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Nigel Harris

Chou En-lai


(February 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.86 (wrongly numbered No.85), February 1976, pp.15 & 18-19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE LIFE OF CHOU EN-LAI spans the history of the Chinese Communist Party. When he joined the European section of the new party in Paris, Lenin was still alive; there were still serious efforts to promote a workers’ revolution, and the Communist International had not become simply an extension of the Russian State. China was the hunting ground for any foreign power with an eye to a quick profit, divided into the petty kingdoms of warlord and gangster. As Chou dies, there is neither a Communist International nor even a single orthodoxy for Communist parties. The cause of workers’ revolution is now for them no more than a rhetorical device, and Marxism an obscure religious faith, not the theory of socialist revolution.

But China has been transformed. The imperialist powers were expelled; a new order created, and the living standards of the mass of Chinese dramatically transformed. The ‘sick man of East Asia’ has become in some respects a third Great Power. Chou En-lai contributed directly to this contradictory achievement.

Chou was born in 1898, the son of Kiangsi gentry. His grandfather had been a high Mandarin official. Educated in Tientsin and briefly in Japan, he was arrested as a student activist during the agitation of the 4 May movement. In 1920, he was in France, again a student activists (arrested in Lyons), and there joined the French Communist Party. In 1924, he returned to China, to Canton, the headquarters of the popular nationalist party, the Kuomintang.

From 1924, Chou’s life falls into three distinct phases, the phases of Party history. In the first, the Party, a small group of intellectuals, acquired a mass worker base and was heavily defeated (1925-7). In the second, it disintegrated through three phases of insurrectionary violence, but out of it emerged a new force, an independent army. In the third, the army conquered power and established a new State (1935-49; 1949-76).

In the first two phases, Moscow – the Communist International – directed policy. Chou was a leading figure in executing that policy up to 1931. In the first phase, Stalin’s strategy for China was to arm and advise the Kuomintang on how to unify the country; the role of the Chinese Communist Party was to assist this, mobilising popular support for the Kuomintang. Stalin’s basic assumption was that no workers’ revolution was possible in China, and his aim, to safeguard the eastern flank of the Soviet Union against Japanese attack.

On his return from Paris in 1924, Chou became head of the political department of the new Russian-financed Kuomintang Whampoa Military Academy, Canton. A generation of officer cadets went through his hands. He helped organise a Left-wing society of cadets that helped strike pickets, protected the Kuomintang and trade union offices from gangster attack, and spread the message of agrarian revolt among the peasants of the surrounding province, Kwantung.

The alliance of Communists and Kuomintang was basically anomalous, however. Most of the Kuomintang officers were the sons of landlords, and rural revolt, proclaimed by the Communists, was directed at their parents. It was more frightening than imperialism. Much of the Kuomintang leadership had close links with Chinese capitalists, and when, in 1925, the Communists found themselves riding a tiger of worker revolt, it equally terrified the Kuomintang. In every area of policy, the anomaly was reflected. Chou, in charge of the Party’s Military Affairs Department, formulated the line on what Communists should do in the army –

‘Go into the national revolutionary army (Kuomintang – NH), strengthen it, raise it to fighting ability, but do not carry on any independent work.’ [1]

The Kuomintang leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, was earlier restrained from breaking with the Communists by his need for Russian arms. In 1926, he made efforts to curb Communist influence and found it was quite easy; the Russians and Chinese Communists retreated before all his demands, and did not attempt to use their popular following to fight back. Chiang was now in a position to launch a military campaign to reconquer China and possessed enough military power to dispense with the Communists.

In 1926, Chou was transferred to the great industrial city in the north, Shanghai, to prepare the ground for Chiang’s northern march of conquest. He trained worker pickets for a rising to seize the city and make it easy for Chiang’s armies to take it. Chou was one of the leaders of the enormous general strikes that took place, one of the members of the committee that took over the city.

Chiang had other ideas. Shanghai workers cheered the army into the city, then the army disarmed and arrested the worker pickets, shut down the trade union offices and began a wave of slaughter. Chou led a delegation to Chiang’s headquarters to petition for the return of the workers’ weapons. He was arrested and his execution ordered, but ex-Whampoa cadets in the army smuggled him out of the city. Behind him, more than 5,000 workers and Communists were butchered.

The Communist Party was shattered. Its worker membership was seriously depleted and the cadres who survived, demoralised at such a shocking defeat for the Communist International. However, it would have been possible to begin the tasks of rebuilding the Party, even in Shanghai, if the Communist International had been willing to learn the lessons. But in the factional fight then dominating Moscow, it was impossible for Stalin to admit a mistake. On the contrary, he was compelled to describe the catastrophe as an advance – the Right had been expelled from the genuine ‘Left’ Kuomintang, and the revolutionary wave was still rising. When the so-called ‘Left’ Kuomintang expelled the Communists a few months later, this also proved the correctness of the Comintern’s strategy and the need for immediate insurrection to seize power.

The Communists launched three waves of insurrection. Each failed, and to protect the Comintern’s leadership from criticism, the Chinese leadership which had loyally carried out Moscow’s direction, was blamed for all the failures.

Chou was a participant in the first rising (Nanch’ang, Kiangsi, 1 August 1927, now celebrated as Army Day in China). He fought at Swatow in September, and at Canton in December when 3,000 workers and Communists were butchered. The reward for his loyalty came at the Sixth Party Congress (held in Moscow). The old Party leadership was dismissed for failure, and Li Li-san came to power, with Chou as his strongest supporter. It mattered little who was the leader of the Party with such disastrous direction from Moscow. Instead of retreating to take up the day to day issues facing workers and rebuild their confidence and organisation, such matters were denounced as ‘bourgeois reformism’. Only insurrection was serious politics, a proposal that naturally terrified the mass of workers as they retreated from defeat.

Nevertheless the Party leadership remained in Shanghai (Chou was head of the Organisation Bureau). But it was quite unable to influence the workers who turned from the ultra-left heroics of the Communists to the ‘yellow’ unions, the labour gangsters, as the only leadership available. Li Li-san’s 1929 wave of insurrections failed as had the earlier ones, and, as before, Moscow accused Li of having brought about defeat. Nevertheless, at the first challenge, Chou delivered the main report and demonstrated conclusively that Li had done no more than carry out the instructions of the Comintern. It was a brief respite before the letter from Moscow which directly denounced Li. Chou turned full circle, denounced Li’s role and called ‘on the whole party to condemn my mistakes’. [2]

The confession saved Chou (he was once again put in charge of military affairs) but it must have been a most scarring experience. Loyalty to Moscow had not saved him from accusation, even though it had rendered impossible the task of building a workers’ party.

Meanwhile, a different force was emerging. Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh led their tiny forces out of the insurrectionary waves to build a separate headquarters in a very backward area. In August 1929, they named it a ‘Soviet’, even though there could be no workers in such an area, and the mass of peasants were organised only by courtesy of the Red Army. By 1930, the Comintern was no longer embarrassed by opposition criticisms that, in China, the Party had no proletarian base, and it needed some triumphs to cover the disasters. As a result, the ‘Soviet Government in China’ began to be mentioned as a great victory for the Comintern’s strategy (hitherto Moscow had opposed it).

For Chou, licking his wounds in Shanghai, the change must have been dramatic. It was becoming clear that the choice facing him was either loyalty to Moscow, self-destruction and the strangling of any revolution, or an independent Chinese national revolution with Mao and without the working class. In 1931, Chou made his first visit to the ‘Kiangsi Soviet’, and possibly negotiated the terms of his return. He was an important catch as a senior Party leader, and, in any case, had some following among the army officers of Mao’s army (what Chen Tu-hsiu called ‘Chou En-lai’s Whampoa clique in the Soviet Areas’). When, in 1932, Chou emigrated to the Kiangsi Soviet, he was rewarded with the deputy chairmanship of the Military Council. From this position, he began to extend his influence. Mao’s control was not yet secure, and in 1932, a dispute between Chou and Mao led to Chou displacing him as General Political Commissar to the army. However, the actual march of events proved Chou wrong in November 1934 when the Kuomintang finally liquidated the Kiangsi Soviet and drove the Communist forces out on the Long March.

At the Tsunyi conference, during the Long March, Chou confessed his errors, and was one of the key supporters in Mao’s efforts to secure the unchallenged leadership of the Party. Mao became Chairman of the Central Committee and Politburo of the Party, and head of the Military Affairs Committee. In return, Chou became the leading spokesman of the Party until his death. He was never again caught on the losing side.

Thereafter, Chou’s life is the official life of the Party. It was Chou who saved Kai-shek’s life in 1936 (the ‘Sian Incident’) in return for a new alliance of Communists and Kuomintang, against the Japanese invasion, and who, to carry out the alliance, sat for ten years (1937-47) on the Kuomintang’s coalition council. Chou did not, on that body, raise the question of Kuomintang labour laws (which outlawed strikes) of inflation (which cut real workers income in half in 1939-40 [3]), nor did he champion the sporadic peasant revolts against Kuomintang conscription and predatory taxation. He was back in the diplomacy of 1926: the ‘alliance’ took priority over the conditions of the working class. It was Chou who bore the main brunt of wooing the US military mission in Chungking, requesting active collaboration and American arms; in 1944, he asked that he and Mao be allowed to visit Washington to negotiate an alliance with Roosevelt (a tactic, that, it is said, exposed Chou and Mao to much criticism in the party). It was only fitting that, in 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army had finally swept China clean of Kuomintang, Chou should be premier and foreign secretary, the most loyal of the loyal.

As premier, Chou officially launched the economic transformation of the country. He summed up the task:

‘The fundamental aim of this great people’s revolution of ours is to set free the productive forces of our country from the oppression of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism, and eventually, from the shackles of capitalism and the limitations of small-scale production.’ [4]

To achieve this, Chou loyally echoed Mao in the attempt to build a Stalin-style economy – piece rates, production speed-up, incentive bonuses, elaborate discipline rules etc. Like Mao (and Stalin), he denounced egalitarianism as a

‘petty bourgeois outlook which encourages backwardness and hinders progress. It has nothing in common with Marxism, and a socialist system. It damps down the enthusiasm of workers and employees in acquiring technical skills and raising productivity; it harms the growth of our economic construction. We must therefore resolutely oppose equalitarianism.’ [5]

And, like Mao, he stressed the urgent need ‘of overcoming bureaucratism and commandism ... attitudes of superiority and complacency’. For bureaucracy made more difficult the common subordination to the process of capital accumulation.

Again, like Mao, he learned that in the backwardness of China, Russian command methods would generate a revolt. He followed loyally through the successive attempts to find other methods of achieving accumulations: the Great Leap Forward, agriculture as the foundation of the economy, Communes, small industry etc.

The shifts and changes in direction generated periodic leadership battles. There is no evidence that Chou played any distinctive role in these conflicts. With Liu Shao-ch’i and Teng Hsiao-p’ing he loyally defended Mao in the clash with Kao Kang and Jao Shu-Shih in the early Fifties. He was not identified with the opposition in the removal of Mao as Chairman of the Republic following the disasters of the Great Leap Forward. He played no role in the clashes between prominent leaders during the Socialist Education Campaign. In the Cultural Revolution he loyally carried out the imperatives of the CR Group at the same time as defending what he could of the administrative machine. The other leaders fell but Chou survived. At the eighth Party Congress (1956), Liu gave the political report, but had fallen by the time of the ninth (1969). There Lin Piao gave the political report, only to fall shortly thereafter. At the tenth (1973), Chou assumed what had hitherto been the position of heir to Mao.

The Cultural Revolution made it possible for Chou to play a key role in the rehabilitation of Party leaders. Perhaps Teng Hsiao-p’ing owes his position to Chou’s amazing capacity to survive. Chou survived as the instrument of policy, as the embodiment of the Party leadership, as its chief mandarin. He betrayed no ambition to be the sole leader of the Party, to replace Mao, so that death has not robbed him of his inheritance. But because he played no identifiably distinct political role, his death is unlikely to produce any changes of policy.


1. Report of ‘Tchou In Lai’ to the Central Committee, cited by N. Nassonov, N. Fokine and A. Albrechit, Letter from Shanghai, March 17, 1927, reprinted in Leon Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution, New York 1967, p.415.

2. Materials of the 4th Plenum (of the 6th Central Committee): Statements of Comrade Chow En-Lai, 3 January, 1931, cited, Isaacs, H., The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, London 1938, p.407.

3. The wartime Kuomintang capital was Chungking; the Chungking wholesale price index increased 96 per cent between October 1939 and January 1946.

4. Report of the Work of the Government (First National People’s Congress). 23 September, 1954, Peking 1954.

5. Ibid., p.27.

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