Harold R. Isaacs

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

XI. Wuhan: “The Revolutionary Centre”

Chiang Kai-shek’s Shanghai coup d’état dealt a staggering blow to the revolution, but it need not have been mortal. Immense reserves still existed in Hunan and Hupeh where the revolutionary tide was just sweeping in, where the peasants were rising to seize the land and the workers in organization and power were already capable of becoming the leaders of the agrarian revolt and the guardians of its conquests. There was still time to mobilize and weld these forces for a new offensive, to crush the reaction which ruled in the east with Shanghai as its centre. Although the organizations of the workers and peasants had been crushed and the ranks of the vanguard decimated in the areas under Chiang’s control, nevertheless, on the morrow of April 12 the reaction was by no means firmly in the saddle.

Chiang Kai-shek had struck his blow for the imperialists and the Chinese bourgeoisie, but their full confidence was not yet his. He had slashed the arteries of the national revolutionary movement, but for the sake of maintaining his own position he could not entirely divest himself of its protective covering. He had still to claim for himself and for the Kuomintang the leadership of the “anti-imperialist” struggle. He had still to denounce the “unequal treaties” and demand, at least in form, their abrogation. Imperialist interests concentrated at Shanghai, content for the moment that Chiang had removed the immediate threat of the mass movement, sat back to wait for further proofs of his right to their benevolent guardianship.

“We would not for a moment underrate what General Chiang has done,” wrote the North China Daily News. “With conditions as they were in this district a fortnight ago the only thing to do was to act ruthlessly and to shoot down the Communists without mercy. And, situated as General Chiang then was, it needed a good deal of moral courage to take this step - and to act with the determination that he evinced. Furthermore, we fully recognize the truth of the old saying that ‘Rome was not built in a day.’ At the same time, much more must be done both by General Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang before their assurances can be accepted at face value.”[1]

From the Kiangsu-Chekiang bourgeoisie, Chiang extracted a heavy price for his efforts in their behalf, in extortion, terror, and taxation. Next to his impositions, the burdens of the old militarists must have seemed a dim and relatively pleasant memory. It was by no means a love feast between Chiang and his bourgeois mentors. He had to lash them savagely to him and they, without other alternative but destruction, had to suffer themselves to be lashed. For his plight was desperate. His military position was precarious. Under the counterattack of the Fengtien army Hsuchow fell and the Northerners mockingly dropped shells in his very capital at Nanking from their entrenchments across the river at Pukow. His army was in a state of disunity and demoralization.[2] Chiang, too, had to pay a price for turning on the mass movement. Without the masses who made it real, the legend of Nationalist invincibility waned. Victory came far less easily and the chances of defeat in the field instead loomed large before him.

A counter-offensive of the mass movement would obviously have heightened these chances. Isolated at the mouth of the Yangtze, Chiang could have been engulfed in a venging wave sweeping down the river from the aroused provinces. But this was impossible without a thorough-going reorientation of the Chinese Communist leadership and a drastic revision of the Comintern’s policies. It was necessary to understand that the Shanghai disaster stemmed directly from the policy of the “bloc of four classes,” from the subordination of the workers and peasants within the stifling framework of the Kuomintang. Step by step, northward from Canton, the execution of these policies had led to catastrophe. Without an understanding of this fact, without an analysis and evaluation of the reasons for the disastrous climax at Shanghai, the resolute turn in word and deed which alone could have cleared the path to a revolutionary triumph was unthinkable. Unfortunately for the Chinese revolution, it was even less thinkable that such a turn could be made by the Comintern under the leadership of Joseph Stalin.

In Moscow, on April 21, Pravda published Stalin’s theses on “The Questions of the Chinese Revolution,” in which he announced that the march of events culminating in the Shanghai tragedy “proved that the line laid down was the correct line.”

“This was the line,” he wrote, “of the close co-operation of the Left-wingers and the Communists within the Kuomintang, of the consolidation of the unity of the Kuomintang ... of making use of the Right, of their connections and their experiences so far as they submitted to the discipline of the Kuomintang ... The events which followed have fully and entirely proved the correctness of this line.”[3]

“We know very well how the bourgeoisie submitted to ‘discipline,’ “ replied Trotsky in a counter-thesis which he tried vainly to get published, “and how the proletariat utilized 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 ‘utilization’ is written in the book of the Chinese revolution with letters of blood. But this does not prevent the theses from saying: ‘The subsequent events fully confirmed the correctness of this line.’ Further than this no one can go!”[4]

The events, said Trotsky, had in reality fully revealed the ruinous nature of the official policy. That the class struggle could not be “exorcised by the idea of the national united front is far too eloquently proved by the bloody April events,” he wrote, “a direct consequence of the policy of the bloc of four classes.” To refuse to understand this was “to prepare a repetition of the April tragedy at a new stage of the Chinese revolution.”

Only a new course, he urged, guaranteeing the organizational and political independence of the Chinese Communist Party and the formation of Soviets as organs of dual power to lead and protect the agrarian revolution in the provinces offered any security against new and still greater disasters. The formation of Soviets meant the creation in town and country-side of authentic organs of the mass movement itself. Workers, peasants, and soldiers would democratically elect their own delegates, unite them in common assemblies sitting side by side with the organs of the regular Government to guarantee the prosecution of the struggle for the land, the struggle against the militarists and the imperialists. This soldered unity at the base would provide a constant check and a constant threat to the petty bourgeois radicals who occupied the seats of power in Wuhan. It would render the masses independent of vacillation and compromises at the top. It would create, in a word, the dual power as a transition to a further stage in the revolution.

According to Stalin, however, complete reliance was still to be placed in the Kuomintang, in its “Left” section, in the Wuhan Government which he declared had now become the centre of the revolution and on which the workers and peasants were to rely to carry on the fight against militarism and imperialism and to stand sponsor for the agrarian revolt.

“Chiang Kai-shek’s coup,” he wrote, “means that from now on there will be in South China two camps, two Governments, two armies, two centres, the centre of the revolution in Wuhan and the centre of the counter-revolution in Nanking ...

“This means that the revolutionary Kuomintang in Wuhan, by a determined fight against militarism and imperialism, will in fact be converted into an organ of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry ... (We must adopt) ... the policy of concentrating the whole power in the country in the hands of the revolutionary Kuomintang ... It further follows that the policy of close co-operation between the Lefts and the Communists within the Kuomintang acquires special force and special significance ... and that without such co-operation the victory of the revolution is impossible.”

The slogan of Soviets, therefore, was inadmissible, because it would mean “issuing the slogan of a fight against the existing power in this territory ... 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. This means confusing the task of creating and consolidating mass organizations of the workers and peasants in the form of strike committees, peasants’ leagues and peasant committees, trade councils, factory committees, etc., upon which the revolutionary Kuomintang is already based, with the task of setting up a Soviet system as a new type of power in place of the revolutionary Kuomintang.”

“These words fairly reek with the apparatus-like, bureaucratic conception of revolutionary authority,” replied Trotsky. “The Government is not regarded as the expression and consolidation of the developing struggle of the classes, but as the self-sufficient expression of the will of the Kuomintang. The classes come and go, but the continuity of the Kuomintang goes on for ever. But it is not enough to call Wuhan the revolutionary centre for it really to be that. The provincial Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek 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 power right through the transitional regime of a dual government.”

For Stalin, in the coming period, “the main source of the power of the revolutionary Kuomintang is the further development of the revolutionary movement of the workers and peasants and the strengthening of their mass organizations, the revolutionary peasant committees, the workers’ trade unions, and the other revolutionary mass organizations as the elements which are to form the Soviets in the future.”

“What should be the course of these organizations?” asked Trotsky. “We do not find a single word on this in the thesis. The phrase that these are ‘preparatory’ elements for the Soviets of the future is only a phrase and nothing more. What will these organizations do now? They will have to conduct strikes, boycotts, break the backbone of the bureaucratic apparatus, annihilate the counter-revolutionary military bands, drive out the large landowners, disarm the detachments of the usurers and the rich peasants, arm the workers and peasants, in a word, solve all the problems of the democratic and agrarian revolution ... and in this way raise themselves to the position of local organs of power. But then they will be Soviets, only a kind that are badly suited to their tasks ... During all the preceding mass movements, the trade unions were compelled to fulfil functions closely approaching the functions of Soviets (Hong Kong, Shanghai, and elsewhere). But these were precisely the functions for which the trade unions were entirely insufficient. They do not at all embrace the petty bourgeois masses in the city that incline toward the proletariat. But such tasks as the carrying through of strikes with the least possible losses to the poorer population of the city, the distribution of provisions, participation in tax policy, participation in the formation of armed forces, to say nothing of carrying through the agrarian revolution in the provinces, can be accomplished with the necessary sweep only when the directing organization embraces not only all sections of the proletariat, but connects them intimately in the course of its activities with the poor population in the city and country.

“One would at least think that the military coup d’état of Chiang Kai-shek had finally hammered into the mind of every revolutionist the fact that trade unions separated from the army are one thing and united workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets on the other hand arc quite another thing. Revolutionary trade unions and peasant committees can arouse the hatred of the enemy no less than Soviets. But they are far less capable than Soviets of warding off its blows.

“If we are to speak seriously of the alliance of the proletariat with the oppressed masses in the city and country—not of an ‘alliance’ between the leaders, a semi-adulterated alliance through dubious representatives—then such an alliance can have no other organizational form than that of Soviets. This can be denied only by those who rely more upon compromising leaders than upon the revolutionary masses below.”

While he rejected the slogan of Soviets, Stalin declared that the “most important counter-measure (antidote) against the counter-revolution is the arming of the workers and peasants.”

“The arming of the workers and peasants is an excellent thing,” answered Trotsky, “but one must be logical. In Southern China there are already armed peasants; they are the so-called National armies. Yet, far from being an ‘antidote to the counter-revolution’ they have been its tool. Why? Because the political leadership, instead of embracing the masses of the army through soldiers’ Soviets, has contented itself with a purely external copy of our political departments and commissars, which, without an independent revolutionary party and without soldiers’ Soviets, have been transformed into an empty camouflage for bourgeois militarism.

“The theses of Stalin reject the slogan of Soviets with the argument that it would be ‘a slogan of struggle against the government of the revolutionary Kuomintang.’ But in that case what is the meaning of the words: ‘The principal antidote to the counter-revolution is the arming of the workers and peasants’? Against whom will the workers and peasants arm themselves? Will it not be against the governmental authority of the revolutionary Kuomintang? The slogan of arming the workers and peasants, if it is not a phrase, a subterfuge, a masquerade, but a call to action, is not less sharp in character than the slogan of workers’ and peasants’ Soviets. Is it likely that the armed masses will tolerate at their side or over them the governmental authority of a bureaucracy alien and hostile to them? The real arming of the workers and peasants under present circumstances inevitably involves the formation of Soviets ... To declare that the time for Soviets has not yet arrived and at the same time to launch the slogan for arming the workers and peasants is to sow confusion. Only the Soviets, at a further development of the revolution, can become the organs capable of really conducting the arming of the workers and of directing these armed masses ...

... It is said: The Hankow Government is nevertheless a fact. Feng Yu-hsiang is a fact. Tang Sheng-chih is a fact, and they have armed forces at their disposal; neither the Wuhan Government nor Feng Yu-hsiang nor Tang Shengchih wants Soviets. To create Soviets would mean to break with these allies. Although this argument is not openly formulated in the theses, it is nevertheless decisive for many comrades. We have already heard from Stalin on the Hankow Government, the ‘revolutionary centre,’ the ‘only governmental authority.’ At the same time an advertising campaign is launched for Feng Yu-hsiang in our Party meetings, ‘a former worker,’ ‘a faithful revolutionist,’ ‘a reliable man,’ etc. All this is a repetition of the past mistakes under circumstances in which these mistakes can become even more disastrous. The Hankow Government and the army command can be against Soviets only because they will have nothing to do with a radical agrarian programme, with a real break with the large landowners and the bourgeoisie, because they secretly cherish the thought of a compromise with the Right. But then it becomes all the more important to form Soviets. This is the only way to push the revolutionary elements of Hankow to the Left and force the counter-revolutionists to retire.”

Stalin’s theses, therefore, rejected the perspective of the independent initiative of the Chinese masses through the Soviets in favour of a bloc which continued to subordinate the masses to the bourgeoisie through the medium of the petty bourgeois radicals of the Left Kuomintang. This was the line which governed the subsequent course of the Chinese Communist Party. Trotsky’s position, the demand for the unconditional independence of the Chinese Communist Party, the demand for Soviets, the demand “to set the connection with the petty bourgeois masses higher than a connection with their party leaders, to rely upon ourselves, upon our own organizations, arms, and power” were mechanically excluded by the simple expedient of refusing them publication. The Chinese Communists were never given an opportunity to compare notes between the views of the Opposition and their own experience. They vaguely heard of “Trotskyism,” a pernicious doctrine which required not arguments but epithets to refute it. The Russian workers and all sections of the Comintern received only the most bowdlerized versions of the Opposition’s stand. Meanwhile, the broadest possible publicity was given to a series of articles expounding the official “line” laid down by Stalin.[5]

These articles all reproduced the remarkable argument that the slaughter of the Chinese workers at Shanghai was entirely in accord with the prognoses of the Comintern concerning the “inevitable” defection of the bourgeoisie from the national united front and that it could not have been prevented. With one voice they defended those very actions of the Chinese Communist Party which were later to be made the subject of such bitter attack.

Stalin’s April theses raid that the events that occurred in China in the spring of 1927 “fully and entirely proved the correctness” of the policies pursued by the Comintern. In the same document Stalin defended the failure of the Chinese Communists to resist Chiang Kai-shek at Shanghai, answering the charges of Trotsky and the Opposition that the debacle there was due directly to policies imposed upon the Chinese Communists by the Comintern.

“The Opposition is dissatisfied because the workers of Shanghai have not undertaken a decisive fight against the imperialists and their lackeys. They do not understand, however, that the revolution in China cannot develop at such a rapid tempo ... They do not understand that one cannot undertake a decisive struggle under unfavourable conditions ... that not to avoid a decisive fight under unfavourable conditions (when it is possible to avoid it) means rendering easier the work of the enemies of the revolution.”[6]

“It is not true that nothing was done,” wrote another defender of the Comintern’s strategy. “ ... The Communist Party undertook a broad campaign to denounce Chiang Kai-shek ... and tried to develop the movement for the arming of the masses ... It is possible to discuss whether these measures were adequate, but it is certain that the slogan of an uprising of the workers of Shanghai and Nanking against Chiang Kai-shek would have been a thoughtless step, a beau geste, and nothing more. Only ultra-Left loud-mouths could have urged an uprising at Shanghai at a moment when there were tens of foreign warships and tens of thousands of soldiers in the army of occupation. Exactly the opposite had to be done. It was necessary not to permit oneself to be provoked and to await the propitious moment for action. The coup d’état of Chiang Kai-shek, carried out under the pressure and under the protection of armed foreign imperialism, could not have been prevented .”[7]

In a chapter hastily added to a report made to the Moscow party organization in April, Bukharin defended the policy of “hiding arms and not accepting (?) battle” and declared further that the “authority of the Communist Party will necessarily increase, since long before the armed coup, the Communist Party had conducted a vigorous campaign against the bourgeois ‘dictator.’ “[8] A little later, even after Bukharin had begun to assail the Chinese Communists for carrying out the policies he himself had dictated, he still added: “It is necessary to affirm that even had they done all that could have been done, we could not, in the present period, have triumphed over Chiang Kai-shek in direct conflict ... The imperialists could have shattered in blood the workers of Shanghai in a single day’s armed conflict.”[9]

One lengthy article was devoted precisely to proving that the Communist Party of China had unflinchingly followed the directives of the Comintern, and, after citing the progress of the mass movement, it added: “All this proves that the young Communist Party of China has in recent times kept aloof from any vacillations and hesitations and has grasped the fact that the tactics of stimulating the mass movement are the only right tactics for the vanguard of the Chinese proletariat.”[10]

They all made it perfectly plain that the Communists would at all costs continue to cling to the Kuomintang (”It would be a great mistake to hand over the Kuomintang banner to the clique of Chiang Kai-shek,” cried Bukharin[11]), and would concentrate, primarily and above all, on bringing the masses of workers and peasants into the Kuomintang in support of the Government at Wuhan which “is fighting not only the imperialists and the Chinese militarists, but the remnants of the feudal system ... to democratize the country, to install the rule of the toiling masses ... It has put the agrarian revolution on the order of the day.”[12] All confidence, all support to the “revolutionary government of Wuhan,” to the “Left Kuomintang,” which had become nothing more nor less than the “Communist Kuomintang.”[13]

These policies and this estimate of the situation, wrote Trotsky, meant “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 party of the bourgeois executioners ...”[14]

Events with remarkable swiftness soon proved who was right. Even before the Eighth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International convened a few weeks later to place the rubber stamp of its approval on Stalin’s theses, the generals of the “revolutionary Kuomintang” had begun the slaughter of workers and peasants as helpless as the militants mowed down in Shanghai by Chiang Kai-shek. The Wuhan Government, nominated by Stalin to sponsor the agrarian revolution, had already endorsed its bloody suppression. To see how this happened, return to Shanghai and there join the exodus of Communists and others fleeing up the Yangtze to escape Chiang’s headsmen and with them arrive at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers where the three great cities of Central China, Wuchang, Hankow, and Hanyang, known collectively as Wuhan, hug the muddy banks. Here was Stalin’s “revolutionary centre,” the capital of the “Left Kuomintang,” without whose co-operation the victory of the revolution, according to Stalin, was impossible.

Who were these paragons of revolt without whom all was lost? Who were these revolutionary stalwarts who required no workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ Soviets to hold the whip of the masses over their heads? First there was Wang Chingwei, the most “reliable” ally of all. Wang, whom we have seen bend and fold under Chiang Kai-shek’s pressure in Canton and Shanghai, epitomized the petty bourgeois politician, flaccid and fearful, indecisive in all things except his readiness to blench and retreat before his big bourgeois betters. There was George Hsu-chien, one-time Confucian scholar and Christian, who could deliver perorations so scorching as to singe even his Communist colleagues. To-day his shouts for imperialist blood were louder than any. To-morrow, trembling and frightened, he would be the first to seek refuge in flight. There was Ku Meng-yu, who as early as May, 1926, had characterized the peasant up-surge as “a movement of vandals, scoundrels, and idle peasants.” And Ku was editor of the central organ of the “revolutionary” Kuomintang! There was Sun Fo, son of the dead Leader, who changed his views and allegiances so often that even his own colleagues, themselves scarcely distinguished by qualities of steadfastness, contemptuously called him “Sun Wu-kung” after the mythical Chinese monkey who covered ten thousand miles in a single leap.

Best known to the foreigners was the brilliant Eugene Chen, artisan of the well-turned phrase, master of diplomatic invective but of nothing else, barred by his ignorance of the Chinese language (he was born in Trinidad) from playing any role but that of spokesman to the Powers.

Soong Ching-ling, youthful widow of Sun Yat-sen, was nominally among the leaders. Arthur Ransome shrewdly called her “an enthusiast, happier in devotion to her late husband’s ideals than, for example, in unravelling a complicated political situation.”[15] Of them all, Teng Yen-ta, successor to Liao Chung-kai as head of the political department of the army, was a petty bourgeois radical of the more dynamic type, with a courage of his convictions that lifted him a long notch above his fellows.

These were the principal figures who, with their respective satellites, made up the Wuhan Government. These were the main props of the “revolutionary centre.” Six months later, addressing the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Chitarov, relating the events at Wuhan, said: “.. . One thing was left out of sight in connection with this that while the bourgeoisie was retreating from the revolution (!) the Wuhan Government did not even think of leaving the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately among the majority of our comrades, this was not understood; they had illusions with regard to the Wuhan Government. They considered the Wuhan Government almost an image, a prototype of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.”[16]

But it was on May 18 at the Eighth Plenum that Trotsky had warned: “The leaders of the Left Kuomintang of the type of Wang Ching-wei and Co. will inevitably betray you if you follow the Wuhan heads instead of forming your own independent Soviets. The agrarian revolution is a serious thing. Politicians of the Wang Ching-wei type, under difficult conditions, will unite ten times with Chiang Kai-shek against the workers and peasants.”[17]

It was to take less than three months for this prophecy to be fulfilled.

By strapping the Communist Party into a bloc with these leaders, Stalin-Bukharin and Co. considered that they were realizing at Wuhan the “bloc of the workers, peasants, and petty bourgeoisie.” In reality these petty bourgeois leaders were infinitely closer to the so-called national or big bourgeoisie than they were to the masses of workers and peasants. Like its prototyper elsewhere, the Chinese petty bourgeoisie is uniform neither in character nor in interests, but is heterogeneous and stratified. The economic interests of the uppermost layers, the small landlords, shopkeepers, master artisans, and petty entrepreneurs, are closely linked to those of the big landlords, the big city capitalists, the banks, and, in the final analysis, with foreign finance capital. Any secondary contradictions pale before the essential agreement on the preservation of existing property relations. Hold a magnifying glass over your upper petty bourgeois and you will observe all the stigmata of his big bourgeois cousin.

Your small landlord not only rents out land, but is probably also the proprietor of a rice shop or pawnshop or some small manufacturing enterprise in town. Your shopkeeper is also an employer of labour, an exploiter of apprentices, who probably invests his small surplus either directly in land from which he extracts interest in the form of rent, or in loans to peasants at usurious rates. Moreover, the links between the petty exploiters in town and country, forged of common and often identical economic interests, are likely to be welded by family and clan relationships of an exceedingly compelling character. As is the case with the big capitalists and landlords, the interests of the upper petty bourgeoisie are bound up with the perpetuation of feudal methods of exploitation in the country-side. Between these two strata there is a difference of scale, not of kind.

On the other hand, the lower strata, the basic masses of the petty bourgeoisie, are the poor of town and country, exploited artisans, handicraftsmen, shop employees, apprentices, middle and poor peasants and agricultural labourers who comprise the overwhelming mass of the rural population. The economic interests of these lower layers are in direct contradiction not only to those of the big bourgeoisie, but even more directly to those of the petty entrepreneurs, landlords, and merchants. This antagonism links them economically and politically to the industrial proletariat in the cities.

Carrying these distinctions to the plane where they find political expression, one must look for the class roots of these Left Kuomintang leaders not among the exploited poor, but in the counting houses of the petty exploiters. That is why the rising demand of the apprentices for liberation from slave-like conditions, the demands of the shop employees for an improved livelihood, the demands of the workers in the factories, and, above all, the demand of the poor peasants for land, appeared to these leaders not as legitimate aspirations to be fought for and espoused, but as shocking “excesses” which threatened to upset the whole economic apple-cart to which they were accustomed. But it is precisely because these petty bourgeois exploiters occupy a secondary, auxiliary, and often a middleman’s, position in the economic scheme of things, that they are dependent upon their big bourgeois brothers and must look to them for protection of their political interests. They may hate their masters, but they cower and cringe before them, for they have an unholy horror of being forced into the black ranks of the exploited below. They know they cannot stand alone and they readily become the middlemen not only in the field of economic exploitation, but in political repression of the masses as well.

Thus it was in Hankow in the spring of 1927. In Nanking the bourgeoisie had found its defender and its tool in Chiang Kai-shek. In Hankow it was likewise compelled to seek the aid of the militarists and found its man in Tang Sheng-chih. Tang was himself a big Hunan landlord, and upon him the Hankow Chamber of Commerce and related gentry relied for protection. In the relations of the Left Kuomintang leaders to Tang Sheng-chih and the other military leaders we will discover, therefore, an almost mathematically perfect expression of the class relationships which have just been described. For a peculiarly apt figure of speech in this connection, history is profoundly indebted to Michael Borodin, High Adviser to the National Government at Wuhan.

Anna Louise Strong asked him about the civilian and military power in Wuhan. She thought that “if the civil power stood firm, the military would have to yield.”

“He laughed. ‘Did you ever see a rabbit before an anaconda,’ he said, ‘trembling, knowing it is going to be devoured, yet fascinated? That’s the civic power before the military in Wuhan, staring at the military and trembling.’ “

“So he had few illusions,” comments Miss Strong, “regarding the courage of the Chinese intellectuals with whom he was working and who made up the Wuhan Government. But he was their chief source of steadfastness and revolutionary purpose to the end.”[18]

A fitting epitaph! Stalin, the Comintern, and Borodin confined themselves in China to an attempt to inject into an anæmic and frightened rabbit the strength and ability to defeat the anaconda. Instead of responding to the treatment, the rabbit rolled its pink eyes and died, and the anaconda devoured him. But Borodin and the Comintern stood by the rabbit, pumping into it “steadfastness and revolutionary purpose to the end “—to the very end! Not all the pages that must follow could more aptly describe the role and fate of the Left Kuomintang and its Moscow mentors. For it was nothing less than the co-operation with this rabbit that Stalin declared to be indispensable to the victory of the revolution. Somewhat better acquainted with rabbits, Borodin already knew that the anaconda would in the end have his meal. He simply assumed that the revolution was impossible. “You cannot communize poverty,” he liked to tell impressed foreign journalists.

One day the same lady remarked in her naive way to Borodin and Chen Tu-hsiu that since she had come to Russia too late for the revolution there, she had come to China earlier “in order to be on time.” “Borodin turned to Chen with a smile and said: ‘Miss Strong is unfortunate in her dates. She came too late to Russia and now she has come very much too early for China.’ A look of prim understanding passed between them which at the time I did not quite understand.* For in common with the rest of the world and with all except the Kuomintang inner committees, I still thought of Wuhan as revolutionary, not knowing how far the swing toward the Right had carried it.”[19]


* Chen Tu-hsiu’s idea of the Communist Party’s perspectives was illustrated by the story of an interview between him and the arch-reactionary “elder statesman,” Wu Chih-hui, as related by the latter: “I said to Mr. Chen: ‘Sun Wen (Sun Yat-sen) once said that it would take thirty years for the revolutionary party to make a complete conquest of China ... And you, how long do you think it would require for the Communists to conquer China? ‘ Without a moment’s hesitation ... Mr. Chen replied ‘In twenty years Leninist Communism will be the absolute master of all China.’ Then,’ said I, ‘our revolutionary party has only nineteen years to live?’ He laughed without answering ...” (Tr. by Wieger, Chine Moderne, pp. 138-9.)

This conversation took place on March 6, 1927. Wu could not support the notion of a mere nineteen-year breathing space, and he pressed Chiang Kai-shek to hasten his preparations to smash the Communists once and for all to ward off the evil day well in advance.


The “rest of the world”—and Stalin as well as Miss Strong—thought Wuhan was revolutionary. Only the Kuomintang “inner committees,” shying with fear from the mass movement—and Trotsky in Moscow knew otherwise, the one through self-appreciation, the other by virtue of a Marxist analysis.

The world’s head-lines, including those of the international Communist Press, streamed the news of “Red Hankow” Stalin called Wuhan the “revolutionary centre”—because they made the not negligible error of identifying the mass movement with the Wuhan Government; because the Wuhan leaders still found it useful and necessary to smear themselves in the protective grease of revolutionary and radical phrases. That the imperialist Press, especially the British, which saw red on the least provocation, raved hysterically about Wuhan “Bolsheviks” was natural. That Communists who claimed to speak in the name of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and the October revolution followed suit was monstrous. According to Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek’s coup had cleared the field for the “revolutionary centre” at Wuhan, and the “revolutionary Kuomintang” would now proceed to carry out the agrarian revolution, expel the imperialists, abolish feudalism, destroy the militarists, and thus ensure the “non-capitalist road of development” for the Chinese revolution. To this end the Communists, and behind them the masses, were ordered to submit to the control and the discipline of the Kuomintang and the Wuhan Government.

“The strength of the revolutionary government and the Kuomintang,” wrote Jacques Doriot, “resides essentially in the support of the working masses ... With its three million members the General Labour Federation ... unreservedly supports the National Government. The Peasant Unions, with their 15,000,000 adherents ... also support it ... All these forces are grouping themselves around the Kuomintang banner to realize ... the liberation of China from imperialist tutelage, liquidation of the forces of reaction, feudalism, and militarism, and Socialism ... the development of its economy on other paths than those of capitalism.”[20]

What Stalin, Browder, Doriot, and the other gentlemen from Moscow overlooked was that the rallying of the masses to the Wuhan Government was one thing. The rallying of the Wuhan Government to the masses was quite another. “The world thought Hankow ‘Communist.’ But the Left Kuomintang ruled, and the Left Kuomintang was neither Bolshevik nor Socialist, and the generals who shared their condominium in Hankow certainly opposed everything Communist.” This was the picture given Louis Fischer by Borodin long after the event.[21] Here was the real Wuhan, not in Moscow’s fanciful and over-cunning resolutions, but in fact.

According to the theory of the “revolutionary centre,” Chiang Kai-shek’s coup, by some profound alchemy, resulted in a clear-cut situation in which the forces of the revolution (Wuhan) were diametrically opposed to the forces of the counter-revolution (Nanking). “For the initial moment” (long enough for the ink to dry on Stalin’s theses?), “it was characteristic that there was a full contradiction between these two centres,” wrote the Comintern “expert” on China, Mif.[22] Or, as the Chinese Communist leaders put it: “The secession of the big bourgeoisie relieved the national revolutionary movement of the causes of internal conflict and disharmony and caused the movement as a whole to be directed to one simple goal.”[23] Could anything have been simpler?

But let us see. In just a few weeks startled readers of Izvestia would learn that the Left Kuomintang leaders proved to be “playthings in the hands of the generals.”[24] Within the same brief space of days readers of the foreign Communist Press would suddenly be informed that “in connection with the numerous attempts of the numerous generals and generalissimos to bring the trade unions under their thumb ... there is very little, if anything, to distinguish the generals and generalissimos of the counter-revolutionary camp from the generals and generalissimos of the Nationalist Government.”[25] Mif himself was forced to record that “in the end ... the Wuhan leaders knelt before Nanking.”[26]

How did this happen? How did this “full contradiction” so quickly and so completely dissolve? Ah, that was the alchemy of it. And the formula? Elementary, my dear Watson: “The dialectics of the class struggle.” There is nothing, after all, quite like “dialectics” to extricate oneself from a tight spot. But let us look for a slightly more honest, more accurate and infinitely more dialectic explanation. For this it is necessary to travel some distance, in time and in space, from the events. Here is what we find in the pages of a work published under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party in 1931:

“The rupture between Nanking and Wuhan did not bring about the immediate and distinct appearance in Wuhan of the bloc of workers, peasants, and petty bourgeoisie. To the contrary, not only the power of the bourgeoisie, but also that of the landlords and the gentry still existed there. The latter especially held great power. The internal conflict in Wuhan possessed the same social features as that in Nanking, that is, the democratic revolution of the workers and peasants was struggling against the gentry and the landlord class. The internal decomposition of Wuhan had begun even before the Wuhan Government was completely organized.”[27]

So Stalin to the contrary notwithstanding, there never was a revolutionary centre at Wuhan! In Wuhan, as in Nanking, there was the power of the bourgeoisie and the landlords (the latter “especially great”) and the Wuhan Government was rent by the class struggle and had begun to fall apart, that is, it had begun to fall at Nanking’s feet, even before it ever fully came into existence! To advance this view in 1928 or in 1931 was apparently good “dialectics.” To breathe it in 1927 was counter-revolutionary Trotskyism.

Between the “Left” Kuomintang in Wuhan and the “Right” Kuomintang in Nanking in the spring of 1927, there was no class contradiction, but a professional rivalry between two groups representing essentially the same class forces. The “Left” at Wuhan, regardless of the phraseology used by its radical leaders, was no less bourgeois in character, no less opposed to the agrarian revolution, than the “Right” at Nanking. This was the basis for Trotsky’s view that the subordination of the Communists and the masses to the “Left” Kuomintang, led by Wang Ching-wei and Tang Sheng-chih, was no less criminal than the subordination, in the immediately preceding period, to the “Right” Kuomintang headed by Chiang Kai-shek. That is why the Opposition demanded the unconditional independence of the Chinese Communist Party. That is why it demanded the swift and thorough application of the slogans of the agrarian revolution, the formation of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ Soviets capable of leading the struggle and of snatching the power from the weak hands of Wang Ching-wei and Co. before Chiang Kai-shek did, capable of crushing the counter-revolution by winning over the decisive sections of the soldiery and of disintegrating and destroying the power of the generals.

Struggle had to be waged against the bourgeois Kuomintang because it was unalterably opposed to the agrarian revolution—and the agrarian revolution is the heart and soul of China’s future. Refusal to wage this struggle—and it could have been waged only with the weapon of Soviets—meant the abandonment and betrayal of the peasants, in a word, the strangling of the revolution itself. But Stalin opposed the course of irreconcilable struggle against the Kuomintang, for he saw in it not the party of the bourgeoisie, but a peculiar kind of “revolutionary parliament” in which hostile classes would learn, under Stalin’s tutelage, how to imagine a community of interests where in reality none existed. For Stalin Wuhan was “revolutionary” and its “revolutionary government” would lead and extend the agrarian revolution. Wuhan would overthrow Chiang Kai-shek. Wuhan would in the shortest time become nothing less than the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”—a phenomenon never seen or known in all history.[28] Wuhan would do all these, promised Stalin, if the Communist Party and the mass organizations supported it with all their might and did not, themselves, prematurely take the road of Soviets, the road to power. Thus it was spoken, and thus it had to be. The fate of the Chinese Revolution was laid in the lap of the Left Kuomintang. What came of it there is too soon told.


1 North China Daily News, April 26, 1927.

2 Cf. Speech of Chiang Kai-shek at Nanking on April 18, 1927, trans. by Wieger, Chine Moderne, v. VII, p. 142; James H. Dolsen, “Chiang Kai-shek’s Plight,” People’s Tribune, May 25-26, 1927.

3 All quotations from Stalin in this chapter are taken from the official English translation of “The Questions of the Chinese Revolution,” International Press Correspondence, April 28, 1927.

4 Trotsky, “The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin” (May 7, 1927), Problems, p. 23 ff. (Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Trotsky in this chapter are taken from this article.)

5 N. Lenzner, “La Question Chinoise,” La Correspondance Internationale, June 25 and 29, 1927; A. Stetski, “Un Tournant de la Revolution Chinoise,” Ibid., April 27, 1927; Stetski, “La Dialectique de la Lutte en Chine,” Ibid., May 7, 1927; L. Heller, “Apres la Rupture de Front National Révolutionnaire en Chine,” Ibid., May 7, 1927; J. Pepper, “L’alliance de Chamberlain et de Tchang Kai-chek,” Ibid., May 21, 1927; etc.

6 See note 3.

7 Lenzner, “La Question Chinoise.” (Emphasis in original.)

8 Bukharin, Problèmes de la Revolution Chinoise, pp. 56, 59.

9 Bukharin, “Report to the Plenum of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (June 4, 1927), La Correspondance Internationale, July 2, 1927.

“When is it necessary to conclude a compromise and when must one pass over to the offensive?” asked the resolution of the Eighth Plenum of the E.C.C.I. at the end of May. “That depends on concrete conditions. In particular, the E.C.C.I. considers that the tactic proposed by some comrades at Shanghai at the time of Chiang Kai-shek’s coup d’état was absurd. This tactic consisted in arousing in advance an insurrection against the imperialists and against Chiang Kai-shek, and offering them battle on a broad front ... In a broad armed action, the workers of Shanghai would have been exterminated by the bloc of armed forces of Chiang Kai-shek and the imperialists, and the élite of the Chinese proletariat would have perished in a battle in which it had absolutely no chance of success.”—“Resolution sur la Question Chinoise,” La Correspondance Internationale, June 15, 1927.

10 E. Eichenwald, “The Tactical Line of the Comintern in China,” International Press Correspondence, June 2, 1927.

11 Bukharin, Problemes de la Revolution Chinoise, p. 59.

12 Tang Shin-she, “The Play of Forces of Chiang Kai-shek and the Hankow Government,” La Correspondance Internationale, June 6, 1927.

13 La Correspondance Internationale, May 21, 1927.

14 Trotsky, Problems, p. 285.

15 Ransome, Chinese Puzzle, p. 66.

16 Quoted by Trotsky, Problems, p. 280. This and other passages were deleted from the printed minutes of the Congress.

17 Trotsky, “Second Speech on the Chinese Question,” Problems, p. 103.

18 Anna Louise Strong, China’s Millions, New York, 1928, pp. 38-9.

19 Ibid.

20 Jacques Doriot, “A Travers la Revolution Chinoise,” L’Humanité Paris, June 25, 1927.

21 Fischer, Soviets in World Affairs, v. II, p. 667.

22 Mif, Kitaiskaya Revolutsia, p. 100.

23 “Manifesto of the Fifth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party,” Min Kuo Jih Pao, Wuhan, May 23-6, 1927.

24 Official translation, International Press Correspondence, July 28, 1927.

25 “Declaration of the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat,” Hankow, July 25, 1927, International Press Correspondence, September 2, 1927.

26 Mif, Kitaiskaya Revolutsia, p. 100.

27 Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. V, Section 2. This is a re-phrasing of an idea more cautiously expressed by Chiu Chiu-pei at the Sixth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in July, 1928. Stalin’s “revolutionary centre “ was too freshly in the memory of all for bolder words at that time. (See Chiu Chiu-pei, The Chinese Revolution, Chap. 1.)

28 See Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution .