From Fourth International, Vol.13 No.1, January-February 1952, pp.26-31.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
One of the minor crimes of our times is the defacement of the book, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution by its author, Harold R. Isaacs.  In jts first edition published in 1938, this writer saw tragedy in the defeat of the 1925-27 revolution by Chinese reaction allied to world imperialism. Now, in revised form, after the vandal finished his work, the “tragedy” of the Chinese revolution is its victory in 1949 over the associated forces of warlords, landowners, usurers and feudal bandits headed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his foreign imperialist masters. From a weapon in the struggle against imperialism, the book has been transformed into a treatise of pinkish, courtier-type advice to save the rulers from impending disaster. The most devastating blow struck at world capitalism since the Russian Revolution is depicted in funereal terms by the frightened, renegade author as a triumph of “totalitarianism.”
The truth is, however, that Isaacs is more the victim and the instrument of totalitarianism – “democratic” American totalitarianism – than the New China which he so bitterly attacks. The rewriting of books to completely alter their meaning in order to conform to the regime in power, to buy favor or survival for the hapless writer is a practice perfected by the Stalin dictatorship in the Soviet Union, but it is common to all forms of tyrannical rule. This and other aspects of totalitarianism are more and more becoming a regular part of American life. The organized denunciation of “Communists” and former “Communists” by official /and unofficial agencies the recurrent purges from government and private employment of those so branded, has as its counterpart confessions of the accused and of others not yet accused, abject repudiations of past ideas and actions, capitulation to the reigning ideology, no matter how revolting or reactionary.
There are various degrees of capitulation which are determined by the renegade’s condition of life, the prominence of his past activities, his ambitions and other considerations. Budenz goes directly from the editor’s chair on the Daily Worker to the Catholic church and the informer’s bench. Isaacs passes from revolutionary Marxism to the camp of the “liberal” defenders of capitalism. Variations are still possible because totalitarian reaction is not yet completely in the saddle – but they remain in essence variations on a totalitarian theme.
The revision of The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution fits into this pattern. As originally written, it was far more than a narrative of the 1925-27 revolution. It was a Marxist study of the most decisive event in the Orient up to that time; it was a critique from the standpoint of revolutionary politics of a strategy in a revolution; it was thus a guide for leaders of the colonial liberation movements in the struggle, against imperialism; it was a declaration of faith and partisanship by the author. In his enthusiastic introduction, now omitted, Trotsky honored Isaacs with “the Marxist label” saying that he “belongs to the school of historical” materialism,” that he “approaches the revolution as a revolutionist.” Trotsky, as was only human, over-rated the author, but he didn’t overestimate the book.
The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution had a life of its own. Long after the author had abandoned revolutionary politics for the flesh-pots of bourgeois journalism, the book was having a continuing impact on political thought, particularly in the Far East. Revolutionists in China had contrived to bring out a bootleg edition which Isaacs says in the preface to the revised version had a wider circulation than the expensive edition published in London.
“Copies of it turned up,” he says, “in different parts of the world in later years.” In 1944 a condensed version in mimeographed form was circulating in India. The book has been out of print and virtually unobtainable for many years, but there was always the possibility that revolutionists somewhere would scrape together the pennies for its republication. Isaacs, we are told, was directly approached in India or Ceylon during the war to help finance a new edition – a request he refused.
Try as he might, Isaacs could not escape his book. Like Banquo’s ghost, it kept reappearing. The Chiang Kai-shek government refused Isaacs a visa because of the views expressed in the book. Since then, he says, there have been many “direct inquiries” about it and “many of the original readers will want to know whether its point of view has changed.” Alter the tense to its past form and you will get a more truthful picture of the effect of the old book on the presently respectable “authority on China,” who writes for accepted academic periodicals and lectures for “Americans for Democratic Action.” Isaacs, of course, is an opponent of witch-hunting and McCarthyism, but he is not blind to its present power which has some bearing on his own fortunes. The question of where he stands must have arisen time and again even in “parlor pink” circles as is indicated in his petulant statement that: “If a label be needed, its [the book’s] bias can be described as democratic socialist [whatever that means] although one feels compelled to add that political labeling nowadays has become virtually a form of abuse, driving one to make a political philosophy out of the defense of human decency.” How Isaacs has begun to apply his new “political philosophy” is another matter.
Apparently he does not believe he has overstepped the bounds of “decency” by failing to inform the readers that in addition to omitting Trotsky’s introduction and rewriting the last three chapters, he has transformed chapter 3 from top to bottom, giving it a new caption: World Crisis: The Russian Impact. From an international guide to the Chinese Revolution, the chapter has become a work in anti-Bolshevism, throwing confusion and doubt on the. main original theme, which still stands. Isaacs pretends also that he revised the original literary presentation “to eliminate polemical excesses, subjective comments, and repetitious comments.” The stylistic alterations have a different purpose, however. They seek to remake the author from a fervent partisan of a revolutionary program into a learned commentator so far as the past is concerned, and an outright opponent now. In keeping with this metamorphosis of the author, he has replaced the original dedication “To the heroic martyrs and the living fighters of the Chinese Revolution” with a dolorous, self-pitying rumination by William Morris.
It became urgent for Isaacs to revise his book and get the bowdlerized version in print. The “decent” thing for him, of course, would have been to publish the original version unchanged, together with his nauseating recantation. But that was not possible. The book was an integrated work, Its “political philosophy” so clearly Marxist, or Trotskyist, that the whole theme of the book led unerringly, ineluctably to the conclusion of support of the Mao regime – regardless of criticisms of its program, its lack of democracy – in its struggle against foreign imperialism and the counter-revolutionary gang of parasites working to restore the barbaric old regime. What else was the meaning of Trotsky’s scathing attacks on the policy of Stalin’s Comintern if not that it had advised a capitulation to Chiang Kai-shek and through him to the landowners, warlords and foreign imperialism?
With all of its alterations, the contradiction between what remains of the original work and the new conclusions is glaring enough. We can safely predict that Isaacs will be reminded of it many times in the future by those for whom no repudiation is complete until the last “i” is dotted and the last “t” is crossed. For the time being, in the rapidly vanishing “democratic” climate, the present confession will probably have its uses in confusing some leftward-moving intellectuals in India, Indonesia and other parts of the awakened Orient, where Washington is trying to establish its influence.
The reader may object that after all it was Isaacs’ book and as author he has the right to change it. No. It was not Isaacs’ book. It was Trotsky’s. Every important idea, every clue to the complicated events had already been contributed by Trotsky in his extensive writings, speeches, resolutions, etc., during his polemic with the Stalin-Bukharin leadership of the Comintern and afterward. Separated from the revolution by thousands of miles, Trotsky followed events daily, meticulously, with a passionate interest. He not only predicted the terrible outcome, inevitable if Stalin’s policy of conciliating the Kuomintang at all costs prevailed, but he foresaw each new stage as the revolution moved from crisis to crisis in its conflict with Chiang Kai-shek. It was this masterful critique, exposition and analysis that attracted Isaacs to Trotsky.
The Tragedy is nothing more than the popularization of Trotsky’s Problems of the Chinese Revolution and of his other writings on the subject. It rearranges the ideas and facts Trotsky had presented in polemical form in a running, historical account of the events. At the time, there was no question about Isaacs’ part in the project. He applied his journalistic skills to tools which had been fashioned and along a pattern that had already been drafted by others. It was an important, even a brilliant work, but in no sense could it be called original. Isaacs provided the “manual” labor for Trotsky’s intellectual creation. It was written and rewritten in close collaboration with the great Marxist thinker and it was thanks to him that Isaacs then avoided the woeful superficiality of contemporary journalism.
Isaacs’ role in the work is now glaringly demonstrated in the new revised edition. Wherever he departs from the ideas of the original text, we find a stale hash of political ignorance or shibboleths borrowed from soul-sick, cynical intellectuals who are also guided primarily by emotion or venality.
Take, for example, his ruminations on the Soviet Union. For Isaacs it is a vital problem since his central theme now, like Acheson’s and McCarthy’s, is that China succeeded in liberating itself from imperialism only to fall victim to the new “Russian empire” and its supposed imperial ambitions for world domination.
He now rejects the view he held when the book was written that Russia was “a workers state ... deformed by a usurping bureaucracy, but playing a progressive role in world affairs.” That was, he says, “a rationalization,” “the epitaph for a whole generation of revolutionists in Russia and elsewhere.” We impatiently await the scientific discovery that will replace the “rationalization.” But none is forthcoming. “The precise nature of the bureaucratic state in Russia” is not to be learned from him; “it still awaits adequate description.” From Isaacs we get only the screaming invective of the yellow press about the “adolescent tyranny” of 1925-27 growing “into a totalitarian monster imposing its weight not only upon China but upon the whole world.”
What are the economic compulsions driving the “monster” to “impose its weight on the world”? Here Isaacs assays an answer. “Russia,” he says, “is certainly not a source of capital goods on any vast scale. (It) is engaged in the primitive accumulation of capital ... “ Once again, Isaacs left to his own devices, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The similarity between the primitive accumulation that marked the transition between feudalism’ and capitalism, paving the way for the capitalist empires, and the so-called “primitive accumulation” of the Soviet Union is that its “history ... is written in letters of blood and fire.” That’s all. “Primitive accumulation,” Marx said “is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding to it.”
Where the capitalists began by divorcing the guildsman and the independent artisan from his tools and workshop, the Soviet bureaucracy found itself obliged to expropriate the capitalist from his property in Eastern Europe. Where the early capitalists drove the peasantry from the communal land, the Soviet bureaucracy after the first stages of agrarian reform, drove the peasantry into the collective farms. Besides, the mode of production in the Soviet Union, which today turns out atom bombs and more steel than any other European country, never corresponded to the pre-historic stage of capital, not even in the period preceding the Five Year Plans. On the contrary, it stands on a par with the most industrially advanced countries but unlike them, as Isaacs admits, is not a source of capital goods.
The only truthful resemblance with imperialism ho can find is in plunder, and, of course, Isaacs hangs on this point like a child beating on a tin drum. But its plundering merely shows the reactionary character of the bureaucracy. It is not indigenous to the system of nationalized property and planned economy but in mortal contradiction to it. Most of the plundering in Eastern Europe and in Manchuria occurred in the period before the social fate of these countries was decided. Once the bourgeoisie was driven out, the plundering ceased – it had to.
Now, contrary to the status of the colonies under capitalist imperialism, which maintains them as backward suppliers of raw materials, the Soviet satellites are being pushed into industrialization at a breakneck pace. What remains then of this fatuous theory of “Russian imperialism”? Nothing but a miserable distortion of Trotsky’s characterization of the parasitic nature of the bureaucracy, which is not only in conflict with the economy but which generates the forces for Stalinism’s own destruction.
Another “original” thought of Isaacs is his conclusions about “the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” So far as fundamentals go, you see, his recantation doesn’t stop half-way. “This (the Russian) experience has taught us that the contradiction between authoritarianism and democratic socialism is complete. The one-party monopoly of political life, developing into a bureaucratic oligarchy, an outcome that clearly rose out of the basic premises of Boshevism, cannot serve socialist ends. No broader democracy can come from a political system based on force and lacking in institutional safeguards against the corruption of power and violence.”
This is the old rubbish about Stalinism being the legitimate heir of Bolshevism. We don’t have to waste time on this drivel because it was scattered to the four winds by Trotsky himself answering the many “Isaacs” of his time in his famous pamphlet Stalinism and Bolshevism. The fact that Isaacs, who on the very next page loudly proclaims his “great respect” for Trotsky, is well aware of this pamphlet but consciously ignores it, shows how little “simple human decency” is really left in this ardent foe of “totalitarianism.” But how can anyone have respect for these “ideas’” of this man who saw Hitler come to power without violence in strict conformity with all the “institutional safeguards” of the Weimar Republic erected by the German “democratic socialists,” while Stalin, although unhindered by constitutional barriers, had to carry out the bloodiest purge in history in order to assure his ascent to power.
Having cut himself adrift from the axis of Trotsky’s thought, Isaacs becomes merely a facile scribbler whose sole criterion for the vast world revolutionary developments now unfolding is “democracy.” This is how Isaacs staggers into the unforeseen and complicated developments of the Chinese Revolution and then staggers out as its opponent. Everything would have been different, so runs the main theme of his funeral dirge, had the revolutionary movement of 1925-27 in China triumphed. “The whole world balance of forces would have been tipped in different directions, with inevitable effects upon the external, and therefore the internal, position of Russia.” The Stalin regime might never have consolidated itself; instead of defeats of workers’ revolutions in the thirties there might have been victories. In China itself the revolutionary forces led by “urbanized intellectuals” (Isaacs’ kind, no doubt) and basing themselves on an active working class would have brought a new flowering of “democracy.” But for the last part, this hypothesis, borrowed from the Trotskyists, is in its main lines correct, except that on Isaacs’ lips it is converted into a nostalgia for “the snows of yesteryear.” Its most questionable side is that which deals with China.
Let us look a little closer at this “new totalitarian dictatorship” of the Mao regime which has sent Isaacs to the wailing wall to shed a bucketful of tears over “the opening of a new act in the unending tragedy” of the Chinese people – and incidentally to pronounce his apostasy to their cause. How does it compare with the “totalitarianism” of Hitler and Stalin? Superficially the application of the term seems perfect: There is a “one-party” dictatorship in China, terror, elimination of political opponents, idolatry of the leader, etc., etc. But the analogy remains nonetheless superficial.
The totalitarianism of the Nazis was the means of preserving the rule of the industrial and financial oligarchy and the outlived system of capitalism. It bound the country in an iron strait-jacket, smashed the organizations of the proletariat, provoked the Second World War in order to save Germany from its overripe socialist revolution.
Under the “totalitarianism” of the Mao regime and the Chinese Communist Party, China has been going through its most progressive era, the accomplishment of the principal tasks of its democratic revolution. The country has been unified for the first time in its history, irreparably smashing the power of warlord rule based on local particularism; the agrarian reform moves steadily forward undermining the landowners and rooting out the age-old curse of feudal, paternalistic relationships on the countryside; foreign imperialism has been humbled and driven out of the country, never to return except by a major war.
Hitler’s victory not only saved German and European capitalism from socialism but armed it with unprecedented imperialist drive and power. Mao’s victory, on the contrary, has undermined the very foundations of world imperialism and by eliminating the old ruling classes has laid the first stones for the new socialist society! A slight difference!
The absence of democracy in the Chinese CP, its lack of a clear Marxist program and the absence of direct, conscious participation of the proletariat will undoubtedly become a brake upon the Chinese Revolution and a source of the greatest dangers for it as it approaches its socialist stage. But to discuss that problem with Isaacs would be as futile – as Lenin once said – as discussing dialectical materialism with a man who makes the sign of the cross in front of each church he passes.
The analogy with Stalin’s “totalitarianism” fares no better. The Soviet bureaucracy rose to power by crushing all the living dynamic forces of the Russian Revolution. It based itself on the farces of reaction, inertia and passivity of Russian society after the civil war. Its victory was the antithesis of the revolution and the undoing of the active forces which had led it.
The victory of the Chinese CP on the contrary did not occur as a result of the degeneration of the victorious proletarian power. It was the “October” of the Chinese Revolution; for all its differences with the Bolshevik triumph, and not its “Thermidor.” To smash the Kuomintang rule, the Chinese CP was obliged to engage in civil war, not against the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat (which was the essence of the Stalinist purges in the USSR), but against the forces of reaction. It was obliged to stoke the fires of peasant rebellion and to unleash the centuries-old dynamite of popular discontent on the Chinese countryside so vividly described by Jack Belden in his magnificent China Shakes the World.
To compare “the bureaucratic caste” which rules in China with that of the Soviet Union, as Isaacs does, is cut of all relation to time and space. The Soviet bureaucracy rose to its present power not overnight but over a period of years, and its power was vastly increased by the growth of its privileges, extracted from the industrialization of the country. The privileges of the so-called “bureaucratic caste” in China are wretched by comparison. We do not thereby deny that the same type of bureaucratic monstrosity could develop in China if it had before it many years of reaction in the working class and colonial movement, and of maneuvers with imperialism and collaboration with it. But just the contrary is the case: revolutionary developments in the world and particularly in the colonies are not ebbing but reaching high tide. If Stalin began his career in power by opposition to the German revolution of 1923, Mao’s first important international action was to come to the assistance of the revolutionary forces in the Korean civil war. Impending developments in Indo-China, Malaya, Burma and elsewhere in Southeast Asia indicate that Korea was not the end but the beginning of China’s involvement in revolution – which will have a continuing effect on the nature of the regime, and will determine its internal direction and the strata of Chinese society on which it must lean.
The contradiction, which Isaacs can never understand. is that the very forces and conflicts – i.e., the clash with the Chinese landowners and bourgeoisie and with world imperialism – which led to the creation of the “one-party” state, are also those which undermine bureaucratic rule and are undermining the strength of the Kremlin as well.
Isaacs sees the development of the Chinese Communist Party as a “party of de-urbanized intellectuals and peasant leaders whose main strength lay in military force. Over the years, he says, it learned how to maneuver between the various layers of the peasantry and local gentry, dispensing reforms here, cracking down there, veering, shifting, conciliating, compromising, fighting. To the mind haunted by fears of “totalitarianism,” all of this represents nothing but the cunning of unscrupulous men. One has only to ask why it was that the Chinese Stalinists defeated Chiang Kai-shek who was hardly more burdened with scruples but who had, in addition, far greater material and military means.
The Communist Party leaders, it is true, had been trying to cheat history over a period of years in the service of the Kremlin and as a result of their own misconceptions. They didn’t aim to create a “one-party state” but rather what they called a “bloc of four classes” in which the Communist Party would be only one of many parties, representing different classes in the government. Time and again this aim was broken up by the conflict of these very classes which were supposed to unite. The year 1937 saw a re-institution of the Stalinist alliance with Chiang Kai-shek in which the CP again agreed to abandon the fight for agrarian reform and to give up its own independence in return for Chiang’s promise to fight the Japanese invader. The capitulation had the same type of outcome as the preceding ones, taking the form of a Kuomintang attack on the Communist Fourth Army in 1941. But the defeat was less disastrous because this time the Stalinists were based on their own power in a large provincial region which supplied the peasant manpower for their own army. On the other side, the Kuomintang forces were divided internally and retreating before the Japanese. The policy of the Chinese Stalinists and of the Kremlin was oriented to the right and to capitulation, but events and the relationship of class forces were pushing them to the left and to greater independence. The “bloc of the four classes” was being blown up in life although it still remained in the CP’s program and theoretical baggage.
Again in 1946, under the pressure of Stalin’s deals with western imperialism and in accordance with their own policies, the Mao leadership moved to a new compromise with Chiang Kai-shek which again included cessation of land reform and the acceptance of a subordinate position in the Kuomintang government. And again there arose the combined pressure of a peasantry that would not be mollified or quieted, and of an army, which had become strong and self-confident in years of armed combat against the Japanese, the Kuomintang and in the peasant wars, and could not simply be abandoned or dispersed by a decision from the top. At the very time these pressures were making themselves felt, Chiang Kai-shek broke the alliance by beginning a war-to-the-end against Mao’s forces. Despite “the bloc of the four classes” to which he still adhered, Mao was compelled to take the road to power.
Nor was the matter definitively settled when the Stalinists drove the Kuomintang from the Chinese mainland and took the power. Again they sought for some form of compromise with the Chinese bourgeoisie and even some form of arrangement with imperialism, though on different terms, of course, than those they had accepted in the past. The coalition government set up in Peiping was as much or more a government of many parties as any that had existed in modern Chinese history. Naturally, because the Stalinists firmly held the reins of power, for Isaacs all of this was nothing but another totalitarian maneuver. The facts demonstrate something else.
The Stalinists deliberately withheld the land reform in the most important area of China, south of the Yangtse, where their bourgeois allies in the government had important economic interests. In many parts of this area the Mao regime permitted the local warlords to remain the governing power. It was not Mao but American imperialism which split this multiple party government asunder by its attack on Korea, its open defense of Chiang’s rule on Formosa, its blockade of China’s coast, its active support of internal counter-revolution. It was the totalitarianism of imperialism which pushed the CP to complete power in China, to a “one-party” government
Isaacs suavely describes the new internal mobilization of the forces of reaction, guided and financed from abroad by Chiang Kai-shek as “rising dissent.” And again his bitter tears at the “terror” and the “purge ... in the same places the Kuomintang had drenched in blood in the same manner when it came to power twenty-four years earlier.’” Yes, “the same places” and perhaps “the same manner,” since people die and heads roll in all periods of terror, but this time it was the heads of landowners, usurers, the wealthy and well-placed and their hirelings – and not the communist workers, union militants, peasant fighters, as had happened twenty-four years earlier. The revolution was rising in its own defense as it had done under Robespierre in France in the 18th Century and under Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, in 1918.
The key piece in Isaacs’ “totalitarian” house of cards, however, is not to be found in China but in the Soviet Union. He must recognize that the “Chinese Communists ... unmistakably came to power by their own momentum.” Naturally, he omits the real story of the Kremlin’s underhanded treachery and sabotage of the armed struggle waged by the communist armies. Yet the evidence is compelling enough to make him say: “The contrast between the Russian-made debacle of 1927 and the Chinese-engineered victory of 1949 ... is [not] totally absent from the consciousness of at least some of the older Communist leaders.” He must also speak of social, political and economic “potential sources of conflict” between the new China and the Kremlin bureaucracy. For Isaacs, however, all of this conflict has virtually disappeared with the outbreak of what he calls the Russian-inspired Korean war in which the “Chinese Communist leadership ... had subordinated itself to Russia’s strategy in the world power struggle ...”
Undoubtedly one of the aims of the Kremlin rulers was to increase China’s dependence upon them through the Korean war. Another was to force the capitalist powers to arrive at an agreement with them, with the Korean workers and peasants, among others, to be sacrificed as part of the bargain. But the logic of the class struggle proved more powerful than ulterior bureaucratic motives. Instead of bringing an agreement closer, the Korean war aggravated the conflict between world imperialism and the Soviet Union, hastening the “rearmament” program, the creation of the North Atlantic Army. Above all, it made Asia a new front of the “cold” and the hot war. Thus while China became more dependent on the Kremlin in its need for tanks and planes, the Kremlin became dependent on China to halt the imperialist assault on Korea from moving through Manchuria to the Siberian frontier. Stalin would otherwise once again, as before the defeat of Japan, have been confronted with powerful military foes poised on the eastern as well as the western extremities of the Soviet Union.
China’s direct participation in the Korean civil war after the known failure of the Kremlin to supply planes to the Nonh Koreans when victory was within their grasp, has lowered the stock of the Soviet bureaucracy, while it has raised the prestige of the Mao regime in the eyes of the colonial peoples and the workers under Stalinist control throughout the world.
Far from it being considered the action of a mere pawn, China’s magnificent resistance on the Korean battlefronts has kindled the flames of the colonial revolutions, now moving like a flame driven in the wind to the Arab world of the Middle East and North Africa. Stalin’s real plans – “peaceful co-existence with capitalism” – are being shattered to bits in this sweep. Responsible capitalist journalists like James Reston of the New York Times and statesmen like Anthony Eden, whose principal task, unlike Issacs, is not that of finding apologies for imperialism hut of trying to devise the means for its survival, see in this rising struggle the unleashing of “uncontrollable forces” which they cannot put down and the Kremlin cannot dominate. They, not Isaacs and the Stalinophobcs, are right. This worldwide revolutionary struggle will break the back of imperialism and before it is over it will sweep the parasitic Soviet bureaucracy into the dustbins of history.
That struggle, in whose interests Isaacs first wrote The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution is now being joined. But it finds Isaacs on the other side, against the colonial peoples, against the revolutionary workers and the Soviet Union, lecturing, pleading with imperialism to change its stripes, to stop being capitalist in the western world and to stop being imperialist in the Far East and in Africa.
Answering a question of an Asian Revolutionist as to how he, who had written the splendid study on China could have abandoned fhe fight, Isaacs, we are told, replied that some men are capable of only one great deed in their lives and some writers of only one good book. We do not quarrel with the notion. Only the vandalized version of The Tragedy lends us to make an amendment. Some of these men cannot live without trying to destroy that one deed or one literary creation. In the end, however, it is not the work that is destroyed, but the man.
1. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution by Harold R. Isaacs, Stanford University Press, 1951. 382 pp. $5.
Last updated on: 26 March 2009