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Dudley Edwards

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

(Summer 1985)

From Militant International Review, No. 29, Summer 1985.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (3rd edition)
by Harold R. Isaacs
Stanford University Press, £8.95

This third edition of The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution makes valuable reading for anyone wishing to understand Chinese history in the 20th Century and also to know why the long drawn out revolution in that country culminated in a Stalinist dictatorship.

However this third edition is inferior to the first edition published in 1938 which is now unfortunately out of print and very difficult to come by. This revised edition is inferior because in 1938 the author wrote from a genuinely Marxist and revolutionary standpoint but abandoned this position in the period between the publication of the first edition in 1938 and the second edition in 1951.

It is for this reason that in the second and third editions the author eliminated the original introduction by Leon Trotsky in which the original work was warmly endorsed. The author endeavours to explain this in his new prefaces to the second and third editions, but only succeeds in explaining his own confusion.

Although by 1951 the author has forsaken the basic Marxist position of Trotsky, the book still gives an extraordinary factual account of the false and opportunist policies foisted on the Chinese communists between 1925 and 1927. The fatal nature of these Stalinist policies for the Chinese workers is clearly demonstrated in the numerous quotations given from the official documents of the Communist International and from statements made by Stalin himself.

Despite his loss of faith in Marxist theory the author does not deny the truth of Trotsky’s analysis and indeed is compelled to say in his preface to the revised editions:

“He (Trotsky) predicted with startling precision every turn of events as it took place. His analysis and criticisms of the official course were confirmed again and again by the evidence which this work examines in detail. This is a fact that is not altered by passage of time, or again by shifts in a writers outlook.

The value of this book for socialists therefore lies in the enormous accumulation of factual evidence therein. It clearly shows that the young Chinese working class movement which sprang up with enormous speed and power after the First World War was torpedoed by the opportunist tactics of Stalin, who through the Executive Committee of the Communist International succeeded in dominating the very new and inexperienced Chinese Communist Party.

Kuomintang slaughter workers

The tactics put forward by Stalin, Bukharin and other Stalinist functionaries were based on the idea of dissolving the organisational independence and political programme of the Chinese Communist Party into a bloc with the Kuomintang, the political organisation of the Chinese national bourgeoisie. This meant that by keeping their “heads down” and soft-pedalling on any kind of socialist programme – by discouraging the peasants from taking over the land and refraining from any action which would antagonise the landlords or capitalists – the workers would be able to come out on top when the Nationalist revolution, led by the native capitalists, was completed.

As a matter of fact the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai Chek was totally incapable of completing the National Bourgeois Revolution because it remained under the financial domination of the Western Powers even after they handed over to Chiang Kai Chek the territorial concessions they had previously wrung out of China by military force. The only way that the national revolution would be completed was by the rapid carrying through of radical land reform which handed over to the peasants the vast areas owned by the Chinese landlords. This the landlords and the weak Chinese capitalists were unwilling to do. They were dependent on the huge loans provided by the western bankers and financiers. And as soon as they saw that Chiang Kai Chek intended to destroy the great movement of the workers and peasants, the British, American, French and Belgian capitalists gave him their support in return for being allowed to maintain their financial domination in Shanghai, Hankow, Canton and other trading cities.

The tactics of appeasing the native bourgeois, who were in the pockets of Western Imperialism, was therefore the exact opposite of the Bolshevik strategy worked out by Lenin on the eve of the October Revolution in 1917. It amounted to a switch over to the policy advocated by the right wing Mensheviks who said that the Russian labour movement should trail along behind the Liberals and make no bid for power until a capitalist “democracy” had been established in Russia; to which proposition they added the proviso that at some indefinite period in the future the labour movement would then be able to enter into a contest with the capitalist ruling class through Western style parliamentary democracy. This policy recommended to the Chinese Communists in 1927 by the Stalinist Executive of the Communist International was a repudiation of Lenin’s tactics which for the first time in history had brought the working class to power.

This confused “Two Stage” theory, manufactured by the Stalinists for China in 1927, subsequently became the official doctrine of the Communist Parties throughout the world, with disastrous results for the organised working class as well as the peasants. The Left Opposition took a completely opposite point of view, warning that such a policy of class collaboration would lead the working class of China to disaster and result in the massacre of all the best cadres of the working class, which although still a minority was, in 1927 growing and fighting with immense vitality.

Once Chiang Kai Chek entered the great city of Shanghai he did indeed turn on the workers; the very same workers who had already taken over the city and who had greeted Chiang Kai Chek’s troops. Within 48 hours he ordered his troops to massacre many thousands of militant workers in the streets.

As a young man at the time I well remember the photographs brought back to Britain by merchant seamen and others. These pictures depicted the numerous summary decapitations carried out by axemen in the streets of Shanghai.

On 21 April 1927, scarcely a month after the coup in Shanghai, the Russian Pravda published Stalin’s Thesis to the Executive Committee of the Communist International. This was entitled: The Questions of the Chinese Revolution. Stalin began by saying:

“... the line laid down was the correct line ... This was the line of close co-operation of the left wingers and Communists within the Kuomintang, of consolidation of the unity of the Kuomintang ... of making use of the Right, of their connections and their experience so far as they submitted to the discipline of the Kuomintang ...”

This, scarcely a month after the lower grade CP officials and trade unionists in Shanghai were murdered in the streets by the forces of this very same Kuomintang!

Trotsky replied to Stalin in The Chinese Revolution and the Thesis of Comrade Stalin in May (his answers were never printed in Pravda nor anywhere else):

“We know very well how the bourgeoisie submitted to ‘discipline’ and how the proletariat utilised the Rights, that is the big and middle bourgeoisie, their ‘connections’ (with the imperialists) and their ‘experience’ (in strangling and shooting the workers). The story of this ‘utilisation’ is written in the book of the Chinese revolution with letters of blood. But this does not prevent the theses (Stalin’s theses – DE) from saying: ‘The subsequent events fully confirmed the correctness of this line.’ Further than this no one can go!”

Stalin went on to say that the slogan of the soviets was therefore inadmissible because it would mean “issuing the slogan of a fight against the existing power in this territory (in Wuhan, where the government was in the hands of the ‘left’ Kuomintang – DE) ... of the fight against the power of the revolutionary Kuomintang for in this territory there is at present no power other than the power of the revolutionary Kuomintang.”

Trotsky replied to this:

“These words fairly reek with the apparatus-like, bureaucratic conception of revolutionary authority ... The government is not regarded as the expression and consolidation of the developing struggle of the classes, but as the same self-sufficient expression of the will of the Kuomintang ... The provincial Kuomintang of Chiang Kai Chek has an old, reactionary, mercenary bureaucracy at its disposal. What has the Left Kuomintang? For the time being nothing, or almost nothing. The slogan of soviets is a call for the creation of real organs of the new state right through the transitional regime of a dual government.”

But despite the slaughter of the militant workers in Shanghai the Chinese Communist Party continued with this fatal policy of class collaboration. Trotsky summed it up, saying that this policy was “to bring one’s head voluntarily to the slaughter. The bloody lesson of Shanghai passed without leaving a trace. The Communists, as before, were being transformed into cattle herders for the bourgeois executioners.” Other massacres followed at Changsha, Wuhan and other cities, towns and villages but the official line continued for another two years leading to the slaughter of the best workers and peasant cadres in all the big cities.

At last in the early 1930’s there was a sudden and typical Stalinist reversal after the damage had been done. But this is another story. It included the setting up of abortive ‘Soviet Republics’ in relatively small areas of rural China between 1929 and 1934. These were eventually overrun by Chiang Kai Chek’s armies backed by the Western powers. This defeat lead on to the famous Long March and the setting up of a peasant army which eventually took power in 1949, without any significant contribution by the urban proletariat, leading to the establishment of a Stalinist dictatorship.

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