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Trotsky & Preobrazhensky, Letters on the Chinese Revolution


Trotsky’s First Letter to Preobrazhensky


From New International, Vol. 3 No. 2, April 1936, pp. 58–59.


Pravda prints in several installments an extensive article entitled, The Significance and Lessons of the Canton Insurrection. This article is truly remarkable both for the invaluable, substantiated and first-hand information it contains as well as for its lucid exposition of contradictions and confusion of a principled nature.

It begins with an evaluation of the social nature of the revolution itself. As we all know, it is a bourgeois-democratic, a workers’ and peasants’ revolution. Yesterday it was supposed to unfold under the banner of the Kuo Min Tang – today it unfolds against the Kuo Min Tang.

But according to the author’s appraisal, the character of the revolution, and even the entire official policy, remains bourgeois-democratic. We turn next to the chapter that deals with the policy of the Soviet power. Here we find stated that: “in the interests of the workers, the Canton Soviet issued decrees establishing ... workers’ control of production, effecting this control through factory committees [and] ... nationalization of large-scale industry, transports and banks”.

It goes on to enumerate the following measures: “the confiscation of all the apartments of the big bourgeoisie for the use of the toilers ...”

Thus the workers were in power in Canton, through their Soviets. Actually the entire power was in the hands of the communist party, i.e., the party of the proletariat. The program included not only the confiscation of whatever feudal estates still exist in China; not only the workers’ control of production, but also the nationalization of large-scale industry, banks and transport, as well as the confiscation of bourgeois apartments, and all their property for the use of the toilers. The question arises, if such are the methods of a bourgeois revolution, then what should the socialist revolution look like in China? What other class would do the overthrowing and by what sort of different measures ? We observe that given a real development of the revolution, the formula of a bourgeois-democratic, a workers’ and peasants’ revolution applied to China in the present period, on the given stage of its development, proved to be a hollow fiction, a bagatelle. Those who insisted upon this formula prior to the Canton insurrection, and above all those who insist on it now, after this insurrection, are repeating (under different conditions) the principled mistake committed by Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov and the rest in the year 1917. An objection may be raised that the agrarian revolution in China has not been solved as yet! True. But neither was it solved in out own country prior to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In our country it was not the bourgeois-democratic but the proletarian socialist revolution that achieved the agrarian revolution which, moreover, was far more deep-going than the one that is possible in China, in view, of the historical conditions of the Chinese system of land ownership. It may be said that China has not matured for the socialist revolution as yet. But that would be an abstract and a lifeless manner of posing the question. Was Russia, then, if taken by itself, ripe for socialism? Russia was ripe for the dictatorship of the proletariat as the only method of solving all national problems; but so far as socialist development is concerned, the latter, proceeding from the economic and cultural conditions of a country, is indissolubly bound up with the entire future development of the world revolution. This applies in whole and in part to China as well. If eight or ten months ago this was a forecast (rather belated, at that), then today it is an irrefutable deduction from the experience of the Canton uprising. It would be erroneous to argue that the Canton uprising was an adventure by and large, and that the actual class relations were reflected in it in a distorted form.

In the first place, the author of the above-mentioned article does not at all consider the Canton insurrection as an adventure, but as an entirely lawful stage in the development of the Chinese revolution. The general official point of view is: to combine the appraisal of the revolution as bourgeois-democratic with an approval of the program of action of the Canton government. But even from the standpoint of appraising the Canton insurrection as a putsch, one could not arrive at the conclusion that the formula of the bourgeois-democratic revolution is viable. The insurrection was obviously untimely. It was But the class forces and the programs that inevitably flow from them were disclosed by the insurrection in all their lawfulness. The best proof of this is: that it was possible and necessary to foresee in advance the relation of forces that was laid bare by the Canton insurrection. And this was foreseen.

This question is most closely bound up with the paramount question of the Kuo Min Tang. Incidentally, the author of the article relates, with assumed satisfaction, that one of the fighting slogans of the Canton overturn was the cry: “Down with the Kuo Min Tang!” The banners and insignia of the Kuo Min Tang were torn down and trampled underfoot. But only recenty, even after the “betrayal” of Chiang Kai-shek, and after the “betrayal” of Wang Chin-wei, we heard solemn vows that: “We will not surrender the banner of the Kuo Min Tang!” Oh, these sorry revolutionists! ...

The workers of Canton outlawed the Kuo Min Tang party, proclaiming all its tendencies illegal. What does this imply? It implies that for the solution of the fundamental national tasks, not only the big but also the petty bourgeoisie could not put forward such a force as would enable the party of the proletariat to solve jointly with it the tasks of the “bourgeois democratic revolution”. But “we” are overlooking the many millioned peasantry and the agrarian revolution ... A pitiable objection ... For the key to the entire situation lies precisely in the fact that the task of conquering the peasant movement falls upon the proletariat, i.e., directly upon the communist party; and this task cannot be solved in reality differently than it was solved by the Canton workers, i.e., in the shape of the dictatorship of the proletariat whose methods from the very outset grow over inevitably into socialist methods. Conversely, the general fate of these methods, as well as of the dictatorship as a whole, is decided in the last analysis by the course of world development, which naturally does not exclude but on the contrary presupposes a correct policy on the part of the proletarian dictatorship, that consists of strengthening and developing the alliance, between the workers and peasants, and of an all-sided adaptation to national conditions, on the one hand, and to the course of world development, on the other. To play with the formula of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, after the experience of the Canton insurrection, is to march against the Chinese October, for without a correct general political orientation, revolutionary uprisings cannot be victorious, no matter how heroic and self-sacrificing they may be.

To be sure, the Chinese revolution has “passed into a new and higher phase” – but this is correct not in the sense that it will begin surging upward tomorrow or the next day, but in the sense that it has revealed the hollowness of the slogan of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Engels said that a party which misses a favorable situation and suffers a defeat as a result, turns into a nonentity. This applies to the Chinese party as well. The defeat of the Chinese revolution is not a bit smaller than the defeat in Germany in 1923. Of course, we must understand the reference to “nonentity” in a sensible way. Many things bespeak the fact that the next period in China will be a period of revolutionary reflux, a slow process of assimilating the lessons of the cruelest defeats, and consequently, the weakening of the direct influence of the communist party. Thence flows the necessity for the latter to draw profound conclusions in all questions of principles and tactics. And this is impossible without an open and all-sided discussion of all the fatal mistakes perpetrated hitherto. Of course this activity must not turn into the activity of self-isolation. It is necessary to keep a firm hand on the pulse of the working class in order not to commit a mistake in estimating the tempo, and not only to identify a new mounting wave, but also to prepare for it in time.

The Reply of Preobazhensky
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