Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
In his informative article on the Fourth International in Vietnam (Revolutionary History, Volume 3 no.2) Simon Pirani draws a comparison between ‘Soviet-type councils of workers and peasants’ that emerged in Saigon in 1945 and what he calls the ‘Canton Commune’ of 1927. This raises two separate, though linked, questions. Is it true that as in Saigon, the workers of Canton established, however briefly, ‘Soviet-type councils', and when and where originated their designation as the ‘Canton Commune’? In its resolution of 15 December 1927 on the Canton events, the Executive Committee of the Communist International demanded that workers “hasten to the help of the Chinese Soviets” and proclaimed, as one of its two slogans, “Long live Soviet power in China!” However, there is no mention, as yet, of a Commune. The Ninth ECCI Plenum (25 February 1928) described the “Canton uprising” (not ‘commune’) as an “heroic attempt to organise Soviet power in China”, a policy which despite the uprising’s failure, was said to be still the task of the day. The Canton defeat was put down to “failings” by “the leaders on the spot”.
The first textual reference I have been able to find to a “Canton Commune” occurs in a lengthy resolution adopted by the Sixth Congress of the Chinese Communist party, held in September 1928. Defending the policy which produced the Canton tragedy, the Resolution declared that “the Nanchang insurrection, the Autumn Harvest uprising, and especially the Canton Commune, did not constitute adventurism ...”. Not only this, “the Canton Commune opened the Soviet period” in the Chinese Revolution. As we know, Trotsky, and his Chinese co-thinkers, saw things very differently. There had been no ‘Soviet’ in Canton, merely a Stalinist simulation of one, a cloak to conceal a putsch. After some rather cautious initial comments (perhaps tempered by both a lack of clear information and solidarity with the proletarian victims of Stalin’s debacle), Trotsky launched a venomous attack on the already quoted ECCI resolution of February 1928. Pravda had claimed that “a Soviet government had been established in Canton” ... but had failed to report that the ‘Canton Soviet’ (numbering 16 individuals in a city of millions) had been appointed from above – by, it should be made clear (though Trotsky could not have known this at the time) Comintern agents acting under Stalin’s direct instructions. It was not elected by the workers of Canton, who knew nothing of its existence until the uprising was well under way. Therefore “there was not a Soviet, for how can there be a Soviet which was not elected?” (It is an intriguing thought that the same line of argument could be employed against those who have detected a species of ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerated’ Soviet power in Stalinist-ruled states.) Trotsky returned to the Canton events more than once, describing its ‘Soviets’ as “fictitious” and the uprising itself variously as a “putsch”, a “criminal adventure” and a “coup”, but never, so far as I have been able to establish, a “Commune”. After all, to designate it thus would have been to concede the substance of the Stalinist claim that genuine Soviet power was indeed established in Canton in December 1927.
So when did the term creep into the Trotskyist vocabulary? It was in currency by 1935, appearing in a report (published in Revolutionary History, Volume 2 no.4) on the Chinese peasant movement by, possibly, Harold Isaacs. However, he follows Trotsky’s analysis by invariably referring to ‘soviets’ in quotation marks.
I agree with Simon Pirani that Stalin betrayed the workers of Canton ... but in view of-the above he might disagree not only with me, but with Trotsky, as to how precisely the betrayal was carried out.
Updated by ETOL: 24.7.2003