Harold R. Isaacs

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

IV. Canton: To Whom the Power?

Sun Yat-sen used to be fond of saying that there were neither rich nor poor in China—only the poor and less poor. Had he lived a little longer (he died in March, 1925), he would have seen what happens when the desire of the “poor” to become “less poor” clashes with the ambition of the “less poor” to become richer. He would have seen how, with a logic as relentless as time itself, the so-called “anti-imperialist united front” constituted in the Kuomintang resolved itself into irreconcilably divided tamps, the masses of the incredibly poor against the handfuls of comfortably “less poor.” He would have seen a massive demonstration of a social fact which he had died without recognizing—the class struggle. For as the mass movement rose steadily to higher levels, as it grew in extent and intensity, all the class issues it evoked were driven to the forefront. The worker could not be expected long to continue making a formal distinction between the Chinese employer and the foreign. Nor could the peasant be expected to remain satisfied with meagre promises or to refrain from taking action in his own interest. Against the workers who soon overstepped there limits, all the forces of property, the employers of labour, and the owners of land, rapidly took up the counter-offensive.

Naturally the Chinese bourgeoisie preferred compromise with the foreigners on a booty-sharing basis to the alternative which the growing mass movement seemed to suggest. This was true of the interests of the ruling class as a whole. This did not mean it would react uniformly. The whole social process was too greatly accelerated, the normal social balances too profoundly shaken by the intervention of the masses. Political crystallization of the classes was taking place simultaneously with the development of the struggle. The Chinese bourgeoisie was itself undergoing changes, and within this class this was nowhere even and uniform. In the end the fundamental community of interest of the various divisions of the Chinese ruling class would whip them into a common front against the menace of the exploited, for the basic aim of the national revolution from their point of view was the establishment of a new, stronger bourgeois power, more stable and more amenable to control than the regime of the war lords, and more capable of commanding better terms from the imperialists who held the real reins of power. Yet, on the basis of differing immediate interests and gradations from conservative to radical within the bourgeois fold, the counter-offensive against the mass movement in 1925 deployed along varying and sometimes conflicting routes.

The compradores, the brokers for foreign capital, represented a powerful section of the bourgeoisie, whose interests, intertwined with those of the imperialists, collided most directly with the Nationalist aims of their rivals, who dreamed of competing with the imperialists in industry and trade. This section of the population fought the new Nationalism from the outset, utilizing the old militarists and acting as the channel along which the imperialists backed the militarist defence of the status quo. In some cases, as in Canton in 1924, they organized their own fighting detachments and directly challenged the Government of Sun Yat-sen. In general, however, the caste of old militarists, based upon the landlords in the country-side and the compradores in the towns, were the main instruments of this resistance.

The political representatives of this section of the bourgeoisie were the oldest, most corruptly conservative, and therefore the most near-sighted, Right-wing elements of the old Kuomintang, who had long since become clerks and appendages to the war lords. They rejected from the outset the new tri-cornered policy of Sun Yat-sen, alliance with the Soviet Union, cooperation with the Communists, and mobilization of the masses. When the first congress of the Party adopted this course in 1924, they repudiated it and immediately organized an opposition for the avowed purpose of saving the Kuomintang from the perdition which they believed threatened it. They felt that the path to effective compromise with the foreign Powers was being irretrievably blocked.

“Since the admission of the Communists into the Kuomintang,” ran one of their manifestoes, “their propaganda about overthrowing the imperialists of Great Britain, France, the United States, and Japan is aimed at the destruction of the international good will of the Kuomintang. . . . Their intention is to obliterate the Kuomintang.”[1] Various organizations for “saving the Party” sprang up. Their members attached themselves to the entourages of the reactionary militarists in North China and Manchuria. They scurried between Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, organizing, propagandizing, intriguing, and conspiring. After Sun Yat-sen died, they soon raised the slogan of saving the purity of Sun Yat-senism from the “Bolshevism” of the epigones, and one of their principal groupings took the name “Sun Yat-senist Society.” In November, 1925, they gathered for a conference in the Western Hills, just outside of Peking, and from that meeting took the name by which they were subsequently known—the Western Hills Conference group. They considered themselves the guardians of the policy of compromise with the imperialist Powers. In practice they served the purpose of keeping clear the path to such compromise against the day when it would become more propitious.

The foreigners, on their part, were rocked to their heels by the impact of the mass movement. Signs of their willingness to co-operate with the Chinese bourgeoisie on a compromise basis were not long in coming forth. In the beginning they seemed to believe that the freebooting methods of the Opium Wars and the Boxer days would suffice. But the more intelligent among them soon realized, with no small sense of shock, that the times had changed. The British threat to use force in support of the Merchants’ Volunteers in Canton did not prevent the smashing of that reactionary force a few months later. The rattle of imperialist gun-fire the next year at Shanghai, Tsingtao, Hankow, and Canton, far from cowing the Chinese, only laid bare the culture in which the germs of revolt seemed to thrive. Foreign bullets sown in Chinese soil brought springing to life thousands and tens of thousands of new revolutionary recruits. Without forsaking their strong-arm policy, the Powers sought supplementary outlets by lending active support to every available anti-Nationalist force. We have already seen how during the East River Wars in 1925, Hong Kong openly fed Chen Chiung-ming with munitions and cash. Unfortunately for them, General Chen paid no dividends. When the pro-Nationalist Kuominchun (”People’s Army “) of Feng Yu-hsiang in the north launched an offensive against the Manchurian war lord, Chang Tso-lin, late in 1925, Japanese arms and money bolstered up the defences. When the revolt of Kuo Sung-lin, one of Chang’s subordinates, made his position almost untenable, Japanese military forces were thrown into the breach[2] and the anti-Chang offensive smashed, putting an end for some time to the further growth of Nationalist tendencies in North China.

Appeals for solidarity between foreign and Chinese exploiters began to be heard. “We know by long years of friendly association with you that you do not sympathize with the rioters and strikers,” said the arch-imperialist North China Daily News to Shanghai’s men of property at the height of the Shanghai general strike. It called upon them to show that they had “no fellowship with the unfruitful workers of anarchy and ruin. . . . How long this threat to your peace, your welfare, and your safety is to last depends largely on you. . . .”[3] The foreigners hastened to show that they were prepared to discuss compromises of a concrete character designed to bolster their puppet Peking Government against the Nationalist threat. Arrangements made at the Washington Conference in 1922 to take up the questions of Chinese tariff rights and extraterritoriality, long unimplemented, were hastily revived. In October, 1925, a special tariff conference opened at Peking which ended by promising tariff autonomy to China by January 1, 1929. At the end of the year an international commission on extra-territoriality was formed to assist in bringing about legislative and judicial reforms which, in the terms of the Washington resolution, “would warrant the several Powers in relinquishing, either progressively or otherwise, their respective rights of extra-territoriality.” Early in 1926, Britain sent out a special commission to decide upon the allotment of the British share of the Boxer Indemnity Funds. Thus from these several strings the Powers dangled hopes and promises before the Chinese bourgeoisie.

They found a growing response. The rising strike wave had not confined itself to foreign enterprises alone. Even Chinese “liberals” of the type who were willing to admit that the labour movement had “created a nation-wide social consciousness which is essential toward the building of a new and vigorous republic“ watched uneasily the movement’s ”foolish excesses, like the rapid increase of strikes in China’s industries.”[4] That the labour movement was useful was gingerly acknowledged. Had it not already wrung from the foreigners the promise of conciliatory compromise? But the feeling, nevertheless, grew that “it is one thing to utilize the workers . . . but quite another to let them bite off more than they can chew.” It was a good thing to enjoy “the benefits of strong organized labour “—”but too much of a good thing is often harmful.”[5]

It was cause for rejoicing when the workers struck heavy blows at the strongholds of the foreign capitalists. It was quite another thing when the workers, Sun Yat-sen to the contrary notwithstanding, failed to make the desirable distinction between foreign and Chinese employers. This deplorable lack of discrimination soon made the Chinese factory-owner realize that he was in much the same boat as his foreign rival. Every advance in the working-class movement brought this into sharper relief. Moreover, the ties that bound the weakling Chinese industrialists to the boot-straps of the foreigners were only too painfully apparent. In Shanghai, the principal industrial centre of the country, Chinese factories were even dependent upon a foreign power plant for their electricity. When the general strike followed the events of May 30, 1925, the foreigners retaliated by cutting off the power and stopping all wheels in Chinese-owned factories. This brought the gentlemen of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce quickly to their knees. They flocked to the council chambers of the foreigners with drastic modifications of the sweeping economic and political demands originally put forward by the striking workers. Readily they laid the basis for an entente between themselves and the foreigners. Their own profits depended upon such a compromise. They choked off the flow of funds that poured in for the strikers’ support. Gradually the back of the strike was broken. At the end of the summer the Fengtien military, who had assumed control of Shanghai, in co-operation with the foreign settlement authorities and with the full sanction and support of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, closed down the Shanghai General Labour Union, raided and sealed some hundred and twenty workers’ clubs and other organizations. The strike wave in Shanghai was temporarily stifled and remained so during the winter months of 1925-6.

During this period the flirtation between foreign and Chinese men of property became more audacious. There was no difficulty about the preliminaries. Both sides organized their own anti-Communist leagues, published violent anti-Communist propaganda, and pounded their chests on public platforms. “I appeal to you to save for China the priceless heritage of its ancient civilization!” cried a British Mr. Jones..[6] The devotion of these gentry to the heritage of China’s past was genuinely moving.

Board chairmen counted up their fading earnings and to their shareholders said: “It is to be hoped that the authorities will in future take drastic steps to curb the activities of professional agitators.”[7] What they meant by “drastic steps” was demonstrated on the afternoon of March 18,1926, in Peking when the troops of Tuan Chi-jui, head of the Government, opened fire on a student demonstration, killing scores of boys and girls who were protesting Tuan’s readiness to submit to a foreign ultimatum concerning the demilitarization of Tientsin harbour.[8] The massacre was the Peking backdrop for an unusual scene in Shanghai.

At the Majestic Hotel there that night, the members of the foreign Municipal Council sat down to dine with the pillars of Shanghai Chinese bourgeois society. The event was called “another milestone in the history of Shanghai.” It was “the first time in the history of this municipality when any such gathering has taken place.”.[9] It was indeed an unaccustomed role for these arrogant foreigners, used to sending Chinese of all classes around to the backdoors of their clubs. For the Chinese present—bankers, brokers, merchants, and officials—the smooth flattery of the barbarians was gloss to their vanity. “We, your hosts,” said the American chairman, speaking for his British and Japanese colleagues, “count ourselves fortunate in having been able to secure the attendance of so distinguished a company of Chinese gentlemen. . . . We have with us a representative gathering of the men who mould and guide that vast and wonderful force known as public opinion.”[10]

The speaker, Stirling Fessenden, came directly to the point. The authorities saw trouble ahead and it was necessary “to devise counter-measures.” Force might have to be used, but this method had its drawbacks. Its use might “quickly lead to an international situation of extreme gravity. This has happened before.” Attempts at arbitration “would probably end in failure.” The workers of Shanghai, it seems, were the gullible victims of “third parties” who lured them from the security of their factories. Why not, then, take advantage of the “extreme Credulousness of the Chinese working classes . . . why not take advantage of it—for their good and for ours? Why not set up a different kind of leadership from that to which they had been accustomed—a leadership they would be inclined to follow at least as readily as any other? . . . It needs, I suggest, men like some whom we have with us here to-night. . . .”

“We are all fully aware of the exceedingly tense situation,” rose Yu Ya-ching, banker and compradore, to reply. “. . . It is no exaggeration to say that spontaneous combustion is apt to take place at the slightest provocation, which may quickly lead to a worse conflagration than that of last year. For our respective and common interests we must by all means prevent it.” Time was short and drifting dangerous. “It is most important for us, through the combination of local initiative and concerted action on a national and international scale, to provide the earliest and most satisfactory settlement of our outstanding problems.” Peace was desirable, said Yu bluntly, “but speaking frankly, we do not care to have it at any price.’” The foreigners had to give some recognition to the principles of “racial equality” and “sovereign rights.” More specifically for the moment, they had to give the Chinese bourgeoisie a hand in the administration of Shanghai.

Three weeks later the annual meeting of foreign ratepayers approved the participation, for the first time, of three Chinese members on the Shanghai Municipal Council. It was a bargain.

The “Majestic” dinner was a strikingly clear symbol of the basic attitude of the Chinese bourgeoisie toward the imperialists. They frankly fixed a price—and a modest one, too—and when it was met they openly proceeded together to organize resistance against the workers’ movement. They consciously marshalled their joint forces and became increasingly conscious, alert, and deliberate in all their moves. Their influence was by no means confined to Shanghai and the north, but reached down into the heart of the Nationalist movement in Canton itself.

Your simple-minded men of money, Chinese and foreign alike, were prone to see nothing but red whenever they looked in the direction of Canton. Others, more acute, were beginning to become aware that the reality was quite otherwise. The foreigners had to learn a great deal in those harried months and the sharpest of them learned quickly. They had to understand that the solution lay not in the use of force on their own part, but in the class differentiations within the movement that seemed to threaten their interests. “The serious mistake made by foreigners,” wrote one of them, “was to emphasize Communism as the cause of all the troubles in 1925. . . . As long as anti-Communism was in any way identified with pro-foreignism, there was little hope of the better elements among the Chinese really opposing the Communists.”[11] The Chinese politicians and others with whom they were rapidly cementing new contacts had to teach their more obtuse associates that Canton, far from being of a single hue, in reality reflected all the colours in the class spectrum. The spectrum had to be broken down with the utmost care if the red was to be crowded from the screen.

For at Canton, closest to the mass movement, class antagonisms smouldered and grew. The old guard “Rights” of the Kuomintang had broken away because they believed that eo-operation with the Communists would prevent compromise with the Powers. But at Canton, the so-called “Lefts,” those who dared to use dangerous weapons, saw to the contrary that the mass movement would give them a mighty lever in bargaining with the imperialists. In the Communists they found the ready instruments of this policy. The result had been the organization of mass forces on a grand scale and the consolidation and strengthening of the Kuomintang regime in Kwangtung. But the rise of this movement brought sharply on to the order of the day the question of leadership. It had to be made certain that this mass movement would remain under the control of the bourgeoisie. Thanks to the acquiescent policy of the Communists this was bloodlessly accomplished. To follow this process as it actually occurred, we need only plunge into the maze of intrigues and the clash of individual wills which composed the political life of Canton, find and trace a single thread, the career of Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang Kai-shek is another of those historical personalities who emerge from a class to lead it because their personal ambitions, background, and history fit them to serve the given needs of their class at a given historical moment. What Engels called an “endless array of contingencies,” which we term chance because their inter-connections are so often untraceable, brings them forward when these needs arise. Reaching out for the values they deem desirable, be they on the one hand the satisfaction of participating in the building of a better world or, on the other hand, the lust for power, wealth, or “face,” they fulfil the demands which their times make upon them. They are all part of the general design woven out of the clash of classes in society, but they help, too, to determine the quality and colour of the new patterns that constantly take form. What seems to be in the lives of such men an accumulation of fortuitous chances corresponds in the end to inescapable historical necessities. Such a man, in his own time and place, was Chiang Kai-shek, whose ambition, fathered by ruthless cunning and an utter lack of scruple, brought him now to the centre of the Chinese political scene.

Scion of a well-to-do Chekiang merchant family, Chiang Kai-shek was at the military school in Tokyo when the first revolution broke out in 1911. He hurried back to Shanghai where he joined the staff of General Chen Chi-mei. Under Chen’s patronage Chiang met Sun Yat-sen. He also came into contact with Yu Ya-ching, the compradore, and Chang Ching-chiang, who was adding to the fortune his father had left him by engaging in banking and dealing in curios and bean-curd. Chiang became associated with Hwang Ching-yung, one of Shanghai’s notorious underworld chieftains, and is generally believed to have become a member at this time of the most powerful secret society and gang in Shanghai, the Green Circle. From these gangs, from the scum and riff-raff of the treaty ports, he recruited his soldiers. Gangsters, bankers, military men, murderers, crooks, smugglers, and brothel-keepers drew the original lines of the portrait the world was to come to know as Chiang Kai-shek. Far from being effaced as time passed, they deepened. In the years to come Chiang was destined to lean upon and be leaned upon by these early mentors. The flesh-pots of Shanghai apparently suited his taste and for a time we find him operating as a petty broker on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Either through cupidity or ignorance—the records are not clear on this point—he was- soon penniless and on the streets. Chang Ching-chiang and his other sponsors helped him out of a situation which seems to have been exceedingly precarious. They made good some shady losses, lined his pockets, and shipped him off to Canton to link his fortunes with those of Sun Yat-sen. Few investments have ever paid greater dividends.

After Sun Yat-sen established contact with the Soviet Government, he sent Chiang, who had meanwhile become a member of his staff, to Moscow to study Red Army methods and the Soviet system. Chiang left China in July, 1923, and remained in Russia for six months. Few in Moscow probably noticed the youthful, thin-lipped Chinese officer whose cold, beady black eyes probably noticed a great deal. Coming from a country overrun with hordes of mercenary soldiery, Chiang must have regarded the morale and methods of the Red Army with awe. He saw an army of the people rising out of revolution and civil war and observed the integral connection between the army and the masses. He saw millions who had just thrown off the sodden garments of oppression and ignorance. If this gigantic spectacle stirred in him any response, any desire to help his own people rise out of the muck of centuries, nothing in his later career gives evidence of it. For him the things he observed were just so much capital that could be turned to his own account. He saw, perhaps, how the strength of an idea could call forth limitless sacrifices and loyalty. Above all, he saw the power of the masses as a political and military weapon. So Chiang returned to China with knowledge that gave him an enormous advantage over his fellow-militarists. For as long as it suited him, he could now shout: “Long Live the World Revolution!” This was the cry he had heard galvanize millions. It was a cry with which he hoped to build his own power. All his deeply-embedded class instincts warned him that it was a dangerous game to play; but Chiang Kai-shek, if he was anything, was a gambler. He laid his stakes on the table and boldly plunged.

On his return to Canton at the end of the year, Chiang became the dark-haired darling of Borodin and the Russian military advisers. When in May, 1924, the Whampoa Military Academy was established with Russian funds and under Russian auspices, Chiang, the only military man of rank who had been to the Soviet Union and seen Soviet military methods at first hand, was the logical choice for director. Whampoa bred a new type of military man for China, but it also became the breeding-ground of Chiang’s power. To it flocked some of the best youth of the land. From it came some of the sturdiest fighters of the revolution. But the growth of the mass movement, the rising power of the labour unions and the peasant associations, soon drove the dividing line of class through the ranks of Whampoa’s cadets. In the early period, in the suppression of the Merchants’ Volunteers in Canton, in the expeditions to the East River, in the war against the Yunnanese generals, in the southern campaign, the Whampoa cadets distinguished themselves in the van of the fighting. Chiang was their military leader and each of these campaigns successively heightened his prestige, power, and influence, especially after the Whampoa cadets began to graduate and take their places as officers in the various military units. As the mass movement grew, however, particularly as the peasants began to use the weapons of organization to challenge the rights and privileges of the landlords, many of these young men, themselves the sons of landlord families, began to align themselves against the masses and against the Communists. Within the ranks of the Whampoa cadets this class differentiation quickly took the organized forms which it had already assumed on the broader political stage. The Sun Yat-senist Society, already actively functioning in Central and North China, secured a firm foothold among the Whampoa cadets. The Communist cadets and their more radical Kuomintang allies organized themselves into their own League of Military Youth. During the military campaigns in 1925 these two groups openly clashed on several occasions. Chiang Kai-shek endeavoured to maintain the balance between them, just as on the broader political scene he was already beginning to play a like role in relation to the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. When the armies got back to Canton after the second successful expedition to the East River in October, 1925, Chiang gathered his young officers at a banquet. “He pounded on the table and scolded them ”[12] and demanded that the warring organizations make peace. For the time being, at any rate, he demanded the semblance of unity.

In this question of “unity” Chiang Kai-shek met Borodin on common ground. The consonance of their attitudes clearly reflected the manner in which the Communist policy was dovetailing with the requirements of the bourgeoisie. Chiang’s power, like that of his class, was by no means as yet firmly entrenched. He still needed the Communists, the mass movement, the Russians, their advice, their guidance, and their material support, to consolidate his position. Chiang himself was still on uncertain ground. Politically he was still subordinate to the civilian leaders of the Kuomintang, chief among them Hu Han-min and Sun Yat-sen’s favourite, Wang Chingwei. In the military domain, he still had many rivals in the group of generals who had also hitched their fortunes to the Kuomintang star. Chiang Kai-shek counted on the momentum of the mass movement to sweep him forward to a vantage point from which he could command. This, too, was precisely the aim and the need of the Chinese bourgeoisie.

Borodin, as well as his mentors in Moscow and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, proceeded from the premise that the co-operation of the bourgeoisie was vital to the success of the revolution. To them the independent, and by that time mighty, organized strength of the workers and peasants never suggested the necessity for orienting on the direct interests of these classes, even and especially when they clashed with those of the bourgeoisie. Instead the notion solidified and became official Comintern doctrine that the Kuomintang was not the party of the liberal bourgeoisie with whom the Communists were in a temporary bloc, but that “the Kuomintang . . . represents a revolutionary bloc of the workers, peasants, intellectuals, and urban democracy (read: bourgeoisie) on the basis of a community of class interests of these strata in the struggle against the imperialists and the whole militarist-feudal order for the independence of the country and for a single revolutionary-democratic government.”[13]

The basic orientation was on the “community of class interests,” not their clash. It fathered the illusion that the bourgeoisie on the one hand and the great masses of workers and peasants it exploited on the other were opposed to the imperialists on common ground. That was why Borodin thought he saw in Chiang Kai-shek the most reliable kind of “ally” in the Kuomintang leadership. The other militarists in Canton still formed part of the past, with its war lords and its militarist anarchy. It was obvious, even to Borodin, that their paramount interest was self-interest. Chiang Kai-shek seemed a more legitimate representative of that section of the bourgeoisie which the Comintern believed would really conduct a struggle against the imperialists. Moreover, Chiang wrapped himself in radical phrases and presented himself to Borodin and to the masses as the red hope of the revolutionary army. Borodin therefore employed every possible political stratagem to drive Chiang to the top of the heap. Chiang did not object if Borodin, in doing this, believed he was serving the interests of the masses. To the contrary, it has been recorded that he “often quoted a saying of Dr. Sun to him that in taking Borodin’s advice he would be taking his (Dr. Sun’s) advice. Borodin reciprocated by exhorting that no matter whether Communist or Kuomintang, all must obey General Chiang.’ “[14] When Borodin “advised” the enhancement of Chiang’s power, the latter had no difficulty hearing the ghostly voice of the late great Leader issuing from the lips of his Russian counsellor.

In August, 1925, a Right wing Kuomintang conspiracy in Canton culminated in the assassination of Liao Chung-kai, political director of the Whampoa Military Academy, who stood at the extreme Left wing of the Kuomintang. Hu Han-min, the senior leader of the Kuomintang, and General Hsu Chung-shih, commander of the Cantonese Army, were deeply involved..[15] This open manifestation of the menace of the Right wing in Canton was handled by Borodin entirely behind the scenes in “manoeuvres” designed to eliminate the undesirables. By skilful dickering, of which he was evidently very proud,[16] Borodin succeeded in forcing Hu to go abroad. General Hsu and a number of others linked to the plot likewise left Canton. The workers of Canton suddenly discovered that their new leaders were Wang Ching-wei, who became head of the Party, the Government, and the military council, and Chiang Kai-shek, who succeeded to the command of the Canton Army. For this it had been only necessary for Chiang to click heels, salute, and cry: “Long Live the World Revolution!”

Yet while Borodin and after him the Communist leaders were engrossed in dealing out new combinations with dubious allies at the top, the mass movement had already assumed great proportions. The Canton—Hong Kong strike, countrywide economic and political strikes involving nearly one million workers, the phenomenal growth of the peasant associations, the beginnings of the war against the landlords in the country-side, all marked the sharply rising curve of the masses on the march. Workers’ and peasants’ struggles had led to the creation of independent organizational forms through which the masses reached out instinctively for their own class aims.

The Canton—Hong Kong strikers, organized in their own strike committee and united with the rest of Canton’s workers in the Workers’ Delegates’ Conference, were seeking to defend their own class interests. The police power of Canton was virtually in their hands. The peasants were already, in the language of an official report, “openly warring against the landlords in six or seven hsien.”[17] The Army offered a clear field to the Communists, especially after the 1925 campaigns in the East River districts and elsewhere in Kwangtung which were won primarily because of the direct participation of the workers and peasants. Only by grace of these victories did the Canton Government exist at all. Its power rested squarely on the achievements of the Canton-Hong Kong strikers and the Kwangtung peasantry. Even Chiang Kai-shek publicly recognized this fact. The organized masses and the decisive sections of the soldiery had become the driving power of the whole movement. Despite all this, the bloc at the top prevented them from extracting from the Government erected over their heads a single effective measure in their own interest. A few minor tax burdens were lifted. A few of the more glaring official abuses were eliminated. The sacred precincts of private property remained unviolated.

The Communists were never taught the necessity for giving this mighty mass movement a political orientation of its own, a perspective and a banner which would enable it to intervene in its own way, in its own interest, in the field of the class struggle. Instead it was dulled by a leadership which, far from inoculating the masses with the indispensable suspicion and mistrust of their Kuomintang allies, taught them to rely completely on the bourgeois Nationalists at the head of the movement.

To the Kuomintang and its leadership, all the power and all the glory. This was the dictum of the Comintern and above all of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin and the other members of the presidium of the Fourteenth party conference of the C.P.S.U. in January, 1926, sent the following telegram to the presidium of the Second Congress of the Kuomintang: “To our Party has fallen the proud and historical role of leading the first victorious proletarian revolution of the world. . . . We are convinced that the Kuomintang will succeed in playing the same role in the East, and thereby destroy the foundation of the rule of the imperialists in Asia . . . if the Kuomintang strengthens the alliance of the working class and the peasantry in the present struggle and allows itself to be guided by the interests of these fundamental forces of the revolution. . .”[18] (Emphasis in original.)

Stalin had already produced his original notion that the Kuomintang was not the “united front” with the bourgeoisie, but the political expression of the alliance of the workers and peasants. In China, he told a group of students on May 18, 1925, the Nationalist bloc could “assume the form of a single party of workers and peasants, like the Kuomintang.”[19]

Discussion of the prospects of “proletarian hegemony” in the revolution began to appear in some Comintern accounts of the events in China; but the central organ of the Comintern informed its sections that “a Kuomin (people’s) Government, closely resembling the Soviet system, was formed in Canton on July 1, 1925,” and proudly quoted the speeches of Chiang Kai-shek and Wang Ching-wei at the Kuomintang Congress. Said Chiang: “Our alliance with the Soviet Union, with the world revolution, is actually an alliance with all the revolutionary parties which are fighting in common against the world imperialists to carry through the world revolution.” Said Wang Ching-wei: “If we wish to fight against the imperialists we must not turn against the Communists. (Loud applause.) If we are against the Communists we cannot at the same time describe ourselves as antagonists of imperialism. (Loud applause.)” The report concluded: “The work and struggles of the Kuomintang prove that Sun Yat-sen’s disciples have remained true to his fundamental idea.”[20]

The Sixth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, which met in February, 1926, applauded the Kuomintang’s condemnation of its Right wing and declared that this condemnation “strengthens the revolutionary trend of the Canton Government and ensures the Kuomintang the revolutionary support of the proletariat.”[21] Yet at this plenum the delegates, under the tutelage of the Soviet leaders, reserved their most enthusiastic applause for the appearance of Hu Han-min, one of the outstanding leaders of the Kuomintang Right! Exiled from Canton because he was implicated in the murder of Liao Chung-kai, Hu went to Moscow, where he was promptly elected to the ruling body of the Krestintern, the Peasants’ International, as a “representative of the Chinese farmers!”.[22] To the opening session of the Sixth Plenum he was invited to bring the fraternal greetings of the Kuomintang to the general staff of the world proletarian revolution.

Andreyev Hall, the former throne room of the Czars, “presented an unforgettable picture,” says the official record, “when the Generalissimo of the Canton Army[In Moscow, Hu made full use of the honorary title of “Generalissimo,” which he inherited from Sun Yat-sen.] stepped up to the tribune in military uniform. For several minutes the speaker was unable to commence speaking on account of the continually renewed applause. The solidarity between the revolutionary proletariat of the West and the oppressed peoples of the East was expressed here with striking clearness.”[23]

There was applause, too, for the representative of the Chinese Communist Party, but after all, he only represented the oppressed proletariat of the East.” An even greater pitch of enthusiasm was reached when Comrade (!) Hu Han-min . . . ascended the platform. These demonstrations of enthusiasm lasted several minutes and punctuated nearly every sentence of the speaker.”[24] Hu’s speech is worth citing, for let us not forget that Hu was not merely one of that large group of Kuomintang leaders who only later on would suddenly emerge as butchers of the masses. He stood on that Comintern platform already an exile from Canton for his part in the murder of a Left-wing leader!

“On behalf of the Chinese people,” said Hu, “of the Chinese workers and peasants, of the oppressed Chinese masses, I express gratitude for being able to attend personally this international session. There is only one world revolution and the Chinese revolution is part of this world revolution. The slogan of our great leader, Sun Yat-sen, is identical with the slogan of Marxism and Leninism. No one has faith any longer in the Second International. The influence of the Third International has considerably increased in China of late. The movement embraces intellectuals as well as large sections of workers and peasants, the entire proletariat.

“The Kuomintang slogan is: For the masses, i.e., seizure of political power together with the workers and peasants! All these slogans coincide with the policy of the Third International. . . . I feel I am one of the fighters for the world revolution and I greet the session of the Communist International. Long live the solidarity of the proletariat of the world! Long live the victory of the world revolution! Long live the Third International! Long live all the Communist Parties of the world! Long live the comrades present here!”[25]

The Comintern’s influence embraced the “entire Chinese proletariat.” The Chinese bourgeoisie had every reason to be grateful for the chance to cover itself with the prestige of Comintern support. (Even the Canton Chamber of Commerce signed its manifestoes with the slogan: “Long Live the World Revolution!”) Hu Han-min could afford to be prodigal in dispensing his wishes for long life. It would enable him, one short year later, to help Chiang Kai-shek brutally shorten the lives of the best of China’s young Communists. In return for Hu’s good wishes (and that is all the Comintern ever got out of its Chinese bourgeois allies), the Sixth Plenum of the Comintern proclaimed that “the Canton Government is the vanguard in the liberation struggle of the Chinese people (and) serves as a model for the future revolutionary-democratic order of the whole country,” and urged upon the Chinese revolutionists unity within “a single national revolutionary front of the widest strata of the population (workers, peasants, bourgeoisie) under the leadership of the revolutionary democratic organizations.”[26]

For this reason in Canton Borodin was far from pleased by the spectacular advance of the Communists in the mass movement. “The prominent position which the Communist members occupied in the new revolutionary system . . . not unnaturally caused anxiety among the leaders of the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. Borodin, too, was greatly concerned about it and often during 1925 he discussed the question with Wang (Ching-wei), Liao (Chung-kai), Hu (Han-min), and Chiang (Kai-shek). ‘Ever since the Reorganization in 1924 the Kuomintang was divided into two parties, those supporting and those opposing the Reorganization. This division, however, is not serious, for the Leftists are bound to be victorious. What would be serious, however, is that there might be a division in the Left itself,’ he said, foreseeing a split between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. ‘The only way to surmount future difficulties is, therefore, for the leaders of the Left to present a united opinion.’ ”[27]

The only way, said Borodin, lay in unity among the leaders of the so-called Left. This meant the “unity” of the Communist Party with the Kuomintang. It meant subjecting the masses to the political leadership of the bourgeoisie. In a work which attempts to justify the official Comintern policy in China, it is argued that radical reforms could not be introduced at Canton nor the agrarian revolution carried out because the Kuomintang, “in view of its mixed class composition,” could not “undertake the confiscation of private property.”[28] The “mixed class composition” of the Kuomintang required the protection of bourgeois interests. Inside the Kuomintang the Communists were bound to observe the inviolability of private property. In other words the Kuomintang was not the party in which all classes co-operated (to say nothing of a “workers’ and peasants’ party!”), but was the party in which the bourgeoisie compelled the other classes to drag at its tail.

Why was it not possible to organize an independent working-class offensive? Because the Canton proletariat was “weak.” Borodin thought that “we could have seized power in Canton, but we could not have held it. We would have gone down in a sea of blood.”[29]

Wherein lay the “weakness of the Canton proletariat”? The Canton Government had been raised to power on the wave of the mass movement and stood or fell on the question of continued organized mass support. In this respect the workers of Canton and the peasants of Kwangtung occupied a decisively strategic position. Their “weakness” lay in the absence of an independent political perspective for these powerful mass organizations. If it was not at the outset, perhaps, a direct question of workers’ power, it was certainly a question of smashing the counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie which was being openly mobilized on all sides. This could have been done only by arming the workers and peasants with a class policy of their own, by leading them to the creation of Soviets capable of holding the club of mass power over the heads of the Chinese Kerenskys who sat in the nominal seats of power. Was the Canton proletariat too “weak” to do this? The Canton–Hong Kong strike committee and the Delegates’ Conference united to the Canton Workers’ Delegates’ Council already provided the framework of the dual power. These organizations, which had assumed police powers and such State functions as the establishment of schools, courts, and hospitals, and which had even taken on the job of building a road from Canton to Whampoa, were instinctively reaching out for the exercise of full political power. They were already functioning as Soviets function. United with delegates of the army and the provincial peasant associations, they represented the real sources of whatever power there was in Kwangtung.

But the question of a working-class offensive along these lines was never raised or even considered by the Communist leadership. Why? Because the possibility that such an offensive might involve the violation of bourgeois property meant that the “united front” with the bourgeoisie would be disrupted.

“But let us admit,” wrote Trotsky, “that the Cantonese workers were still too weak to establish their own power. What, generally, is the weak spot of the masses? Their inclination to follow the exploiters. In this case the first duty of revolutionists is to help the workers liberate themselves from servile confidence. Nevertheless, the work done by the bureaucracy of the Comintern was diametrically opposed to this. It inculcated in the- masses the notion of the necessity to submit to the bourgeoisie and it declared that the enemies of the bourgeoisie were their enemies.”[30]

Borodin says that the workers would have been “drowned in a sea of blood” had a more aggressive policy been pursued. Success, to be sure, is never guaranteed in advance. It would be impossible and futile to assert now that any other policy would certainly have triumphed. Yet it is clear that the policy of submission in Canton in 1925 disoriented the workers and only postponed the blood-letting until the bourgeoisie was better prepared to strike and the masses completely disarmed by the policies of their own leaders. An aggressive, independent, proletarian policy might conceivably have led to defeat. That would have depended on many factors. But such a defeat would have been suffered in the open, against known and recognized enemies like the defeat of the Russian revolution of 1905. The result would have been a hardening of the cadres and a new stage in the education of the Chinese workers, leading more clearly, more surely, toward a Chinese 1917. To reject an independent course, however, for fear of disrupting the “united front” guaranteed defeat under conditions infinitely more costly and demoralizing for the worker stabbed in the back by those they had been taught to trust. The workers, wrote Marx and Engels seventy-five years earlier, “must not permit themselves to be corrupted by the phrases of the Democrats, as for example, that the Democratic Party will be split because of the independent action of the workers, and that it will make possible the victory of the reaction. When such phrases are used, the final result is that the proletariat will always be swindled.”[31]

Those phrases were used and the Canton proletariat was swindled.


1 Quoted by Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. IV, Section 1

2 Chapman, Chinese Revolution, p. 210.

3 North China Herald, June 6, 1925.

4 Chen Ta, “Labour’s Part in the New Nationalism,” China Weekly Review, March 6, 1926.

5 Samuel H. Chang, “An Analysis of Canton Bolshevism,” China Weekly Review, March 20 and April 3, 1926.

6 North China Herald, March 20, 1926.

7 Ibid.

8 For the Taku ultimatum, see China Year Book, 1926, pp. 1031-2 ; for a graphic description of the massacre, see Oskar Erdberg, “March Eighteenth,” in Tales of Modern China, Moscow, 1932.

9 China Weekly Review, March 27, 1926.

10 North China Herald, March 20, 1926.

11 China Year Book, 1926, p. 1011.

12 Li Chih-lung, The Resignation of Chairman Wang Ching-wei, Wuhan, 1927.

13 “Resolution on the Chinese Question,” adopted by the Sixth Enlarged Executive (Plenum) of the E.C.C.I., March 13, 1926, International Press Correspondence (No. 40), May 13, 1926.

14 Tang Leang-li, Inner History, p. 234.

15 Fischer, Soviets in World Affairs, v. II, p. 646.

16 Ibid.

17 The Peasant Movement in Kwangtung (Report of the Peasant Department of the Kuomintang), Canton, October, 1925.

18 International Press Correspondence, January 7, 1926.

19 Stalin, Marxism and the National and Colonial Question, New York, undated, p. 216. Cf. Trotsky, Third International after Lenin, New York, 1936, pp. 212-22.

20 International Press Correspondence, March 18,1926.

21 “Resolution on the Chinese Question,” Sixth Plenum of the E.C.C.I. (see Note 13).

22 Katsuji Fuse, Soviet Policy in the Orient, Peking, 1927, p. 304 ; a photoxgraph of Hu Han-min seated with his Krestintern colleagues will be found on p. 305.

23 “Detailed Report of the Session of the Enlarged E.C.C.I.” (Sixth Plenum),

Opening Session, February 17, 1926, International Press Correspondence, March 4; 1926.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 “Resolution on the Chinese Question,” Sixth Plenum of the E.C.C.I. (see Note 13).

27 Tang Leang-li, Inner History, p. 233 ; for an illuminating picture, in novel form, of Borodin’s role in Canton, see Andre Malraux, Les Conquérants, Paris, 1928 ( The Conquerors, New York, 1929), and Trotsky’s comments on it, “The Strangled Revolution” and “A Strangled Revolution and its Stranglers,” in Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution, New York, 1932, pp. 244-66.

28 Fischer, Soviets in World Affairs, v. II, p. 647.

29 Ibid.

30 Trotsky, Problems, p. 254.31

31 “First Address of the Central Committee of the Communist League to its Members in Germany,” in Engels, Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution, p. 143.