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Harold Isaacs

I Break with the Chinese Stalinists

(May 1934)

From New International, Vol.1 No.3, September-October 1934, pp.76-78.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

To the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party:

THE two-year period of my extra-organizational collaboration with the Chinese Communist party has come to an end and the China Forum which I founded and edited during that time has been forced to suspend publication. In the interest of our whole movement as well as in my personal interest, I consider it necessary to record here and publish the history of the China Forum and the circumstances of its suspension ...

From almost the very beginning of my active work – which I date from the time I began reporting events in China in a communist way – a number of questions presented themselves to me in increasingly forcible form. These arose originally from my discovery of the gross distortions and exaggerations which I found to be characteristic of communist propaganda in China and abroad. I define propaganda as the skillful, clear, accurate and wholly truthful reporting of the facts linked to an incisive, purposive interpretation and a plan of action for dealing with the facts in a revolutionary way. I learned this from the life and work of Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades who taught us that the truth comes from the masses themselves and that only disaster can result front telling them lies. I have never learned to the contrary that it was my revolutionary duty to work in any other way, although I soon found that the present-day Communist party press makes a practise of distinguishing between propaganda and truth.

Examples of exaggeration and distortion most striking to me were naturally those which applied to China, because here I could check allegations with known facts. I first wrote these down to the ignorance or incapacity of individuals. I felt that communist editors abroad would publish accurate facts about China if they could get them. Accordingly with a friend I tried to set up an independent mail news service and sent weekly bulletins to papers all over the world giving brief, sharp, factual accounts of what was going on. This was in the fall of 1931 after my return from the area of the great Central China floods of that summer. I scarcely understood then why this service failed to secure any response from the communist press abroad. After about three months I had to suspend it for lack of support. It simply didn’t get published except in a few organs which were not official Communist party papers, including the New York Militant.

It wasn’t long before I began to perceive, with a deeper study of international events and the history of the Chinese revolution, that a consistent thread ran through the distortions and exaggerations which I found not only in brief casual reports of current events but in the solemn pronunciamentoes made by delegates before plenums of the ECCI. I discovered that these departures from the truth were made necessary by the official premise that ever since the catastrophe of 1927 a mighty, upsurging revolutionary movement has been marching forward in China to the very brink of seizure of power under the leadership of the Chinese Communist party. I discovered that these exaggerations were necessary because the premise was false and along with it all the basic tenets of the policies being pursued by the Communist International and the Communist party in China. I cannot begin here to give a summary of some of these distortions (which I verbally cited to you by the dozen), ranging from particular incidents (the wilfully false picture given of the cotton mill strike in Shanghai in January 1932, even to the point of transposing it to February to heighten the impression given of the workers’ role in the Shanghai war) to high-flown generalizations like the statement recently made before the plenum of the ECCI that the CCP has “won over the majority of the Chinese working class and the peasantry” ...

In denying the presence of a mighty revolutionary upsurge (i.e., a vast organized march toward the seizure of power), I respect facts made still clearer perhaps when compared to the facts and figures of the monster mass movements of the 1926-27 period. The tragic errors of the communist leadership in 1927 were primarily responsible for the decapitation of that great movement and because no lessons have been drawn from these events to this very day, these errors, monstrously accumulated, are still responsible for the tragedies of today. But for the purposes of our comparison here, let us take for example the single fact that in 1926 in Greater Shanghai there were 267 strikes. In 1932 there were 82. Let us remember that on the eve of the workers’ seizure of power in Shanghai in March, 1927, there were more than 800,000 workers, handicraftsmen and petty traders out on the streets fighting with arms in hands for demands of a far-reaching political character. A close check for the entire country in the latter half of 1933 showed me that less than one-thirtieth of that number were engaged in strikes and other disputes during any given month and that almost invariably the demands were defensive demands against wage cuts and lockouts. Moreover, the lack of cohesive leadership – often in departments of the same factory or in one or more of a group of factories – or even sometimes lack of even the most elementary organization – has in almost every case led to deadening failure and relatively easy betrayal by the yellow “labor leaders” and “mediators” of the Kuo Min Tang. In 1925 the shooting of thirteen students by British police in Shanghai was the touch-off for a general strike which paralyzed the city and which was seconded by vast sympathy strikes which broke like a series of tidal waves over the entire country. In January 1932, when the Japanese imperialists used the Shanghai International Settlement as a base for operations which cost the lives of tens of thousands of Chinese, not a single strike interrupted the normal course of the public or other services in that settlement. In the factories there were no strikes but a large scale lockout to which the overwhelming majority of Shanghai’s workers submitted without protest. ...

In the case of the widespread but isolated and individual cases of peasant uprisings, and this includes the Red armies in Kiangsi, these struggles await the leadership of a strong working class movement before they can have a successful issue. The Red armies in their restricted and surrounded areas and with their meagre resources have fought heroically against the Kuo Min Tang attacks upon them. But until the Kuo Min Tang is shaken from its bulwarks in the imperialist-controlled working class centers, their prospect of revolutionary triumph remains necessarily dim. No revolutionary purpose is served by taking refuge in the fiction that these armies have proletarian leadership because individual workers, undoubtedly leaders of superior quality and courage, have been torn from their factories and from their fellow workers and sent down to occupy key positions in the Red army districts and in the Red armies themselves. Indeed, this common practise of extracting the most conscious and progressive working class elements from their working class environment and sending them down to the Red districts is a good index to the criminal transposition of emphasis which has helped paralyze the working class movement in the cities. If the White Terror doesn’t carry off the workers’ leaders as they arise, the CP does and has done so in hundreds of cases. This helps in no small part to explain why it has also been impossible to mobilize a genuine mass anti-Japanese movement in the face of military aggression and why the White Terror of the Kuo Min Tang has succeeded, by filling mass graves and innumerable prisons with the martyred dead and living, in downing the anti-imperialist movement or efforts toward the organization of such a movement and paving the way for the ever-increasing encroachments of the imperialists. The party has not yet gripped and directed the deep and bitter and often inarticulate hatred of the masses of the people for their oppressors and this includes large sections of the lower petty bourgeoisie who could be won by successful mass pressure from below. This is because the party has failed to translate the realities of everyday events into its program and tactics ...

But precisely because at all costs I desired to carry on the Forum’s open struggle against the common enemy – against the Kuo Min Tang and the imperialists – I sedulously avoided bringing these issues into the columns of the paper, increasingly against my better judgment. I leaned over far backward in this respect. This expressed itself in many of the current issues with which we had to deal.

I ask you to recall the whole uphill fight which the Forum waged on behalf of Paul and Gertrud Ruegg in the spring and summer of 1932 during which time I repeatedly warned against the emphasis which was being placed on the “legal” aspects of the case and the “negotiations” with the Kuo Min Tang to the detriment of mass pressure and the capitalization of the case for political purposes. You paid lip service to the need for mass pressure – particularly here in China – but in fact the “legalities” and futile negotiations remained the major pillars of the defense. Until in the very end I finally rebelled, I wasn’t even permitted to give Ruegg his honorable and rightful title – secretary of the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat! Yet although I felt the struggle for the Rueggs was being seriously handicapped by the tactics being pursued, I carried on the fight with all the energy at my command and you will recall that it was I who created the local defense committee and was chiefly responsible for the widespread press propaganda campaign and the considerable sympathy which we aroused. Yet the strictly non-political attitude which Ruegg was forced to assume at the trial (in contrast to the highly political attitude of his prosecutors!) was in my opinion one of the major reasons for the fate to which he and his wife were condemned.

I ask you to recall the whole period of the organization and activities of the China League for Civil Rights, from December 1932 to June 1933, in which I took an active part. I gave full play to this hybrid League and its work without once publishing the basic criticisms which I often voiced to you and which in the end were wholly confirmed by what happened after the Kuo Min Tang murdered Yang Chien in June that year. I ask you to recall the views I set forth in August and September 1933, on the subject of the Anti-War Congress which at your specific request I did not publish. Instead, to my regret, I published the foul rot of Marley & Co. without freely giving play to the true facts about that farcical junket which had convinced me that the policies which gave it birth do not one single whit advance the international struggle against imperialist war.

On one occasion – and this at least I can take comfort in – I passively resisted when you requested me to write and publish a slanderous attack on Chen Du Hsiu when he was condemned to 13 years imprisonment by the Kuo Min Tang. Your request was specific. I was not to deal with the issues which had brought Chen Du Hsiu from being the leader of the CP in 1927 to being leader of the Chinese Opposition in 1933. I was only to string together a vile series of labels in an effort to explain why the Kuo Min Tang even imprisoned the leader of the Left Opposition. As you know, that attack was never written or published.

Again in December 1933, upon my return from Fukien, you specifically demanded that I set aside the results of my own personal investigations in Foochow in order to write on your behalf (but over my signature!) an utterly baseless and slanderous attack on the Left Opposition. You will recall that you charged at that time that the “Trotskyists” were prominently identified with the new government set up in Fukien by Chen Ming-shu and Tsai Ting-kai. You lumped the Left Opposition with the Third Party and the so-called Social Democrats among the petty bourgeois satellites of the Fukien militarists. It was as much to satisfy myself on this very point as to perform a mission for you, that I went down to Foochow and spent two weeks there and learned through direct contact with dozens of people prominently concerned that the Left Opposition was stoutly and clearly opposed to the Foochow regime. I haven’t place here to discuss the relations of the CP to the short-lived Fukien government or the character of the “negotiations” which were going on down there. The important thing here is that on my return you demanded that I write slanders which flew in the face of everything I myself had learned. It is interesting, as a sidelight on your methods in factional strife as you conceive it, that your representative in Foochow sent back a report, through me, ironically enough, that one of the most prominent of the youthful pseudo-radicals in Foochow, Wu Cui-yuen to be exact, was a leading “Trotskyist”. It so happened that I had met and had several lengthy interviews with Wu and by the time I left Foochow I understood his position and his personality exceedingly well. He was as much a Trotskyist as Mei Lan-fang is! Yet you actually demanded that I ignore my own knowledge of the man and in my article on Fukien set him down as a “Trotskyist”. I was faced on the one hand by your demands that I write falsehoods to suit your policies and on the other by my deep desire to set forth the actual facts about the Opposition’s attitude toward the Fukien regime. But once more, to preserve the shreds of our relationship, I drove a middle course and did neither, leaving the whole question out of my article ...

Nevertheless, abruptly in January of this year you forced an ultimatum upon me and subsequently forced the break in our relationship because I could not and would not, at your demand, devote the China Forum to policies which I could not and do not believe compatible with the interests of the Chinese revolution and the international proletarian revolution. I could not, at your demand, set aside the convictions to which I had literally been driven by the stinging lash of catastrophic events in China, Germany and the world over. Particularly my deep interest in Chinese events during the last three years made it impossible for me, finally, to give active support to policies and tactics whose disastrous effects were being a thousandfold confirmed for me by the tragic events of every swiftly-passing day. I could not ignore questions which strike at the roots of our work and the whole structure of our hopes for a revolutionary future.

Despite the fact that these questions are rocking the entire International today, you denied my right to raise them in print. You demanded more. You demanded that I attack anybody who did so – primarily the people you call “counter-revolutionary Trotskyists” – the only people who are facing these problems today in a fearless, revolutionary way! You demanded that the China Forum become a stereotype for the policies and vulgar factional slanders which I could neither then nor now be party to. In reply to my questions on China you simply quoted back at me the lies and half-lies I’ve been so used to reading in Inprecorr. You even declared: “For propaganda purposes a certain amount of exaggeration is necessary ...” and went on amazingly to say: “but we know the true facts, and we base our policies on them, not on these exaggerations!” A new slant on modern-day CI tactics! Facts, you say, are curious things. They have to be turned around and around and around, and examined closely until their true nature becomes apparent. The trouble is you turn them so far and so quickly that they turn into something like a dizzily turning top of fancy – or at best wish-fulfilling misrepresentations.

To my questions on Germany you quoted Heckert, Piatnitsky and the ECCI’s famous resolution declaring that the collapse of the German party and the slaughter of the German workers were based on the past, present and future correct policies of the CPG! You declared I had no right to offer critical comment on the dangerously opportunistic foreign and domestic policies of the USSR, most notably on the entry of the USSR on a straight nationalist basis into the disgusting corridors of imperialist intrigue. To the contrary, I was lovingly, fawningly to fondle and hail the policies which have meant disaster in China, Germany and elsewhere and are rapidly leading the USSR into the vacuum of nationalist isolation from the world-wide proletarian movement. This I was to do, to begin with, by publishing Stalin’s face on the front page and columns of the customary penegyrics to his infallibility. Above all and before all, I was to take up cudgels against “counter-revolutionary Trotskyism”. That was to be the main point of my reformation – to raise no questions myself and slander anybody else who did so.

In reply to your demand that I submit to an editorial board in order that these editorial policies should be effectively put into practise, I offered

  1. to continue publication strictly as before, meanwhile arguing out my differences with you in discussions on the side;
  2. to throw the columns of the Forum open to a general discussion of all basic revolutionary questions, with free play to unorthodox as well as orthodox views. If your views were correct, I argued, it would be a distinct advantage to you to have such an opportunity to display their brilliance alongside the puny efforts of your critics;
  3. to publish orthodox news and views but to reserve for myself the right to comment and criticize.

These repeated offers you repeatedly refused. You offered to discuss these questions with me verbally if in the meanwhile I threw the Forum open to your editorial board. My other proposals were unthinkable! Give the Forum’s readers a chance to hear “counter-revolutionary” viewpoints? Never that! I could only display my revolutionary purity by acceding to your demands. We would talk things over until spring, when if all went well (i.e., if I showed a satisfactory adaptation to your viewpoint) I could pack up for an educational trip to the Soviet Union where I would certainly become convinced of the error of my ways. In other words, you wanted my signature on a promissory note with the amount left blank for you to fill in. You put this in the form of an ultimatum and you told me that if I did anything but accept I would forthwith enter the camp of the “counter-revolution”.

I had to refuse these terms. I had to refuse to lend myself to a slanderous and baseless struggle against the International Left Opposition. I had to refuse to lend space to the nauseatingly fawning praise of Stalin and uncritical reception of Stalinist policies which characterize the Communist party press the world over. I had to refuse to take shelter in the cold and draughty empty spaces which stretch behind the impressive façade and early traditions of the Communist International. I would like to go to the Soviet Union for a visit one day – but I had to refuse your offer on your terms. I had to refuse, in short, to become a hack prostitute in the name of the revolution.

In the end, too, I had to refuse to turn over to you the printing plant I had built up with so much pain and struggle because I considered it not your property but the property of the working class movement. Because I could not carry on the Forum myself, for lack of financial resources and because of heavy debts contracted, I disposed of the plant and turned every farthing of the proceeds over to where I now consider the true interests of our movement lie. It was with a deep and abiding bitterness that I had to see the Forum go down under the blows of those whom I had considered comrades, when for two years it had fought off all its many enemies on the outside.

Yet with it came the realization that we have to build anew over the ruins you have wrought. The revolution and the building of our future moves forward and when we trample down the defenses; of our enemies we shall crush underfoot everything and everybody that stands in our way. No sycophantic, blind allegiance to a name, an empty façade, a torn and shredded prestige can lead us forward. Only unswerving fidelity to our goal and active struggle toward this end with the weapons of a correct and tested political line will lift us from defeat to ultimate victory. To this struggle I shall continue to dedicate all my energies.

PEIPING, CHINA, May 20, 1934.

Harold R. ISAACS

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