding cadres of the Chinese CP were assembled during 1919 in the May 4th Movement, named for the date of huge student demonstrations which erupted in protest at the terms of the Versailles Treaty granting Japanese imperialism sweeping concessions in China. The leader of the Chinese Communists was Chen Duxiu (Ch’en Tu-hsiu), then a professor at Peking National University. A brilliant Chinese linguist, Chen had introduced a system simplifying the written language to make it accessible to the masses. As a revolutionary democrat, Chen had served as an adviser to a provincial governor in the Nationalist regime following the overthrow of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in the first Chinese Revolution of 1911. Disillusioned through experience with the Guomindang’s pretensions to democracy and progress, Chen became an organizer of the May 4th Movement and a founder of the CCP.

A November 1920 manifesto of the Chinese Communists declared that “The Communist Party will lead the revolutionary proletariat to struggle against the capitalists and seize political power from the hands of the capitalists, for it is that power that maintains the capitalist state; and it will place that power in the hands of the workers and peasants, just as the Russian Communists did in 1917.”

The first program of the CCP, adopted at its founding conference in July 1921, declared for the soviet system and described its aim: “To overthrow the bourgeoisie with a revolutionary army of the proletariat and to rebuild the state with the toiling classes, until all class differences are abolished” (quoted in Gregor Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries [Humanities Press, 1996]). If anything this program was somewhat ultraleft, as one might expect from a very young communist party. It rejected any tactics toward the bourgeois nationalists, declaring: “Towards the existing political parties, an attitude of independence, aggression and exclusion should be adopted... our party should stand up in behalf of the proletariat, and should allow no relationship with the other parties or groups” (cited in Chen Kung-po, ed., The Communist Movement in China [C. Martin Wilbur, 1979]).

The initial healthy impulses of the CCP to seek a solution along the lines of the Russian October Revolution were reversed, through the intervention of the degenerating Comintern. Under pressure from the Comintern envoy, Maring (Henricus Sneevliet), a Dutch Communist who had engineered the entrist policy of the PKI in Indonesia, the CCP had reluctantly agreed to a partial entry into the Guomindang in August 1922. Sun Yat-sen had refused to sign a united-front pact with the CCP and insisted that their members enter as individuals, where they would be under Guomindang discipline. In January 1923, a month after the conclusion of the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, Soviet diplomat Adolf Joffe signed a “non-aggression pact” with Guomindang leader Sun Yat-sen, which declared in part:

“Dr Sun Yat-sen holds that the Communistic order or even the Soviet system cannot actually be introduced into China, because there do not exist here the conditions for the successful establishment of either Communism or Sovietism. This view is entirely shared by Mr Joffe, who is further of opinion that China’s paramount and most pressing problem is to achieve national unification and attain full national independence.”

This was a diplomatic codicil, although in reality it was part of the preparatory negotiations paving the way for the CCP to enter the Guomindang. Much the same substance was contained in a resolution of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) the same month, “On the Relations Between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang.” Citing the alleged weakness of the workers movement in China, the resolution concluded that the “national revolution” was the central task, and furthermore advised that the place for CCP members was inside the Guomindang. Later that year, again under Comintern “guidance,” the CCP third national conference voted to turn the partial entry into a full entry. The same conference voted a motion asserting that the “KMT should be the central force of the national revolution and should assume its leadership.” By now the independence of the party had been surrendered, and proletarian revolution had been replaced by a strategy of “national revolution,” i.e., bourgeois revolution.

As Chen Duxiu pointed out later, when Maring proposed entry into the KMT in 1922, he asserted that “the Kuomintang was not a party of the bourgeoisie but the joint party of various classes” and concluded that therefore the Communists should join it. This “bloc of four classes” line was in keeping with the international policy of the Comintern in this period, which included such ventures as the Farmer-Labor Party in the U.S.

Chen noted that initially all five members of the Central Committee of the CCP opposed entry. The CCP leaders were deeply skeptical about the KMT, knowing full well its penchant for banditry and maneuvering with warlords, and its disdain for social struggle. The Chinese party’s objections should have been fully discussed and debated inside the Comintern. But these differences were kept secret from opponents of the bureaucratic clique then congealing at the top of the Soviet state and Comintern.

But Trotsky’s Left Opposition did initiate a political fight against Stalin’s policy in China, and unlike the CCP leaders, the Left Opposition did not back down to Stalin and Bukharin. It was not until well after the demise of the second Chinese Revolution that CCP leaders like Chen learned of this fight. By then Chen had been removed from leadership of the CCP and made the scapegoat for the bloody disaster of Stalin’s class-collaborationist policy in China. Though the Stalinist epigones in the Comintern sought to isolate and discredit him, Chen still had many defenders among the cadre in the top ranks of the party. As Gregor Benton describes it:

“So in China a constituency existed that unwittingly echoed—and had even foreshadowed—Trotsky’s two main positions on the Chinese Revolution: that it was wrong to subordinate the party to the Guomindang and that the failure to follow a course independent of the Guomindang had led to the Communists’ defeat....

“For though the embryonic Opposition in the CCP had heard that there was a political struggle going on in Russia, they had no idea of the issues in it or that those issues included the nature and condition of the Chinese revolution. When they were eventually able to read Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution for themselves, the effect was electrifying.”

Trotsky and the Second Chinese Revolution

The second Chinese Revolution began with the Shanghai Incident of 30 May 1925, when a demonstration protesting repression against strikers marched to a police station, where 12 of their number were killed by British troops. In response, a general strike was called in Shanghai, which quickly spread to Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong and elsewhere. British goods were boycotted and Chinese longshoremen in Hong Kong bottled up the port.

The KMT established its first “regime” in Canton in 1925, driving out the local warlord. But a growing general strike movement made a clash between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat inevitable. Chiang Kai-shek’s coup in Canton in March 1926 was the opening shot in the reaction’s drive to crush the Chinese proletariat. Chiang had all the CP political workers attached to the army arrested and raided the Canton-Hong Kong strike committee, seizing their arms. In May the Guomindang Central Executive Committee forbade the CP to criticize the views of KMT founder Sun Yat-sen and ordered the CP to turn over a list of its members working inside the Guomindang. Despite renewed requests from the CCP leadership to quit the KMT, Stalin and Bukharin held fast. Borodin, assigned by Moscow to act as Chiang’s political adviser, declared that Communists should do “coolie service” for the Guomindang. Chiang was made an honorary member of the Comintern with only one opposing vote—Trotsky’s.

The decisive political events took place the following year in Shanghai. As Chiang Kai-shek’s army approached the city in March, over 500,000 workers staged a general strike, which turned into an insurrection. Armed with only 150 pistols, the workers stormed the police stations, and by morning the warlords had fled the city. The proletariat had Shanghai in their hands, but Stalin’s treachery offered it up to Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang entered Shanghai on March 26. While the CCP was organizing a triumphant welcome for him, the Generalissimo was receiving important figures from Shanghai’s underworld. Fifty companies and banks donated a $10 million war chest which Chiang used to employ every known thug in Shanghai to crush the unions. On March 28 he declared martial law.

While these events were proceeding, Trotsky urgently demanded that the CCP organize Soviets and initiate a revolutionary struggle for power:

“1. The Chinese revolution has taken over such major proletarian centers as Shanghai and Hankow.... Everything seems to point to the fact that the first thing that should be done in these proletarian centers is to organize soviets of workers’ deputies.

“2. Revolutionary collaboration between the proletariat and the urban and rural poor is a matter of life and death.... This kind of actual, genuine, day-to-day collaboration among the masses of the people awakened by the revolution can only be brought about in reality through the creation of soviets of workers’, artisans’ and peasants’ deputies.

“3. The national army, whose political education has only begun, will inevitably become swollen out of proportion as it is joined by new, provincial forces, completely green and raw as far as politics is concerned. The officer cadre...is characterized by bourgeois and landlord origins.... Under existing conditions it would seem there is no more effective measure for countering such dangers than the establishment of soldiers’ sections of soviets....”

— “To the Politburo of AUCP (B) Central Committee,” 31 March 1927

The same day the Comintern ordered the CCP to hide all the weapons they had seized earlier. Stalin had ordered a surrender; Chiang would take no prisoners. On April 12 he staged a massive bloody coup, which beheaded the Chinese proletariat. Tens of thousands of communists and trade unionists were slaughtered. Yet the Comintern continued to support the Guomindang’s “left” faction, centered in Wuhan. But Wang Ching-wei, the leader of the Wuhan KMT, quickly turned on the CCP and reunited with Chiang.

In December 1927, in an utterly cynical ploy to undercut criticism by Trotsky’s Left Opposition as the Fifteenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party opened, Stalin made an 180 degree turn and called an abortive uprising in Canton. The advanced workers, despite their heroic efforts, never had a chance; the working masses remained largely passive. When Chiang sent in 45,000 troops to suppress the Canton uprising, a mass rally called to defend the city brought out only 300 workers. The Canton Commune added an estimated 5,700 fatalities to the terrible losses the proletariat suffered in 1927. A political assessment of the catastrophic defeat of the second Chinese Revolution was indispensable, and that course was charted by Trotsky. From 1926 right on through until the creation of the Communist League of China in 1931, Trotsky’s attention was riveted on China. Among the many questions to be clarified, two stood out as critical: the entry into the Guomindang, and the class character of the Chinese revolution.

Trotsky had voted against entering the Guomindang when that question was brought to the Russian Politburo in 1923. However, he does not seem to have intervened in the political fight over China in a major way until the spring of 1926. Trotsky knew very little about the founding period of the CCP and was deliberately kept in the dark by Zinoviev and Stalin about differences between the CCP leaders and the Comintern leaders. As he later noted:

“During ’24 and ’25 the Chinese question was handled through the channels of the Comintern by personal agreement between Stalin and Zinoviev. The Polit-Bureau was never consulted.... Only episodically could I intervene in the matter, for example, when I voted in the Polit-Bureau against the admission of the Kuomintang into the Comintern as a sympathizing party. Only in ’26, after the split between Zinoviev and Stalin, did the secrets become by and by revealed.”

— Letter to Harold Isaacs, 29 November 1937
(quoted in Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries)

For most of the period when the dispute over China raged, Trotsky’s Left Opposition was in a political bloc with Zinoviev’s Leningrad-based opposition. Within this Joint Opposition there were significant differences over China. Zinoviev, who until his falling out with Stalin had been the president of the Comintern, had a heavy responsibility for early CI policy in China, including the decision to enter the Guomindang. Within the Joint Opposition, the Zinovievites were opposed to demanding that the CCP leave the Guomindang, even after the latter had begun openly carrying out counterrevolutionary policies. By the time that the Joint Opposition publicly called for the CCP to leave the Guomindang, in the fall of 1927, the question was moot, since by then not only Chiang Kai-shek but also the so-called “left” Guomindang had turned on the Communists.

Trotsky faced opposition over the question of entry not only from the Zinovievites, but also from several members of his own faction who either agreed with Zinoviev, like Radek, or were afraid to argue out the question lest it precipitate a break with Zinoviev. Trotsky later acknowledged in a letter to Max Shachtman, dated 10 December 1930, that he himself had been too conciliatory on this. While noting that “from the very beginning, that is, from 1923,” he had resolutely opposed the Communist Party joining the Guomindang and had voted accordingly in the Politburo, Trotsky added:

“In 1926 and 1927, I had uninterrupted conflicts with the Zinovievists on this question. Two or three times, the matter stood at the breaking point. Our center consisted of approximately equal numbers from both of the allied tendencies, for it was after all only a bloc. At the voting, the position of the 1923 Opposition was betrayed by Radek, out of principle, and by Pyatakov, out of unprincipledness. Our faction (1923) was furious about it, demanded that Radek and Pyatakov be recalled from the center. But since it was a question of splitting with the Zinovievists, it was the general decision that I must submit publicly in this question and acquaint the Opposition in writing with my standpoint....

“Now I can say with certainty that I made a mistake by submitting formally in this question.”

Trotsky now asserted categorically:

“The Chinese Communist Party entered a bourgeois party, the Kuomintang, while the bourgeois character of this party was disguised by a charlatan philosophy about a ‘workers’ and peasants’ party’ and even about a party of ‘four classes’ (Stalin-Martynov). The proletariat was thus deprived of its own party at a most critical period.... The responsibility falls entirely on the ECCI and Stalin, its inspirers....

Never and under no circumstances may the party of the proletariat enter into a party of another class or merge with it organizationally. An absolutely independent party of the proletariat is a first and decisive condition for communist politics.”

— “The Political Situation in China and the Tasks of the
Bolshevik-Leninist Opposition,” June 1929

In early 1927, as part of his accommodation with Zinoviev, Trotsky had supported the call for a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” a slogan he had rejected 20 years earlier in the Russian context. This slogan was defective, blurring over the class line between the workers and the peasantry. For this reason Stalin and Bukharin were able to appropriate it as their own, filling it with a class-collaborationist content. It was not until the fall of 1927 that Trotsky unambiguously asserted that “The Chinese revolution at its new stage will win as a dictatorship of the proletariat, or it will not win at all” (“New Opportunities for the Chinese Revolution,” September 1927).

In generalizing the theory of permanent revolution to the economically backward countries, Trotsky politically smashed the underpinnings of the “anti-imperialist united front.” He pointed out that there was no “anti-imperialist” wing of the bourgeoisie; the bogus argument that the colonial bourgeoisie could lead a struggle against imperialism was in fact no different in principle from the Menshevik argument that the liberal bourgeoisie would lead a democratic revolution against the tsarist autocracy in Russia. As Trotsky concluded:

“The ‘democratic dictatorship’ can only be the masked rule of the bourgeoisie during the revolution. This is taught us by the experience of our ‘dual power’ of 1917 as well as by the experience of the Kuomintang in China....

“It is precisely here that we come up against the two mutually exclusive standpoints: the international revolutionary theory of the permanent revolution and the national reformist theory of socialism in one country. Not only backward China, but in general no country in the world can build socialism within its own national limits.”

The Permanent Revolution (Merit Publishers, 1931)

When did Trotsky come to this conclusion? In a letter to Preobrazhensky in 1928, Trotsky said that he realized that there could not be a viable democratic dictatorship from the time the Wuhan government was first formed, that is, after the Shanghai massacre. However, the likelihood is that Trotsky’s slowness to publicly call for permanent revolution involved more than an inability to work out the class dynamics of the unfolding revolution. “Permanent revolution” had been treated as tantamount to the original sin of Trotskyism by the Stalinist epigones, including Zinoviev and Kamenev. And if Trotsky made bad compromises on the question of entrism, he was worse than evasive about permanent revolution. He even publicly condemned his earlier views, which had been confirmed in Russia. Thus, the platform of the Joint Opposition, published in September 1927, contains the following: “Trotsky has stated to the International that on all the fundamental questions over which he had differences with Lenin, Lenin was right—in particular on the questions of the permanent revolution and the peasantry. That announcement, made to the whole Communist International, the Stalin group refuses to print. It continues to accuse us of ‘Trotskyism’.”

As early as September 1926, Trotsky had pointed out:

“The petty bourgeoisie, by itself, however numerous it may be, cannot decide the main line of revolutionary policy. The differentiation of the political struggle along class lines, the sharp divergence between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, implies a struggle between them for influence over the petty bourgeoisie, and it implies the vacillation of the petty bourgeoisie between the merchants, on the one hand, and the workers and communists, on the other.”

— “The Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang”

From this statement alone it is clear that Trotsky understood that there were two fundamentally counterposed classes in China, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie; and that the petty bourgeoisie, including the peasantry, could not play an independent role. From these premises the only revolutionary solution could be workers rule, the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry.

When Trotsky came out openly for permanent revolution, he was sharply attacked not only by Zinoviev, who had by then capitulated to Stalin, but also by prominent members of his own faction. Thus, Preobrazhensky declared, “We, the old Bolsheviks in opposition, must dissociate ourselves from Trotsky on the point of permanent revolution” (Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed). And as Trotsky later noted, those members of the Left Opposition who had the most conciliationist views on China were the first to capitulate to Stalin. Discouraged by the defeat in China, a section of the Left Opposition decided that the prospects for international proletarian revolution were nil, and reconciled themselves to Stalin’s nationalist line of “building socialism in one country.” By fighting out the question, Trotsky hardened up his own faction, getting rid of the demoralized elements, and was able to regroup to the Left Opposition outstanding elements from among the Chinese Communists.

The communist movement, however, paid heavily for the failure to codify permanent revolution earlier. To be sure, one could not say with certainty in 1918 that permanent revolution as demonstrated in Russia would apply to China. Tsarist Russia had imperialist ambitions in its own right; it was not a colonial vassal like China, though much of its industry was foreign-owned, and social relations derived from feudal backwardness dominated the Russian countryside. Whereas Russia had thrown off the Mongol conquest by the 17th century, the Chinese intelligentsia really entered the modern world only after the Boxer Rebellion (1900). Moreover, the working class was a smaller percentage of the Chinese population than it had been in Russia in 1917.

Yet the failure to clearly state that the October Revolution had followed the course of permanent revolution made it easier for the Stalinist leadership of the Comintern to obscure their escalating rejection of Lenin’s internationalist program. It meant that permanent revolution did not appear as even a possible variant in subsequent Comintern deliberations over the colonial question.

The Chinese cadre who were struggling to work out tactics and to resolve the class character of the revolution in their country had no access to Trotsky’s earlier writings. Had they known of them, it could well have stiffened their resolve, and forced a fight much earlier in the Comintern, when Stalin’s position was less well consolidated. The programmatic disputes over China might have been otherwise decided, leading to a different outcome in China, and a different determination of the relationship of forces politically within the Comintern.

The Founding of Chinese Trotskyism

Chiang Kai-shek drowned the second Chinese Revolution in blood: an estimated 25,000 CCP members were killed in 1927 alone, and the original massacre was followed by a reign of white terror. All labor and working-class organizations were decapitated; many disappeared and those that did not were forced underground. The dislocations caused by the worldwide economic collapse of 1929 further decimated the working class.

In a cynical attempt to cover his tracks, Stalin continued to lurch to the “left” after the debacle of the Canton Commune in December 1927. While abandoning the cities in practice, the CCP denied that there had been a defeat at all and took up again the call for soviets! The ultraleftist, adventurist posturing of the Comintern during the “Third Period” also contributed greatly to the demoralization of the Chinese proletariat. Trotsky insisted that communists must face the bitter reality squarely. He asserted that counterrevolution had temporarily triumphed in China; what was necessary was a tactical retreat, in order to regroup the shattered forces of the proletariat through a series of defensive battles. Only then would the ground be prepared for the third Chinese Revolution. Trotsky asserted:

“The government that will emerge from the victorious revolution of the workers and peasants can only be a government of the dictatorship of the proletariat, leading the majority of the exploited and oppressed people. But the difference must be clearly understood between the general revolutionary perspective which we must tirelessly develop in articles and in theoretical and propaganda speeches and the current political slogan under which we can, beginning today, mobilize the masses by actually organizing them in opposition to the regime of the military dictatorship. Such a central political slogan is the slogan of the constituent assembly.”

— “A Reply to the Chinese Oppositionists,” December 1929

The slogan of a constituent or national assembly was linked to a series of other revolutionary-democratic slogans, including the eight-hour workday, expropriation of the landlords and complete national independence of China. These expressed urgent democratic tasks embodied in the perspective of permanent revolution.

The Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928 had rejected transitional revolutionary-democratic slogans, thereby denying the Chinese CP the possibility of mobilizing the masses under conditions of counterrevolution. The Stalinists now claimed that the Left Opposition represented a “right deviation.” But Trotsky had anticipated this, and countered that those who subordinated the Communist Party to the Guomindang “will now attempt to outbid the left wing and to charge our way of putting the question with containing ‘constitutional illusions’ and a ‘Social Democratic deviation’.” Based upon the centrality of permanent revolution and a sober assessment of the current situation in China, Trotsky was laying out the programmatic basis to regroup those Communists who wanted to fight for proletarian victory.

Trotsky was under no illusion that being right over China meant that he would recruit masses. As he later noted (“Fighting Against the Stream,” April 1939):

“The strangulation of the Chinese revolution is a thousand times more important for the masses than our predictions. Our predictions can win some few intellectuals who take an interest in such things, but not the masses. The military victory of Chiang Kai-shek will inevitably provoke a depression and this is not conducive to the growth of a revolutionary fraction.”

But while Trotsky knew he could not win the masses over this bitter defeat, he concentrated on analyzing the lessons of the Chinese Revolution and other key political struggles, seeking to expand support for the Left Opposition within the Communist International. To this end he submitted to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern “The Draft Program of the Communist International—A Criticism of Fundamentals,” published in English under the title The Third International After Lenin. (This material, under the title The Communist International After Lenin, was finally made available to Russian readers in 1993 in an edition published by the Prometheus Research Library.) The question of the Chinese Revolution would become a key programmatic criterion for membership in the International Left Opposition.

Trotsky’s efforts bore fruit, especially in China, where they fell on fertile soil. Hundreds of young Chinese Communists were won to Trotsky’s views while studying in Moscow at either the Communist University for the Toilers of the East (KTVU) or Sun Yat-sen University; they brought his writings to China, resulting in the recruitment of Chen Duxiu and a small group of the CCP’s founding cadre. The only other country outside of Soviet Russia where there was a significant accretion of Communist cadre to the Left Opposition was the United States, where, after reading Trotsky’s critique of the draft program as a delegate to the Sixth CI Congress, James P. Cannon brought about 100 of his factional supporters to the Trotskyist movement.

One of the best accounts of the Chinese students in Moscow and a major work on Chinese Trotskyism, Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary (Columbia University Press, 1980), was written by Wang Fanxi (Wang Fan-hsi) in 1957. Wang studied in Moscow from 1927-1929, part of a generation of bright young Chinese recruits who were sent to the USSR for political education. According to Wang, approximately 400 Chinese students in Moscow considered themselves Trotskyists. But when the Stalinist authorities got wind of this burgeoning opposition, repressive measures were instituted. The purges began after a number of Chinese students joined the Left Opposition contingent that tried to march on the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Ten of these student militants were expelled from school and sent home. These purged students were the founders of the Our Word group whose journal was the first Trotskyist publication in China.

In late 1928, the first Russian underground group of Chinese Trotskyists was organized and Wang Fanxi was elected one of their three leaders. Wang’s group saw as their main activity the translation of Trotsky’s most important works into Chinese, and their first effort was the “Critique of the Draft Program.” As many of these students’ education terms were coming to an end, they met clandestinely in early 1929 on the campus of the Moscow Artillery school. The Chinese students decided that their returning members would stay inside the CCP as long as possible, concealing their views where necessary, in order to gain time and win respect among the CCP veterans to get a hearing at a later date. If expelled, they would still consider themselves a faction of the CCP (in line with Trotskyist policy at that time).

By 1929 it proved hazardous and in many cases impossible for known Trotskyists to get out of the USSR. Trotsky was expelled from the Russian party in 1927, exiled to Soviet Central Asia in 1928 and deported to Turkey in 1929. This escalation of Stalinist repression was keenly felt by the Chinese students. Earlier, harassment took the form of beatings at the hands of pro-Stalinist Chinese, but after 1929 the suppression of Trotskyists was the job of the GPU police apparatus. Inciting the GPU’s frenzy was the news that former CCP chairman Chen Duxiu had gone over to Trotsky. In late 1929, a confession was extracted from a Trotskyist student along with a membership list, and later that night a GPU raid carried out mass arrests. According to Wang:

“Of more than 200 Trotskyists arrested, less than ten made a complete recantation and were afterwards sent back to China. Another two comrades managed to escape back to China from Siberia. There is no record of what happened to the rest, but many undoubtedly died in Stalin’s prisons or in front of a GPU firing squad.”

The degeneration of the Russian Revolution created a bureaucracy with a narrow and nationalist outlook that led to a re-emergence of Great Russian chauvinism. Wang cites a book by Yugoslav Communist dissident Anton Ciliga, also a prisoner in Stalin’s jails, who reported that “Communists with yellow skins received far worse treatment than their white fellow-prisoners.” GPU interrogation netted the names of Trotskyists who were working inside the CCP. Most were immediately expelled. Among them was Wang Fanxi, working as a secretary for Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai).

The returning Chinese students played an important role in the early Chinese Trotskyist movement. But the Moscow students were not the only communists in motion trying to understand and draw revolutionary conclusions from the disaster of 1927. By far the largest and most significant branch of Chinese Trotskyism was the Proletarian Society, organized by Chen Duxiu himself. Chen had been made the scapegoat for Stalin’s betrayals and expelled from the Central Committee. Although Chen had earlier expressed substantial doubts about the Comintern’s line, it was not until he finally read translations of Trotsky’s documents that he was won over hard against Stalin’s line. The first documents he read were “Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution” (contained in the “Critique of the Draft Program”) and “The Chinese Question After the Sixth Congress.”

Armed with Trotsky’s perspective for the future course of the revolution, Chen wrote his “Appeal to All Comrades of the Chinese Communist Party” on 10 December 1929. This powerful document, essentially Chinese Trotskyism’s founding statement, concludes:

“Comrades! The present errors of the party are not partial or accidental problems: As in the past, they are the manifestation of the whole opportunist policy conducted by Stalin in China.... We must return to the spirit and political line of Bolshevism, unite together solidly, and stand straightforward on the side of the International Opposition led by Comrade Trotsky.... We are opposed not only to the opportunism of Stalin and his like, but also to the compromising attitude of Zinoviev and others. We are not afraid of the so-called ‘jumping out of the ranks of the party’ and do not hesitate to sacrifice everything in order to save the party and the Chinese revolution!”

Five days later a “Declaration of the Left Opposition” was signed by 81 CCP cadre, and they soon published a journal, Proletariat.

It would seem that after the horrifying bloodbath the CCP had just suffered, those who saw the wisdom and correctness of Trotsky’s analysis would be eager to regroup their forces. But history in general, and certainly our own experiences in building the ICL, have shown that the process of revolutionary regroupment is full of minefields. A serious attitude toward political clarity, based on programmatic criteria, is required. The fusion of the four existing Trotskyist organizations in China took nearly two years and the personal and authoritative intervention of Trotsky himself.

Among the student-based groups, there was initially some resistance to the slogan of a constituent assembly. A more substantial obstacle was the hostility that most of the returning students from Moscow exhibited toward Chen Duxiu. The students were horrified at the thought of uniting with Chen, in part buying into the Comintern campaign which had made him a scapegoat. The flames of discontent were fanned the hardest by Liu Renjing (Liu Jen-ching, also known as Neil Shih), who only a few years later was to go over to the Guomindang. Liu, who had visited Trotsky in his Turkish exile, thought he himself should be the undisputed leader of Chinese Trotskyism.

During this internecine warfare Trotsky refused to take sides. But after finally receiving and reading Chen’s open letter to the CCP, he intervened more forcefully. It was clear that Chen accepted the Trotskyist program. While Chen had implemented the Comintern’s disastrous line in China, he had thought through his mistakes, which made him a better communist. It was not easy for a man of over 50 years of age to start all over again in helping to launch a small revolutionary organization which was the object of persecution by hostile state forces and the much larger Stalinist CCP. Trotsky wrote: “Today I finally received a copy of Comrade Ch’en Tu-hsiu’s letter of December 10, 1929. I feel that this letter is an extremely good document. Totally clear and correct attitudes are taken in answer to all the important questions; especially on the question of a democratic dictatorship, Comrade Tu-hsiu takes a completely correct stand....

“When we have such an outstanding revolutionary as Ch’en Tu-hsiu, who formally breaks with his party, is then thrown out of the party, and finally announces that his stand is 100 percent in accord with the International Opposition, how can we ignore him?... We have many young people in the Opposition who can and should learn from Comrade Ch’en Tu-hsiu!”

— “Two Letters to China,” August-September 1930

As Trotsky recognized, it took many years to create an experienced revolutionary cadre, particularly one of Chen’s stature and ability. Throughout the succeeding years, as long as Chen remained loyal to the revolutionary program, Trotsky intervened to defend Chen’s authority against those who attacked him for cliquist reasons.

The Chinese comrades organized a unity negotiating committee but its deliberations continually stalled. Trotsky waited three months and, seeing no movement, finally wrote a letter to the Chinese comrades in January 1931. This letter summarized his views on the major questions for China. Trotsky saw the main point as a fight against a “spirit of clannishness.” Seeing no fundamental political differences at that moment, he insisted: Dear friends, fuse your organizations and your press definitively this very day!

On May Day 1931, the Communist League of China (CLC) was founded, with a Central Committee including members from all four groups that fused to make up the new organization. According to the various accounts subsequently written about this conference, the CLC had between 400 and 500 members, with local committees in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Canton, Beijing, Nanjing, Wuhan and Guangdong. The CLC’s industrial concentration was impressive for a group of its size. Their trade-union base was in Shanghai, with working fractions in the Shanghai power works, telephone, post office, textile and silk mills; the CLC also had a trade-union fraction at the strategic Tai-Koo shipyard in Hong Kong.

In the Guomindang Jails

It was only the supporters of Leon Trotsky who, in the period of catastrophic defeat after the second Chinese Revolution, sought to maintain their roots among the urban working class. The 1930s did see some sporadic workers’ economic struggles in Shanghai and Hong Kong, in which the Trotskyists played leading roles. However the general prostration of the working masses, whose trade unions and other legal organizations had been smashed, took a great political toll.

For almost the entire period of its existence, the Chinese Trotskyist organization was condemned to an underground existence, first hunted down by the Guomindang police, then by the Japanese Occupation and Mao’s Stalinists. Within a month of the founding of the CLC, the entire Central Committee except Chen and Peng Shuzhi (Peng Shu-tse) were arrested as the result of the actions of an informer; Chen and Peng were arrested in late 1932, transferred from Shanghai to Nanjing, put on trial, and sentenced to 13 years in jail.

The trial was a major event in China. Fearing that these two leaders would be condemned to death, a defense effort was launched that did succeed in getting the case transferred from a military to a civil court. Chen used the trial as a forum to indict the Chinese ruling class and defiantly defended his revolutionary career. His opening statement, an example of his great personal courage, is a passionate expression of the internationalist program of permanent revolution:

“In the economically backward and semi-colonial China, which, oppressed by the international imperialism from the outside and suffering under the warlords and Mandarins within...the national emancipation and democratic polities can never be undertaken by the coward[ly], compromising upper exploiting classes which think [only] about their own hides. Moreover, they fear and hate the rising of the lower masses, whom they have trampled hitherto under their feet.... Only the combining of the most oppressed and most revolutionary toiling masses of workers and peasants within China with the forces of the anti-imperialistic proletariat, in the world-wide scale can, by means of [a] gigantic and furious surge of revolution, destroy the yoke of imperialism on the one hand and sweep away all the oppression of warlords and Mandarins on the other.... The struggle of the emancipation of the toiling masses of workers and peasants and the struggle of national emancipation are streaming together objectively into one current and cannot be separated from each other. This was the reason why I began to create the Chinese Communist Party after the Movement of May 4th in the year of 1919.”

— Handwritten English translation of Chen Duxiu’s
“A Protest to [the] Kiangsu High Court,” 20 February 1933
(obtained from the Hoover Institution archives, Stanford)

Most of the CLC leadership perished in prison. Chen and Peng were not released until the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. It was not until 1935 that a functioning CLC leadership was rebuilt after Wang Fanxi was released from prison. This body, the Provisional Central Committee, was elected at a conference in Shanghai in late 1935 and included among its members C. Frank Glass (whose pen name was Li Furen [Li Fu-jen]). Glass, a founding member of the Communist Party of South Africa won to Trotskyism in Johannesburg, played not only a leading role within the CLC but was a valuable link to the rest of the International Left Opposition. Glass was also instrumental in recruiting Harold Isaacs, an American journalist who authored the classic work The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (London, Seeker & Warburg, 1938) in collaboration with Trotsky, who wrote an introduction for the work. Isaacs later broke with Marxism and revised the two subsequent editions of the book (1951, 1961) in an anti-communist direction, deleting Trotsky’s introduction.

The Stalinists, meanwhile, were being transformed into a peasant-based party. After Canton, another round of adventurist actions in the cities led to another round of defeats. Many of the CCP’s proletarian supporters were butchered by Chiang, while others left the party en masse. The CCP was also sending members from the cities to the countryside, where some peasant revolts continued. The party’s percentage of working-class members fell from 58 percent in April 1927 to less than 1 percent by 1931. Refusing to admit there had been a defeat, the Stalinists set up bases in the rural areas to which they had retreated, calling them “soviets.”

In November 1931, a conference in the new “soviet” capital of Juichin proclaimed the establishment of a “Provisional Central Government of the Chinese Soviet Republic.” With the depletion of its membership base in the cities, the CCP became increasingly financially dependent on the rural areas. This in turn led it to lean politically on the wealthier sections of the peasantry and the merchants in the countryside. Within a period of several years, most CCP leaders were students from the families of small farmers, professionals, merchants and even aristocrats, according to Benjamin I. Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Harper Torchbooks, 1951). The CCP membership was increasingly drawn from the peasantry, and those of working-class background had long ago severed their ties with the city. As Harold Isaacs noted in The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938 edition):

“The 1927 defeat had physically divorced the Party from the working class. The adventurist course after 1927 converted it into a peasant party without roots or influence among the workers. It had become the Chinese equivalent not of the Russian Bolshevik Party but of the Social Revolutionary Party, whose example it followed in proposing to carry out an agrarian transformation on the basis of bourgeois property relations.”

Citing Engels, Trotsky had earlier noted that a party that had let a revolutionary situation escape it inevitably disappears from the scene for a certain period of history. Trotsky asserted that “It is only by clearly and courageously posing the fundamental questions of today and yesterday that one can avert for the CCP the fate that Engels spoke of, in other words, liquidation, from the political point of view, for a certain period” (“The Chinese Question After the Sixth Congress”). The CCP’s ignoring of the lessons of the second Chinese Revolution led it to liquidate itself as any kind of working-class instrument. To be sure, the CCP continued to proclaim itself a proletarian revolutionary party. But as Trotsky pointed out, while a genuine Bolshevik party in China would strive through the workers to lead a peasant war, the CCP and its armed peasant detachments (“Red armies”) had no base of support in the cities and were deeply stamped by their peasant environment. This impacted sharply on the consciousness of its membership:

“The worker approaches questions from the socialist standpoint; the peasant’s viewpoint is petty bourgeois. The worker strives to socialize the property that is taken away from the exploiters; the peasant seeks to divide it up. The worker desires to put palaces and parks to common use; the peasant, insofar as he cannot divide them, inclines to burning the palaces and cutting down the parks. The worker strives to solve problems on a national scale and in accordance with a plan; the peasant, on the other hand, approaches all problems on a local scale and takes a hostile attitude to centralized planning, etc.”

— “Peasant War in China and the Proletariat,” September 1932

Trotsky envisioned the possibility that in a revolutionary crisis armed peasant bands led by Stalinists might confront insurrectionary workers led by Bolsheviks. This did not happen in 1949—when Mao’s peasant-based army, under exceptional historical circumstances, succeeded in driving out Chiang’s corrupt capitalist gang—because the urban working masses were never mobilized as an independent force fighting for the abolition of capitalism. But Trotsky’s words were nonetheless prophetic. The Maoist ideology of the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state reflected the provincial, anti-internationalist consciousness characteristic of the mass of the peasantry, which was perfectly consonant with the conservative outlook of the Stalin bureaucracy in the Kremlin. The only difference was that the Chinese Stalinists defended “socialism” in a different “one country.”

The Sino-Japanese and Pacific Wars

The central issue dominating China during the 1930s was the increasing encroachment of Japanese imperialism. Japan invaded Manchuria in September 1931, securing its conquest almost immediately. In February 1932 Tokyo established the puppet state of Manchukuo in the occupied territory, and launched a brief punitive expedition against Shanghai. The occupation of Manchuria was followed by six years of uneasy truce, until the Japanese invasion of central China in the summer of 1937, which opened the Sino-Japanese War.

Proceeding from the fact that Japan was an imperialist power and China a semicolonial nation, the Trotskyists adopted a policy of military support to China, while opposing Chiang politically. As Trotsky expressed it: “In participating in the military struggle under the orders of Chiang Kai-shek, since unfortunately it is he who has the command in the war for independence—to prepare politically the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek...that is the only revolutionary policy” (“On the Sino-Japanese War,” September 1937).

The intensification of Japanese aggression sparked a “second united front” between the CCP and Chiang’s Guomindang. This was not limited to a military bloc against Japanese imperialism, but amounted to another attempted political rapprochement with the KMT. As Frank Glass explained:

“Let us note that today ‘Soviet China’ and the ‘Red Army’ have disappeared totally from the scene. Soviet China has become a ‘Special Administrative District’ under the jurisdiction of the Kuomintang government at Nanking, and the Red Army is now the ‘Eighth Route Army’ subordinated to the high command of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. No longer is it asserted that the overthrow of the Kuomintang regime is the condition of a successful national-revolutionary war. Indeed, anyone who ventures to state this elementary truism is branded as an ‘enemy of the Chinese people’ and an ‘agent of Japanese imperialism.’ The policies of the class struggle and the agrarian revolution have been publicly jettisoned.”

— Li Fu-jen, “End of the Chinese Soviets,” New International, January 1938

The Stalinists attempted to slander the Chinese Trotskyists as “agents of the Mikado.” After Chen was released from prison in 1937, the Stalinists accused him of accepting Japanese money. This slanderous attack was defeated. Trotsky had anticipated such lies, predicting that “Tomorrow the GPU, which is in alliance with the Kuomintang (as with Negrín in Spain), will represent our Chinese friends as being ‘defeatists’ and agents of Japan. The best of them, with Ch’en Tu-hsiu at the head, can be nationally and internationally compromised and killed. It was necessary to stress, energetically, that the Fourth International was on the side of China as against Japan” (“On the Sino-Japanese War”).

Age and prison had begun to take their toll on Chen. He now began to moot the idea of submerging the Trotskyists into a “democratic” military force to fight the Japanese imperialists. Although Chen never renounced Trotskyism, he developed fundamental differences and drifted into inactivity. With the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and then the eruption of war in Poland, Chen began to doubt that the Soviet Union remained a workers state. He adopted a position in support of the “democratic” imperialists in World War II. His health broken by years in prison, Chen died on 24 May 1942.

Other differences emerged within the CLC on the issue of the war against Japanese imperialism, particularly with its absorption into the interimperialist conflict. With the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, and amid growing tensions between the U.S. and Japan, the Guomindang government turned away from the Soviet Union and moved toward an alliance with the United States. Even before the United States and Japan declared war in December 1941, General Chenault had organized the volunteer “Flying Tiger” squadron of American airmen and fighter planes flying under the Chinese Nationalist flag.

In the autumn of 1940 Wang Fanxi wrote “The Pacific War and the Chinese War of Resistance” for publication in the Trotskyist journal Struggle. Wang argued that if the U.S. entered the Pacific War, China’s war of resistance would now be subordinated to the interests of U.S. imperialism, losing it progressive character; the CLC should then advocate a revolutionary defeatist position toward both sides in the Sino-Japanese War. Peng Shuzhi argued that China’s war against Japan was still progressive and would remain so unless the U.S. committed significant ground forces to the war in China. Wang originally won a majority of the Chinese organization to his view, but this was reversed after Frank Glass returned from a trip to New York where he had consulted with the International Secretariat, which broadly supported Peng’s view

We are at great historical and physical distance from the Chinese Trotskyists of the late 1930s and 1940s, and we lack documentation on the many issues which split the Chinese Trotskyists into separate organizations led by Wang Fanxi and Peng Shuzhi in May 1941. But it is clear that differences over the relationship between China’s war against Japanese imperialism and the interimperialist World War II were a critical contributing factor. On this particular question, Wang’s arguments were correct, as far as they went. In World War II, China’s right of national self-determination became subordinated to U.S. imperialism.

From the beginning of the Japanese war against China in July 1937, Trotsky and the Fourth Internationalists had give unconditional military support to the Chinese resistance to Japanese conquest. But Wang rightly observed that once the U.S. entered the war, the Guomindang’s war effort would be subordinated to the interests of U.S. imperialism. Nationalist China was an ally of the Americans during the war. The chief of staff of the Chinese armed forces was the America general Joseph Stillwell. Chiang’s air forces consisted of Americans, and China’s air bases served as bases for American imperialism. Chiang’s troops fought under the British general Alexander against the Japanese in Burma. What was decisive is that it was the imperialists, particularly the Americans, who had the final say in how Chinese forces were to be used. When Stillwell complained bitterly that Chiang refused to commit his troops to battle, U.S. president Roosevelt upheld Chiang, and Stillwell was eventually dismissed. Roosevelt felt Chiang’s troops were serving a useful purpose in pinning down substantial Japanese troops in China. What was important is that it was Roosevelt who decided.

The views expressed by Wang on the Sino-Japanese War were broadly held by Max Shachtman’s Workers Party in the United States; they were opposed by the American section of the Fourth International, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), led by founding American Trotskyist James P. Cannon, which broadly agreed with Peng’s views. In 1939-40 Max Shachtman had broken from the Fourth International, writing off the Soviet Union as a workers state and refusing to defend it against imperialist attack. Years later Shachtman’s politics led him into the camp of Social Democracy and to embrace the U.S. imperialist invasion of Cuba in 1961. But on the issue of the China-Japan war, Shachtman’s Workers Party—a left-centrist formation—had a correct position as against that of the Trotskyist SWP.

As Shachtman noted, the Guomindang was not simply accepting military aid from an imperialist power, as the Irish nationalists had done from Germany in World War I. Rather, Chiang decisively subordinated his forces to U.S. imperialism. An analogy was Lenin’s attitude to Poland or Serbia during World War I. Lenin strongly supported Poland’s right of self-determination, arguing this point against other revolutionary socialists like Rosa Luxemburg. But in the particular context of World War I, Lenin argued, “The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland’s independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without stooping, like the ‘Fracy’ [social-chauvinists], to humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies” (“The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,” July 1916). Similarly, Lenin considered Serbia’s war against Austro-Hungary a just war. But in World War I, support for this war simply meant support for the British, French and Russian imperialist robbers—Serbia’s allies—against another set of imperialists.

Shachtman noted that the SWP, in militarily supporting Chiang, was defending an ally of their own bourgeoisie, the U.S. imperialists. This was a step in the direction of social-patriotism, linked to the SWP’s advocacy of a “proletarian military policy” (PMP) during World War II. Initiated by Trotsky, the PMP involved the call for the trade-union movement to control military training for the imperialist army during World War II. As we in the ICL have pointed out, the PMP was at best a utopian appeal for workers’ control of the bourgeois state; at worst it provided the basis for a social-patriotic accommodation to the “democratic” Allied imperialists (see Prometheus Research Series No. 2, “Documents on the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’”).

Shachtman’s correct opposition to the PMP and to the SWP’s military support to the KMT was, however, also fatally flawed; Shachtman was blinkered by his own Stalinophobia. For he drew no distinction between Chiang’s Nationalists and the CCP’s Eighth and Fourth Route Armies. Nor, to our knowledge, did the group of Chinese Trotskyists led by Wang. But this distinction was crucial to a revolutionary policy. Mao’s forces were not militarily subordinate to U.S. imperialism. Thus a correct position would have been to give military support to Mao’s Red Army against the Japanese, seeking to rally the urban workers, while denouncing the Stalinists for suppressing social struggle—for example, their holding back the peasants from land seizures so as not to offend the KMT. At the same time, the Trotskyists now lacked the ties to the proletariat necessary to be able to effectively intervene for any program or policy.

Destruction of the Chinese Trotskyists

In the period of the Civil War (1946-49), the Trotskyists were able to function somewhat more openly, and recruited some younger elements. But a combination of factors had taken their political toll: the murderous repression, the isolation and the political passivity of the proletariat. Physically, there was very little in the way of a proletariat to organize among; much of the previously existing industrial base had been physically destroyed by aerial and artillery sorties in the early stages of the Sino-Japanese War.

Trotsky of course recognized that the Comintern’s betrayal in 1925-27 had dealt a devastating political and physical blow to the Chinese proletariat. However he hoped that an economic upturn might revive the working class and enable the Bolshevik-Leninists to again intervene. But the Chinese proletariat never recovered from the worldwide economic depression which followed hard on the heels of the beheading of the working class at the hands of Chiang abetted by Stalin. Chen Duxiu described the situation in a letter to Trotsky in 1939: “[The workers] have gone back to where they were 30 to 40 years ago” (quoted by Gregor Benton in his introduction to Wang Fanxi’s Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary).

As a means of combatting their isolation, the Chinese Trotskyists, unfortunately, could not do what the Bolsheviks had done, which was to establish an emigre leadership that was able to coordinate work with its illegal party in Russia. It might have been possible to bring one or two individuals like Chen out of the country to function as part of an international leadership, as Trotsky advocated. But the CLC’s options to set up an effective emigre center were much more limited than those available to Lenin’s Bolsheviks. With the degeneration of the October Revolution Moscow was not available, and the neighboring urban centers in East Asia were either directly controlled or influenced by hostile Japanese or Western imperialist powers.

After World War II, both the Wang and Peng wings of the Chinese Trotskyists showed political disorientation, refusing to take a clear position for the military victory of Mao’s peasant-based Red Army over Chiang’s forces. While both organizations claimed to recognize the Guomindang as the main enemy, the Wang group called for an “immediate cessation of the war without disarming the Stalinist armies,” while the Peng group demanded that the Chinese CP “give up their arms in order to fight for the constituent assembly.” In reports sent to the International Secretariat in 1946 and 1947, both organizations wrote of participating in a KMT-led demonstration in Shanghai demanding withdrawal of Soviet troops from Manchuria. Especially after Mao tacitly broke from Stalin in 1947 and began calling for the overthrow of the Guomindang, the failure of the Chinese Trotskyists to unequivocally side militarily with Mao’s forces rendered them sterile.

When Mao’s forces took the cities in 1949 and established a bureaucratically deformed workers state, the Trotskyists were once more forced underground. Finally in December 1952, as the CCP government moved to nationalize all capitalist property, Mao’s police undertook a massive roundup of almost a thousand Trotskyists and their sympathizers. Many Trotskyists died in Mao’s dungeons; others served decades in jail. Only a few veteran cadre, including Peng and Wang, made it to exile. Chinese Trotskyism was effectively destroyed.

Zheng Chaolin (Ch’eng Ch’ao-lin) was only released in 1979, after 27 years’ imprisonment. His memoirs of the early history of Chinese Trotskyism were published, for restricted circulation, in China in 1986; they have now been published in English (An Oppositionist for Life: Memoirs of the Chinese Revolutionary Zheng Chaolin [Humanities Press, 1997]).

In China’s Urban Revolutionaries, Gregor Benton questions the Trotskyist strategy of concentrating on winning a base among urban workers before trying to influence and lead the peasants:

“Yet after the Japanese invasion this strategy was no longer feasible. The Trotskyists failed to see that the workers had been neutralized as a cumulative effect of the 1927 defeat, the ensuing Guomindang repression, and—most decisively of all—the Japanese occupation of China’s main industrial centers and that for the revolution to succeed, it was essential to start organizing the peasants even before the movement in the towns revived. At the root of this failure lay an excess of orthodoxy.”

Here Benton’s criticisms dovetail with those expressed in the memoirs of Wang Fanxi, whose wing of Chinese Trotskyism Benton strongly sympathizes with. However, peasant-based “Trotskyism” would quickly replicate the parochial, conservative Stalinist outlook. Indeed, some elements of the world Trotskyist movement, such as Frank Glass and the American SWP’s Arne Swabeck, certainly did not suffer from the “excess of orthodoxy” about which Benton complains, arguing in the 1950s against the call for proletarian political revolution to oust the Maoist regime. This is the logical conclusion of the view that the Trotskyists’ mistake lay in not beating the Maoists to the peasantry. The reality is that the small Trotskyist movement, driven underground, did not have the forces to organize proletarian military units under its own command. And both Benton and Wang acknowledge that in the few instances that the Trotskyists engaged in guerrilla warfare, they were wiped out by either the Stalinists or the Japanese army.

Benton writes that “after 1949 the old Trotskyist polemic about the nature of the Chinese Revolution (proletarian or bourgeois-democratic, permanent or staged?) and the strategy and tactics to pursue in it was relegated to the history books.” This is quite wrong. The Chinese experience powerfully confirmed the theory of permanent revolution, albeit in a negative fashion. Mao’s “New Democracy,” the Chinese version of the two-stage theory, was proved bogus. Maoist China was not a peasant state or a “bloc of four classes.” With the victory of the Red Army, the bulk of the Chinese bourgeoisie fled to Taiwan with the Guomindang and, despite the fig leaf of a few bourgeois politicians who briefly joined the government, power was completely in the hands of the CCP. There is no third road between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The Chinese workers state established in 1949 was bureaucratically deformed from its inception. The subsequent evolution of China, now brought to the very brink of capitalist restoration by Mao and his successors, has thrown into sharp relief the crucial distinction between such a deformed workers state and the Soviet state when it was led by Lenin and Trotsky. From our founding as a tendency, the International Communist League has insisted:

“Experience since the Second World War has demonstrated that peasant-based guerrilla warfare under petit-bourgeois leadership can in itself lead to nothing more than an anti-working-class bureaucratic regime. The creation of such regimes has come about under the conditions of decay of imperialism, the demoralization and disorientation caused by Stalinist betrayals, and the absence of revolutionary Marxist leadership of the working class. Colonial revolution can have an unequivocally progressive revolutionary significance only under such leadership of the revolutionary proletariat. For Trotskyists to incorporate into their strategy revisionism on the proletarian leadership in the revolution is a profound negation of Marxism-Leninism no matter what pious wish may be concurrently expressed for ‘building revolutionary Marxist parties in colonial countries’.”

— “Toward Rebirth of the Fourth International,” June 1963

The mobilization of the working class behind an internationalist Leninist vanguard party, drawing in behind it the peasant and other oppressed masses, in revolutionary struggle to bring down the imperialist world order, is the only road to a socialist future. This is the program the Chinese Trotskyists fought for. In their time they represented China’s future, and they will be remembered as the pioneer Chinese Marxists who fought to lead the proletariat forward after the 1927 defeat. Today a Chinese Trotskyist party must be forged, standing on the heritage of the Communist League of China, to lead the proletariat forward in a fight against the heirs of Mao who have brought China to the brink of counterrevolution. Chinese communists today must rediscover the road of Lenin and Trotsky, as the founding Chinese Trotskyists did: the road of permanent revolution.