Harold R. Isaacs

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

XVI. Autumn Harvest

Collapse of the Wuhan Government completed the victory of the counter-revolution. From Canton to Nanking, from the sea to the hills of Hunan, the generals were in power. Already at war among themselves, they waged in common a ruthless campaign of extermination against the mass movement, its organizations, and its leaders.

“Here are the facts of the suppression,” began a contemporary report. “For four months a systematized massacre has been going on in the territory controlled by Chiang Kai-shek. It has resulted in the smashing of the people’s organizations in Kiangsu, Chekiang, Fukien, and Kwangtung, so that in these provinces one finds Kuomintang headquarters, and labour, peasant, and women’s unions transformed from forceful, determined organs into docile, spineless organizations, so effectively ‘reorganized’ that they will carry out the will of their reactionary masters.

“In the past three months the reaction has spread from the lower Yangtze until to-day it is dominant in all the territory under so-called Nationalist control. Tang Sheng-chih has proven himself an even more effective commander of execution squads than of armies in battle. In Hunan his subordinate generals have carried out a clean-up of ‘Communists’ that Chiang Kai-shek can scarcely parallel. The usual methods of shooting and beheading have been abetted by methods of torture and mutilation which reek of the horrors of the Dark Ages and the Inquisition. The results have been impressive. The peasant and labour unions of Hunan, probably the most effectively organized in the whole country, are completely smashed. Those leaders who have escaped the burning in oil, the burying alive, the torture by slow strangulation by wire, and other forms of death too lurid to report, have fled the country or are in such careful hiding that they cannot easily be found ...”[1]

“The toll of executed trade union leaders and organizers is growing from day to day,” reported the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat. “Not a day passes without the execution of several workers and trade unionists ... The mass movement is crushed for the moment. All the labour organizations and the peasant unions are being ‘reorganized,’ which means that they are first disorganized and broken up, and then what remains of them is put under the whip of some appointee of the militarists ... In Kiukiang, as in Wuhan, all the trade union organizations have been dissolved and many trade union leaders executed ... Soldiers have occupied most of the trade union buildings and have worked havoc with the property and the documents and valuable archives of these organizations ... What is happening in Wuhan is an exact repetition of what took place some time ago in Canton, when General Li Chi-sen destroyed and then ‘reorganized’ the trade unions and peasant organizations, and also of the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Shanghai.”[2]

The defeat of the mass movement could not be measured merely by the extent of its physical annihilation. The workers and peasants had not merely fallen before a stronger enemy. They had been decapitated by their own leaders, by the men and organizations they had been taught to regard as the standard-bearers of their own revolution. The moral and psychological demoralization that resulted from this fact incalculably deepened the effect of the counter-revolution. In the latter half of 1927 workers in Shanghai and a few other cities still found the strength to strike in attempts to preserve at least part of the fast-disappearing gains made during the preceding years. In these sporadic, unorganized rearguard battles, the workers were easily defeated by the counter-revolution. The masses fell away from the political arena. The brutal and, for them, entirely unexpected assault of the counter-revolution drove them into passivity. They left their shattered organizations. The ranks of the trade unions thinned out. “It will require a very long period and gigantic energy to make good the losses and to enable the trade unions to resume their normal functions,” said the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat as early as July, when only the first blows of the terror had been struck.[3] The peasant unions, that had counted nearly ten millions in their ranks, disappeared almost entirely. Only scattered rebel bands that took to the hills remained to harass the columns of soldiery that went through the country-side like a scourge. In the cities the workers left the ranks of the Communist Party by the thousands. In April, 1927, it had been an organization of nearly sixty thousand members, 53.8 per cent of them workers.[4] Within a year that percentage fell by four-fifths and an official report admitted that the Party “did not have a single healthy Party nucleus among the industrial workers.” [5] In their own way the workers passed their verdict on the party that had led them to disaster. Had the Communist Party known how to evaluate the reasons for this catastrophic defeat, and embarked on the basis of such an evaluation to reassemble its forces and re-establish itself among the workers by taking command of their defensive struggles, it might have gradually regained their confidence. As it was, never having known how and when to attack, the Party never learned how to retreat. Neither then, nor until this day, did the workers ever return to its ranks.

After a heavy defeat, wrote Lenin, referring to the Russian revolution of 1905, “the revolutionary parties must continue their training. Heretofore they learned to attack. Now they understand that they must add to their knowledge of attack a knowledge of how best to retreat. It becomes necessary to understand—and the revolutionary class by its own bitter experience learns to understand—that victory is impossible without a knowledge both of how to attack and how to retreat correctly. Of all the shattered opposition and revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks effected the most orderly retreat, with the least damage to their ‘army.’ They, more than any other, preserved the nucleus of their Party, suffered the fewest splits ... felt the least demoralization, and were in the best position to renew work on a large scale efficiently and energetically. The Bolsheviks only attained this by mercilessly exposing and throwing out the revolutionists of phrases, who did not wish to understand that it was necessary to retreat, that it was obligatory upon them to learn how to work legally in the most reactionary parliaments, in the most reactionary trade unions ... and similar organizations.”[6]

In 1905 the Russian workers were defeated because Czarism was still strong enough to stand and the revolutionary forces too weak to dislodge it. In 1927 the Chinese Revolution suffered a crushing defeat not because the workers and peasants lacked the strength and ability to win, but because the leaders they trusted failed to lead them to the victory within their grasp. In Russia the workers had known who were their friends and who their foes. In China the workers and peasants were crushed precisely by those whom they had confidently followed. The Bolsheviks emerged from their defeat with their forces intact. The Chinese Communists emerged with their forces decimated, dispersed, and demoralized. If only for this reason, the effects of the Chinese 1927 were a thousand times more shattering than those of Russia’s 1905.

Under Lenin Bolshevism became the science of applying Marxism to practical politics like the navigator uses the compass and sextant in bringing his ship to port. By exposing the internal laws of the social process, Marxism provided the revolutionary leadership with the means of plotting its course in advance, not only in perfect accord with the needs of the objective situation, but with a view to transforming that objective situation in a sense favourable to the proletariat. This method was antithetical to the vulgar empiricism that trailed behind events, veering rudderlessly, helpless in the swirl of shifting currents. The Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky gave the world the most finished demonstration it had yet witnessed of the power of a conscious revolutionary leadership intervening actively in the course of events to give form and direction to the will of great masses of people in motion. The bureaucratic stratum that succeeded them no longer gave conscious expression to the will of the proletariat. It provided instead the channel through which other classes exerted their influence on the proletarian dictatorship and tended to veer between the classes, responding to the pressure first of one and then of the next. Governed primarily by the desire to maintain and increase its own privileges and power, it would proceed “pragmatically,” that is, empirically. When its blunders produced their inevitable consequences, it would draw back sharply from the edge of the precipice, rushing pell-mell in the opposite direction where, as a rule, another precipice awaited it.

In this, as in so many other things, Stalin personified the bureaucratic centrist who could not direct but could only tail after the march of events. Only a leadership of this type could have declared, after Chiang Kai-shek’s April coup de état that the slaughter of the Shanghai workers had been “foreseen” and proceeded lawfully from an entirely correct policy and could not have been prevented. The Stalinist leadership in the Comintern “foresaw” that the bourgeoisie would “abandon” the revolution and saw this as a necessary and unavoidable “stage” in the revolutionary process. It followed from this that the workers had to be taught to cling to the boots of the bourgeoisie until it kicked them loose. No matter if it was ground under the heel of counter-revolution in the process, this was all “foreseen” and in accord with the law of “stages” in the revolution. An inseparable corollary of this type of “leadership” was the idea that the revolutionary vanguard had to wait passively until the bourgeoisie “discredited” itself in the eyes of the masses by openly taking the road of counter-revolution. Only then could it proceed with a bolder revolutionary policy which the masses could thereafter comprehend, having lost all their illusions in the bourgeoisie. This notion was organic with Stalin. Left to himself he would have led the Russian Bolsheviks along this fatal path in 1917 had not Lenin arrived in time to put an end to passive waiting and to galvanize the Party into becoming the most active and conscious instrument of masses who were already far ahead of those who were leading them. “We must bide our time until the Provisional Government exhausts itself,” said Stalin in March, 1917, “until the time when in the process of fulfilling the revolutionary programme it discredits itself ... We ... must bide our time until the moment when the events reveal the hollowness of the Provisional Government.” [7]

Like an echo ten years old, Stalin now wrote on the morrow of the collapse of Wuhan: “Should the Chinese Communists have set up the slogan six months ago: ‘Down with the leadership of the Kuomintang?’ No, for that would have been a very dangerous and precipitate step and it would have rendered the approach to the masses more difficult for the Communists, for the masses at that time still believed in the leadership of the Kuomintang and this would have isolated the Communist Party from the peasantry. This would have been false, for at that time the leadership of the Kuomintang in Wuhan had not yet achieved its highest point as a bourgeois-revolutionary Government and had not yet discredited itself in the eyes of the masses through its fight against the agrarian revolution and by its defection to the counter-revolution. We always said that no attempt should be made to discredit and overthrow the leadership of the Kuomintang in Wuhan as Long as it had not exhausted all its possibilities as a bourgeoisrevolutionary Government ... Should the Chinese Communists now set up the slogan, ‘Down with the leadership of the Kuomintang in Wuhan?’ Yes, of course they must. Now that the leadership of the Kuomintang has already discredited itself by its struggle against the revolution and has created hostile (!) relations between itself and the masses ... Such a slogan will meet with a tremendous response. Now every worker and peasant will see that the Communists are acting correctly.”[8] Stalin overlooked only one thing. In the process of “discrediting itself” and reaching its “highest point” while the Communists passively waited and concealed its real nature from the masses, the Kuomintang counterrevolution successfully crushed the organizations of the mass movement. The workers and peasants, defending themselves as best they could against the blows of the terror, were no longer in a position to perceive that the Communists were now “acting correctly.”[At the back of the same issue of the periodical in which this article of Stalin’s was published there was reprinted a fragment from Lenin, dating from 1917, in which the following sentence occurred: “It is precisely the first steps which we must learn to recognize, if we are not to fall into the ridiculous role of a dullwitted philistine who cries out at the second step, although he helped to take the first.”]

One of the incidental victims of the Kuomintang when it reached its “highest point” and proceeded, arms in hand, to “discredit” itself, was Borodin, midwife-in-chief at the miscarriage of the revolution. He had stood by, pumping steadfastness into Stalin’s Kuomintang allies until all their “possibilities” were exhausted. He was now on his way back across the wastes of North-west China, behind him the wreckage of the revolution he had helped destroy. En route other generals of the Kuomintang, even Feng Yu-hsiang, entertained the parting guest.

“Borodin seemed weary and bored by all these generals,” reported Anna Strong, in another of her unintentionally valuable vignetter. “He saw too clearly (!) behind their Nationalist slogans the desire for military assistance. He remarked: ‘When the next Chinese general comes to Moscow and shouts: “Hail to the World Revolution!” better send at once for the G.P.U.” All that any of them want is rifles.’ ”

Miss Strong protested that their host for the night “seemed a friendly soul and fond of Russia.”

“Borodin answered wearily: ‘He’s young. They are all good when they are young.’ “

A few nights later, sitting on a camp stool beneath a rising Chinese moon, Borodin delivered himself of what Miss Strong called “the most complete and leisurely exposition of the forces involved in China’s revolution that I had yet heard him give. There had been no time [!] for such discussion in Hankow. Now, removed by many days and miles from the scene of action, it was as if he summed it up for his own soul also.” Spake Borodin:

“The big bourgeoisie can never unify China because they are not really against the imperialists; they are allied with them and profit by them. The small bourgeoisie cannot unify China because they vacillate between the workers and peasants on the one hand and the big bourgeoisie on the other and, in the end, go over to the latter. The workers and peasants did not unify China because they trusted too much to the small bourgeoisie.” [9]

In Hankow, at the scene of action, there had been “no time” for consideration of these simple propositions. Borodin had been too busy fulfilling Stalin’s instructions to see to it that “no attempt should be made to discredit and overthrow the leadership of the Kuomintang.” Not until he was removed, many days and miles from the scene of action, did he find time to conclude that he had “trusted too much to the small bourgeoisie.” In Borodin’s soul, history is not interested. It is interested in his verdict upon himself and his deeds, here alone expressed, for when he returned to Moscow, he lapsed into the safer obscurity of silence. Had he expatiated on his theme, it would have begun to sound dangerously too much like the ceaseless refrain of Trotsky, before, not after, the debacle. Trotsky had too been “many days and miles from the scene of action,” yet he had proved to be infinitely closer to the masses in China than Borodin in their very midst.

Stalin’s other acolyte at the altar of the Chinese bourgeoisie was M. N. Roy. A few years earlier, under the vigilant editorial eye of Lenin, Roy had helped draft the historic national and colonial theses of the second and fourth congresses of the Comintern which had declared that the struggle against bourgeois nationalism was the fundamental task of the Communists in the colonies and semi-colonies. When he left for China, he left these lessons behind. As chief delegate of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in Hankow, Roy turned his back on the masses and devoted himself to the strenuous task of “advising” first Chiang Kaishek, then Wang Ching-wei, not to “discredit” themselves. When in turn they spurned him he returned solemnly to write:

“Rather than sacrifice the sectional interests of the reactionary landlords and capitalists, the bourgeois Nationalist leaders betrayed the revolution. Class solidarity cut across national solidarity ... Development of the revolution menaced the interests of the capitalist and land-owning classes. Further fight against imperialism would inevitably have caused revolution in the internal social-economic relations. The land should (!) have been given to the peasantry. The peasantry should (!) have been secured against unlimited (?) capitalist exploitation. In short, imperialism could not be overthrown unless its native allies were destroyed. Complete national liberation could be realized ... only by seriously encroaching upon the privileged position of the classes whose representatives led the Nationalist movement ... The petty bourgeois radicalism of the Wuhan Government went bankrupt. It capitulated ... to the counter-revolutionary feudal bourgeois militarist bloc which had already sold the country to imperialism. The nation was sacrificed on the altar of class interests. The democratic (non-class) ideals of the Kuomintang were lost in the fierce clash of class interests. The lessons of these revolutionary and counter-revolutionary events in China are that the Nationalist bourgeoisie in the colonial and semi-colonial countries are essentially counter-revolutionary; that the national revolution to be successful must be an agrarian revolution; that not only the big bourgeoisie but even the petty bourgeoisie, in spite of their radical phrases, cannot and will not lead the agrarian revolution; that the petty bourgeoisie, when placed in power by the support of the workers and peasants, do not share and defend this power with the working class, but hand it over to the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie, and that the working class operating through its independent political party (Communist Party) is the only guarantee for the success of the national revolution.”[10]

Roy’s article was entitled “The Lessons of the Chinese Revolution.” In the book he published a few years later Roy modestly estimates that 25,000 Communists lost their lives in the first months of the terror in 1927[11] after the “non-class ideals” of the Kuomintang were metamorphosed into the “fierce clash of class interests.” Only yesterday Stalin, in his wisdom, was “foreseeing” that the bourgeoisie (not Chiang Kai-shek! not Wang Ching-wei!) would “abandon” the revolution. At the same time he was teaching these 25,000 to believe that the Chiang Kai-sheks and the Wang Chingweis were the “reliable allies” of the revolution, that Chiang’s Canton and later Wang’s Hankow were the authentic “organizing centres” of the agrarian revolution, that “no attempt should be made to discredit and overthrow” them until they had “discredited” themselves, that is, until they had snuffed out the lives of the uncomprehending 25,000, and after them the lives of thousands more, and the life of the revolution itself.

Had it really been necessary that this ghastly price be paid before Stalin, Bukharin, Borodin, Roy and their friends could finally realize that the bourgeoisie, big or small, could not lead the agrarian revolution, that “imperialism could not be overthrown unless its native allies were destroyed? ”

In a document dated August 9, 1927, Stalin’s Central Committee in Moscow summed up what it took all these lives to teach it: “The experience of the past development shows plainly that the bourgeoisie is not capable of solving the problems of national emancipation from the yoke of imperialism, as it is conducting a fight against the workers and peasants, that it is not capable of conducting a consistent fight against imperialism and is becoming more and more inclined to a compromise ... which in fact leaves the domination of imperialism almost completely undisturbed. The national bourgeoisie is equally incapable of solving the inner problems of the revolution, for the reason that it not only fails to support the peasantry, but actively combats them ... It is almost impossible for the bourgeoisie to enter into any compromise with the peasantry, since in China even the scantiest land reform would involve expropriation of the gentry and small landowners, an action of which the bourgeoisie is absolutely incapable ... The Communist Party must declare that the victory over imperialism, the revolutionary unification of China, and its emancipation from the yoke of imperialism are only possible on the basis of the class struggle of the workers and peasants against the feudal lords and capitalists.”[12]

Had it really required the physical annihilation of a whole generation of revolutionists to “show plainly” that the bourgeoisie could not fight imperialism, could not lead the peasantry? Was it really only time now, after three years of the “bloc of four classes,” for the trade union centre to declare: “The Chinese trade unions are confronted with a serious struggle against the theory and practice of class collaboration? “[13]

When Trotsky in the period of the greatest upswing of the mass movement had urged the immediate creation of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils (Soviets), it was precisely in order to provide the broadest and most flexible and self-protective mechanism for the schooling of the masses, for the development of their vigilance with regard to the transient allies from the enemy camp, for the preparation of their defence against the bourgeois reaction, and the transformation of that defence into an offensive in their own behalf, with their own forces, their own organizations, their own banners, their own arms. That road, and that road alone, could have led to the annihilation of the counter-revolution. It had been blocked then by the Stalinist leadership that proscribed struggle against “the only governmental authority,” against any “attempt to discredit or overthrow” the “revolutionary Kuomintang.” Now that events had extracted their remorseless toll for this policy and the bourgeoisie had fulfilled Stalin’s “forecast” by “discrediting” itself, the Stalinist leadership announced that the revolution “was striding forward to the highest phase of its development, to the phase of the direct struggle for the dictatorship of the working class and the peasantry.”[14] Trotsky had been accused of skipping over the bourgeois democratic stage of the revolution. The leadership now sought only to skip over the disastrous consequences of its own policies.

The Chinese Communist Party, which, in Chen Tu-hsiu’s bitter words, had “learned in the past only how to capitulate “[15] was now given no chance to “understand that it was necessary to retreat.” In the teeth of the terror, their forces decimated and dispersed, the masses thrust back and their organizations shattered, the Chinese Communists were now ordered to change pace abruptly. Without stopping to discover what had led to catastrophe, nor to measure the magnitude of their defeat, they were compelled to affirm that the policies of the Comintern had been completely correct—(the myth of the infallibility of the leadership had to be preserved at whatever cost!)—that responsibility for failure lay in the “sabotage” of the Chinese Communist leaders, that the final defeat at Wuhan had raised the revolution to a “new and higher stage.” Yesterday in the conditions of a rising revolutionary wave, with tremendous mass forces in motion, the Chinese Communists had been taught only how to check and demoralize the masses by subordinating them to hostile classes. To-day that wave had been “splattered into froth” on the rocks of the reaction. From the one extreme of opportunism and compromise the remaining Chinese Communists were driven pitilessly to the opposite pole of adventurism in the hope that by belated military action they could retrieve the positions that had now been irretrievably lost. They were compelled to hurl themselves into desperate and hopeless attempts to mend the situation. Under direct orders from Moscow, the Communist Party took the road of insurrection.

The men who embarked upon this course were men who only yesterday, as members of the Central Committee, had been doggedly travelling in the opposite direction. Chen Tu-hsiu, whom the Comintern tried to make the chief scapegoat, was deposed. The new Political Bureau of the Party included Chiu Chiu-pei, Chang Kuo-tao, Li Li-san, Chow En-lai, Chang Tai-lei, and Liu Wei-han, all of whom deeply shared the responsibility for the disasters that had overcome their Party and the revolution. It was Chow En-lai who on April 13 had gone to Chiang Kai-shek’s Shanghai headquarters to petition for the return of the pickets’ arms. It was Liu Wei-han (later better known in the movement as Lo Mai) who, as chairman of the Hunan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party, had ordered the retreat of the peasant detachments from the outskirts of Changsha on the morrow of May 21. All of them now sought to retain the patronage of Moscow by shunting the blame exclusively on to the shoulders of Chen Tu-hsiu and a few others whose principal crime lay in their attempt to carry out faithfully the orders they had received from Moscow. The new “leaders,” schooled only in retreat when it had been time to attack, were now ordered to attack when it was time to retreat.

They made the mechanical turn on orders from above, heedless of the objective situation and without changing the basic policies of the Party in its attitude towards the Kuomintang or towards the agrarian revolution. When it ordered the Communists out of the Wuhan Government, the Comintern had specifically instructed them not to leave the Kuomintang but to continue their efforts in the Kuomintang ranks against the “betrayals” of the Party leaders. That the Kuomintang banner had now become the universal symbol of the terror and flew over the headquarters of every militarist, big and small, in South and Central China, was of no consequence. “The classes come and go, but the continuity of the Kuomintang goes on for ever,” Trotsky had written in May.[16] Now, at the end of July, after the going and coming of the classes had transformed the Kuomintang into the open instrument of the terror, the Chinese Communists, faithful to Bukharin’s instructions, were going to surrender the blue banner to nobody. On July 29 the new Communist Politbureau appealed to the ranks of the Kuomintang “to rise and oppose the Central Executive Committee.”[17] At a conference of the new leadership, hastily convened on August 7 “by the telegraphic instructions of the Communist International and by its new representative (Lominadze),”[18] the Communist Party was called upon “to organize uprisings of the workers and peasants under the banner of the revolutionary Lefts of the Kuomintang.” The resolution said that “the organization of the revolutionary Kuomintang, developing to a higher stage, will enable the political power to advance to the Soviet of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ deputies in such a manner that the transformation will be easier and without harm.”[19]

Disaster had legalized the slogan of Soviets—only yesterday Trotskyist contraband. On July 25 Pravda abruptly announced that “the crisis of the Kuomintang places the question of Soviets on the order of the day. The slogan of Soviets is correct now ... The former partisans of the immediate formation of Soviets ... wanted to force the masses to jump over stages through which the movement had not yet passed ...”[20]

Stalin phrased it in his own way: “In a new advance of the revolution in the present stage of development, the question of the formation of Soviets will be completely ripe. Yesterday, a few months ago, the Chinese Communists could not have put forward the slogan of Soviets, because that would have been adventurism (!) ... because the leadership of the Kuomintang had not yet discredited itself as an opponent of the revolution.”[21] The Moscow strategists staked everything on an early “advance” of the revolution. Stalin wrote that he thought the setback was “probably” comparable to the “July Days” of the Bolsheviks in 1917.[22] At the first sign of a “fresh advance,” ordered the Russian Central Committee, it would be “necessary to change the propagandist slogan of Soviets into a slogan of immediate fight and to proceed at once to the organization of ... Soviets.”[23] Before this, however, a final attempt had to be made to proceed “more easily and harmlessly” to Soviets through the “revolutionary Lefts of the Kuomintang.” Not all the “possibilities,” even now, had been exhausted. At the August 7 Conference the Chinese Communists furiously waved the blue banner over their heads.

“Naturally,” commented a Communist Party historian - who after five years was careful to say that this went “too far ahead” of the Comintern’s instructions—”naturally this was a great mistake. As a matter of fact, after the Wuhan Government turned reactionary, the whole political life of the Kuomintang received its death sentence.”[24] As a matter of fact, what had died was not the Kuomintang, which was entrenching itself in the form of a military dictatorship in the seats of political power. What had died was the myth of the revolutionary Kuomintang, the myth of the “bloc of four classes,” the cornerstone of Comintern policy. Five years after the event, Hua Kang described the August 7 Conference as an “attempt to resurrect the Left Kuomintang!” At the time, however, the Comintern ordered the Chinese Party to hug the corpse. It was not the fault of the Chinese Communists that it failed to come to life.

On the question of the land, the August 7 Conference issued the slogan: “Confiscate the land of the big and middle landlords, but ask the small landlords to reduce the rent.[25] As a result, “the local Party organizations persisted in the old idea (!) of the agrarian revolution, considering it their task to stop the peasants if and when they tried to seize the land of the small landlords.”[26]

The August 7 Conference issued a lengthy letter addressed to all the remaining comrades of the Party, detailing the “mistakes” of the deposed leadership and declaring that Chen Tu-hsiu had consistently defied or failed to carry out the impeccable instructions of the Comintern. It squeezed every drop of ambiguity out of the cunning, self-insuring phrases of Bukharin to prove that the Comintern, before, during, and after, had been infallibly correct. The “struggle against opportunism” which, according to the official calendar, began on August 7, was in reality nothing but the struggle against any attempt to make the Comintern share responsibility with the Chinese Central Committee for the blunders of the past—and this while the material content of those blunders—the reliance on the Kuomintang—was being carried over, unmodified, into the “new, higher stage” of the revolution. The new crime of adventurism was only added to the catalogue of the old. This did not prevent the conference from declaring itself able “to guarantee that henceforth there will be correct, revolutionary Bolshevik leadership.”[27] The conference, so goes the official history, “saved the Party from impending dissolution and put it on the Bolshevik path.”[28] In Moscow it was officially announced that “the right deviation in the leadership of the Chinese brother party has now been liquidated and the policy of the leadership corrected.”[29]

Yesterday the “opportunists” had been those who, like Trotsky, had demanded in the period of the rising revolutionary wave a policy of irreconcilable class struggle, the creation of Soviets, and the liberation of the Communists from the stranglehold of the Kuomintang. To-day the same term had to be applied to those, again like Trotsky and now including Chen Tu-hsiu, who denounced the policy of insurrection in the period of the revolution’s ebb as a policy that could lead only to the destruction of the remaining revolutionary cadres and to the complete divorce of the Party from the masses. The deposed Chen Tu-hsiu has recorded that he wrote to the new Central Committee, “pointing out that the revolutionary moods of the masses were not then at a high point, that the regime of the Kuomintang could not be quickly or easily overthrown, that untimely uprisings only weakened the power of the Party and isolated it the more from the masses ... Of course they never took my opinion into consideration and regarded my words as a joke, repeating them everywhere as proof that I had not corrected my opportunist mistakes.” [30]

“Opportunism” became a meaningless epithet with which to wither any opponent of the insurrectionist course. Putschist moods, born of the desperation of failure, were strong within the Communist Party, yet there were still comrades sane enough to doubt the advisability of hurling themselves into mad adventures foredoomed to defeat. Their resistance was smothered by wholesale expulsion of the waverers as part of a programme of “Bolshevization” of the Party. “After the August 7 Conference ... if anybody expressed doubts about the policy of uprisings, he was immediately called an opportunist and pitilessly attacked.”[31] Protests were brushed aside. Moscow said that the time for “direct struggle” had come. If the necessary conditions did not exist, they had to be made to order, whatever the cost. The result was a series of adventures in the fall of 1927, known as the “Autumn Harvest Uprisings.” Putschism was carried to suicidal extremes. Had the Comintern been setting out deliberately to destroy what was left of the Chinese Communist Party, it could have found no more efficient means. The Party seemed intent only upon its own destruction and in this it almost fully succeeded.

The first of the uprisings occurred at Nanchang, capital of Kiangsi province, on August 1 . Two Communist officers, Yeh Ting and Ho Lung, raised the banner of revolt. They commanded about three thousand men. Among the members of their” Revolutionary Committee” they listed the names of Mrs. Sun Yat-sen, Teng Yen-ta, and Eugene Chen, then en route to European exile, and Generals Chang Fah-kwei and Hwang Che-hsiang of the” Ironsides” army, who promptly abandoned their pretence of military action against Chiang Kai-shek for the real business of exterminating the Communist rebels who offered them those unwanted revolutionary honours.” The revolt in Nanchang ... is the beginning of the fight against the Wuhan Government,” reported the Comintern Press. ”Every revolutionist will be of the opinion that a Government consisting of elements treacherous to the revolution and supported by officers and big landowners, must in all circumstances be overthrown ...” Wuhan, it will be recalled, had only begun to answer this description two weeks previously.” A new revolutionary centre is being formed.”[32] The new” revolutionary centre” lasted only a few days. The troops of Yeh Ting and Ho Lung were forced to flee when Chang Fah-kwei approached the city with his army.

Waving their Kuomintang banners in the faces of an apathetic population, the revolutionists evacuated the city and marched southward. They passed among people for whom the Kuomintang banner had long since become the symbol of terror. They had seen Chiang Kai-shek brandish it in March and Chu Pei-teh in June. To them the forces of Yeh-Ho seemed to be only the “armies of Chiang Kai-shek the Third.”[33] Yeh and Ho promised to confiscate holdings in excess of 200 mow, which amounted to a promise to leave the over- whelming majority of the landlords untouched. Bitter experience had taught the peasants of Kiangsi and northern Kwangtung to distrust armies which came promising to substitute benevolence for the malevolence of their predecessors. There was nothing to distinguish this new “revolutionary army” from the Kuomintang armies that had preceded it. Wherever they could the peasants gave it a wide berth. After fruitlessly careering through the country-side for two months, the Yeh-Ho army attacked the cities of Chaochow and Swatow in north-eastern Kwangtung. It was defeated and dispersed. Its remnants fled into the East River districts where an insurgent peasant movement had begun to raise its head in the ebb of the great peasant wave. This was the end of the Yeh-Ho adventure.

The official explanation was that the Nanchang uprising was defeated because of the “superior strength of the enemy,” listing incidentally, as it were, a few additional causes under the general heading “errors of the leadership,” as follows: “1. Lack of a clear-cut revolutionary policy. 2. Indecisiveness in the agrarian question. 3. Lack of connection with the peasant masses and failure to arm the peasants. 4. Failure to crush the old political organizations and set up new ones. 5. Errors in military judgment.”[34] Otherwise all would have been well. The enemy was stronger and we lacked forces, a revolutionary policy, and connections with the masses. The policy of insurrection was nevertheless untouchably correct.

Similar abortions were occurring throughout Central China and even in some districts of the north. All the attempted uprisings had one feature in common: the masses, instead of making the “tremendous response” Stalin predicted, simply refused to co-operate. Perhaps the workers and peasants were “opportunist,” or perhaps, as Chiu Chiu-pei was later compelled to admit, “the masses saw before we did that the blue banner had become the banner of the white terror.”[35] In most cases the Communists overcame the passive reluctance of the masses by ignoring them altogether and seeking salvation in alliances with little local military satraps. A small force of troops in Hupeh led by a Communist named Chang Faocheng tried, for example, to unite with one local militarist against a third who was ravaging the neighbourhood. “Because of this opportunist policy,” recorded Hua Kang, “the Hupeh uprisings also failed.”[36] The same tactics were employed in Northern Kiangsu, where an attempt was made to form a “bloc” with a militarist named Tzo Fung-chi. The results were the same. There were in some hsien of Hunan and Hupeh sporadic uprisings of the peasantry who in small bands, armed with pikes and spears, made desperate attempts to seize hsien towns. Again and again they were thrust back or wiped out. Even in such cases the Communists on the scene “did not try to arouse and organize the workers and peasants, but relied only on military forces.”[37]

In Shanghai the Kiangsu Provincial Committee of the Communist Party found means of its own to “arouse” the masses. Brief peasant outbursts in Yishing and Wusih early in November convinced the committee that “the time for an insurrection has now really arrived.” The only difficulty was that the workers, crushed by the terror, were not interested. Undaunted, the Party sent bands of “armed Red terrorists to intimidate the workers into striking, factory by factory, thinking that if a general strike could be manufactured (!) in this way, the uprising would surely be successful.” [38] In Wuhan after the first series of the Autumn Harvest Uprisings had uniformly failed in the countryside, agitation was begun for the organization of an insurrection in the city. The Yangtze Bureau of the Communist Party at first demurred. Their previous orders for “immediate uprisings” had not turned out so well. The Hupeh Provincial Committee was likewise stricken with the virus of doubt. “Now is not the time for a general uprising,” it had the temerity to reply. Whereupon charges of “opportunism” were hurled at it and under this barrage the committee backed down. “In order to avoid the suspicion of being opportunist, the Hupeh Provincial Committee issued new orders for mobilization and general strike.” When the time came, however, to put the orders into execution, most of the remaining Party members in Wuhan “resorted to flight and panic.”[39] The Northern Bureau of the Party on October 6 adopted a “General Plan for Uprising” which was so elaborately preposterous that even Hua Kang was compelled to call it “material for an historical joke.”

One after another these ill-drawn caricatures of revolutionary uprisings were erased. Some of them may have seemed ludicrous, but only the enemies of Communism might have laughed for in these wild outbursts and wilder plans the Communists were smashing their Party to pieces—and the end was not yet.

Only now it began, at long last, to dawn on the Communist leaders that “there was no further basis for the existence of the Kuomintang Lefts.”[40] Not until the Autumn Harvest Uprisings had been successively crushed did they finally decide to furl the blue banner of the Kuomintang. The decision of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party on September 19, 1927, which declared that “the uprisings can under no circumstances take place under the Kuomintang banner,”[41] brought formally to a close the disastrous bloc with the party of the bourgeoisie and terminated the myth that “nine-tenths” of the Kuomintang had been ready to follow an independent Communist lead. The “ninetenths” had disappeared under the terror. Now, abruptly, Stalin’s Pravda ordered another 180 degree turn. “The propaganda slogan of Soviets,” it announced on September 30, “must now become a slogan of action.” [42] For the blue banner of the bourgeois Kuomintang flown in the period of the revolutionary upswing the Chinese Communist Party had now to substitute the red banner of the Soviets in the period of the revolution’s ebb. The November Plenum of the Party leadership dutifully proclaimed as the immediate slogan of action: “All power to the delegates’ councils of the workers, peasants, soldiers, and city poor—the Soviets!”[43] From the collapse of the Yeh-Ho adventure, from the defeats of the Autumn Harvest, the Communist leadership drew the now familiar conclusion: “After the Yeh-Ho defeat, the Chinese Revolution not only did not ebb, but rose to a new, higher stage.”[44]

Chiang Kai-shek’s coup of March 20, 1926, had elevated the revolution to the “higher” stage of the coup of April 12 which led to the still “higher” stage of Wuhan. The collapse of the Wuhan experiment lifted the revolution to the insurrectionary plane of Nanchang. The failures of the Autumn Harvest ushered it into the dizzy heights of—Sovietism! This remarkable theory of uninterrupted ascent led the November Plenum to declare that “the objective situation in China is such that the duration of a decidedly revolutionary situation is and will be measured not by weeks and months but by years.” From this it was but a step to deduce conditions ripe for immediate insurrection: “The strength of the revolutionary movement of the toiling masses of China, far from being exhausted, is only beginning to make itself felt in the revival of the revolutionary struggle, despite the enormous defeats which the revolution has suffered ... All this combined compels the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to declare that a decidedly revolutionary situation exists now throughout China.”[45]

This estimate, leading directly to new adventures and new disasters, was based on the premise that in view of the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to solve China’s external and internal problems, “stabilization of the bourgeois militarist reaction is impossible.”[46] From the fact that the forces of the reaction were split into warring cliques as soon as they had grasped power, the Communists concluded that conditions ripe for insurrection remained. In this they overlooked only one detail: the revolutionary organizations were all but destroyed. The revolutionary moods of the masses, above all of the urban workers, had all but ebbed away. Rent by militarist civil wars, and the consequent dislocation of trade, and bent by imperialist pressure, the bourgeois power would certainly find difficulty in “stabilizing” itself. But were the revolutionary forces in a position to replace it with a power of their own? That was the question the Chinese Communists could not answer correctly because they were unable to understand the causes and the scope of the defeats that had been suffered. They mistook their own putschist moods for the general temper of the people.

The heavy defeat of the revolution guaranteed the relative “stabilization” of the bourgeois power, whatever its inner weaknesses and uncertainties. It would be overthrown only when the masses rose again to topple it. This they could not do in the winter of 1927 when they were still overcome by the shattering defeats to which the blunders of their own leaders had led them. Shackled, they only looked on as the generals fought and the small handfuls of Communists hurled themselves into reckless adventures. The Communists had no interest in organizing the day-to-day defensive struggles of the workers and the slow rebuilding of their organizations and self-confidence. They followed avidly only the smouldering course of inter-militarist clique rivalries and plotted to get arms for the purpose of “transforming the militarist civil wars into an anti-imperialist war of the masses“ for the ”overthrow of the reactionary rule and the establishment of the Soviet power.”[47]

Like Stalin, they looked for an automatic “tremendous response” from the masses. But it never came. In the eountry-side there were still bands of rebellious peasants and mutinous soldiers, yet the experiences of the Autumn Harvest had clearly revealed the indifferent passivity of the urban workers and the impotence of the scattered peasant detachments. This the Communists were unable to see. Their course toward insurrection, adopted after the Wuhan collapse, had led only to a new series of defeats. “Nevertheless,” they concluded,” despite this further partial defeat of the revolution, the enormous (!) experience of the last three months is eloquent (!) testimony that the tactic of the Chinese Communist Party was, on the whole, perfectly correct.”[48] The Communists had not learned how to organize victories. They had learned only how to parrot the formulas of the god-like infallibility of Stalin. From Canton to Shanghai to Wuhan, they had moved from disaster to disaster. The cycle had now to be completed. In Canton once more they lurched toward a new catastrophe.


1 Jui Fu-san, “What Has Happened to the Seething Revolution,” China Weekly Review, August 20, 1927.

2 “The Immediate Tasks of the Chinese Trade Unions in the Present Situation,” Pan-Pacific Worker, September 15, 1927.

3 People’s Tribune, July 29, 1927.

4 “Organizational Report of Chen Tu-hsiu to the Fifth Congress, Chinese Communist Party,” quoted by Mif, Kitaiskaya Revolutsia, p. 117.

5 “Circular of the Central Committee, Chinese Communist Party, November 8, 1928,” Political Work of the Chinese Communist Party after the Sixth Congress, Shanghai, 1929; Chow En-lai, Organizational Questions in the Party at the Present Time, Shanghai, May 15, 1929.

6 Lenin, Left-Wing Communism; An Infantile Disorder, London, undated, p. 14.

7 “Minutes of the March, 1917, Party Conference,” Trotsky, Stalin School of Falsification, p. 239.

8 Stalin, “On Current Questions,” International Press Correspondence, August 4, 1927.

9 Strong, China’s Millions, pp. 242, 251-2.

10 M. N. Roy, “The Lessons of the Chinese Revolution,” Labour Monthly, London, November, 1927.

11 Roy, Revolution und Konterrevolution in China, p. 405.

12 “Resolution on the International Situation,” by the Joint Plenum of the C.C. and C.C.C. (C.P.S.U.) after hearing Bukharin’s Report, August 9, 1927, International Press Correspondence, August ,8, 1927.

13 “The Immediate Tasks of the Chinese Trade Unions.”

14 “Resolution on the International Situation.”

15 Chen Tu-hsiu, “Letter to the Communist International,” Le Prolétaire (organ of the Chinese Left Opposition), Shanghai, July 1, 1930.

16 Trotsky, Problems, p. 52.

17 Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. VI, Section 1.

18 Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 122.

19 Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. VI, Section 1.

20 Pravda, July 25, 1927, tr. in La Correspondance Internationale, August 3, 1927.

21 Stalin, “Concerning Current Questions.”

22 Ibid.

23 “Resolution on the International Situation.”

24 Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. VI, Section 1.

25 Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 123.

26 Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. VI, Section 1.

27 “August 7 Letter.”

28 Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. VI, Section 8.

29 “Resolution on the International Situation.”

30 Chen Tu-hsiu, Letter to the Comrades .

31 “Resolution of the Kiangsu District Committee, May 7, 1928,” Materials on the Chinese Question, Moscow, N. 14, p. 6, quoted by Trotsky, Problems, p. 226.

32 International Press Correspondence, August 18, 1927.

33 Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 124.

34 Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. IV, Section 7.

35 Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 135.

36 Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. IV, Section 7.

37 Ibid.

38 “Circular No. 8 of the Kiangsu Provincial Committee,” quoted in Hua Kang, Great Chinese Revolution, Chap. IV, Section 7.

39 Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 143.

40 Ibid., p. 134.

41 Ibid.

42 Pravda, September 30, 1927, tr. in La Correspondance Internationale, October 8, 1927.

43 Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 136 ff.

44 Ibid.

45 “Political Resolution of the November Plenum of the C.C., Chinese Communist Party,” International Press Correspondence, January 26, 1928. For a discussion of the theory of “uninterrupted ascent” and Lominadze’s version of the “permanent revolution,” see Trotsky, Problems, p. 163 ff., and Third International after Lenin, p. 187 ff.

46 “Political Resolution of the November Plenum.”

47 Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 138 ff.

48 “Political Resolution of the November Plenum.”