Harold R. Isaacs

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

XVIII. Fruits of Defeat

The defeat of the revolution placed the Kuomintang in power. It ushered in a period of counter-revolution, terror, renewed militarist wars, deepening economic disintegration and impotence in the face of renewed imperialist invasions. Unable to offer the masses sufficient economic security to win their voluntary support, the bourgeoisie could not develop or utilize democratic institutions. It could establish its power only in the form of a brutal military dictatorship, shared by groups of rival satraps and wholly dependent upon the military and financial support of the imperialists. Incapable of taking a single effective step toward bettering the condition of the people as a whole, the Kuomintang regime grew into a monstrous parasite on the stricken body of the nation. Its generals and its bankers, its landlords and bureaucrats, its jailers and executioners, inextricably interlaced, mercilessly drained the country. The bright promises of economic and social reforms that had accompanied the Kuomintang’s rise to power remained empty phrases. Under Kuomintang rule all the existing means of exploitation were preserved and sharpened to an unprecedented degree. It maintained itself by naked force alone.

No one knows how many have died under the scourge of Kuomintang terror. No one knows how many men and women, boys and girls, have been mutilated, tortured, imprisoned, and killed during the past decade of Kuomintang rule. It is known only that there have been thousands, scores of thousands, slaughtered and maimed during mass butcheries in the countryside and in the cities, in addition to the victims of the day-to-day man-hunts carried on unremittingly, year after year. No one has ever known exactly how many political prisoners choked stinking jails from one end of the land to the other, or how many of them died of disease or on the rack.

For the record there are only partial estimates and incomplete figures culled from official announcements and from the daily Press. From April to December, 1927, according to one investigation, there were 37,985 known dead and 32,316 known political prisoners. Between January and August, 1928, 27,699 were formally condemned to death and more than 17,000 were imprisoned. At the end of 1930 the Chinese Red Aid estimated that a total of 140,000 had been killed or died in prison. In 1931 a study of available figures for cities of six provinces established that 38,778 had been executed as enemies of the regime.[1] From 1932 to 1936 the thousands who were killed or filled the prisons were mainly those who in one way or another challenged the contemptible capitulation of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang to Japanese imperialism, or who tried to organize resistance to the imperialist invasion of Chinese territory, the seizure of Manchuria and a part of North China. Chiang Kai-shek adopted a policy of “nonresistance” to the imperialist invasion while he conducted a merciless war of extermination against insurgent peasants in Central China, killing thousands and laying waste villages and fields in the provinces south of the Yangtze.

The terror struck hardest at workers and peasants who tried to resist steadily worsening conditions of life under the Kuomintang. When the ravages of the world economic crisis were added to the rapacity of the regime, China was quickly faced with economic stagnation and complete bankruptcy. In five years Chiang Kai-shek’s Government ran the internal debt up to $1,100,000,000 (Chinese currency), and used all but 1 per cent of this huge sum for the military machine upon which Chiang’s power rested and its bureaucratic apparatus. When under the blows of the economic crisis Chinese foreign trade suffered a drastic drop, and when Japanese imperialism, goaded by the same crisis, took possession of Manchuria and cut away a substantial portion of the Government’s revenue, at the same time intensifying its drive on Chinese holdings in the textile and silk industries, the feeble economic structure on which the regime rested threatened to collapse altogether.

The index of foreign trade (1912—100) fell from 277 in 1931 to 118.6 in 1934, The index of the unfavourable balance of trade (1912-100) was 91.92 in 1927 and rocketed to 542.62 in 1932. In the latter year the country’s industry and agriculture had declined to a point where food and clothing accounted for more than half the total import. The silk industry, an old mainstay of Chinese economy, was almost entirely wiped out. Of 93 filatures operating in Shanghai in 1927 only 23 were still working in 1934. In reels this drop was from 22,168 to 5,722. Japanese silk was selling more cheaply on the Chinese market than China’s own product. In the textile industry, foreign capital inexorably overtook and absorbed Chinese-owned enterprises. By 1934 Japanese and British textile mills controlled nearly half the spindles and produced half the yarn in China. Foreign weaving mills, although fewer in number, produced 50 per cent more pieces of cotton goods than all the Chinese mills put together. Chinese handicrafts, paper-making, match-making, porcelain, went down under the pressure of foreign competition. Prices of agricultural products declined 25 to 50 per cent by 1932. Small landowners, swamped by swollen taxes and periodic militarist requisitions many times greater than the total paid in land taxes, could no longer even meet the costs of production. Tenant farmers abandoned the land by the scores of thousands when rents soared 50 to 100 per cent. Over vast rural areas thousands of mow of land went to waste. The steady drain of silver, aggravated by the American silver purchasing policy in 1934, destroyed the meagre basis of Chinese currency.[2]

Powerless to cope with the economic crisis, aggravated by the inroads of the imperialists, the Kuomintang regime was even more helpless when in 1931 Japanese imperialism began a new, aggressive phase in its programme for the conquest of China. Taking shrewd advantage of the strategic vacuum created by the economic crisis and the plans of Britain and France for the creation of a cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union, Japan moved into Manchuria, terminating the status quo created by the Washington Treaty of 1922. In studied and deliberate stages, separated by pauses for careful consolidation of newly-won positions, Japanese imperialism between 1931 and 1935 conquered Manchuria and transformed it into “Manchukuo,” forced the demilitarization of Shanghai, occupied Jehol, demilitarized the Hopei border districts, disorganized North China trade by openly sponsoring a largescale smuggling trade, and drove a wedge westward into the Inner Mongolian province of Chahar.

At each stage the invaders either met no resistance at all or were opposed by isolated detachments abandoned to their fate by Chiang Kai-shek’s Government at Nanking. The policy of “non-resistance” did not signify mere passivity. While Nanking knocked feebly at the doors of Geneva, it ruthlessly suppressed any attempt independently made in China to organize resistance to the invasion. The whole machinery of the terror was geared to smash the spontaneous anti-Japanese movement that sprang into being in the winter of 1931. It broke up popular anti-Japanese associations and forced the termination of the anti-Japanese boycott. It made no attempt to support the guerrilla detachments of Volunteers which continued to harass the Japanese Army in Manchuria. When the soldiers of the 19th Route Army made their historic stand at Shanghai in January–February, 1932, Chiang Kai-shek held all but a few of his men and all of his planes and artillery far from the battle-front while thousands fell under merciless attack from land, air, and sea. When the sabotaged defence finally collapsed, Chiang’s emissaries signed the Shanghai armistice of May 5, 1932, which demilitarized a 20-kilometer zone around the city.

A year later when the invaders advanced into Jehol they found none of the defences which Nanking had assured the people it was building. By that time the combined policy of “non-resistance” and appeals to the League of Nations had worn itself thin. No one believed Chiang Kai-shek’s repeated assertions that he would “go North” and “lay down his life.” The League sent out a commission of ex-colonial administrators, headed by Lord Lytton, whose report proposed dismemberment of China in behalf of all the imperialists instead of for Japan’s benefit alone. On the eve of the Jehol march, Nanking executed a clumsy pirouette and announced its intention to resist, but it moved neither men, nor guns, nor food, nor supplies. The “resistance” meant leaving thousands of illfed, ill-armed, demoralized soldiers in the path of the Japanese advance. Jehol was taken in a week. A few regiments made brief, spectacular stands at the Great Wall passes, but in a few days they were crushed. In May, 1933, when Japanese forces marched to the gates of Peiping, Chiang Kai-shek’s representatives signed the Tangku Truce which demilitarized 5,000 square miles south of the Wall and gave Japan a firm foothold in North China. During 1934 agreements were successively signed for resumption of rail and postal connections between North China and Manchukuo and the re-establishment of Chinese customs stations along the Hopei border.

Nanking accorded de facto recognition, by these acts, to the Japanese conquest of the north-eastern provinces. In 1935 the Chin-Doihara accord recognized Japan’s claim to eastern Chahar and Chiang’s War Minister signed the Ho-Umetsu agreement which cleared Hopei of all central Government troops. These were the springboards from which Japan pfunged into its further, more extensive campaigns of conquest in 1937.[3]

Born with the aid of imperialist midwives, nurtured on imperialist support, the Kuomintang regime in a few short years brought the country to the brink of economic collapse and dismemberment. For a decade Chiang Kai-shek continued with impunity to massacre revolutionists, suppress and disperse the defensive struggles of the workers, exterminate whole sections of the revolting peasantry, and hand large sections of the country undefended over to Imperialist invaders. Throughout, no effective revolutionary force challenged the Kuomintang counter-revolution. These were the fruits of the defeat of the revolution of 1925-27.

After the disasters of 1927, culminating in the Canton insurrection, the Communist Party had plunged into new blind alleys. A Party that had suffered a debacle of such dimensions could not hope to re-form its ranks without first thoroughly digesting the reasons for its failures. The lessons of the past had to be the indispensable starting-point of a new course, for they created the premises of the new situation and the new problems it presented. The policies that had led to disaster in 1927, however, were declared to have been infallibly correct. “It is not the main line of tactics that was at fault,” Bukharin told the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in July, 1928, “but the practical actions and the practical application of the line pursued in China.” [4] More, the essential kernel of the “main line,” the theory and attempted practice of the “democratic dictatorship,” was embodied in the programme of the Communist International and reaffirmed as the basic pillar of Communist Party strategy for the future. The triple experience of Canton-Shanghai-Wuhan passed over without leaving a trace.

The Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 had provided, in the form of an antithesis, a new confirmation of the lessons of the October revolution in Russia. It proved again, although this time negatively, that in our times a backward country could realize its democratic revolution only in the form of the proletarian dictatorship, drawing behind it the poor peasant millions. In 1925-27 the Comintern, under Stalin’s leadership, rejected the perspective of the proletarian dictatorship and substituted for it Lenin’s long-abandoned formula, the nebulous, never-defined intermediate regime of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” which again and again in the real life of contending classes turned out to be the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. First Chiang Kai-shek’s Canton and then Wang Ching-wei’s Wuhan were described as the budding embryos of the “democratic dictatorship” which would carry out the agrarian revolution and free China of its imperialist yoke. The Chinese proletariat was compelled to pay with its best heads to learn that the bourgeoisie would not destroy the foundations of its own power, that the revolution could advance only in the form of the proletarian dictatorship. To thrust this experience aside, as the Comintern now proceeded to do, was to doom the Communist movement in China to new futility, new defeats.[5]

In line with the general Leftward lurch taken by the Comintern in 1928, the sudden discovery of the “third period,” the final period of capitalism and the “stormy revolutionary upsurge,” [6] theoretical confusion was multiplied by the tactical madness of ultra-Leftism, opportunism fused with adventurism. While it continued to dangle before the Chinese Communists the tantalizingly illusory “democratic dictatorship,” the Comintern rejected the tactic of agitation for limited democratic demands. Instead the Comintern ordered the shattered Chinese Communist Party to set its course now toward the creation of—Soviets.

“At the present time,” decreed the colonial thesis of the Sixth Congress, “the Party must everywhere propagate among the masses the idea of Soviets, the idea of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, and the inevitability of the coming revolutionary mass armed uprising. It must already now emphasize in its agitation the necessity of overthrow of the ruling bloc and the mobilization of the masses for revolutionary demonstrations ... It must consistently and undeviatingly follow the line of seizure of State power, organization of Soviets as organs of insurrection, expropriation of the landlords and big property owners, expulsion of the foreign imperialists ... The future growth of the revolution will place before the Party as an immediate practical task the preparation for and carrying through of armed insurrection as the sole path to the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution and to the overthrow ... of the power of the Kuomintang.” [7]

In the period of the revolutionary rise, when the centripetal tendencies of the masses were in full play, Stalin-Bukharin had substituted the bourgeois Kuomintang for Soviets. Now, when a profoundly centrifugal process had set in as a result of the defeat, the slogan of Soviets could, in Trotsky’s words, be only “doctrinary, lifeless, or what is just as bad ... the slogan of adventurists.” [8] That the thesis, following Stalin’s original concept, regarded Soviets as “organs of insurrection” and not as democratic councils accompanying the whole course of the rising mass movement through a period of dual power, served only to emphasize the purely adventurist character of the slogan.

Certainly it followed from the fresh experience of the past that the further development of the Chinese Revolution would have to be toward Soviets and through them to the proletarian dictatorship as the only means of winning land for the peasants and freedom from imperialist domination, i.e. the only means of successfully carrying out the tasks of the democratic revolution. This did not mean, however, that the banner of Soviets could be waved in the faces of workers who had just been driven back by a series of catastrophic defeats. “Nothing is more fruitless and worthless than to show one’s fist after the battle,” wrote Trotsky to the Sixth Congress from his exile in Alma Ata. “ ... It must be distinctly understood that there is not, at the present time, a revolutionary situation in China. It is rather a counter-revolutionary situation ... transforming itself into an inter-revolutionary period of indefinite duration.” [9]

For this transitional period, Trotsky proposed to arm the Communist Party with a programme of struggle based upon the most elementary democratic demands as a means of reviving the revolutionary moods of the masses and grouping them together once more on the basis of political demands that corresponded to their simplest daily needs. These were the demands for the eight-hour day, freedom of speech, Press, assembly, organization, and strike, generalized in the slogan calling for a thoroughly democratic National Assembly, based on universal suffrage. Political agitation along such lines, coupled to the conduct of defensive struggles and the patient reorganization of the trade union movement, could alone, he said, revive the combative moods of the workers, restore their confidence, enable the Communist Party to secure a solid foundation in the key economic sectors, and, with the march of events, to permit it once more to debouch on the revolutionary road. Consistent and audacious championship of a truly democratic National Assembly as opposed to the archcensored and pseudo-democratic pretensions of the Kuomintang military dictatorship could alone help re-create those conditions in which the formation of Soviets would once more actually correspond to the moods and needs of the workers.[10]

The Comintern, however, ordered the Chinese Communists to advance against the Kuomintang counter-revolution and in the face of the deepening apathy of the workers with no political weapons other than “the idea of Soviets” and the “inevitability of the coming revolutionary mass uprising.” Scorning the notion that China had entered a period of the darkest counter-revolution, the Comintern saw itself instead “between two waves” or “in the trough of two waves of the revolution.” Momentarily the slogan of insurrection became a “propaganda slogan,” but obviously with the swift rise to the crest of the second wave it would “again become the slogan of immediate practice.”[11]

“If we find ourselves between two waves of continuous revolutionary progress,” warned Trotsky, “then every manifestation of discontent, no matter how small its importance, can be considered as the ... ‘beginning of the second wave.’ .. . From this can grow a ‘second wave’ of putschism.”[12] This tendency had, indeed, already manifested itself at the Sixth Congress where a Chinese delegate cried: “We are marching rapidly toward a new revolutionary wave!”[13] Whereat the other representatives of the Party that had just suffered one of the most crushing defeats in the history of the class struggle sprang to their feet and shouted in unison: “Long live the victorious Chinese Revolution!”[14] Holding its own Sixth Congress during the same month in Moscow, the Chinese Communist Party announced that “symptoms of the most elementary kind of the new revolutionary wave can already be perceived.”[15] A year later the Executive Committee of the Communist International, excited by a new outbreak of militarist civil war in China, announced the precise moment when the rise from trough to crest began: “This is the initial point of a new revolutionary wave ...” it wrote in a letter to its Chinese section. “The Party should destroy the power of all militarist factions ... ‘Turn the militarist war into class civil war,’ ‘Overthrow the power of the landlord-bourgeois bloc’—such should now become the principal and urgent slogans of the Party ... Prepare for the political general strike ...”[16] Thus disoriented, the Chinese Communist Party embarked upon a new series of hopeless adventures that only widened the chasm that already separated it from the working class. It never recovered as a working-class organization from the defeats of 1927.

“The Comintern,” a delegate had boasted at the Sixth Congress, “brought forward resolutely the slogan of armed insurrection for the establishment of the Soviet regime ... This alone has enabled our Party to consolidate our ranks, win new forces, rally hundreds of thousands, nay millions of workers around its slogans.”[17] Yet three months later the Central Committee, in an internal document, uncovered the truth behind this hollow extravagance: “The trade union organizations have shrunk to almost nothing. The Party organizations in the cities are scattered and smashed. In the whole country there is not one healthy nucleus of industrial workers.”[18]

To the enormous task of rebuilding the trade union movement, the Communist Party, led by Li Li-san, came with a programme of forming “red unions” in opposition to the “yellow” unions permitted by the Kuomintang to exist after 1927. This was the application in China of the general policy adopted by the Comintern in 1928 of head-on collisions with other sections of the organized labour movement which did not accept the political programme of the Communist Party. In China it assumed particularly grotesque forms because the attempt to create Communist unions was made on the morrow of a great defeat when the great mass of the workers had already turned their backs on the Party. The “red unions” were, of course, identified, in membership and in programme, with the Party itself. They presented, full-blown, the Party’s programme of “Soviets” which did not attract the workers into their ranks, but instead, in the conditions of white terror, frightened them away.

The great union organizations, built not too solidly during the swift rise of the mass movement, had been swept from the scene. Kuomintang-sponsored unions had replaced only a few of them. A good many of these were unions in name alone, consisting of gangster-officials appointed directly by the Kuomintang Government to insure the effective repression of the workers. In many cases, however, the workers joined these Kuomintang unions even though they were led by obvious tools of the Nanking regime. It was their natural tendency in seeking to defend themselves to cling to such organizations as the Kuomintang allowed them. Moreover, the regime carried on pseudo-liberal propaganda. It adopted enticing labour laws (which, of course, never became operative). It even permitted a number of strikes, especially in foreign enterprises, which helped the “yellow” leaders entrench themselves by sowing new illusions among the workers. These leaders, to be sure, preached class collaboration, compromise, and submission, but had not the workers been schooled only yesterday, by the Communist Party, in the doctrine of the “bloc of four classes”? In North China many unions came into existence for the first time only in 1928, under Kuomintang auspices, after Chiang Kai-shek had completed the march to Peking and the liquidation of the old regime there. In Tientsin and Peking many workers gladly flocked into the unions now set up, most of them still unaware that the alliance of the Communists and the Kuomintang had come somewhat abruptly to an end! These organizations fell largely into the hands of Wang Ching-wei’s faction of the Kuomintang (”Reorganizationists “) which sought a base among the workers in the interests of its struggle against Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership within the ruling Party.[19]The attractive force of the Reorganizationists lay precisely in their agitation for a more democratic, civilian regime in the place of the ruthless military dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek. By disdaining to conduct a struggle on this level, the Communist Party left the field clear to the Wang Ching-wei group, which for four years canalized the democratic aspirations of a considerable stratum of the petty bourgeoisie and of the workers, only to betray those aspirations, as was inevitable, for the sake of a tawdry capitulation to Chiang Kai-shek.*


* Personal breaches were not so easily healed after the reconciliation between Wuhan and Nanking in August, 1927. Chiang Kai-shek shrewdly withdrew from the Government in September that year while the multiple factions in the Kuomintang scrambled for power. He returned triumphantly early in 1928 to maintain the balance among them. Wang Ching-wei associated himself with various rival militarists, first with Chang Fah-kwei and later with Feng Yu-hsiang and Yen Hsi-hsan, who waged civil war against Chiang in 1930 and were defeated. In January, 1932, Wang finally returned to Nanking with Chiang Kai-shek and became the civilian fig-leaf for Chiang’s otherwise undisguised military dictatorship. Wang’s followers, of the type of Tang Leang-li, who had for years penned passionate indictments of Nanking’s brutal misrule, experienced no difficulty in becoming Chiang’s humblest apologists once they were favoured with fat posts in his Government.’


Under the Kuomintang, however, the organized labour movement was reduced to a shadow of its former dimensions. In 1927 nearly 3,000,000 workers had belonged to trade unions. In 1928 this total was cut nearly in half. In 1930, according to official figures, there were 741 unions with 574,766 members, another drop of about 60 per cent, and in 1932 there was a further decline to 621 unions with 410,067 members.[20]The overwhelming majority of China’s industrial workers remained without any organization at all, even of the most elementary kind.

Neither among the thousands organized in unions nor among the millions of the unorganized could the Communists gain any ground, despite the fact that in 1928 the workers did not entirely abandon the struggle, but fought remarkably stubborn defensive strike battles. The cessation of civil war and a brief economic revival helped restore confidence among the workers in many important industrial sectors. In Shanghai, for example, there were 120 strikes during 1928, involving 213,996 workers. Five-sixths of them were fought for better wages and shorter hours.[21] In these favourable circumstances, the Communists remained impotent onlookers. In 1928 and later, wherever they tried to approach the workers with talk of political strike,” “general strike,” “armed uprising,” and “Soviet power,” the frightened strikers rushed back to their jobs. Not until much later, when Li Li-san had been deposed as leader of the Party, did some of the facts come to light in the Party Press. “The workers feared to have the Communists come,” it was recorded, “... and implored them not to wreck their struggles. They politely said: ‘Your excellencies’ words are quite correct, but we cannot carry them out now. It will be a good thing for us if we can get our wages raised a little and not get fired.’” The gulf between what the workers wanted and what the Communists proposed became so wide, according to this same account, that the few Communist workers who remained often concealed news of an impending strike from their Party superiors in order to give the strikers a chance to conduct the struggle on their own terms! On one occasion when the Party committees in Shanghai sent representatives to the scene of a strike at a textile mill, the workers said: “This is our affair. Why have your excellencies come here so enthusiastically?” Or others said to themselves: “The C.P. has come again. We had better run away before we lose the more by it.”[22]

In the great majority of instances the strikes developed spontaneously in the factories. “Even in Shanghai the workers lacked fighting organizations,” said an official Communist Party report. “ ... They were scattered ... and defeated. Most of them passed under the leadership of the yellow unions and the Kuomintang.” The Communists, on their part, “looked with contempt on the yellow unions. As a result, the work and influence of the red unions shrank to almost nothing and the masses were left under yellow union influence.” [23]

The “red unions” had shrunk to “almost nothing” and the Party lacked “a single healthy industrial nucleus at the end of 1928. In the years that followed the Communists made extravagantly preposterous claims to strength. Yet in internal Party documents these claims found their own refutation, especially when in accord with the established practice of blaming scapegoats for failures the Comintern would berate the Central Committee, and the Central Committee would in turn lash its provincial and district organizations. The facts revealed on these occasions pitilessly exposed all the propagandist myths. From year to year the leaders had to complain that their followers were failing in their duty, were not properly carrying out the “Party line.” It was never suggested, of course, that the “Party line” was itself responsible in no small measure for the stubborn unwillingness of the workers to follow the Party’s lead. The Party pursued the “new revolutionary wave” which like a nimble elf constantly eluded it. Plunging blindly into scattered and futile demonstrations, planning insurrections that never came off, the Communists succeeded only in divorcing themselves completely from the class they claimed to represent. For evidence of this, one need only briefly scan the Party’s own Press and its own internal documents.

In February, 1929, a letter from the Comintern cited the fact that “in most of the cities, even in great working-class centres like Wuhan, Tientsin, and Canton, no work has been done at all ... In the big and important enterprises there are no nuclei whatever.”[24] In May an organizational report written by the Party leader, Chow En-lai, complained that the members of the Party were unable to lead the spontaneous strikes of the workers. “Even where our comrades participated,” he added, “our influence and slogans bore no fruit ... Local organizations do not exist ... in the important centres.”[25] Unable to win the workers to their programme on its own merits, the Communists frequently resorted to compulsion, ordering strikes at revolver point or else eliminating “yellow” union leaders by using “terrorist methods” against them.[26] The Party leadership complained, to little avail, that such methods were making it even more difficult for the organization to establish contact with the workers in the factories. Han Yin, an old trade unionist and militant, wrote that the Party was contenting itself with building an “empty apparatus” composed of national and provincial trade union federations which suffered from the disability of lacking rank and file membership. The “red unions,” he wrote, “have been organizations entirely outside the masses.”[27] In November, 1929, the ”empty apparatus“ convened what it called the “Fifth National Labour Conference” which claimed, modestly enough, to represent only 30,000 workers.[28] Accepting for a moment even this dubious claim, one might ask: what had happened to the 2,970,000 other workers really represented at the Fourth Labour Conference in Hankow only two years before?

In the summer of 1930 a Communist source claimed for the “red” trade union federation a membership of 64,381. The totals given for all the principal cities, including Shanghai, Wuhan, Hong Kong, Harbin, Tientsin, Amoy, and Wusih, added up to exactly 5,748. The rest were said to be scattered through the country-side where no industrial proletariat existed.[29] A few months later, in February, 1931, a Party leader wrote: “Now there are no real red unions ... They have been wiped out. All work has been abandoned.” [30]

By the end of 1930 the Party was threatened with complete collapse and dissolution. Li Li-san was abruptly dethroned and was replaced by a group of students who had passed the revolutionary years in Moscow and who were headed by Chen Shao-yu (Wang Min). The new leaders, imposed upon the Party entirely by orders from above, announced their “complete and unconditional devotion and loyalty to the general line of the Leninist Comintern” and declared that “all the severe consequences suffered by the Party derive from the fact that Comrade Li Li-san and his adherents ignored the instructions of the Executive Committee of the Communist International.”[31] The new “leaders” set out to correct what one Party writer aptly called Li’s “over-exaggeration” of the Comintern’s policies.[32] Under the new dispensation, however, the tendency toward complete abandonment of work in the principal urban centres continued unchecked.

1931 was the year of the Japanese invasion and of a rising strike wave, especially in its closing months. In Party reports there was the same refrain: “The struggles were sporadic ... spontaneous, lacking organization and leadership ... The great difficulty is that we have no good cadres in the factories ... Our organization does not understand very well what the conditions are in the factories so that we are not able to put forward the most pressing demands of the workers. We have not succeeded in organizing a single anti-imperialist strike.” Pleading lack of ”complete statistics” on the Party-controlled ”red unions,” the report gave the following membership figures: ”Shanghai, 666; Amoy, 72; Harbin, 71; Tsinan-Tsingtao Railway, 20; seamen and longshoremen, 319; ... Total: 1,148. In Tientsin, Peking, Hankow, Hong Kong, Kwangtung (i.e. Canton), etc ... we have no organizations.” [33]

In March, 1932, six months after the Japanese invasion began, the Party leadership accused its followers of ”abandoning the organization and initiation of strikes, especially in the heavy industries ... Abandonment of the organization of red unions is an unpardonable mistake ... As to penetration of the yellow unions, this work has not even begun. After the Shanghai event (the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, January-February, 1932) the All-China Trade Union Federation, the Shanghai Federation and the provincial committee did not even try.”[34]

Yet speaking of this same period, Wang Min later said: ”The Party organized big anti-Japanese mass movements in practice in the form of strikes, meetings, demonstrations ...” [35] P. Mif, who had now become the chief Comintern ”specialist” in Chinese affairs, wrote in mid-1933 of a ”mighty upsurge of the working-class movement on Kuomintang territory,” and cited figures alleging that no less than 1,110,170 workers had participated in strikes during the twelve months of 1932.[36] This did not prevent him a year later from claiming that 1,200,000 had struck during the first six months alone![37] These figures respectively trebled and sextupled the total of 301,170 strikers given for the same year by the Communist Party paper in Shanghai,[38] which in turn was half again as high as the findings of more sober surveys. Mif said that a third of his total, or 325,000 strikers, were under the direct leadership of the Communist Party. On the basis of the Party’s own figure (which somehow overlooked 800,000 other strikers Mif had found somewhere) we are compelled to conclude that the Party not only led every single striker who laid down his tools during 1932, but 25,000 more, plucked from the pages of a magazine printed in Moscow!

Despite the “unconditional devotion” that bound the Chinese Communist leaders to their Moscow mentors, there was a lamentable lack of co-ordination between the propaganda mill in the Kremlin and the editors of the Party’s paper in Shanghai. Mif boasted, for example, that in September, 1932, the Communists organized a textile workers’ union which enlisted “the overwhelming mass of workers in the textile factories of Shanghai.”[39] Considering that there were 120,000 workers in there plants[40] this meant a rather sudden and spectacular surge in the Party’s proletarian base. But in this, too, unfortunately, Mif had failed to compare notes with his Shanghai friends who wrote: “The weak industrial basis and the shrinking of the red unions is amazing. Let us take the General Textile Union in Shanghai. Early in December (1932) it had a membership of nearly 1 ,000 (”the overwhelming majority”?) ... This spring when we inspected the work the membership had greatly dwindled. In August this year (1933) it had dropped from twenty units to seven.”[41] One more example, involving the 17,445 tobacco factory workers in Shanghai:[42] Wrote Mif in May: “The forces of the revolutionary trade union organization among the tobacco workers have also strengthened and become established organizationally.”[43] Said the Red Flag in October: “The General Tobacco Union dropped from more than nine hundred (!) to its present intolerable (!) state ... and even at that not all its members can be found.” Summing up the work in the country as a whole, the same Shanghai report abandoned the attempt to give figures, substituting the cabalistic symbol “xx” in a context, however, whose sense was unmistakable: “Take the three industrial centres of Manchuria—in Harbin there were only xx members ... In Mukden there used to be xx members but now we do not know. In Dairen the work is only at its beginning. In all Manchuria the total was only xx. In Wuhan no work has been started up until now. In Shanghai this spring there were still xx members. Now there are only xx. There was not only no growth, but there was a drop.”[44]

At the beginning of 1934 the Central Committee of the Young Communist League took note of a “serious phenomenon” in its ranks: “Our comrades are unaware of impending struggles in the factories ... As a result of this isolation we not only cannot lead the mass struggles but we cannot even grasp them by the tail!”[45]

Six years of “red unions” and “soviet power” proved to be six years of impotence. After 1927 the great mass of the workers turned their backs on the Communist Party, which did not learn how to regain their confidence and reassemble their organized ranks. A class laid prostrate by the treachery of its own leaders could not answer the empty call for “Soviets” which corresponded not to reality but only to the adventurist moods in the Party’s ranks. The result was that the Party never re-established a foothold of any consequence in any of the great urban centres. While the workers, heedless of the Party’s strident radicalism, departed from the political arena, peasant revolt, stirred to life during 1925-27, continued belatedly to flare. Members of the Communist Party, shot with putschist moods on the morrow of the great defeat, found it easier in the countryside to awaken echoes to their insurrectionist appeals where peasants were taking up arms or where mutinous soldiers were breaking from the armies of the Kuomintang. While some of the leaders, clinging feebly to their proletarian pretensions, resisted the temptation to take the path of least resistance, the repeated failures in the cities, the heavy blows of the Kuomintang terror, helped complete the Party’s shift from city to countryside, from proletariat to peasantry. This shift found eloquent expression in the transformed composition of the Party itself.

At the height of the movement in April, 1927, the Communist Party had counted 60,000 members in its ranks, 58 per cent of them industrial workers based in the principal industrial cities. Subsequently, despite the shattering series of defeats they suffered, during the Autumn Harvest, at Canton, and afterwards, the Communists nevertheless claimed thousands of new recruits. The Party, they said, numbered 100,000 in 1928, 120,000 in 1930, and more than 410,000 in 1933. Reliable figures on Party membership have never been available. There can be no doubt whatever that the figures given after 1927 were all more than grossly exaggerated. Yet these exaggerations served only to stress the change that had taken place in the Party’s class base, for it was officially admitted that workers in the Party comprised only 10 per cent in 1928, 3 per cent in 1929,[46] 2.5 per cent in March, 1930,[47] 1.6 per cent in September,[48] and virtually zero by the end of the year.[49] Actual figures were given less frequently. A Comintern letter in February, 1929, said there were 4000 workers in the whole Party, 1300 of them in Shanghai and the rest scattered elsewhere.[50] The Kiangsu Committee in December, 1929, claimed 6,800 members in the province, of whom only 591 were listed as industrial workers.[51] In September, 1930, Chow En-lai told the Third Plenum of the Central Committee that the Party numbered 120,000, among them 2,000 factory workers. If at the end of 1933 the complaint was again heard that in Shanghai, greatest industrial centre of the country, the Party had “not one real industrial nucleus,”[52] what value could be attached to the claim made by Wang Min in Moscow two months later that the Party numbered 410,600, and that 25-30 per cent, or about 100,000, were workers?[53]

Yet even from this figure, one learned much. Wang Min reported that of the total only 60,000 were in Kuomintang China. Six-sevenths of the Party was concentrated in the distant hinterland, hundreds of miles from the principal cities and arteries of communication. What had happened was clear. When the agrarian revolt had drawn tardily on its reserves and marched forward, the Communist Party had rushed to march with it, leaving the working class to its own devices. The Communist Party re-emerged from the 1927 debacle at the head of an insurgent peasant movement deep in the provinces of Central China where it established what it called the “Chinese Soviet Republic.”


1 For a graphic and detailed record of Kuomintang terror see Isaacs (ed.), Five Years of Kuomintang Reaction.

2 Cf. Annual Reports, Chinese Maritime Customs; Annual Reports, Bank of China; Chen Han-seng, ”Economic Disintegration in China,” Pacific Affairs, April - May, 1933; Annexes, to the Rajchmann Report, Nanking, April, 1934; Chinese Year Book, 1936-37, China Year Book, etc.

3 Cf China Forum, Shanghai, 1932-4, passim, for week-to-week accounts of Kuomintang non-resistance and suppression of the anti-Japanese movement.

4 International Press Correspondence, July 30, 1928.

5 Cf. Programme of the Communist International, New York, 1929, p. 58; Trotsky, Problems, pp. 173-4; Third International after Lenin, p. 196.

6 Cf. Max Shachtman, Introduction to Third International after Lenin, p. xix ff.

7 The Revolutionary Movement in the Colonies, p. 41.

8 Trotsky, Problems, p. 206.

9 Ibid., pp. 175-6.

10 Ibid., pp. 185-6, 203 ff.

11 Bukharin, “The International Situation and the Tasks of the Communist International,” International Press Correspondence, November 23, 1928.

12 Trotsky, Problems, p. 198.

13 International Press Correspondence, July 25, 1928.

14 Ibid.

15 “Political Resolution, adopted July 9, 1928,” Sixth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Shanghai, 1928.

16“Letter of the E.C.C.I. to the C.C.P. on the Reorganizationists” (October 26, 1929), Red Flag, Shanghai, February 15, 1930.

17 International Press Correspondence, July 25, 1928.

18 ”Circular of the Central Committee, November 8, 1928,” Political Work of the Chinese Communist Party After the Sixth Congress, Shanghai, October, 1929, pp. 42-3.

19”Revolutionary Struggles and the Trade Union Movement in Hopei,” Struggle, Shanghai, December 12, 1933.

20 Lin Tung-hai, Labour Movement and Labour Legislation in China, Shanghai, 1933, pp. 83-4; Fang Fu-an, Chinese Labour, p. 74; Nankai Institute Weekly, Tientsin, No. 29.

21 Fang Fu-an, Chinese Labour, p. 97.

22 Sze Ming, ”The Problem of the United Front from Below,” Red Flag, April 18, 1931.

23 Han Yin, Development of the Trade Union Movement in the Past Year and Present Tasks, Report to the Second Enlarged Meeting of the Executive Committee of the All-China Trade Union Federation, Shanghai, February 17, 1929, in Chinese Worker, Shanghai, May 15, 1929.

24 ”Letter of the E.C.C.I. to the C.C.P., February 8, 1929,” Political Work After the Sixth Congress .

25 Chow En-lai, Organizational Questions in the Party at the Present Time, Shanghai, May 15, 1929.

26 Kuusinen, ”Revolutionary Movement in the Colonies,” International Press Correspondence, October 4, 1928; Han Yin, Development of the Trade Union Movement; ”Resolution on the Trade Union Question,” Sixth Congress.

27 Han Yin, Development of the Trade Union Movement.

28 Pei Ke-sung, Present Condition of the Labour Movement, 1928-30, Shanghai, 1930.

29 Ibid.

30 Lo Mai, “Survey of the Work of the Li Li-san Line in Kiangsu,” Truth, Shanghai, February 7, 1931.

31 Resolution of the Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee, C.C.P., Shanghai, January, 1931.

32 “Practice of the Li Li-san Line in Chihli,” Truth, December 14, 1930.

33 “Report on the Labour Movement in 1931,” by the Labour Department of the Central Committee, Red Flag, March 11, 1932.

34 “Against Opportunism in the Labour Movement,” Red Flag, March 25, 1932.

35 Wang Min and Kang Sin, Revolutionary China To-day (Speeches at the XIII Plenum of the E.C.C.I., December 1933), New York, 1934, P. 44.

36 P. Mif, “New Developments in the Revolutionary Crisis in China,” Communist International, May 15, 1933.

37 Sovieti v. Kitai, Moscow, 1934, p. xiii.

38 Red Flag, October 30, 1933.

39 Mif, “New Developments.”

40 H. D. Fong, Cotton Industry and Trade in China, Table 16.

41 Red Flag, October 30, 1933.

42 D. K. Lieu, Growth and Industrialization of Shanghai, Shanghai, 1936, p. 294.

43 Mif, “New Developments.”

44 Red Flag, October 30, 1933.

45 “On the Question of the United Front from Below,” Youth Battle Line, Peiping, February 1, 1934.

46 Chow En-lai, Organizational Questions.

47 Red Flag, March 26, 1930.

48 Chow En-lai, Report to the Third Plenum, C.C., C.C.P., September 24, 1930.

49 Bolshevik, Shanghai, May 10, 1931.

50 “Letter of February 8, 1929.”

51 Chien Sung, Report of the Kiangsu Provincial Committee to the Second Delegates' Conference, Shanghai, December 29, 1929.

52 Red Flag, October 30, 1933.

53 Wang Min and Kang Sin, Revolutionary China To-day, p. 48.