From Fourth International, vol. 2 No. 6, July 1941, pp. 190–191.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Among the many correspondents reporting Far Eastern affairs for the American public, Edgar Snow occupies a special position. He is probably one of the ablest propagandists for Stalinism who still commands a general hearing. He maintains this position by cannily assuming an attitude of “independence” and “realistic” objectivity. His technique is simple: he allows himself the luxury of criticism on a minor scale – a sentence here and there casting aspersions on, say the American Stalinists as contrasted to the Chinese Communist Party. Or he will on occasion permit himself a shrewdly cynical shrug with respect to the aims, activities, and policies of the Kremlin in this or that particular situation.
These little digressive tricks have earned him, often, the suspicion of the Stalinist brethren in this country. His last book, for example, Red Star Over China was actually banned from sale in the Workers’ Bookshop in New York although it undoubtedly was, for that particular time (1937–38), the ablest apology for Stalinist politics in China that had appeared anywhere. After the book had gone through five editions, Snow actually emended his work to eliminate or soften some of the objectionable side remarks and it was duly taken off the local Stalinist index.
But wherever and whenever it is a matter of basic policy, Snow hews to the line with a care and a precision worthy of am Anna Louise Strong or, perhaps more aptly, of a Walter Duranty. In this new book, Snow turns telling journalistic guns on Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang, Japan, the United States, and Britain. Only Stalin, the Soviet Union and the Chinese Stalinists are spared. With a great array of facts, marshalled like an air armada and unloosed in waves of verbal Stuka dives, Snow shows the responsibility borne by the Kuomintang and by US and British imperialism for the present situation in China and the Far East generally. In his own way he draws upon the lessons of recent history to show how Chiang and the Kuomintang and the rulers in Washington and London have largely made the bed they are lying in. But nowhere does he breathe a word of the historic responsibilities of Moscow and the Comintern for the imperialist holocaust in the world and the more immediate failures of effective resistance in China. This is the kind of “selective” criticism which gives Snow away.
Snow presents himself as one of those “despised petty bourgeois journalists” who are too honest with themselves to espouse any cause too actively. But it is precisely as a despicable petty bourgeois journalist that he best serves his chosen masters. The present book  was prepared and written during the period of developing strain in the Kuomintang-Stalinist united front in China. Snow as an “independent” observer is able to arraign Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in a manner and with a freedom that the Stalinists are unwilling to adopt themselves.
It is in this portion of his book, however, that Snow makes a useful contribution of facts. He devotes many pages to detailing the corruption of the Kuomintang bureaucracy, the criminal ineptitude of the war leadership, the many needless failures and sacrifices due to the Kuomintang’s preoccupation with its own power, with the interests of the landlords, bankers and merchants, its fear of the masses even greater than its fear of the Japanese invaders. For American readers who might actually be deluded into thinking of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime as “democratic,” Snow gives a detailed picture of the regime as it actually is – a military-bureaucratic structure which lies like a dead weight upon the people and hamstrings their fight for freedom. And even in this Snow imposes a curious limitation upon himself. Referring to an officialdom which has reaped huge personal wealth out of the misery of the people in the midst of the war, Snow remarks:
“If I here refrain from speaking in more detail it is not because of lack of evidence but because – to be candid – it is difficult to do so without gratuitously injuring a cause which on the whole richly deserves the help of the world.”
In this Snow sums up his own attitude and, by refraction, the attitude of the Stalinists. The Kuomintang leadership, representative of the backward and strangling landlord-banker-merchant system, is, he declares, actually jeopardizing the fight against the Japanese imperialists. If it continues as at present, he believes, it may even hand final victory over to the Japanese. Yet there is no word to be had from Snow of active political struggle against this incubus. Its transformation is to be part of the “maturing” complexity of the Chinese situation. And this transformation is to be effected, as far as the Stalinists are concerned, merely by their own contrasting example of rectitude and concern for the people. The rest, he unconsciously admits, depends upon some change in Soviet foreign policy. The struggle against the Kuomintang would take more active form, he indicates, only if the Kuomintang actually should become part of some future anti-Soviet combination of powers – something Snow admits is a possibility.
Meanwhile in the districts under their control, to which Snow again takes us on one of his admiring visits, we get a picture of Stalinists pursuing a kind of semi-populist policy among the peasants. Honesty in administration and modified land and tax reforms are sufficient – together with Japanese brutality – to assure the roving Stalinist forces a degree of popular support which the Kuomintang can seldom muster. One gets, even in Snow’s hyperbole, a sense of magnificent revolutionary material, totally devoted and self-sacrificing men and women and youths, in whom great future hopes reside. Snow suggests – and with some justice – that common armed struggle over a period of many years of great hardship establishes a comradeship in this party which is probably without duplicate anywhere in the Comintern.
There is also an unintended hint that the Chinese Stalinist leaders do not encourage their followers to preoccupy themselves too deeply with events in their movement abroad.
“In other countries (Snow writes) the pros and cons of the Moscow trials and the purges obscured much more urgent (?) issues in the internal politics of every Communist party. It seemed to me the Chinese took the claims and counter-claims with a grain of salt. Anyway they were too occupied with their own problems of survival to worry too much about events in Moscow beyond their knowledge or control.”
One can see the Chinese Stalinist leaders, veterans of a hundred purges and counter-purges and dizzy Comintern zigzags, telling their raw fighting recruits:
“Don’t bother about that stuff. It’s no concern of ours. We have our problem here – to fight Japan. Stalin is right – take our word for it.”
Naturally Snow himself expresses no opinion on such an “extraneous” matter as the Moscow trials. Similarly with the Spanish experience. Snow makes reference on several occasions to the Spanish civil war, which contained such fateful lessons for the Chinese. The defeat of the Spanish workers was due only to the overwhelming military superiority of the Fascists and the “betrayal” of the French and British “democrats” – the Comintern’s criminal policy of strangling the workers’ revolution, of course, had nothing to do with it for Snow. That little matter goes unmentioned. Yet here lies the nub of all the hopes that exist for the future of China’s liberation struggle.
Snow presents faithfully the “theory” basic to Stalinist strategy in China as follows:
“The Communists have always maintained that only a democratic republic can accomplish the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ tasks of the revolution – attainment of national independence and the liquidation of remnant feudalism. Only a democratic republic could guarantee to the peasantry and the working class the right to organize and win their internal demands. And only a democratic republic, they believe, can enable the workers and peasants to take the leadership of the government in a peaceful transition – the Chinese Communists believe in this ‘possibility’ – toward Socialism.”
Here we have the same theoretical formula, the same strategic approach which destroyed the Chinese revolutionary movement in 1927 and encompassed the defeat of the workers in Spain ten years later. In the hands of the Stalinists any present-day popular movement in China would be led down the same path to fresh catastrophes.
For while the Stalinists have “always maintained” that bourgeois democracy could solve their tasks, this counterrevolutionary idea has nothing whatever in common with the fundamental principles of Lenin, of Bolshevism. The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 proved that only the proletarian dictatorship, wresting power from the bourgeoisie, could actually accomplish the unfinished bourgeois democratic tasks. Every other proof since then has, tragically, been a negative proof. For every movement led along any other path has been led to defeat. And the accumulation of these defeats produced the Second World War and, now, the imperialist attack on the Soviet Union.
The Chinese Stalinists, leading a mildly reformist peasant movement, careful at every crucial point not to offend the class interests represented by the Kuomintang, cannot effectively lead a national liberation movement. Their total divorce from the proletariat in the big cities, now under Japanese occupation, creates the conditions for ultimate conflict between the peasants and the workers instead of their unity under a common banner of struggle. This a “despised petty bourgeois journalist” like Snow cannot understand. Events will teach him, if he is still capable of learning.
1. The Battle for Asia, by Edgar Snow, NY 1941.
Last updated: 27 May 2016