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Trotsky & Preobrazhensky, Letters on the Chinese Revolution


Trotsky’s Reply to Preobrazhensky


From New International, Vol. 3 No. 2, April 1936, pp. 59–61.


Your letter was also 22 days in transit. It is difficult to discuss vital questions under such conditions, and in my opinion the Chinese question belongs among the most vital ones, because the struggle is still unfolding in China, the partisan armies are in the field, and an armed insurrection has been placed on the agenda, as you no doubt know from the resolution of the last plenum of the ECCI.

To begin, I want to reply to a minor but aggravating point. You say that I needlessly polemize against you under the pseudonym of Zinoviev. In this you are entirely mistaken. I believe, incidentally, that the misunderstanding arose as a result of the irregular mail delivery. I wrote about the Canton affair at a time when I was apprised of the famous letter of the two musketeers [Zinoviev and Kamenev], in addition to this, reports came from Moscow that they had been supplied with secretaries in order to expose “Trotskyism”. I felt certain that Zinoviev would publish several of my letters on the Chinese question in which I set out to prove that in no case would there be such a special epoch in the Chinese revolution as an epoch of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, because incomparably fewer preconditions exist there than in our own country, and as experience, and not theory, has already shown us, the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry as such failed to materialize in our own country. Thus, my entire letter was written with a view to the past and future “exposures” on the part of Zinoviev. In referring to the charge of ignoring the peasantry, I did not for a moment forget certain of our disputes on China – but I had no reason whatever to put in your lips this banal charge against me: for you, I trust, recognize that it is possible, without in the least ignoring the “peasantry” to arrive at a conclusion that the only road for solving the peasant question lies through the dictatorship of the proletariat. So that you, my dear E.A. – please do not take offense at a hunter’s simile – assume gratuitously the role of a startled hare who concludes that the rifle is being aimed at him when the pursuit follows a totally different track.

I came to the opinion that there would not be any democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry in China from the time the Wuhan government was first formed. I based myself precisely upon the analysis of the most fundamental social facts, and not upon the manner in which they were refracted politically, which, as is well known, often assumes peculiar forms, since, in this sphere, factors of a secondary order enter, including national tradition. I became convinced that the basic social facts have already cleared the road for themselves through all the peculiarities of political superstructures, when the Wuhan shipwreck destroyed utterly the legend of the Left Kuo Min Tang, allegedly, embracing nine-tenths of the entire Kuo Min Tang. In 1924-1925, it was almost an accepted commonplace that the Kuo Min Tang is a workers’ and peasants’ party. This party “unexpectedly” proved to be bourgeois-capitalist. Then another version was created, that the latter was only a “summit”, but that the genuine Kuo Min Tang, nine-tenths of the Kuo Min Tang, is a revolutionary peasant party. Once again, it turned out “unexpectedly” that the Left Kuo Min Tang, in whole and in part, proceeded to smash the peasant movement which, as is well known, has great traditions in China and its own traditional organizational forms that became widespread during these years. That is why, when you write in the spirit of absolute abstraction that “it is impossible to say today whether the Chinese petty bourgeoisie will be able to create any sort of parties analogous to our SRs, or whether such parties will be created by the Right wing communists who split off, etc.”, I reply to this argument from “the theory of improbabilities” as follows: in the first place, even were the SRs to be created, there would not at all follow from this any dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, precisely as none followed in our own country, despite immeasurably more favorable conditions; secondly, instead of guessing whether the petty bourgeoisie is capable in the future – i.e., with the further aggravation of class relations – of playing a greater or lesser independent role (suppose a piece of wood suddenly fires a bullet?), one should rather ask why did the petty bourgeoisie prove incapable of playing such a role in the recent past, when it had at its disposal the most favorable conditions: the communist party was driven into the Kuo Min Tang, the latter was declared a workers’ and peasants’ party, it was supported by the entire authority of the Communist International and the USSR, the peasant movement was far-flung and sought for leadership, the intelligentsia was widely mobilized since 1919, etc., etc.

You write that China still faces the “colossal problem of the agrarian bourgeois-democratic revolution”. To Lenin, this was the root of the question. Lenin pointed out that the peasantry even as an estate is capable of playing a revolutionary role in the struggle against the estate of the landed nobility, and the bureaucracy indissolubly linked up with the latter, crowned by the Czarist autocracy. On the subsequent stage, says Lenin, the kulaks will break with the workers, and together with them a considerable section of the middle peasants, but this will take place already during the transition to the proletarian revolution, as an integral part of the international revolution. But how do matters stand in China ? China has no landed nobility; no peasant estate, fused by community of interests against the landlords. The agrarian revolution in China is aimed against the urban and rural bourgeoisie. Radek has stressed this often – even Bukharin has half-understood this now. In this lies the gist of the matter!

You write that “the social content of the first stage of the future third Chinese revolution cannot be characterized as a socialist overturn”. But we run the risk here of falling into Bukharinistic scholasticism, and of occupying ourselves with splitting hairs over terminology, instead of a living characterization of the dialectic process. What was the content of our revolution from October 1917 to July 1918? We left the mills and factories in the hands of the capitalists, confining ourselves to workers’ control; we expropriated the landed estates and put through the petty bourgeois SR program of the socialization of land; and to crown it all, during this period, we had a co-participant in power in the form of the Left SRs. One could say with complete justification that “the social content of the first stage of the October revolution cannot be characterized as a socialist overturn”. I believe it was Yakovlev and several other Red professors who spilled a great deal of sophistry over this. Lenin said that we completed the bourgeois revolution en route. But the Chinese revolution (the “third”) will have to begin the drive against the kulak at its very first stages; it will have to expropriate the concessions of foreign capitalists, for, without this, there cannot be any unification of China in the sense of a genuine state sovereignty in economics and politics. In other words, the very first stage of the third Chinese revolution will be less bourgeois in content than the first stage of the October revolution.

On the other hand, the Canton events (as earlier Chinese events, etc.) demonstrated that the “national” bourgeoisie, too, having behind it Hong-Kong, foreign advisers and foreign cruisers, assumes such a position in relation to the slightest independent movement of workers and peasants as renders workers’ control of production even less likely than was the case among us. In all probability we shall have to expropriate mills and factories, of any size, at the very first moments of the “third Chinese revolution”.

To be sure, you propose simply to set aside the evidence of the Canton uprising. You say: “since” the Canton insurrection was an adventure – i.e., not an undertaking that grew out of a mass movement – therefore “how can such an undertaking create a new situation? ...” Now, you yourself know that it is entirely impermissible thus to simplify the question. I would be the last person to argue against the fact that there were elements of adventurism in the Canton uprising. But to picture the Canton events as some sort of hocus-pocus from which no conclusions flow is an over-simplified attempt at evading the analysis of the actual content of the Canton experience. Wherein did adventurism lie? In the fact that the leadership, striving to cover up its past sins, monstrously forced the course of events, and caused a miscarriage. The mass movement existed, but it was inadequate and immature. It is wrong to think that presumably a miscarriage can teach us nothing about the maternal organism and the process of gestation. The enormous and theoretically decisive significance of the Canton events for the fundamental questions of the Chinese revolution lies precisely in the fact that we have here – “thanks to” the adventure (yes! of course! – what happens so rarely in history and politics: virtually a laboratory experiment on a gigantic scale. We paid very dearly for it, but that is all the less reason to wave its lessons aside.

The conditions for the experiment were almost “chemically pure”. All the previously adopted resolutions had set down, sealed and canonized, just like two times two equals four, that the revolution is bourgeois-agrarian, that only those “who leap over stages” could babble about the dictatorship of the proletariat based upon an alliance with the peasant poor, who compose 80 percent of the Chinese peasantry, etc., etc. The last convention of the communist party of China met under this banner. A special representative of the Comintern, comrade N., was present. We were told that the new CEC of the Chinese CP was above all suspicion. During this time, the campaign against socalled Trotskyism attained the wildest tempo, in China as well. Yet, on the very threshold of the Canton events, the CEC of the Chinese CP adopted, in the words of Pravda, a resolution declaring that the Chinese revolution had assumed a “permanent” character. Moreover, the representative of the Comintern, comrade N. held the same position. Under the “permanent” character of the revolution we must here understand the following: face to face with the supremely responsible practical task (though it was posed prematurely) the Chinese communists and even the representative of the Comintern, after taking into account the entire past experience and, as it were, all the political assets, drew he conclusion that only the workers led by the communists could lead the peasants against the agrarians (the urban and rural bourgeoisie); and that only the dictatorship of the proletariat based on an alliance with the hundreds of millions of peasant poor could ensue from such a victorious struggle. Just as during the Paris Commune, which also had in it elements of a laboratory experiment (for the uprising took place there in a single city isolated from the rest of the country) the Proudhonists and Blanquists had to resort to steps directly contrary to their own doctrines, and thus (according to Marx) revealed all the more clearly the actual logic of class relations – so in Canton, too, the leaders, who were stuffed to the ears with prejudices against the bogie of the “permanent revolution”, once they set to work, proved guilty of committing this original permanent sin from their very first steps. What happened, then, to the previous antitoxin of Martinovism that had been injected in bovine and asinine doses? Oh no! If this were only an adventure, i.e., a sort of hocus-pocus, showing nothing and proving nothing, then this adventure would have assumed the image and likeness of its creators. But no! This adventure came in contact with the earth, it was fed by the juices of real (though immature) mass movements and relations; and it was on this account that the said “adventure” seized its own creators by the scruff, impolitely picked them up, shook them in the air, and then deposited them on their heads, tapping their skulls, for firmness’ sake, against the Chinese pavements ... As the latest resolutions and the latest article on this subject testify, these said “creators” are still standing on their heads, “permanently” dancing with their feet in the air.

It is ludicrous and impermissible to say that it is “inopportune” to draw conclusions from living events which every worker-revolutionist must think out to the end. At the time of the Ho-Lun–Ye-Tin uprising I wanted to pose openly the question that in view of the consummation of the Kuo Min Tang cycle of development, only the vanguard of the proletariat could aspire to power. This would presuppose a new standpoint for it, a new self-appraisal on its part – after a reevaluation of the objective situation – and this very thing would have excluded such an adventuristic approach to the situation as: “We’ll bide our time in a little corner, the mouzhik will come to our assistance by starting things, and somebody will somehow seize power and do something.” At that time, certain comrades said to me, “It is inopportune to raise these questions now in connection with Ho-Lun who apparently has been crushed already.” I did not at all tend to overestimate Ho-Lun’s uprising; I did consider, nevertheless, that it was the last signal in favor of the necessity to review the orientation in the Chinese revolution. Had these questions been opportunely posed at that time, then, perhaps, the ideological authors of the Canton adventure might have been compelled to think things over, and the Chinese party might not have been so ruthlessly destroyed; and if not, then in the light of our prognosis and our warning, the Canton events would have entered as a weighty lesson into the consciousness of hundreds and thousands, as for example, did Radek’s warning about Chiang Kai-shek, on the eve of the Shanghai coup d’etat. No, the propitious time has passed. I do not know when the Chinese revolution will revive. But we must realize whatever time remains at our disposal entirely for preparation and, moreover, on the basis of the fresh track of events.

You write that it is necessary to study the history of China, its economic life, statistical data, etc. Nobody can object to this (unless this is intended as an argument to postpone the question to doomsday). In my own justification, however, I must say that since my arrival in Alma-Ata I have occupied myself only with China (India, Polynesia, etc., for comparative study). Of course more gaps remains than completely covered places, but I must say nevertheless that in all the new (“for myself) books I am reading, I find even today nothing new in principle. But the chief point still remains – the confirmation of our prognoses by experience – first in relation to the Kuo Min Tang as a whole, then in relation to the “Left” Kuo Min Tang and the iWuhan government and, finally, in relation to the “deposit” on the third revolution, in the shape of the Canton uprising.

That is why I consider that there cannot be any postponement.

Two final questions:

You ask: Was Lenin right when during the war he defended against Bukharin the idea that Russia was still facing a bourgeois revolution? Yes, he was right, the Bukharin formulation was schematic and scholastic, i.e., it represented the self-same caricature of the permanent revolution that Bukharin tries to ascribe to me now. But there is also another side to this same question: was Lenin right when against Stalin, Rykov, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Frunze, Kalinin, Tomsky, etc., etc. (let alone all the Lyadovs), he advanced his April Theses? Was he right when against Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Miliutin, etc., etc., he defended the seizure of power by the proletariat? You know better than I that had Lenin failed to reach Petrograd in April 1917, there would have been no October revolution. Up to February 1917, the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry was historically progressive; after the February overturn the same slogan – of Stalin, Kamenev and the rest – became a reactionary slogan.

From April to May 1927 I supported the slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry for China (more correctly, I concurred with this slogan) inasmuch as the social forces had not as yet passed their political verdict, although the situation in China was immeasurably less propitious for this slogan than in Russia: after this verdict was passed by a colossal historical action (the experience of Wuhan) the slogan of democratic dictatorship becomes a reactionary force and will lead inevitably either to opportunism or adventurism.

You further argue that for the October leap we had the February running start. That is correct. If, even at the beginning of the Northern expedition, we had begun to build Soviets in the “emancipated” regions (and the masses were striving for that), we would have obtained the necessary running start, would have disintegrated the armies of the enemies, obtained our own army and we would have assumed power – if not in the whole of China at once, then in a very considerable section of it. At present, of course, the revolution is on the decline. The babbling of the light-minded scribblers about the fact that the revolution is on the verge of a new upswing, inasmuch as, in China, if you please, countless executions are taking place and a cruel commercial and industrial crisis is raging – this is criminal idiocy. After three greatest defeats the crisis does not arouse but on the contrary oppresses the proletariat, while the executions are destroying the politically weakened party. We have entered the period of reflux. What will provide the impulse for a new mounting wave? Or to put it differently: what conditions will provide the necessary running start for the proletarian vanguard at the head of the workers’ and peasant masses? This I do not know. The future will show whether only external processes will suffice or an impulse from without will be necessary. I am willing to allow that the first stage of the movement may repeat in an abridged and a changed form the stages of the revolution that we have already passed (for example, some new parody of the “all-national front” against Chang Tso-Lin) ; but this first phase will perhaps suffice only in order to enable the communist party to advance and proclaim to the popular masses its “April theses”, i.e., its program and strategy of the conquest of power by the proletariat. If, however, we enter into the new upswing, which will unfold with an incomparably more rapid tempo than in the past, with a schema of a “democratic dictatorship” that is already outworn today, then one could stake his head beforehand that in China very many Lyadovs will be found, but hardly a Lenin in order to effect (against all the Lyadovs) the tactical rearming of the party, on the day after the revolutionary fillip.

Trotsky’s Third Letter to Preobrazhensky

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