Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution

Alexander Pantsov,
The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution, 1919–1927,
University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2000, pp324, £29.95

READERS whose interest was aroused by Pantsov’s articles From Students to Dissidents: The Chinese Trotskyists in Soviet Russia (The Marxist Monthly, August 1994–February/March 1995) will be delighted by the appearance of this book, which for the first time combines the material available in both Russian and Chinese to make up a coherent picture.

The sheer wealth of information, backed by the most careful documentation, makes it a joy to read. The writer begins by reminding us of China’s proper place in Marxist historiography, in the Asiatic mode that Stalin was so anxious to outlaw (pp. 23–5). Speaking of the China of that time, he notes that ‘poor Chinese commoners dreamed of returning to a sacramental model of Oriental despotism’, and that ‘all of China’s peasant revolts … aimed to turn society back to the past’ (p. 25). He credits Radek with starting the unfortunate tradition of applying the schemas of Western Marxism to Chinese history, identifying the period of the Warring States as ‘feudal’ (pp. 120–1; cf the preface to Robert Louzon, China: Three Thousand Years of History, Fifty Years of Revolution, pp. ii–iii). In this context it is interesting to note that, along with other modern Russian thinkers, Pantsov holds that ‘the suppression of capitalist development of Russia thus turned out to lead the country to the construction of a society that would have become alternative, but not post-capitalist … thrown back into the epoch of an Asian mode of production, or so-called Oriental despotism’ (p. 76), which echoes Umberto Melotti’s suggestions in Marx and the Third World (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 2, p. 251). The penetration of Marxist ideas and writings into China itself is fully catalogued (pp. 25–36). We are left in no doubt that a majority of the first leaders of the Chinese Communist Party joined the Guomindang only reluctantly (Part 2, Chapter 4, pp. 53–69), and that in this sense ‘their revival of Trotskyism would not be a result of their negative attitude to Leninist tactics in China, but rather a reaction to Stalin’s shift in the Comintern policy toward the Chinese revolutionary movement’ (p. 69). The last part of the book tells the tragic story of the purges and murders of the Chinese revolutionaries left stranded in Russia (pp. 163–208).

Noting that all the various views of modern historians, whether in Russia, China or in the West, are oversimplifications (pp. 1–5), the writer dispels one myth after another. The view that Stalin deliberately sabotaged the Second Chinese Revolution in the interests of the struggle against the Left Opposition within Russia and British imperialism abroad is very firmly dealt with (pp. 2–3). Analysing the clash between Stalin and Trotsky over China step by step, he concludes that ‘the disagreements concerned tactics rather than strategy. All Bolshevik leaders tried their best to lead the Chinese Communists to a victory aimed at transforming China into a socialist or “non-capitalist” state.’ (p. 210) However, he does demonstrate that Stalin broke with Lenin’s position, ‘perhaps unconsciously convincing himself that he was simply developing Lenin’s line’, and locates Stalin’s mistakes in his adherence ‘to the concept of a “multi-class party”’ (p. 211), a policy unfortunately shared by all too many Trotskyists now (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no. 3, p. 111, and no. 4, p. 212).

For there was all the difference between this and Lenin’s strategy, which was ‘a manoeuvre aimed at helping unsophisticated Communist activists to use their potential foes temporarily for their own purposes’ (p. 211). The original decision to join the Guomindang was an ‘“entrist policy” … on Comintern instructions Voitinsky explained to the Chinese Communist leaders that work inside the GMD was not an end in itself but a means of strengthening the CCP and preparing it for the future struggle outside and against the GMD’ (p. 66). In fact, the anti-imperialist united front was intended to operate in the same way as the workers’ united front in Europe – to expose the inability of both reformists and bourgeois nationalists to advance the interests of the toilers. As the Theses on the Eastern Question of the Fourth Comintern Congress put it, ‘just as in the West the slogan of the workers’ united front has helped and is still helping to expose the social democrats’ sell-out of proletarian interests, so the slogan of an anti-imperialist united front will help to expose the vacillations of the various bourgeois-nationalist groups’ (B. Hessel [ed.], Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London 1980, p. 415).

So Pantsov does not accept the views of 1960s and 1970s Soviet historians who ‘placed the highest value on the “moderation” of Lenin and the ECCI, emphasising Lenin’s belief in genuine national revolution in the East and contrasting his views with the Comintern’s ultra-leftists’ (p. 4). He shows that Lenin never deviated from the policy of Permanent Revolution as applied to Asia after 1917. He points out the extent of Lenin’s plans to spread the Russian Revolution by armed conquest in the Caucasus (1920–21) and Mongolia (1921), his ‘plans for capturing Constantinople’ (1921) and what he calls ‘Soviet aggression in Persia’ (p. 210). He agrees that in Russia in 1917 ‘Lenin altered his point of view and advocated a course towards socialist (that is, permanent) revolution’, a position that ‘wholly coincided with Trotsky’s’ (pp. 14–5), and reminds us that ‘during the first years after the October Revolution, Trotsky’s Results and Prospects was reprinted several times – including foreign-language editions – as a theoretical rationale of the October Revolution’ (p. 15).

Nor is the writer disposed to accept the myths of vulgar Trotskyism current in the West, that Trotsky opposed the entry of the CCP into the Guomindang on principle as early as 1923. ‘Not a single Soviet leader in the period immediately following the “coup”’ (that is, Chiang Kai-Shek’s of 1926), he points out, ‘proposed that the Communists leave the Guomindang. At a session of the Politburo discussing reports from Guangzhou that some Chinese Communists were contemplating anti-Chiang Kai-Shek actions, even Trotsky proposed a resolution condemning such “insurrectionary” intentions. It was not until some time later, in the second half of April 1926, that Trotsky proposed to the Politburo that the CCP withdraw from the Guomindang.’ (p. 92; cf. p. 212) ‘The issue is not as simple as Trotsky’s claim implies’, he continues, ‘one problem is that there are several inconsistencies in Trotsky’s well-known later accounts (written and published while he was in defeat and exile) of his position on this question – inconsistencies that no-one up to now seems to have noticed.’ (p. 102) It is a shame that here he does not give the credit where it is due, to Paolo Casciola, who analysed this question long ago (Trotsky and the Struggles of the Colonial Peoples, Foligno 1990; cf. the preface to the reprint of C.L.R. James, World Revolution, New Jersey, 1993, p. xvii and n29, and Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 3, Autumn 1994, pp. 269–71). It is equally unfortunate that Greg Benton, who learned this at the Wupperthal Conference, forgot to acquaint him with it.

At the same time, Pantsov shares Benton’s view that Mao’s ultimate success was due to ‘basically the same policy that Lenin put forward in 1920’ (p. 5), and that during 1937–49 ‘the Chinese Communists actually turned back to that concept and made it the foundation of their tactical course’ (p. 214). Now this reversion to pre-Plekhanov peasant socialism can only be accepted by those who have blurred the distinction between workers and peasants in their own minds, or who believe that the CCP was right to turn its back on the working class, for there is every difference between Lenin’s concept of a workers’ party taking power in alliance with the peasantry, and a military clique basing itself upon that class because it has led the workers’ movement to annihilation in the first place.

The appearance of this book, the work of Vadim Rogovin, and the rich memoirs of the survivors of the terror show just what could be accomplished once Russian scholars were allowed free interchange with the rest of the world, even if international Trotskyism’s contribution to this ferment has been so far disappointing. Let us hope that this splendid book will make some impact upon it.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011