Harold R. Isaacs

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

XVII. The Canton Commune

Kwangtung had been surrendered without a struggle to the militarists after Chiang Kai-shek’s coup d’état of March 20, 1926. After the departure of the Northern Expeditionary armies in July that year, the liquidation of the Canton-Hong Kong strike in October, and the transfer of the National Government to Wuhan in December, full control of the province passed into the hands of Li Chi-sen, a southern general.

Li wasted no time in bringing all of Kwangtung under the heel of his military establishment. He rigidly curbed the trade unions and applied Borodin’s system of compulsory arbitration with an iron hand. He met with no resistance from the Communists, who had relaxed all their activity, conceding the ground to the general “to preserve the national united front.” The Communist policy consisted of “waiting for the success of the Northern Expedition.”[1] While they waited, the Northern Expedition was victorious, only the victories fell to Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese bourgeoisie, culminating in the Shanghai events of April 12, 1927.

Li Chi-sen responded swiftly to Chiang Kai-shek’s lead and on April 15 carried out a purge of his own. All the mass organizations which still enjoyed legal existence were raided and closed down. More than two thousand were arrested and at least one hundred men and women, most of them Communists, were shot. The remnants of the Canton-Hong Kong strike pickets were disarmed after sharp skirmishes and more than two thousand railway workers under Communist influence were driven from their jobs by Li’s soldiers and replaced by workers under the control of the arch-reactionary Mechanics’ Union. Taking his cue from Chiang Kai-shek, Li Chi-sen understood the value of preserving the outer forms of working-class organizations. He took over their premises and filled them with gangster-hirelings designated as “Trade Union Reorganization Committees.” Similar events took place in cities and towns throughout the province. In the villages peasants often resisted the raids of the military. The peasant unions, however, were crushed.

The Communists now had to pay for their passivity. They proclaimed a general strike on April 24 in protest against Li Chi-sen’s attacks on the unions. The strike failed to materialize. In the ensuing months the Communists in Canton and in Kwangtung generally were driven deep underground. Employers launched an offensive against the workers which stripped them of every gain made in wages, hours, and working conditions during the height of the Canton-Hong Kong strike. The famous Kwangtung Workers’ Delegates’ Council, the embryo Soviet that less than a year before represented more than two hundred thousand workers in all trades, disappeared. In its place functioned an illegal “Special Committee” composed of several former executive members of the Delegates’ Council and a smaller number of newly-selected delegates. This committee claimed to control about one hundred unions in Canton. In June it claimed credit for bringing nearly thirty thousand workers out to a demonstration to commemorate the anniversaries of the Shakee massacre and the beginning of the Hong Kong strike.[2] Even if these claims were justified, they were modest enough, compared to the recent past.

The apathy of the great majority of the workers produced terrorist moods in the ranks of the Communist Party. Incapable of mobilizing the workers for resistance to the capitalist offensive, Communist workers took to bomb-throwing in a series of hopelessly futile attempts to frighten and drive away the members of Li Chi-sen’s Reorganization Committees. There was even a plot, according to Huang Ping, to assassinate Li Chi-sen. It failed when a planted bomb failed to explode.[3] This resort to individual terrorism by desperate and disillusioned workers and Communists was officially dignified by the Communist Party with the name “Red Terror.”

There are times when a Red Terror becomes inescapably necessary to safeguard revolutionary conquests; at such times it is a deliberate measure proclaimed by the Government of a victorious working class against enemies who challenge or endanger its rule. The Bolsheviks in Russia did not impose extreme penalties on their opponents until long after they had seized power and not until their enemies made attempts on the lives of the Bolshevik leaders and began actively to organize the forces of the counter-revolution. This has nothing in common with resort to the use of individual terrorist methods against the tools of a reactionary regime in power. Bolshevism grew up in the struggle against these methods which do not aid in the mobilization of the masses but contribute only to their demoralization. The appearance of terrorist tendencies in a revolutionary organization is the deadly symptom of its impotence or its degeneration.[ In his two books about the Chinese Revolution, Les Conquérants and La Condition Humaine, Andre Malraux described young Chinese terrorists driven to the use of bomb and revolver by the Communist Party’s lack of a revolutionary policy. One of them, he relates, tried to blow up Chiang Kai-shek on the eve of the April coup in Shanghai.]

Just as previously the Kwangtung Communists had rationalized their passivity with the advice to “wait for the success of the Northern Expedition,” they now sublimated their helplessness in hopes for the “Eastern Expedition” which all of them, their leaders in Moscow included, believed would be launched against Chiang Kai-shek by the Wuhan Government. When Wuhan capitulated to Chiang instead of attacking him, the cry went up: “Wait for Yeh-Ho!” Towards the end of September plans were hastily improvised for an uprising to coincide with the expected arrival of the Yeh-Ho forces at the gates of Canton. When the awaited saviours were dispersed before Chaochow and Swatow, the plans for the uprising were temporarily abandoned.[4]

In Kwangtung it was not until after the defeat of Yeh Ting and Ho Lung in October that the Communists adopted the slogan: “Down with the Kuomintang!”[5] The slogan was carried out into the streets for the first time in an attempted demonstration on October 14. In other words, exactly one year and four days after the treacherous and unconditional liquidation of the Canton-Hong Kong strike by the Kuomintang Government and more than a year and a half after the March coup of Chiang Kai-shek, long months during which the workers of Canton had been shot down by Kuomintang soldiers, imprisoned in Kuomintang jails, deprived of their organizations by Kuomintang decrees, the Communist Party at long last accorded the workers of Canton official permission to cry: “Down with the Kuomintang!” Is it any wonder, then, that the use of the dagger, revolver, knife, or bomb against Kuomintang labour “leaders” seemed to many of them to be more fruitful than the policies of the Communist Party? Is it any wonder that the overwhelming majority of Canton’s workers, who had poured with such optimism and hope into their organizations, had in this period, in equal numbers, left the arena of organized activity, bitter, disillusioned, and cynical?

Yet despite the strong play of centrifugal forces which were fast leaving the Communist Party isolated and stranded on the shoals of yesterday’s blunders and to-day’s wild-cat dreams, there still remained in Canton a small body of workers whose will to struggle had remained firm through all the vicissitudes of the movement. Among them were the best fighters of yesterday’s huge mass organizations, a handful of the Canton-Hong Kong strike pickets who had written so brilliant a page into the history of the revolution, remnants of the workers’ own Red Guard, and a part of the radical, unemployed railway workers. These were workers who throughout the course of the revolution had made the greatest sacrifices, who had developed the highest degree of conscious political understanding of any in Kwangtung, and whose role in the early rise of the Kuomintang to power in the south had been little short of decisive. The Communist Party possessed in this hardened band of workers a tremendous saving from the wreck of the revolution. Carefully nurtured and properly led, through persistent struggle and with a correct policy, these cadres might have re-opened for the Communist Party the road to leadership, now blocked by the debris of the past. Instead, not understanding “that it was necessary to retreat,” unable to lead the defensive struggles of the Canton workers—the only path to the re-establishment of its influence, its prestige, and its right to lead—the Communist Party was now preparing to hurl its last proletarian forces into a desperate frontal attack foredoomed by every single circumstance, objective and subjective, to defeat.

Power in Canton was at that time shared by the rival forces of Li Chi-sen and Chang Fah-kwei, between whom civil war impended. Chang’s political facade was ornamented by none other than Wang Ching-wei, with whom he planned a coup d’état designed to elbow General Li out of the city. Anticipating this coup, the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Shanghai issued the following instructions to the Kwangtung provincial organization:” The worker-peasant masses of Kwangtung have only one way out ... that is, to utilize the opportunity of the civil war resulting from the coup d’état in order resolutely to expand the uprisings in the cities and villages ... to agitate among the soldiers to stage mutinies and revolts, and in the time of war swiftly to link such uprisings into a general uprising for the establishment of the rule of the Workers’, Peasants’, and Soldiers’ Delegates’ Councils (Soviets).”[6] With the air of a doctor performing a post-mortem on a patient he has just negligently killed, Lozovsky a year later wrote “It is true that there were sharp struggles developing between Chang Fah-kwei and Li Chi-sen, but the insurrectionists should have known that as soon as the banner of revolt was raised, the quarrels in the camp of the counter revolution would immediately come to an end.”[7] Between what the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party should have known and what the Lozovskys and all the other worthies of the Comintern taught them yawned the chasm into which the Chinese Revolution fell to its destruction. The fact that the generals would unite a thousand times against the insurrection before fighting each other was as apparent in December 1927, as it had been during all the previous periods of the revolution. The Comintern had not understood this before and did not understand it now. The Chinese Communists were driven along the course of insurrection under the direct instructions of the Executive Committee of the Comintern and its new representatives in China, first Lominadze and after him the adventurer, Heinz Neumann, who had now arrived in Canton to provide the Chinese Communists with the necessary “guidance” along the insurrectionary path.

The Chang-Wang coup d’état duly took place on November 17 and the forces of the opposing generals squared off for battle in a zone that began forty miles from Canton and stretched from the North River districts to Swatow. On November 26 the Communist Party decided to prepare at once for an insurrection[8]and a few days later set the date for December 13.[By a peculiar “coincidence,” the Canton insurrection was made to coincide with the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at which Stalin completed his conquest of the Opposition and put through the wholesale expulsion of the Left wing of the Party. Trotsky has written that the insurrection was timed to give the Stalinist majority a “victory” in China “to cover up the physical extermination of the Russian Opposition.”— Problems, pp. 291-2. Cf. Victor Serge, De Lenine à Staline, Paris, 1937, p. 31; Victor Serge, Russia Twenty Tears After, New York, 1937, p. 160; Boris Souvarine, Staline, Paris, 1935, p. 434. The present writer has been told by members of the little group of Left Kuomintang émigrés, which included Mrs. Sun Yat-sen, Eugene Chen, Teng Yen-ta, and others, who were then in Moscow, that they also had reason to believe that events in Canton were deliberately forced to create the necessary “atmosphere” at the Fifteenth Congress.] According to Heinz Neumann, the Communist leaders were “profoundly convinced that all the conditions for victory were present and that success ... was assured.”[9]

In reality, conditions were such that in the country as a whole there was no force left capable of coming to the support of an uprising in Canton, even if it were victorious. More, in Canton and in Kwangtung itself, the existing correlation of forces made such a victory impossible. Only afterward did the Heinz Neumanns and the Lozovskys admit that this had been the case. The Canton insurrectionists counted heavily in their plans on the co-operation of revolting peasants in the East River districts of Haifeng and Lufeng, one hundred and fifty miles from Canton, where only five years before Peng Pai had cradled the modern Chinese peasant movement. Peng was back there now and with the aid of the fleeing remnants of the Yeh-Ho army had created the first of those peasant “Soviets” which became the basis of Communist Party policy during the whole ensuing period. Dating from the end of October, this peasant rising in Hailufeng had stirred scattered sections of the peasantry in two or three other districts, in the North River area, and on the island of Hainan. Viewed in the light of the situation in the whole country, these tiny centres of rural revolt were only belated echoes of past opportunities irretrievably lost; but in Canton the Communists saw them magnified ten thousandfold. They considered them sufficient to guarantee that the whole country would spring to their support. “Obviously,” confessed Lominadze—more than a year later—”we far too greatly exaggerated the extent of the development of the peasant uprisings at that time.”[10]

The military forces available to the Communists for the insurrection and to the reaction for its suppression, compared even without regard to the prevailing circumstances in the province and in the country at large, offered in themselves a ghastly forecast of what was to come. Assembling the first-hand reports of the participants, Chen Shao-yu [Later, better known as Wang Min, secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party.] found that “the armed forces of the ruling class stationed in Canton exceeded by five or six times the forces of the insurrectionists.”[11] Summarizing the reports of the Communist military commander, Yeh Ting, of “Comrade A” (presumably Neumann), and of the Canton Revolutionary Military Committee, Chen estimated the armaments of the revolutionists, at their highest figures, as follows: “Revolvers and automatic revolvers, at most 30; grenades, at most 200; rifles in the hands of workers, at most 50; rifles in the hands of soldiers, at most 1,600.”[12] Neumann’s report said that the workers’ Red Guard had only 29 Mausers and about 200 grenades—not a single rifle.[13] The only military detachment at the disposal of the insurrection was the cadet regiment, composed of non-commissioned officers and former Whampoa cadets, of whom about 200 were members of the Communist Party.[14] The actual number of participants in the uprising was given by Yeh Ting as 4,200, including 1,200 men of the cadet regiment, 3,000 Red Guards and others. “Comrade A” estimated only 2,000 in addition to the cadets, giving a total of only 3,200.[15]

According to Yeh Ting the authorities had 7,000 well-armed men available in the city for instant action. These included 5,000 soldiers, 1,000 policemen, and 1,000 gangsters controlled by the reactionary Mechanics’ Union. The soldiers included detachments of infantry, machine-gunners, and artillery. In all they possessed more than 5,000 rifles, a considerable number of machine-guns, 35 small trench-mortars and cannon.[16] These were only the forces in the city itself. In the river there were several Chinese and foreign gunboats. On the outskirts the of town there were nearly four full regiments stationed in barracks and only two or three days’ travel away there were the combined armies of Chang Fah-kwei and Li Chi-sen, a force totalling no less than 50,000 men, well armed and well trained. Among these troops Communist influence did not exist, not even a trace of it. “The great bulk of the soldiers were completely ignorant of the Communist slogans ...” admitted Neumann.[17] “We had done no preparatory work to disintegrate the enemy troops ...” wrote Lozovsky. This “predetermined the outcome of the insurrection.”[18] In his subsequent report, Neumann admitted the overwhelming odds.” But if one considers,” he feebly added, “that the troops of the bourgeoisie were surrounded on all sides by revolutionary ferment and that the commanding stall could not rely upon them politically, one can say that the military forces, in Canton, were equal.” This was Neumann’s only attempt at self-defence. The rest of his report is its own refutation.[19]

The “revolutionary ferment” was so great that the Communist Party did not dare issue a call for a general strike. When Neumann and the Communist committee pondered the strategy to be followed, they thought for a moment of calling such a strike, but the idea was abandoned, according to Neumann, “because it seemed to the revolutionary committee that if they did not succeed in taking the enemy unawares by a sudden night attack, the chances of victory would singularly diminish.”[20] Huang Ping, a member of the revolutionary committee, records that it decided “unanimously” to stage the insurrection without attempting a strike.[21] The last attempt to call out the Canton workers on October 23 had ended in disaster when Chang Fah-kwei took swift and savage measures which smashed all preparations for the walk-out. A further blow had been struck at the remaining forces under Communist influence when a week or so later Wang Ching-wei had secured the forcible eviction of the Canton-Hong Kong pickets from the dormitories which they still occupied on the outskirts of the city. Wang, the late great ally of the Comintern, had carried out the task from which even the militarists, up to then, had shrunk. The pickets had been dispersed. Only about five hundred of them remained at the disposal of the Communists.[Neumann says there were only three hundred.] After these experiences the Communist leadership ceased even thinking in terms of strikes. Insurrection was the thing. “The Communist Party was not capable of organizing strikes. They could not stop the economic life of the whole city. They could not attract the proletarians in the factories and handicraft shops to the movement ... Only when the roar of guns and rifles was heard and barricade fighting was already in progress did the working masses begin to know that an insurrection was going on ... (The masses) regarded the insurrection as a sudden, accidental thing.”[22]

By the same token, equally “sudden” and seemingly “accidental” would be the emergence of the “Soviet” whose name was now inscribed on the banner of the Communist Party. Four days before the insurrection fifteen men were selected at a secret meeting, nine of them representing the tiny groups of workers under Communist leadership or influence, three of them representing the cadets’ regiment, and three who were supposed to represent the peasants of Kwangtung. [23] These fifteen men constituted nothing less than the “Canton Council of Workers’, Peasants’, and Soldiers’ Deputies!” After the capture of power, it was decided, this “Soviet” would be enlarged to a membership of three hundred.

Like every other revolutionary idea refracted through the Stalinized leadership of the Communist International, the idea of the Soviets had been mangled beyond all recognition. What is a Soviet? First of all, it is an elected body of workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ representatives based on the widest suffrage of all sections of the toiling population. It is the embodiment of the broadest proletarian democracy. It rises in times of tremendous revolutionary upheavals. Emerging from strike committees, committees of action, and other local bodies, the Soviet brings within the orbit of the revolutionary movement broad sections of the revolting masses which have not yet been reached by any of the political parties. Its virtue lies in that it emerges organically from the mass movement itself and it becomes an extra-governmental authority that directly expresses the will of the masses. In the Soviets the masses receive their political schooling, accelerated a thousand times by the heightened friction of the times. In the Soviets they are led and trained through every phase of struggle in the rising revolutionary wave right up to the capture of power. Having organized and carried through the insurrection the Soviets become the organs of the new revolutionary power. This concept of the Soviets, formulated and tested through the experience of the three Russian revolutions, disappeared under the reign of Stalin. Under the new dispensation, Soviets were to be regarded not as organs accompanying the whole course of revolutionary struggle, but as organs which could rightly appear only on the very threshold of the capture of power itself. This distorted view of the character and role of the Soviets found in Canton its correspondingly grotesque expression.[24]

Even supposing for the moment that the Canton insurrection was being planned in the midst of a forward surging mass movement, reaching out for power—which was not even remotely the case—the hastily improvised election of a Soviet would have been an impossible and even unnecessary task. In such an event, the previous rise of the mass movement, if it had not already taken on Soviet forms, would necessarily have developed other, equally suitable organizations capable of preparing the masses and leading them to the seizure of power. In Canton none of these conditions existed. There was no rising mass movement and there was no basis for the appearance of an elected Soviet—and any other kind is not a Soviet at all.

“To create an elected Soviet is not an easy matter,” wrote Trotsky, who was not entirely unacquainted with the phenomenon. “It is necessary that the masses know from experience what a Soviet is, that they understand its form, that they have learned something in the past to accustom them to an elected Soviet organization. There was not even a sign of this in China, for the slogan of Soviets was declared to be a Trotskyist slogan precisely in the period when it should have become the nerve centre of the entire movement. When, however, helter-skelter, a date was set for an insurrection so as to skip over their own defeats, they simultaneously had to appoint a Soviet as well. If this error is not laid bare to the core, the slogan of Soviets can be transformed into a strangling noose of the revolution ...

“The task of the Soviets is not merely to issue the call for the insurrection or to carry it out, but to lead the masses toward the insurrection through the necessary stages ... The masses must sense and understand while in action that the Soviet is their organization, that it marshals the forces for a struggle, for resistance, for self-defence, and for an offensive.

They can sense and understand this not from an action of a single day nor in general from any single act, but from the experience of several weeks, months, and perhaps years ... In contradistinction to this, the epigones have converted the Soviets into an organizational parade uniform with which the Party simply dresses up the proletariat on the eve of the capture of power. But this is precisely the time when we find that the Soviets cannot be improvised in twenty-four hours, by order, for the direct purpose of an armed insurrection. Such experiments must inevitably assume a fictitious character, and the absence of the most necessary conditions for the capture of power is masked by the external ritual of a Soviet system. That is what happened in Canton where the Soviet was simply appointed to observe the ritual ... The Soviet which was created in a hurry to observe the ritual was only a masquerade for the adventurist putsch.”[25]

The stage is set for tragedy. In the face of the country-wide apathy of the masses the Communist. Party is conspiring to bring about an insurrection in Canton. Included in the feverish preparations is the “detail” of the appointment of a fifteen-man “Soviet” to assume to-morrow’s power. Overwhelmingly stronger forces stand ready to crush them. The vast majority of the Cantonese workers do not have the least suspicion of what impends. Against all this there is only the matchless heroism of the workers and soldiers who are about to answer the call to rise.

At the last moment the whole plan almost collapsed.[26] Wang Ching-wei had in the interim gone to Shanghai for a political conference with Chiang Kai-shek. There, according to Huang Ping, he learned of the Communists’ plans and wired an urgent warning to Chang Fah-kwei in Canton. Chang immediately wired his chief aide, Hwang Che-hsiang, one of the dashing “revolutionary heroes” of the old Ironsides Army, to return from the front and detach sufficient troops to reinforce the Canton garrison. Hwang arrived in the city on the morning of December 10 with his troops a few hours’ march behind him. There developments did not give the conspirators pause. The only conclusion drawn from them by the Revolutionary Committee was to hasten the uprising. The original date, fixed for the 13th, was changed to the 11th.

At 7 p.m. on the evening of the 10th the Red Guards began to gather at their appointed stations. Orders were sped to the barracks of the cadet regiment and within a few hours’ time the die was cast. During that night disaster again almost overtook the enterprise. The vigilance of the authorities had been aroused. Heavy police patrols and armoured cars were thick in the streets. Pedestrians were searched in all the main thoroughfares. At an early hour in the evening one of the concentration points of the Red Guards was actually uncovered. Ninety of the Guards were arrested and a cache of sixty grenades seized. There was a moment’s wavering, but it was too late to turn back now. Orders were issued to the Red Guards to resist arrest if caught. The plan would have to go through now, come what may.

For the next few hours all remained quiet. By midnight most of the police patrols, reassured, were off the streets. At 3.30 a.m. precisely the silence was split by rifle-fire in the northern end of the city. The cadet regiment had risen. The regimental commander and several officers were arrested and shot. Climbing into waiting motor-buses the cadets split into parties of one and two companies each and trundled off through the city to the selected points of attack. Simultaneously the squads of Red Guards moved into action.

The first lightning raids were almost all successful. At several points in the city detachments of hostile troops were disarmed or put to fight after brief skirmishes. A considerable number of rifles was added to the slim store of the insurrectionists. In the heart of the city a combined worker-cadet force stormed and quickly occupied the central police head

quarters and the headquarters of the military gendarmerie just across the same street. At Chang Fah-kwei’s stall headquarters, and at the fortress-like mansion of Li Chi-sen, the attackers were repulsed by a deadly stream of machine-gun fire which proved impassable. By dawn, when most of the city was in the hands of the insurrection, these points still held out and fighting continued there well into the next day.

At six o’clock on the morning of December 11 the Canton “Soviet of Workers’, Peasants’, and Soldiers’ Deputies” formally established itself in the police headquarters and began to function as the de facto Government of Canton. There were only thirteen men present to launch the “Soviet.” Two of the selected peasant delegates did not arrive in time to participate. One of the Government’s first acts was to release more than one thousand political prisoners, most of whom immediately joined the forces of the insurrection. Arms seized from the enemy were doled out as fast as they were secured. The city was still crackling with gun fire when the first decrees of the “Soviet Government” began to be issued.

The manifesto of the revolutionary Government had been printed a few days before, but the printing plant where the copies still were held was in the line of fire and could not be reached. Hurriedly new handbills were run off in shops located within the captured area. Motor-cars were commandeered. Youthful propagandists made off in them to spread the freshly-printed sheets among the workers of Canton to let them know that the revolution had at long last taken place, that the blue banner of the Kuomintang had at last been replaced by the red flag of the Soviets. The manifesto called for the confiscation of the property of the big bourgeoisie, of the banks and money exchange shops. The houses of the wealthy were to be turned into dormitories for the workers. The pawnshops were to be taken over and all the articles in them returned freely to their owners. “All our martyrs have struggled and given their lives for such things. We must continue their struggle.” To-day’s struggle would only add to the list of the martyred.

The programme of the Canton Commune called for an eight-hour day, wage increases, state aid to the unemployed according to the regular wage scale, nationalization of all big industries, communications, and banks, recognition of the All-China Trade Union Federation as the national organization of the Chinese proletariat. It called for the nationalization of land, the extermination of all landlords and haosen, destruction of land deeds, leases, debt bonds, land boundaries, and the establishment of the Soviet power in the villages. The city poor were to be relieved by the distribution of property confiscated from the wealthy. All debts to pawnshops and usurers were ordered cancelled and all miscellaneous taxes and contributions imposed upon the toilers abolished, The arming of the workers, the immediate release of all political prisoners, freedom of speech, Press, and assembly, and the right to organize and strike were proclaimed for the toiling population.

Regarded in the light of the whole previous course of the Comintern’s policy in the Chinese Revolution, the programme of the Canton Commune was of the utmost significance. Because the Chinese Revolution was a “bourgeois-democratic revolution,” the theoreticians of the Communist International held that the perspective of a proletarian dictatorship was impossible. The revolution, according to the official formulation of Stalin and Bukharin, was to culminate not in the dictatorship of the proletariat but in the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” This “democratic dictatorship” was vaguely envisaged as a transitional regime which would carry out the democratic tasks of the revolution and pave the way to the proletarian dictatorship, which was to come in some undetermined manner at a later date. Trotsky held that the democratic tasks could be achieved only by a proletarian dictatorship, because the realization of those tasks was unthinkable without measures of a Socialist character, measures that encroached upon bourgeois property. For this Trotsky had been repeatedly charged with wanting to “skip over the bourgeois-democratic stage of the revolution.” When it came to elaborating a programme in Canton, however, the Chinese Communists found themselves compelled to proclaim what Trotsky described as “more radical measures than those with which the October revolution began.” Trotsky asked: “If these are the methods of a bourgeois revolution, what will the proletarian revolution in China look like? “[27]

This question was not fated to find its answer in Canton. Unconscious of how near they had come to the cardinal crime of “Trotskyism,” the Canton Communards did not have time to do more than proclaim their programme. By midmorning of December 11, the Kuomintang troops had already begun to strike back. At half a dozen barricades workers and soldiers were already desperately trying to repel the counter-attack which grew stronger every hour. The mass of the Canton workers remained passive onlookers. To them the outbreak had come as “a sudden, accidental thing.” They were conscious of no identity with this small band of men who were performing miracles of valour before their eyes. They had no idea that the “Soviet” which functioned in the Bureau of Public Safety was theirs, an organ of proletarian power. In those strained, desperate hours, who was there even to begin the task of arousing them, of drawing them into the struggle? ” ... the active workers of the unions, the leaders, and the responsible nuclei comrades mostly joined the Red Guards ... They were at the barricades. There was no one to do the work of mobilizing the masses.”[28]

The great majority of the workers and artisans of Canton stood apart from the struggle. No general strike call was issued. Only a few handfuls of chauffeurs, printers, ricksha coolies and some others quit work eagerly to grasp rifles.[29] Railway workers and river sailors continued at their jobs. They transported troops rushing to crush the uprising. They helped Kuomintang officials flee the city.

“The masses took no part in the insurrection,” reported Yeh Ting, who had arrived only six hours before the outbreak to take command of the military forces. ”All the shops were closed and the employees showed no desire to support us ... Most of the soldiers we disarmed dispersed in the city. The insurrection was not linked to the difficulties of the railway workers on the three railway lines. The reactionaries could still use the Canton-Hankow line ... The workers of the power plant cut off the lights and we had to work in the dark. The workers of Canton and Hong Kong as well as the sailors, under the pressure of the British imperialists, did not dare join the combatants ... The river sailors placed themselves shamefully at the service of the Whites, whom they helped to cross the river while we were not even able to learn about some of the points of embarkation. The railway workers of the Hong Kong and Canton-Hankow lines transmitted the telegrams of the enemy and transported their soldiers. The peasants did not help us by destroying the tracks and did not try to prevent the enemy from attacking Canton. The workers of Hong Kong did not display the least sympathy for the insurrection.”[30]

Neumann, more directly responsible for the debacle, said he felt that Yeh Ting’s estimate of the role of the masses in the insurrection was not entirely just, but that he was “in agreement with him on the whole.” His own report unavoidably reflected the same facts. “The great majority of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie did not give sufficiently active support to the new power ... The railway workers, the municipal workers, the sailors of Hong Kong, and others did not stop work ... The petty bourgeoisie for the most part adopted a waiting attitude ... At the moment of the insurrection there was no important revolutionary movement among the peasants in the districts adjacent to Canton ... The peasants (of Hailufeng and Hainan) were completely isolated; no aid could be expected from them. The insurrection at Canton was not supported by any intervention of the proletarian masses or revolutionary peasants in the other provinces of China ...”[31]

That a few, perhaps a few thousand, workers in Canton sprang hopefully into action on the emergence of the Commune there can be little doubt. Yet at most they remained a pitifully small number. “It is true,” said Deng Cheng-tsah, “that not all the workers of Canton participated ... But some people say only five thousand men were involved. This is ... a slander. Surely more than twenty thousand took part.” Even so, Deng, too, stopped to consider “Still we must say that its social basis was not broad. For example, before the betrayal of the Kuomintang, there were about two hundred thousand workers under the Communist Workers’ Delegates’ Council.” [32]

That was less than two years before. With their own forces and their own strength, the workers and peasants of Canton and Kwangtung had demoralized the armies of the old militarists, paralysed mighty Britain’s Hong Kong and made possible the unification of the province and the establishment of a National Government—for the Kuomintang and for the bourgeoisie. But at that time the thought of a workers’ insurrection, of the expansion of the embryonic Soviets (the Workers’ Delegates’ Council and the Canton-Hong Kong Strike Committee) into broad democratic bodies embracing the aspirations and the impulses of moving millions was the kind of unthinkable blasphemy that could rise only in the mind of a Trotsky. To-day, with their organized forces reduced, to take Deng’s figure, to less than a tenth of their former dimensions, with the revolution everywhere shattered, and the reaction everywhere triumphant, the Communist were staging an insurrection under the banner of the Soviet power—only the masses were no longer there to follow them. Only two years before the Communists had seemed to see their forces through the broad end of binoculars—minuscule and impotent—when in reality they were mighty beyond belief. To-day they were looking at them through the narrow end, magnified multifold. They never saw their forces as they really were. The scores of thousands once with them were now gone, with the hopes in them that had died.

Feverishly the few squads of youthful propagandists operating out of the Government’s headquarters spread the news, by word of mouth and by handbills, that a monster mass meeting would be staged at noon on December At the appointed time there were a bare three hundred men on hand.[33] The leaders swallowed their chagrin and called it a “delegates’ meeting.” Even a joint conference of all the functionaries and nuclei leaders failed to open at two successively appointed hours. The men were at the barricades or could not be reached. That evening it was decided to hold the scheduled mass meeting at noon the next day, December 12, in front of the Taiping Theatre. Concerning this meeting, Huang Ping, who had been made “Foreign Affairs Commissar” of the Commune, is silent. Deng Cheng-tsah, another participant, says it failed to materialize.[34] Chen Shao-yu, who had the advantage of not having been in Canton but in Moscow at the time, says that 10,000 workers did gather to ratify the decrees of the Soviet.[35] Even if Chen’s claim were true, a gathering of 10,000 workers to listen to the speeches of a hand-picked Soviet could only have been a bitter commentary on the memory of a simple May Day two years before when twenty times that number marched through the city in a mighty display of proletarian strength. According to the agenda of the scheduled mass meeting, the fifteen-man Soviet was supposed to have been confirmed in its functions, its measures and decrees ratified, and a proposal adopted for its enlargement to three hundred members. Whether these measures were ever actually passed upon is not recorded. Events quickly made the point immaterial, for by the afternoon of December 12 troops were attacking the city in force and a sanguinary battle was raging in which workers and cadets, armed only with rifles, bamboo swords, and spears, stubbornly held their positions under murderous machine-gun and light artillery fire.

During the fighting several fires had broken out in the central district of the city. Naturally these were charged to the incendiarism of the Communards. Actually, the main blazes, which partially destroyed the Central Bank and neighbouring buildings, were directly traceable to the bombardment of the city from the river, where Chinese, British, and Japanese gunboats were co-operating to smash the Commune. They went into action to cover the defence of Chang Fah-kwei’s headquarters and had also laid down a heavy barrage to cover the crossing of the troops who were now arriving in large numbers to re-take the city. The bombardment ignited the powder magazine, starting fires which blazed up and down all the adjoining streets.[36] Moreover the criminal element in the city had taken advantage of the uprising to get into action on its own behalf. “The gangsters took the opportunity to commit arson and to loot.”[37] When Li Fu-lin’s troops arrived, the two Chinese gunboats poured a rain of steel into the city which, according to the Peking Yi Shih Pao, caused fire to break out in ten different places.[38]

Enemy troops converged on the Canton Commune from three different directions. Chang Fah-kwei, Hwang Chehsiang, and Li Fu-lin directed operations from the safety of a gunboat anchored in the river. Among the commanders marching to the suppression of the Commune was Hsueh Yoh, who only nine months earlier had offered his division to the Communists to oppose Chiang’s Shanghai coup. From the West River front, from Kungyi in the north, and from Whampoa and Honan in the east, no less than 45,000 soldiers were being thrown into the fray. Inside the city the gangsters, 1000 strong, and all well armed, were already in action. The main body of the Red Guards was entrenched behind sandbags at the river bank. It was being attacked by troops from across the river, by the gunboats, and by the Mechanics’ Union gangsters in the rear. The Communards were already so isolated from the population that several enemy detachments landed and came within 150 yards of the Revolutionary Committee’s headquarters before being spotted.[39] They held out, nevertheless, until ten o’clock on the morning of the 13th. After a final bloody fight at close quarters the workers were forced to retreat from their sandbag barricades. They fell back, fighting from street to street. Some of the leaders gathered part of the cadet regiment and a few Red Guards—Neumann says they totalled 1,500 men—and escaped the cordon of enemy troops, leaving the city to march towards Hailufeng.[40] At noon the remaining Communards were making their last stand at the Bureau of Public Safety where the “Soviet” had briefly held sway. Here, after being surrounded on four sides, the last of the Red Guards resisted extermination in a two-hour battle. The enormous superiority in arms and numbers enjoyed by the attackers was matched only by the sheer nerve and courage of the defenders. Huang Mo-sung’s Whampoa troops rushed the workers’ lines on five occasions and were thrust back every time. Shortly after noon the red flag was finally pulled down from police headquarters.

The Commune, only yesterday risen, to-day had fallen. In its final hours there was nothing but the desperate heroism of bands of workers who in groups of ten, thirty, and fifty, stood their ground until their ammunition gave out or until they were trampled down and slaughtered by the attackers. By the afternoon of December 13, the last of the defenders of the Canton Commune had been wiped out.

Bourgeois writers like shudderingly to refer to the Canton events of December 11-13 as the “three days of terror.” During its brief existence, the Commune had killed only 210 of its enemies and imprisoned only 71.[41] A Chinese bourgeois correspondent put the total deaths under the Commune at 600, including in that figure an estimate of those killed by the Communards while resisting the Kuomintang counter-attack.[42] Not until the Chinese Gallifets set to work on the night of December 13 did the real reign of terror begin. Li Chi-sen, Chang Fah-kwei, and Hwang Che-hsiang turned their soldiery loose on the city. Long after actual fighting had come to an end the streets clattered with the gun fire of the executioners and were strewn with the blood and bodies of the worker dead.

A correspondent of the Ta Kung Pao saw women Communists “wrapped in cotton-padded blankets, soaked in gasoline and burned alive.”[43] Soldiers seized any women they found with bobbed hair, which was regarded as infallible evidence of radicalism. Hundreds of girls were shot or otherwise killed after being subjected to indescribable indignities.[44] “Following the suppression of the worker-peasant uprising,” wired a reporter from the scene, “Canton is like hell itself ... Uncleared corpses are piled up along the roads.”[45] A correspondent of the Peking Shuntien Pao ventured out into the streets. “The first thing I saw turning out of the small lane was the body of a worker lying face up. It was covered with dirt. On its head was a red kerchief. The forehead and right cheek had been shot away. Flies swarmed on the dead flesh. .. . Behind the fallen brick walls, propped up against trees and lying at the street curbs, floating on the surface of the river, wherever you looked, dead men ... In every street everywhere were the corpses of massacred men and women ... Blood seemed to be running in rivers ... There were thick reddish black clots staining the ground, strewn with brains and bowels and entrails. Stones, bamboo swords, and wooden spears still lay about the streets ... The corpses lying stiff in their blood stank horribly ... At the square of the park I saw three trucks piled high with corpses. In the shrubs to the right were ten bodies, seemingly newly shot ... There were mournful shrieks and in the distance there still seemed to be shooting going on.”[46] Under a photo of corpses in a Canton street a Shanghai editor captioned: “The bodies of the dead were collected as so much cordwood and carted away for burial in a common grave.”[47] Among them were the bodies of Chang Tai-lei, head of the Revolutionary Committee, killed in battle on the 12th, and of five Russians, shot down by Li Fu-lin’s soldiers when they raided the Soviet Consulate General on the 15th. Most of the leaders managed to escape. Heinz Neumann, according to Yeh Ting, had been one of the first to flee. Behind them, grotesquely sprawled on the streets of Canton, they left the flower of the Canton proletariat. The final toll of the counted dead was 5,700.

That the “revolutionary generals” of the Kuomintang were merciless butchers was already a tardily established fact. Who were the real perpetrators of the crime of Canton? The common graves of the nameless dead were still uncovered when bitter voices were raised among the Cantonese Communists charging the Kwangtung Provincial Committee with responsibility for the slaughter.[48] These voices were quickly silenced, for did the Provincial Committee stand alone? Had it not followed the lead of the Central Committee? Had not the Central Committee followed the lead of Stalin? It was not possible to repudiate the policy of insurrection for its source led too directly to the Kremlin. The monstrous crime of Canton would have to be justified in order, once more, to preserve the myth of an infallible leadership. First to leap to do so was the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party. In a resolution entitled “The Significance and Lessons of the Canton Uprising,” adopted on January 3, 1928, it declared categorically:

“Only cowardly opportunists can call such an uprising a premature act, a putsch, a military conspiracy. Such opportunism did not exist in the Canton section of the Communist Party or among the members of the Central Committee. The Canton uprising in mid-December was an inevitable outgrowth of the development of the class struggle as a whole and the conjuncture of the objective conditions. The working class had no other outlet but to rise directly to capture the revolutionary power.” [49]

The resolution went on to show that the insurrection was the “inevitable outgrowth” of the decisions of the Comintern and the Chinese Central Committee. After the collapse of Wuhan, it recalled, “the Executive Committee of the Communist International and the August 7 Conference of the Central Committee considered that a directly revolutionary situation existed in China. This analysis was completely in accord with the facts.”[50] The defeats of Nanchang, of the Yeh-Ho adventure and of the Autumn Harvest Uprisings were due, of course, not to any misreading of the situation or the falsity of the insurrectionist course, but to “mistakes of the leadership” which were corrected by the November Plenum. The plenum had also “correctly” pointed out that “the revolutionary forces had not only not diminished but were uninterruptedly growing” and that the question of uprising was still “an issue directly on the order of the day.” Thus, early in December, “there was already in existence (in Canton) all the conditions for a victorious proletarian uprising.” To have postponed the insurrection at that juncture would have been “to invite a most severe white terror.” That the insurrection failed and led directly to the needless massacre of thousands of workers was once more due only to an isolated series of “mistakes,” such as the “insufficiency of preparatory work.” Thence the conclusion—once more!—that “the general situation in China is still a directly revolutionary situation,” that the “perspective of the stabilization of Chinese capitalism after the Canton uprising not only does not improve but infinitely diminishes.” Therefore: “The question of insurrection ... and the question of Soviet power are the practical, immediate questions.” The conclusion was a call to the Party “to redouble tenfold” the organization of new uprisings.[51]

A month later the Ninth Plenary Session of the Executive Committee of the Communist International adopted the same position, clothed in a warning against “putschist tendencies” in general. The Canton insurrection was not a putsch but “the heroic attempt of the proletariat to organize Soviet power.” It suffered only from “several errors of leadership,” among them insufficient preparation, “absence of broad political strikes, absence of an elected Soviet as the organ of the uprising,” for which “Comrade N. and others” were held responsible. “Despite all these mistakes of the leadership, the Canton insurrection must be regarded as the model of the greatest heroism of the Chinese worker.”[52] By this cowardly attempt to hide behind the heroism of the Cantonese workers, the authors of the Comintern resolution hoped to cover their past blunders, which they now admitted had “led to the heaviest defeats of the workers and peasants ... to the extermination of part of the cadres of the Communist movement.” Simultaneously they renewed the call for new sacrifices to justify the official course. They “foresaw” the imminent approach of “a new revolutionary upsurge” which posed before the Communist Party the “practical task of organizing and carrying out the armed uprisings of the masses, since the tasks of the revolution cannot be solved except by uprisings and by the overthrow of the present power.” The advice against “putschism” was an injunction to avoid isolated actions. “The Party must consider as its principal task the preparation of general and combined actions in the cities and in the countryside in several adjoining provinces. These actions must be organized on a large scale.”[53] On February 7, 1928, Stalin’s Pravda wrote: “The Chinese Communist Party is heading towards an armed insurrection. The whole situation in China speaks for the fact that this is the correct course ... Experience proves that the Chinese Communist Party must concentrate all its efforts on the task of the day-to-day and widespread careful preparation of the armed insurrection.”[54]

During the ensuing five months this policy led the Chinese Communists from disaster to disaster, to scattered adventures which crushed the remnants of its forces. By the time the Sixth Congresses of the Chinese Communist Party and of the Communist International convened in July and August, 1928, the fact had at last been impressed on the political strategists of the Kremlin that the “direct revolutionary situation” which allegedly had existed since August, 1927, was an unfortunate fiction. This did not mean that the “fundamental line” of insurrection, dictated by Moscow and pursued so disastrously ever since, could now be rejected as false and a clearer light thrown on the period of adventurism as the logical reaction to the opportunist blunders of the past. It simply meant that a new formula of justification had to be found. It was suddenly “discovered” that the Canton insurrection was not the prelude to the immediate establishment of the Soviet power in China, not the climax of a steadily “rising wave” of the revolution, but a rearguard battle which concluded the declining revolutionary wave after the collapse of Wuhan.

“The greatest political mistake of many Chinese Communists and of Communists of other countries (?) ... was that for several months after the defeat of the Canton uprising, they thought that this uprising was the direct beginning of a new, higher, revolutionary wave all over China, and accordingly they were for the direct organization of armed uprisings.” Who speaks? None other than Lominadze, author of the theory of the “uninterrupted ascent” of the Chinese Revolution.[55]

Recognition of this “greatest political mistake” could not involve recognition of any “mistake” on the part of the E.C.C.I. or the Chinese Communist leadership. The Sixth Congress of the Chinese Party, which took place in a Moscow suburb on the eve of the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern, solemnly announced that” the Nanchang uprising, the Autumn Harvest Uprisings and especially (!) the Canton uprising were not putschist in character.” The Canton commune was” the necessary (?) heroic attempt to safeguard the revolutionary conquests (?) ... But objectively,” and here is the new formula,” the Canton insurrection was a rearguard battle in the process of the defeat of the revolution.”[56]

The colonial theses of the Sixth World Congress said that after the Wuhan collapse the Chinese Communist Party had ”corrected its line “—that is, it took the road of insurrection— ”but the revolutionary wave was already falling.” So? ”Instead of the former gross errors of opportunist leadership, there were now revealed, on the contrary, in various places, extremely harmful putschist mistakes.”[57] How could a ”correct” policy of uprising in a period of revolutionary decline have led to anything but ”harmful putschist mistakes”? What is putschism but the deliberate launching of uprisings in conditions which foredoom them to defeat? These questions were neither asked nor answered, for the Comintern itself had ordered the turn to insurrection and the Comintern was infallible. It could merely be admitted now, in an off-hand manner, as if no one had ever spoken differently, that” the revolutionary wave was already falling.” The Nanchang adventure, the Autumn Harvest Uprisings and the Canton insurrection were only” attempts to avert the defeat of the revolution.” The Canton insurrection was ”the last powerful onslaught” of the revolutionary wave which was ”near to subsidence.”[58]

This casual change of labels only thinly disguised utter bankruptcy. When the Chinese Communist Party took the insurrectionary road and reaped its autumn harvest, it did so in the belief that along this road lay the capture of revolutionary power. No one talked of ”safeguarding revolutionary conquests.” There were none. There were only defeats to overcome. The question of conquering power was put belatedly on the order of the day.

When the Opposition in Moscow warned that after the collapse of Wuhan the revolutionary decline had set in, that a defensive retreat had to be made, it was charged with “liquidating” the Chinese Revolution. Only now, after a year of new and catastrophic defeats traceable directly to the Comintern’s false estimate of the situation, the Sixth Congress casually remarked that after Wuhan the revolutionary wave was indeed “falling” and “near to subsidence.” What was “liquidationism” in August, 1927, did not become “Bolshevism” until August, 1928, Long after events had laid the bodies of five thousand seven hundred Cantonese proletarians at the gates of the Kremlin. What defeated general throws his remaining forces into a trap and destroys them in a “rearguard battle” when a road of retreat lies clearly open before him? Only one who is blind or ignorant. The “revolutionary” generals of the Comintern were both.


1 Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 128.

2 Huang Ping, “The Canton Commune and its Preparation,”The Canton Commune (A Collection), Shanghai, 1930, pp. 77, 80.

3 Ibid., p. 77.

4 A. Neuberg (pseud. for Heinz Neumann), L’Insurrection Armée, p. 108; Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 128.

5 Deng Cheng-tsah, “The Canton Commune and the Tactics of the Communist Party,”Canton Commune, 43.

6 Ibid., p. 39.

7 Lozovsky, “Lessons of the Canton Commune,”Canton Commune, p. 5.

8 Neuberg, Insurrection Armée, p. 110.

9 Ibid.

10 Lominadze, “The Anniversary of the Canton Commune,”Canton Commune, p. 205.

11 Chen Shao-yu, “The Story of the Canton Uprising,”Canton Commune, p. 139.

12 Ibid., p. 142.

13 Neuberg, Insurrection Armée, p. 114.

14 Huang Ping, Canton Commune, p. 85.

15 Chen Shao-yu, Canton Commune, p. 142; Neuberg, Insurrection Armée, p. 112.

16 Chen Shao-yu, Canton Commune, p. 142.

17 Neuberg, Insurrection Armée, p. 124.

18 Lozovsky, Canton Commune, p. 5.

19 Neuberg, Insurrection Armée, p. 113.

20 Ibid., p. 115 n.

21 Huang Ping, Canton Commune, p. 89.

22 Lozovsky, Canton Commune, p. 6.

23 Huang Ping, Canton Commune, pp. 89-90; Neumann says the “Soviet” consisted of sixteen men, cf. Neuberg, Insurrection Armée, p. 111.

24 Cf. Trotsky, Problems, pp. 151-7, 203-6; Trotsky, Third International after Lenin, pp. 201-12; “When and under What Conditions Soviets of Workers’ Deputies Should Be Formed,” Theses and Statutes of the Communist International (Second Congress), pp. 62-5; see also above p. 311n., for Stalin’s “theory” of Soviets.

25 Trotsky, Third International after Lenin, pp. 201-6.

26 The ensuing account of events of December i 1-13 is collated from details in the various articles in Canton Commune and Heinz Neumann’s account in Insurrection Armée.

27 Trotsky, Problems, p. 128 ff.

28 Deng Cheng-tsah, Canton Commune, p. 55.

29 Neuberg, Insurrection Armée, p. 118.

30 “Report of Yeh Ting on the Canton Insurrection,” quoted in Neuberg, Insurrection Armée, pp. 125-6.

31 Neuberg, Ibid., pp. 118, 124-5.

32 Deng Cheng-tsah, Canton Commune, pp. 50-1.

33 Ibid., p. 52.

34 Ibid.

35 Chen Shao-yu, Canton Commune, p. 146.

36 Peking Morning Post, December 14, 1927.

37 Ta Kung Pao, Tientsin, December 13, 1927.

38 Yi Shih Pao, Peking, December 14, 1927.

39 Neuberg, Insurrection Armée, p. 118.

40 Ibid., p. 119.

41 Chen Shao-yu, Canton Commune, p. 258 ff.

42 China Weekly Review, December 31, 1927.

43 Ta Kung Pao, December 17, 1927.

44 Ibid., December 19, 1927.

45 Peking Morning Post, December 18, 1927.

46 Quoted by Chen Shao-yu,Canton Commune .

47 China Weekly Review, December 31, 1927; for photos seeFive Years of Kuomintang Reaction .

48 Chiu Chiu-pei, Chinese Revolution, p. 152.

49 Ibid., Appendices, p. 247.

50 Ibid., p. 232.

51 Ibid., p. 246 ff.

52 “Résolution sur la Question Chinoise,”Résolutions Adoptées à la IXe Session Plénière du C.E. de l’I.C., pp. 53-4.

53 Ibid., pp. 48-51; cf. Trotsky, Problems, pp. 216-3Third International after Lenin, pp. 186-212.

54 Quoted by Trotsky, Problems, p. 294.

55 Lominadze, Canton Commune, p. 205.

56 Resolutions of the Sixth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Shanghai, 1928, p. 31.

57 The Revolutionary Movement in the Colonies, Theses Adopted by the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, New York, 1929, pp. 39-40.

58 Ibid., p. 3.