The tragedy of the 1925-1927 Chinese Revolution

Part 3

By John Chan
7 January 2009

Below is the third and final part of a lecture delivered at a summer school of the Socialist Equality Party in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in August 2007. Part 1 was posted on January 5 and Part 2 yesterday

The turn to the "left" KMT

Despite Chiang's brutal purges, the CCP still retained considerable reserves in Wuhan, a major industrial centre, as well as among the multi-millioned peasant movement along the Yangtze. A correct policy could have defeated Chiang's counterrevolution. Stalin, however, drew nothing from the bloody lessons of Shanghai. In his "Question of the Chinese Revolution" published on April 21, 1927, he proclaimed that his policy had been, and continued to be, "the only correct line". Chiang's massacre, he declared, merely demonstrated that the big bourgeoisie had deserted the revolution.

The "left" KMT, Stalin argued, still represented the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie, who would lead the agrarian revolution in the "second stage" of the revolution. "It means that, by waging a resolute struggle against militarism and imperialism, the revolutionary Kuomintang in Wuhan will become in fact the organ of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry..." He insisted therefore that the CCP had to maintain its close cooperation with the "left" KMT, and opposed the demands of Trotsky and the Left Opposition for the building of Soviets and for the CCP's political independence. (On the Opposition, J. V. Stalin, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1974, pp. 663-664)

Replying to Stalin's theses, Trotsky subjected his theory of the "bloc of four classes" to a withering critique. "It is a gross mistake to think that imperialism mechanically welds together all the classes of China from without. ... The revolutionary struggle against imperialism does not weaken, but rather strengthens the political differentiation of the classes," he explained. "[E]verything that brings the oppressed and exploited masses of the toilers to their feet inevitably pushes the national bourgeoisie into an open bloc with the imperialists. The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the masses of workers and peasants is not weakened, but, on the contrary, is sharpened by imperialist oppression, to the point of bloody civil war at every serious conflict" (Problems of the Chinese Revolution, Leon Trotsky, New Park Publications, London, 1969, p. 5).

Trotsky insisted that the most urgent task was to establish the political independence of the Communist Party from the "left" KMT. "Precisely its lack of independence is the source of all evils and all the mistakes. In this fundamental question, the theses, instead of making an end once and for all to the practice of yesterday, propose to retain it ‘more than ever before'. But this means that they want to retain the ideological, political and organisational dependence of the proletarian party upon a petty bourgeois party, which is inevitably converted into an instrument of the big bourgeoisie" (ibid., p. 18).

Stalin defended his "bloc of four classes" before students at the Moscow-based Sun Yat-sen University on May 13, 1927 with what can only be described as a parody of Marxism. "The Kuomintang is not an ‘ordinary' petty bourgeois party. There are different kinds of petty bourgeois parties. The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries in Russia were also petty bourgeois parties; but at the same time they were imperialist parties, because they were in a militant alliance with the French and British imperialists... can it be said that the Kuomintang is an imperialist party? Obviously not. The Kuomintang party is anti-imperialist, just as the revolution in China is anti-imperialist. The difference is fundamental" (On the Opposition, J. V. Stalin, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1974, p. 671).

Wang Ching-wei and TojoJapanese wartime leader Hideki Tojo (left) and Wang Ching-wei in 1942

The absurd idea that Chiang Kai-shek was "anti-imperialist" because the Chinese revolution was anti-imperialist was refuted, not only by Trotsky, but by history itself. The KMT's opposition to one or other of the major powers did not constitute opposition to imperialism as such. KMT leaders were simply manoeuvring between the imperialist powers, while spouting "anti-imperialist" slogans all the while to confuse the masses. Confronted with the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, Chiang had no hesitation in turning to Britain and the US. As for the leader of the "left" KMT, Wang Ching-wei went one step further and became the head of Japan's puppet Chinese regime. It should be burnt into everyone's memory that Chiang, who ended his days as the head of the despised anti-communist dictatorship on Taiwan, once toasted the world socialist revolution in Moscow alongside the Stalinist leadership.

The defeat in Wuhan

While Stalin was hailing the "revolutionary centre" in Wuhan at the Eighth Plenum of the ECCI, a number of the "left" KMT commanders, in violation of the official policy of their party, were already striking against communists, the trade unions and the peasants associations in the region. On May 17, 1927, just before the plenum, one of the bloodiest repressions took place in Changsha, but no mention of it was made at the meeting. Instead, Stalin denounced the Left Opposition's demands for the building of Soviets as inimical to the CCP's continued alliance with the "left" KMT. "Does the Opposition understand that the creation of Soviets of workers' and peasants' deputies now is tantamount to the creation of a dual government, shared by the Soviets and Hankow government, and necessarily and inevitably leads to the slogan calling for the overthrow of the Hankow Government?" he thundered (The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Harold R. Isaacs, Stanford University Press, 1961, p. 241).

Trotsky's reply remained unpublished for a year. In a powerful warning of what was to come, he repudiated Stalin's policy and called on the Comintern to do likewise. "We say directly to the Chinese peasants: The leaders of the Left Kuomintang of the type of Wang Ching-wei and Company will inevitably betray you if you follow the Wuhan heads instead of forming your own independent Soviets... Politicians of the Wang Ching-wei type, under difficult conditions, will unite ten times with Chiang Kai-shek against the workers and peasants. Under such conditions two Communists in a bourgeois government become impotent hostages, if not a direct mask for the preparation of a new blow against the working masses... The Chinese bourgeois democratic revolution will go forward and be victorious either in the soviet form or not at all" (Leon Trotsky on China, Monad Press, New York, 1978, p234-235, emphasis in original).

Again, Trotsky's warnings proved correct. After the bloodbath in Shanghai, capitalists and landowners in Wuhan region rapidly looked to Chiang Kai-shek's regime for support. They resisted workers' strikes by closing down factories and shops. They deliberately organised runs on banks and shipped their sliver to Shanghai. In rural areas, merchants and usurers refused to lend money to the peasantry, making them unable to buy seeds for the spring months. Imperialist powers joined the sabotage by shutting down their firms, while speculators drove up prices to unbearable levels. The economic collapses and rising mass movement terrified Wang Ching-wei, who demanded that the two communist ministers in his government—for agriculture and labour—use their influence to curb the "excessive" actions of the peasants and workers. 

The official CCP policy directly conflicted with the mass movement. In many rural areas, peasant associations had driven out the landlords and were functioning as the local authority. In two major cities, Wuhan and Changsha, inflation and business closures had hit workers hard, compelling them to raise revolutionary demands for the takeover of factories and shops. Trotsky's demand for the construction of Soviets was very timely. Soviets were not, as Stalin argued, simply a means for directing armed insurrection, but the democratically elected vehicles through which working people, in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval, could begin to reorganise economic and social life and to defend their interests against counter-revolution.

Peng Shuzi explained later that the unions and peasant organisations in Hunan and Hubei had a membership of millions. "This was a great organised mass force. If the CCP had followed Trotsky's advice at that time and relied upon this great mass of organised force, while calling for the organisation of worker-peasant-soldier soviets to become the central revolutionary organisation, and, through these armed soviets carried out the agrarian revolution, giving land to the peasants and revolutionary soldiers, they not only could have assembled all the poor masses of Hunan and Hupeh into soviets, but they could have destroyed the foundation of the reactionary officers immediately, and indirectly destabilised Chiang's army. In this way, the revolution could have developed from the destruction of the roots of counterrevolutionary power and advanced along the road of proletarian dictatorship" (Leon Trotsky on China, Monad Press, New York, 1978, p. 66, emphasis in original).

Despite his stupid glorification of the "left" KMT, Stalin also realised his policy was crumbling. On June 1, 1927 he issued an order to the CCP that it create its own army with 20,000 communists and 50,000 workers and peasants. But revolutions are not susceptible to bureaucratic fiat. As Trotsky had pointed out, the precondition for building a revolutionary army, was the consolidation of the party's authority over the masses and a concrete means for cementing the alliance between the working class and peasantry. By rejecting the building of Soviets, Stalin prevented the CCP from establishing the necessary basis for creating its own army.

As Wang Ching-wei's imminent betrayal became obvious, CCP leader Chen Duxiu once again demanded that the party quit the KMT. Once again, the Comintern turned down the request. In early July, Chen angrily resigned as the party's general secretary. Chen's successor, Chu Quibai, immediately demonstrated his loyalty to Stalin by declaring, even at this life and death moment, that the KMT "is naturally in the leading position of the national revolution".

On July 15, Wang Ching-wei formally issued an order demanding all communists leave the KMT or face severe punishment. Like Chiang, it was Wang who squeezed the CCP "like a lemon" and then cast it aside, unleashing another, even more brutal, wave of repression against the communists and the insurgent masses.

A contemporary news report explained: "In the past three months, the reaction has spread from the lower Yangtze until today it is dominant in all the territory under so-called Nationalist control. Tang Sheng-chih has proven himself an even more effective commander of execution squads than of armies in battle. In Hunan his subordinate generals have carried out a clean-up of ‘Communists' that Chiang Kai-shek can scarcely parallel. The usual methods of shooting and beheading have been abetted by methods of torture and mutilation which reek of the horrors of the dark ages and the Inquisition. The results have been impressive. The peasant and labour unions of Hunan, probably the most effectively organised in the whole country, are completely smashed. Those leaders who have escaped the burning in oil, the burying alive, the torture by slow strangulation by wire, and other forms of death too lurid to report, have fled the country or are in such careful hiding that they cannot easily be found..." (The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Harold R. Isaacs, Stanford University Press, 1961, p. 272).

Yet again, Stalin insisted that his policies had been correct and blamed the defeats on the CCP leadership, particularly Chen. With the Left Opposition's criticisms increasingly finding an audience in the Soviet working class, Stalin sought to salvage his reputation by sharply turning from opportunism to its mirror opposite—adventurism. Having been responsible for two crushing defeats on the CCP and the Chinese masses, Stalin ordered the shattered party to carry out a series of armed insurrections that were doomed to failure. In an anticipation of his "Third Period" ultra-left theory of the early 1930s, Stalin assigned to the proletariat the immediate task of taking power, right at the point when the Chinese revolution was receding. As Trotsky explained, what was needed was a regroupment of the CCP and the working class, defensive democratic slogans and, above all, the drawing of the necessary lessons—all of which Stalin adamantly opposed.

The lesson of the Guangzhou "Soviet"


The final gasp of the Chinese revolution—the Guangzhou uprising in December 1927—was nothing short of criminal. It was timed to coincide, not with a mass movement in Guangzhou, but with the opening of the Fifteenth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Its main purpose was to enhance the reputation of the Stalinist leadership and to fend off the Left Opposition's criticisms. Lacking mass support, the attempt to create a Soviet government with several thousand party cadres had no possibility of succeeding. Some 5,700 people, many of them the best of the surviving revolutionary cadres, were killed in the heroic battle to defend the short-lived Guangzhou "Soviet".

Stalin's Soviet theory was finally put to the test. Throughout the revolution, Stalin had argued that Soviets must only be created at the last moment, as the means of organising the insurrection and, most importantly, not before the "democratic" stage had been completed. But as Trotsky continued to insist, Soviets were, in reality, the means for drawing broad layers of working people into political struggle. They could not be imposed from the top, but emerged from the revolutionary grass roots movement, including factory committees and strike committees. As the revolutionary crisis developed, the Soviets would evolve into the new organs of working class power.

In Guangzhou, the CCP bureaucratically established a body called "Soviet" as the means for carrying out an insurrection in the city. But the "tremendous response" anticipated by Stalin did not eventuate, because ordinary workers and peasants did not even know their "deputies" to this so-called Soviet. Only a tiny number of workers supported the Guangzhou "Soviet" government, which was quickly crushed.

Stalin maintained that the tasks of Guangzhou uprising were bourgeois democratic. But, as Trotsky pointed out, even in this failed adventure, the proletariat was compelled to go further. During its limited life, the CCP was forced to take power by its own and to carry out radical social measures, including the nationalisation of large industries and banks. As Trotsky declared, if these measures were "bourgeois", then it would be hard to imagine what a proletarian revolution in China would look like. In other words, even in the Guangzhou insurrection, the CCP leadership was compelled to follow the logic of the Permanent Revolution, not Stalin's "two-stage" theory.

MaoMao Zedong in 1927

The failure of the Guangzhou uprising marked the end of the revolution in the urban centres. Those CCP leaders who did not join the Left Opposition such as Mao Zedong, fled to the countryside. Under pressure from the Stalinist bureaucracy to implement the Comintern's "Third Period" line and create "Soviets", a new current emerged in the CCP. Championed by Mao, this tendency effectively severed its roots in the working class and based itself on the peasantry. To continue the "armed struggle", the CCP created a "Red Army" composed mainly of peasants, and established "Soviets" in China's rural backwaters. By the early 1930s, the CCP had virtually abandoned its work within the urban working class.

Mao, whose political outlook had more in common with peasant populism than with Marxism, emerged quite naturally as the new leader of this tendency. Before joining the Communist Party, he had been deeply influenced by a Japanese utopian socialist school, "New Village" that had drawn on the Russian Narodniks. New Village promoted collective cultivation, communal consumption and mutual aid in autonomous villages as the road to "socialism". This "rural socialism" reflected not the interests of the revolutionary proletariat, but the hostility of the decaying peasantry towards the destruction of small-scale farming under capitalism.

Even after joining the Communist Party, Mao never abandoned this orientation towards the peasantry and was unerringly in the right-wing of the party during the upheavals of 1925-1927. Even at the height of the working class movement in 1927, Mao continued to hold that the proletariat was an insignificant factor in the Chinese revolution. "If we allot ten points to the accomplishment of the democratic revolution, then... the urban dwellers and military units rates only three points, while the remaining seven points should go to the peasants..." (Stalin's Failure in China 1924-1927, Conrad Brandt, The Norton Library, New York, 1966, p. 109).

The consequences of defeat

Shortly after the defeat of the Chinese revolution, Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party, sent into internal exile and expelled from the USSR. The record of 1925-1927 in China makes clear that Trotsky and the Left Opposition were well aware of what was at stake in the Chinese revolution for the international working class. Trotsky was engaged in a titanic political struggle to transform the policy of the Comintern and to create the best conditions for a revolutionary victory. Least of all was it a question of being proven formally correct.

In his autobiography, My Life, which was written during his exile in 1928, Trotsky recalled what happened in the Soviet Union after Chiang Kai-shek drowned the Shanghai workers in blood. "A wave of excitement swept over the party. The opposition raised its head. ... Many younger comrades thought that the patent bankruptcy of Stalin's policy was bound to bring the triumph of the opposition nearer. During the first days after the coup d'etat by Chiang Kai-shek I was obliged to pour many a bucket of cold water over the hot heads of my young friends—and over some not so young. I tried to show them that the opposition could not rise on the defeat of the Chinese revolution. The fact that our forecast had proved correct might attract one thousand, five thousand, or even ten thousand new supporters to us. But for the millions the significant thing was not our forecast, but the fact of the crushing of the Chinese proletariat. After the defeat of the German revolution in 1923, after the break-down of the English general strike in 1926, the new disaster in China would only intensify the disappointment of the masses in the international revolution. And it was this same disappointment that served as the chief psychological source for Stalin's policy of national-reformism" (My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography, Leon Trotsky, Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 552-553).

Although Stalin attempted to fence Trotsky off from the rest of the Comintern and the CCP, his efforts were only partially successful. A group of Chinese students studying in the Soviet Union came under the influence of the Left Opposition and participated in its protest on November 7, 1927, in Red Square, amid the bureaucracy's 10th anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution. By the end of 1928, at least 145 Chinese students had formed secret Trotskyist organisations in Moscow and Leningrad.

At the same time, during the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, Trotsky wrote his famous critique of the Comintern program. A few Chinese Communist Party delegates, including Wang Fanxi, were able to read Trotsky's writings and accepted the Left Opposition's analysis. After some of these Chinese students returned to China in 1929, a section of the CCP leadership, including Chen Duxiu and Peng Shuzi, turned to Trotskyism and formed the Chinese Left Opposition.

In China, the KMT, which had extended its influence by exploiting the mass revolutionary upheavals, proved utterly incapable of holding the country together or of ruling "democratically". The Kuomintang's "white terror" endured for years. From April to December 1927, an estimated 38,000 people were executed and more than 32,000 jailed as political prisoners. From January to August 1928, more than 27,000 people were sentenced to death. By 1930, the CCP estimated approximately 140,000 people had been murdered or had died in prisons. In 1931, over 38,000 people were executed as political enemies. The Chinese Left Opposition was not only hunted down by the KMT's police, it was also betrayed to the authorities by the Stalinist CCP leadership.

The political consequences of the failed revolution extended far beyond the borders of China. A victory would, similarly, have had a momentous impact throughout Asia and in other colonial countries. Among other things, it would have given huge impetus to the Japanese working class in its struggles against the rise of Japanese militarism in the 1930s and the plunge towards world war.

As world capitalism once again descends into crisis, along with the drive to militarism and war, the Chinese and international working class can only prepare for the upheavals that lie ahead by thoroughly assimilating the political lessons of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution.