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Trotsky & Preobrazhensky, Letters on the Chinese Revolution


Trotsky’s Third Letter to Preobrazhensky


From New International, Vol. 3 No. 2, April 1936, pp. 61–62.


Dear E.A.:

Received your airmail letter yesterday. Thus, all the letters have arrived. The last letter took 16 days in transit, i.e., six days less than ordinary mail. Two days ago I sent you a detailed answer to your objections on the Chinese revolution. But on awakening this morning I recalled that I had failed (apparently) to reply to the argument you deem most important, as I understand it. You write:

“Your basic error lies in the fact that you determine the character of a revolution on the basis of who makes it, which class, i.e., by the effective subject, while you seem to assign secondary importance to the objective social content of the process.”

Then you go on to adduce as examples the November revolution in Germany, the 1789 revolution in France, and the future Chinese revolution.

This argument is in essence only a “sociological” generalization (to use Johnsonian terminology) of all your other concrete economic and historical views. But I want also to reply to your views in their generalized sociological formulation, for in so doing the “fundamental error” (on your part and not mine) stands out most clearly.

How to characterize a revolution? By the class which achieves it or by the social content lodged in it ? There is a theoretical trap lodged in counterposing the former to the latter in such a general form. The Jacobin period of the French Revolution was of course the period of petty bourgeois dictatorship, in addition to which, the petty bourgeoisie – in complete harmony with its “sociological nature” – cleared the way for the big bourgeoisie. The November revolution in Germany was the beginning of the proletarian revolution but it was checked at its very first steps by the petty bourgeois leadership, and succeeded only in achieving a few things unfulfilled by the bourgeois revolution. What are we to call the November revolution: bourgeois or proletarian? Both the former and the latter would be incorrect. The place of the October revolution will be determined when we both give the mechanics of this revolution and determine its results. There will be no contradiction in this Case between the mechanics (understanding under it, of course, not only the motive force but also the leadership) and the results: both the former and the latter are “sociologically” indeterminate in character. I take the liberty to put the question to you: what would you call the Hungarian revolution of 1919? You will say: proletarian. Why? Didn’t the social “content” of the Hungarian revolution prove to be capitalist! You will reply: this is the social content of the counter-revolution. Correct. Apply this now to China. The “social content” under the dictatorship of the proletariat (based on an alliance with the peasantry) can remain during a certain period of time not socialist as yet, but the road to bourgeois development from the dictatorship of the proletariat can lead only through counter-revolution. For this reason, so far as the social content is concerned, it is necessary to say: “We shall wait and see.”

The gist of the matter lies precisely in the fact that although the political mechanics of the revolution depends in the last analysis upon an economic base (not only national but international) it cannot, however, be deduced with abstract logic from this economic base. In the first place, the base itself is very contradictory and its “maturity” does not allow of bald statistical determination; secondly, the economic base as well as the political situation must be approached not in the national but in the international framework, taking into account the dialectic action and reaction between the national and the international; thirdly, the class struggle and its political expression, unfolding on the economic foundations, also have their own imperious logic of development, which cannot be leaped over. When Lenin said in April 1917 that only the dictatorship of the proletariat could save Russia from disintegration and doom, Sukhanov (the most consistent opponent) refuted him with two fundamental arguments:

  1. the social content of the bourgeois revolution has not yet been achieved;
  2. Russia had not yet matured economically for a socialist revolution.

And what was Lenin’s answer? Whether or not Russia has matured is something that “we shall wait and see”; this cannot be determined statistically; this will be determined by the trend of events and, moreover, only on an international scale. But, said Lenin, independently of how this social content will be determined in the end, at the present moment, today, there is no other road to the salvation of the country – from famine, war and enslavement – except through the seizure of power by the proletariat.

That is precisely what we must say now in relation to China. First of all, it is incorrect to allege that the agrarian revolution composes the basic content of the present historical struggle. In what must this agrarian revolution consist? The universal partition of the land? But there have been several such universal partitions in Chinese history. And then the development always returned to “its proper orbit”. The agrarian revolution is the destruction of the Chinese landlords and Chinese functionaries. But the national unification of China and. its economic sovereignty imply its emancipation from world imperialism, for which China remains the most important safety valve against the collapse of European and, tomorrow, of American capitalism. The agrarian overturn in China without national unification and tariff autonomy (in essence: monopoly of foreign trade) would not open any way out or any perspectives for China. This is what predetermines the gigantic sweep and the monstrous sharpness of the struggle facing China – today, after the experience already undergone by all the participants. What then should a Chinese communist say to himself under these conditions? Can he really proceed to reason as follows: the social content of the Chinese revolution can only be bourgeois (as proved by such and such charts). Therefore we must not pose ourselves the task of the dictatorship of the proletariat; the social content prescribes, in the most extreme case, a coalition dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. But for a coalition (in question here, of course, is a political coalition, and not a “socialogical” alliance of classes) a partner is needed. Moscow taught me that the Kuo Min Tang is such a partner. However, no Left Kuo Min Tang materialized. What to do? Obviously, there only remains for me, a Chinese communist, to console myself with the idea that “it is impossible to say today whether the Chinese petty bourgeoisie will be able to create any sort of parties” ... or whether it will not. Suppose it suddenly does?

A Chinese communist who reasons along such a prescription would cut the throat of the Chinese revolution.

Least of all, of course, is it a question here of summoning the Communist party of China to an immediate insurrection for the seizure of power. The tempo depends entirely upon the circumstances. The task, lies in seeing to it that the communist party is permeated through and through with the conviction that the third Chinese revolution; can come to a triumphant conclusion only with the dictatorship of the proletariat under the leadership of the communist party. Moreover, it is necessary to understand this leadership not “in a general” sense, but in the sense of the direct wielding of complete revolutionary power. And so far as the tempo with which we shall have to build socialism in China is concerned, this – “we shall wait and see”.


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Last updated on 6.12.2013