By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
II. Tragic mistakes in the CCP’s early years
If the Chinese Communist Party were truly a revolutionary organization, it would look at its history with an objective and critical eye. It would use the centennial as an opportunity to closely analyze both the successes and the failings of the leadership of the early party—which almost immediately after its formation had to confront a revolutionary situation for which it was unprepared. It would make certain that the current party ranks, as well as the country’s population as a whole, were familiar with the political debates within the revolutionary movement of the time, and the lessons that they offer for today.
The CCP, however, prefers to teach a warped version of its own history. Its account is one in which the party line was always correct and supremely successful, except for the occasional actions of a handful of “capitulators,” which the more astute leaders, like Mao, were quickly able to overcome. Here is the official version of the party’s first years, reprinted from the China Daily website (https://cpcchina.chinadaily.com.cn/2010-09/07/content_13901594_2.htm):
“Thanks to the influence of the correct leadership of the CPC and Kuomintang-Communist cooperation, a great revolution against imperialism and feudalism rose around the country. In 1925, the May 30th Movement took place in Shanghai, marking the beginning of a nationwide revolutionary upsurge and laying the foundation for the revolutionary war against the Northern warlords. Known as the Northern Expedition, the war was launched under the slogan—oppose imperialism and warlords—raised by the Communist Party. The mainstay of the Northern Expeditionary Army was formed of Communist Party members, members of the Communist Youth League and progressive personages of the Kuomintang (KMT). Along with the victorious advance of the Northern Expedition, the Party-led workers’ and peasants’ movement grew rapidly, shaking the reactionary rule of the imperialist and feudal forces in China. However, at the critical moment of the struggle, the big bourgeoisie betrayed the revolution, and Chen Duxiu, general secretary of the CPC, pursued an erroneous line of capitulationism. As a result, the revolution failed.”
Many of the “facts” in the above paragraph are false, while the overall framework is distorted. It is a caricature of what really took place. And blaming the failure of the 1927 revolution on Chen Duxiu, the main founder of the party, is especially dishonest. When the young Chinese revolutionaries were presented with the opportunity to lead a vast rebellion that might have resulted in a socialist revolution, they allowed the moment to slip away—with tragic results. This was due mainly to the faulty strategic advice provided to the Chinese by the Stalinist clique in the Soviet Union, which led them to subordinate the party to the largely bourgeois Kuomintang. In the end, Chen was one of only a few major leaders who expressed disquiet and shame over the party’s mistakes. By that time, however, the majority of the Chinese Communist Party leadership had plunged more fully into the orbit of Stalinism—which led to even more disasters.
Here, for reasons of time and space, we can merely provide a sketch of developments in the CCP’s first years. Much of the following account is documented in Harold Isaac’s book, “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution” (Second revised edition, Atheneum 1968).
The young CCP enters the Kuomintang
The founding of the Chinese Communist Party was announced on July 30, 1921, on a boat in the middle of Nanhu Lake, in Janxing city, south of Shanghai. The meeting concluded an eight-day joint conference of Communist groups that had been recently organized in several Chinese cities and a group called the Communist Youth Corps, which included young people who were sent to study in the Soviet Union. Although many of the leaders of the new party were experienced in the workers’ struggle and in the anti-imperialist struggle, they had come to Marxism only fairly recently. Thus, they looked to the revolutionaries in Russia and in the Communist International (often called the “Comintern”) for inspiration and guidance.
The young Communist Party grew extremely rapidly and led some important strikes, becoming the center of the workers’ struggle within a couple of years. Its second congress, in July 1922, approved a manifesto that stressed basic revolutionary socialist principles. The document called for a “united front” of workers, poor peasants, and petty bourgeoisie for national liberation. At the same time, it stressed that “the workers must not become the appendage of the petty bourgeoisie within the united front but must fight for their own interests. … Ever mindful of their class independence, the workers must develop the strength of their fighting organization [in order to] prepare for the establishment of soviets in conjunction with the poor peasantry and in order to achieve complete liberation.” Unfortunately, just a few years later, the CCP violated the principle of working-class independence—which turned out to have tragic consequences.
The main leader and Secretary General of the party in its early years was Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), who as an activist in the liberal nationalist May 4 Movement had embraced revolutionary Marxism following the Russian Revolution. Later, as the Chinese Communist Party succumbed to the policies of the Stalinized Communist International, Chen joined the International Left Opposition of Leon Trotsky, and was expelled from the party. After Chen’s release from prison in the late 1930s, Mao grudgingly offered to readmit him to the CCP—but only if he agreed to renounce Trotskyism; Chen refused to take the deal.
Subsequently, Mao and the party bureaucracy smeared Chen—as they did Trotsky—as being a “right deviationist,” a counter-revolutionary, and a traitor to China. (During the Cultural Revolution, Liu Shao-chi and other dissident members of the CCP bureaucracy were slandered by the Mao faction using similar terms.) In reality, Chen showed himself to be more principled and clearheaded in his perspectives than any of the top leaders now enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party pantheon. But not surprisingly, when Xi named famous “heroes” of CCP history in his July 1, 2021, centennial address, he ignored Chen and other major party founders who had joined the Left Opposition.
During the CCP’s first years, competing warlords ruled much of China, while foreign imperialists (mainly Britain and France) had armed forces on the ground in areas they had been granted as concessions. Sun Yat-Sen, the republic’s first president and leader of the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) movement, was ousted from power in the central government by a military coup in 1922 but in 1925 set up an oppositional government in Canton (today Gwangzhou).
Most of the population consisted of highly exploited peasants, generally tenants laboring in serf-like conditions on estates owned by wealthy landlords. Tenant contracts required the peasants to surrender as much as 70 percent of their crops to the landlords. At the same time, however, the Chinese working class had grown rapidly following the First World War; by the early 1920s, it had reached close to 2 million people, concentrated in a few major cities.
The founding and growth of the Chinese Communist Party reflected the radicalization that had taken place worldwide following the World War and the Russian Revolution. Nearly 200,000 Chinese laborers returned home from wartime work in Europe; they carried with them the latest news and ideas about working-class struggle in Europe, including the events in Russia. The number of strikes multiplied rapidly over the next few years, including thousands of workers in key industries like the railroads and maritime. On May Day 1924, 100,000 workers marched in Shanghai, and 200,000 in Canton. Red flags flew over the streets of workers’ districts in several cities. Moreover, militant peasant assemblies sprung up in many areas to regain control over the land; some of them were led by Communist Party cadre.
In May 1925, a massive strike of textile workers broke out. After strikers in two areas had been shot down, workers in Shanghai called a protest march. A British officer called on soldiers to fire on the march, killing 12 people. Immediately, on May 30, Shanghai erupted in a general strike. The strike, together with a boycott of British goods, spread throughout much of the country, involving some 400,000 workers in Canton, Hong Kong, Peking (Beijing), and other cities. In Canton, the workers virtually controlled the city, working with the peasant associations to help enforce the boycott.
Although the CCP was in the thick of the strike action, it was hobbled by the policies of the Communist International, which had urged the young party to enter the Kuomintang and subordinate itself to KMT decisions and discipline. The International by that time was dominated by the opportunist faction around Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, and the Stalinists embraced the Kuomintang primarily as an ally against the British and other imperialist forces that threatened Soviet interests in the Far East. The Stalinists justified their orientation by describing the Kuomintang as leading a “national democratic revolution” in China—despite the KMT’s largely bourgeois and petty bourgeois composition and leadership. Stalin and his allies claimed that the CCP and the Chinese working class as a whole were too weak to lead a socialist revolution, as had been done in Russia just a few years earlier. Moreover, they allowed themselves to be beguiled by the temporary “leftist” rhetoric of Sun Yat-sen and other KMT leaders, like the corrupt military officer Chiang Kai-shek, who were mainly interested in receiving Soviet aid.
Leon Trotsky was the only one in the central leadership of the Soviet Communist Party and the Communist International to oppose the entry of the Chinese party into the Kuomintang. In his theory of Permanent Revolution, formulated soon after the Russian Revolution of 1905, Trotsky had pointed out that the bourgeoisie in Russia would be unable and unwilling to lead a thorough democratic revolution; they were inextricably tied to imperialism and sooner or later would sell out the democratic struggle to imperialist interests. For that reason, Trotsky explained, the working class had to lead the struggle and to strive further to take power in its own name. Moreover, he pointed out, the working class in relatively backward Russia had the capability, as well as the necessity, to overturn capitalism. The peasantry, in turn, would follow strong proletarian leadership. But full progression to a socialist society in Russia would require making the socialist revolution on a global scale.
Lenin came to a similar view in 1917, and following that strategy, the Bolsheviks led the Russian working class in the October Revolution. Although Trotsky first applied his Permanent Revolution thesis just to Russia, he used similar reasoning in regard to China. Later, he extended the thesis to the struggles for democracy and national liberation in the underdeveloped and semi-colonial countries in general.
At first, Chen and other central CCP leaders were dubious of the Communist International’s directive to accept the Kuomintang’s leadership and control of the struggle. It was a violation of their 1922 manifesto pointing out the need for independence of working-class forces from the organizations of the bourgeoisie. But in the end (Chen explained later), the party leadership submitted to Comintern “discipline” and voted to take that course. (The party’s formal approval for entering the Kuomintang took place at its national congress in June 1923.) Some party leaders, like Mao Zedong, were even enthusiastic about the new direction and the “revolutionary” potential of the Chinese bourgeoisie. CCP members entered the Kuomintang; its leaders took posts in the KMT, and for a while, most of the party’s independent work in the labor movement was suspended.
In March 1926, the political bureau of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union voted to accept the Kuomintang into the Communist International as a “sympathizer party.” Only Trotsky voted against the measure. Just around that time, however, the Kuomintang leadership veered sharply to the right.
Chiang’s coup in Canton
Chiang Kai-Chek, an ostensible “leftist” but personally ambitious, had been buoyed by Soviet arms and money. Now, with the CCP sufficiently held back by the Comintern, he decided to seek his fortunes by allying with the pro-bourgeois Old Guard of the KMT against the movement’s left wing. Before dawn on March 20, 1926, Chiang’s troops arrested the leftist leadership in Canton, most of them Communists, taking over both the KMT and the local government. The Soviet advisors were put under house arrest. Chiang demanded that the Communists stop campaigning for their views inside the KMT and that they turn over a list of their members. In June, Chiang installed a military dictatorship in Canton with himself at the head. Actions by the workers’ movement in Canton were forbidden; over 50 workers were murdered.
Two of the leaders of the Communist Party, Chen Duxiu and Peng Shu-tse, called a special plenum of the party Central Committee in July 1926 to discuss the new and dangerous situation. Chen and Peng put a motion on the floor proposing that the party leave the Kuomintang and strive to provide independent leadership to the struggle of the workers and peasants, while at the same time building a united front with the KMT’s left wing. Under pressure from the Comintern representative, the majority of the CC voted down the resolution, but agreed to forward it to the Comintern in Moscow for consideration. The Comintern, unfortunately, denounced the resolution in a memorandum signed by Bukharin (who was aligned with Stalin at the time). However, Trotsky, writing some months later, said that he agreed with the perspectives of Chen and Peng.
Massacre in Shanghai
Because of the Stalinists’ opportunist policy toward the Kuomintang, the CCP was restrained from expressing its own program and demands for the revolutionary movement that was engulfing the country. The party was silenced from criticizing the actions and program of the KMT, and Chiang in particular. Tactics such as calling on the peasants to take over the land or organizing peasants’ and workers’ assemblies or soviets were prohibited.
Nevertheless, the revolution continued to advance. A KMT-led army soon raced to the north, liberating huge areas from the warlords. The “Northern Expedition” had three wings—in the West, the East, and a Central section. The Western branch included strong leadership from the Communist Party. The Central branch was headed by Chiang Kai-shek, who imposed more conservative and compromising policies upon it. In the wake of the victories of the Northern Expedition, newly energized workers built unions. In Hunan province, the unions rapidly tripled their membership to 150,000 members. In the city of Wuhan, trade-union membership reached 300,000. Peasants seized the land; in some liberated areas, the militant peasant associations took over governing local districts and villages. In the areas controlled by Chiang, however, the peasants were forced to return the land to the landlords, unions were shut down, and militant KMT branches were dissolved.
Stalin remained blind to the gravity of Chiang’s actions against the movement of China’s workers and peasants. The Soviet leader was ecstatic over the advance of Chiang’s troops, which he termed “the revolutionary army.” Stalin wrote, “The advance of the Canton troops meant a blow aimed at imperialism, a blow aimed at its agents in China. … What is important is not the bourgeois-democratic character of the Canton government, which forms the nucleus of the future all-Chinese revolutionary power. The most important thing is that this government is an anti-militarist power, and can be nothing else, that every advance of this power is a blow aimed at world imperialism and is therefore a stroke in favor of the world revolutionary movement” (cited in Isaacs, p. 119).
Thus, Stalin indicated, in the struggle against imperialism or “militarism,” the workers can have confidence in handing the main leadership to a bourgeois movement, party, or government. Moreover, in this so-called “national-democratic” stage of the struggle, the political demands and tasks of the workers must be limited to what would satisfy the “democratic” bourgeoisie in order to hold them in the coalition. In a nutshell, Stalin outlined major tenets of his tendency’s reformist strategy (later termed the “popular front”) that led to crushing defeats in many struggles—from Spain in 1939 to Indonesia in 1965 to Chile in 1973.
By the spring of 1927, the Chinese Communist Party had organized 600,000 workers in Shanghai. In March, a political general strike, led by the CCP, burst out. All factories were closed; barricades went up in the streets. About 50,000 strike pickets were recruited by the CCP. Soon, armed workers seized the police headquarters, the arsenal, and the military barracks. Some 5000 workers were armed and organized into a revolutionary militia; the power in the streets, for all practical purposes, was in the hands of the workers. Nevertheless, to remain in accordance with Comintern policy, the CCP held the workers back from taking full governmental power in Shanghai. Instead, they sought the construction of a provisional government together with the “progressive” bourgeoisie.
In the spring of 1927, Chiang Kai-shek and his army marched on Shanghai. The Comintern strongly advised the CCP to ensure that the workers would put away their weapons and welcome Chiang when he arrived. At the time, according to Peng Shu-tse in his introduction to the book, “Leon Trotsky on China” (Pathfinder Press 1976), only three top leaders of the Communist Party were in Shanghai, Chen Duxiu, Chou En-lai, and himself. The three decided that the best course of action would be to make common cause with the local forces of the left wing of the KMT in opposition to Chiang’s forces—using arms if necessary. They realized, however, that such action would be counter to the policy directives of the Communist International.
Accordingly, Peng travelled to Canton, and later to Wuhan, to get permission from the rest of the CCP Central Committee and from the Comintern for permission to organize the workers to defend Shanghai. He arrived in Wuhan on April 10, 1927. But he was too late. Chiang attacked Shanghai two days later. His forces, in conjunction with fascist-like militias and underworld gangs, undertook a slaughter of the workers and their leaders, who in their confused and demobilized state could offer no effective resistance. British armored cars and squads of Japanese marines joined Chiang’s soldiers in machine-gunning unarmed workers and their families in the streets. Thousands of working people—perhaps as many as 10,000—were killed.
Wuhan: Stalin’s new “revolutionary center”
At first, Stalin and his faction said practically nothing about the routs in Canton and Shanghai. On April 21, Stalin himself declared that the Comintern’s strategy and tactics had been perfectly correct in China and needed no review. Not mentioned was the humiliating fact that on April 13, one day after the massacre in Shanghai, the Comintern had sent a telegram to Chiang Kai-shek, mildly rebuking him for establishing a rival government in Nanking, but extending the olive branch by offering to meet with him for discussions in order to build a “united nationalist front of all revolutionary forces.”
Harold Isaacs in “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution” points out that “Chiang’s coup, bad enough in itself for the Kremlin’s cause, was particularly embarrassing because it so crushingly confirmed the warnings and predictions of Trotsky and the Opposition in the Russian Communist Party.” Isaacs quotes Andres Malraux, who wrote in “Man’s Fate” that the Chinese Communist leaders under the sway of the Stalinists, “knowing that the Trotskyist theses were attacking the union with the Kuomintang, were terrified by any attitude which might, rightly or wrongly, seem to be linked to that of the Russian Opposition.” Accordingly, Isaacs observes, “in the name of unity with the Kuomintang, they led the workers to the slaughter” (Isaacs, p. 185).
Stalin urged the CCP to regroup its forces in Wuhan, the major city of Hubei province, on the Yangtse River. The main leader of the Kuomintang’s left wing, Wang Jing-wei, based his capital there after being expelled from Canton. Stalin stated: “… the revolutionary Kuomintang in Wuhan, by a determined fight against militarism and imperialism, will in fact be converted into an organ of the national-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”
But Wang was hardly a revolutionary; like Chiang Kai-shek, he was an opportunist. He wished to prove to the bourgeoisie that he, and not the more ruthless Chiang, would best serve their interests. After Chiang’s victories, however, Wang began to realize that the capitalists and imperialists preferred Chiang’s hard methods and reactionary goals to the craftier ones (i.e., mollifying the CCP) he had offered them.
In the meantime, the Wuhan capitalists, emboldened by Chiang’s victories, organized an economic boycott aimed at paralyzing the city and its surrounding region. Factories and shops were closed down, and by June almost 200,000 workers were locked out of the factories. Loans were denied to the peasants. The bosses organized a run on the banks, and shipped their funds and silver down the Yangtse River to Shanghai. The Comintern “advised” the Left Kuomintang to respond by taking over the banks, factories, and shops, but since the KMT was interested in protecting bourgeois property, the appeal fell on deaf ears.
Likewise, the Left KMT failed to lead the peasants to take over the land. And the CCP, since they were oriented to the Left KMT and their strategy, followed suit. At the Fifth Congress of the Communist Party, in May 1927, General Secretary Chen Duxiu reviewed this policy. He pointed out that peasants in some areas were moving to seize the land on their own, and allowed that “we have carried out too pacific a policy” (Isaacs, page 218). Chen agreed that taking over the large estates was necessary in the long run, but his prescription for immediate actions followed the pattern set by the Kuomintang. Chen warned that land takeovers at that moment would rile the small landholders, with whom it was necessary to build an alliance. Therefore, seizing the estates should wait for military victory and “the extension of the revolution.”
Meanwhile, the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan filled the Yangtse with warships as a warning against any revolutionary activity. A major consideration that kept the imperialists from ordering a full-scale bombardment or military invasion was the belief that, for now, Chiang’s armies seemed to be successful in pushing back the mass movement without their help. But Wang panicked and ordered all the anti-imperialist posters on Wuhan’s walls to be torn down; foreign missions that had been occupied by the workers were returned to their owners.
Trotsky pointed out presciently that the Wuhan leader would soon swing far to the right and against the Communists and the workers. From afar, Trotsky wrote an appeal to the peasants and workers of Hubei, advising them to break from Wang and the Kuomintang, to arm themselves, and to set up independent peasant and worker soviets. However, due to Stalin’s machinations, the Comintern never sent Trotsky’s letter to China and kept it out of the Comintern bulletins.
Defeat of the Hunan peasant movement
Regardless of the political twists and turns in the “revolutionary center” in Wuhan, the peasants in south central China continued in rebellion. In Hunan and Hubei provinces, since the Left Kuomintang governments refused to act, peasants took it on themselves to take possession of the land. Wealthy landlords were apprehended, paraded through the village centers with dunce caps, and then taken to peasant committees for judgment on their crimes. Cooperatives were set up to market the produce and prevent speculation. Land rent and payment on loans were cancelled. Many degenerate social practices were outlawed—opium smoking, gambling, binding the feet of young girls, and selling women and children into slavery as servants and prostitutes.
But the landlords quickly regrouped and formed organizations of thugs and bandits to terrorize the peasant communities. Members of the revolutionary committees were hunted down and subjected to horrible tortures before being killed. The Hubei Provincial Peasant Association estimated that 4700 peasants, including 500 women, were murdered in this manner between February and June 1927. The revolutionary peasants, for their part, had few weapons to resist with. The Hubei Provincial Peasant Association sent a delegation to Wuhan to purchase arms from the government, but it was quickly turned back empty handed.
The recently inaugurated Minister of Agriculture, Tan Ping-shan, who was a member of the Communist Party, was no help to the peasants, stating that his role was to support the policies of the Kuomintang government—which was to contain their struggle. The Communist official declared: “At present there is a crisis in the peasant emancipation movement. [It is] a transitional period … a period of much struggle and chaos, of acts that are premature, and of deeds that confuse the main issue. Some of this is attributable to excessive demands on the part of the peasants. … The government therefore announces its policy that all irresponsible acts and illegal deeds of the peasants be nipped in the bud” (Isaacs, p. 233).
The Kuomintang politicians and their Communist allies in Wuhan hoped to tamp down the rebellion in the countryside by legal means and by offering shallow compromises. But they were too late; harder measures prevailed. On May 21, troops in Hunan province that had formerly been aligned with the “lefts” rebelled in Changsha, the capital of the province. They invaded the offices of the Provincial Labor Union, the local Kuomintang headquarters, and all the other workers’, peasants’, and student organizations, murdering all they could find. The streets were plastered with posters: “Down with the extremists! Support Chiang Kai-shek!” A bloodbath soon ensued in the province, with about 20,000 peasants and workers tortured and executed.
Peasant leaders were able to mount a force of about 1700 men with rifles who gathered in the hills above Changsha for a counter-attack on the military garrison. Unfortunately, they were halted when word came from the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Wuhan to cancel their attack and to await word from the Kuomintang government about a settlement. Eventually, Wuhan sent a delegation to investigate the situation, but they were turned back at the Hunan border. The delay enabled the counterrevolutionary troops to bolster their forces; the moment for effective resistance was lost.
Wang blamed the massacre in Changsha on the peasants who had dared to seize the land. He sent another emissary, T’ang Shen-chih, to Changsha to investigate and to try to calm the fighting, and the Communist Party agreed to this measure. T’ang later issued a report stating that the counterrevolutionary soldiers had merely acted in self-defense.
In Moscow, in the meantime, Stalin addressed the developments in China in a speech to a closed session of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. He reiterated support for Wang and the “left” of the Kuomintang and once more called on the Chinese party to check the “over-zealous” actions of the peasants.
In addition to the illusions that they had in Wang, Stalin and the Comintern also admired a northern general, Feng Yü-hsiang, who had spent time in Moscow, where he announced himself to be a disciple of Lenin and a champion of China’s peasants and workers. Now, with the counterrevolution on the rise, Feng, together with two members of Wang’s Wuhan government, met with Chiang Kai-shek. All agreed: The Wuhan government must expel the Communists, and the movement of the workers and peasants must be crushed. Soon, the Kuomintang in Wuhan undertook a campaign to denounce the CCP in the press and at public rallies—preparing the way for their expulsion.
By the end of June, as the counterrevolution gathered force throughout Wuhan and Hupei province, the Communist Party meekly retreated. CCP officials walked away from their governmental and trade-union posts; armed pickets were withdrawn. But every attempt at compromise only strengthened the reactionaries. Soon soldiers were rampaging through the headquarters of the unions and the peasant associations.
On July 14, the Executive Committee of the Communist International issued a resolution declaring that it had been perfectly correct in all of its decisions regarding China, but that now there was to be a slight change of direction: “The revolutionary role of the Wuhan government is played out; it is becoming a counterrevolutionary force. … The Communists should remain in the Kuomintang, in spite of the campaign carried on by its leaders for the expulsion of the Communists. … The E.C.C.I considers it its revolutionary duty to call upon the members of the Communist Party of China openly to fight against the opportunism of the Central Committee” (Isaacs, p. 266-267).
In the meantime, Chen Duxiu sent another letter to the Comintern recommending that the party withdraw from the Kuomintang, but was soundly rebuffed. Seeing that he was up against a wall with the Stalinists, on July 15, Chen resigned (or was pushed out) from the CCP Central Committee. On the same day, the Kuomintang generals demanded that CCP members in the KMT renounce their Communist membership, or else face severe penalties. A similar edict was issued to CCP members in the army. The Chinese Communist Party slunk away, offering no resistance. As the Communist leaders fled the city, the KMT set up execution squads in the streets.
Ching-ling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen, summed up the debacle by writing that the Kuomintang had become “a tool in the hands of this or that militarist. It will have ceased to be a living force working for the future welfare of the Chinese people, but will have become a machine, the agent of oppression, a parasite battening on the present enslaving system” (quoted in Isaacs, p. 271). Isaacs follows with the comment: “Thus ended the myth of the ‘Left Kuomintang.’ The revolution which had swept China for three years ebbed away. For its failures, tens of thousands of Chinese working people and a whole generation of China’s best youth were now paying a terrible price. Over the prisons and execution grounds flew the banner of the Kuomintang that had been sanctified for them by the Kremlin. Under it the people had risen. Under it, uncomprehending, they had been struck down.”
Stalin’s ultraleft turn
The victory of the counterrevolution in Wuhan left the Chinese Communist Party reeling. The Indian Communist M.N. Roy, a Stalinist hack who had served as a Comintern advisor in China, later estimated in his book (Roy, “Revolution und Konterevolution in China,” p. 405) that some 25,000 Communists had been killed in the first months of 1927 alone. And thousands more would die later in the year. Moreover, the trade unions and peasant associations were smashed; with the CPP rudderless and in retreat, there was no leadership force to rally them and rebuild their influence among the workers. The peasant associations, which had counted almost 10 million members in Hubei province, virtually disappeared.
At that low point, the Stalinists in Moscow decided that the time had come at last to radically shift gears. Naturally, the Stalinists included an affirmation that the old line was also absolutely correct, stating that their strategy had failed in Wuhan only because of the refusal to carry it out by Chen Duxiu and a few other so-called “right deviationists.’’ Nevertheless, said the Stalinists, because of the correct course indicated by the Comintern, the treachery of the bourgeoisie was finally revealed for all to see! On Aug. 9, 1927, the Soviet CP Central Committee issued a statement: “The experience of the past development shows plainly that the bourgeoisie is not capable of solving the problems of national emancipation from the yoke of imperialism since it is conducting a fight against the workers and peasants,” and so on. The fact that Trotsky had made these same points years earlier was ignored.
As a consequence of the new situation, the Chinese Communists were called upon “to organize uprisings of the workers and peasants under the banner of the revolutionary Lefts of the Kuomintang.” Under the new adventurist policy, the remaining cadre of the CCP was militarized and thrown into battle against Chiang Kai-shek and the troops of other right-wing Kuomintang generals who were occupying the towns and cities. But there was little attempt to mobilize the working class of the cities to lend aid to these “Autumn Harvest” uprisings, and the superior armament of the reactionary armies soon defeated them. And so the Stalinists decided to adjust the line still further. The CCP was instructed to put away the banner of the Kuomintang—and to fight for socialist revolution under its own name. Said Stalin (Pravda, Sept. 30, 1927), “The propaganda slogan of soviets must now become a slogan of action!”
On Dec. 11, 1927, the battle began for Canton. A force led by Red Guards and thousands of Communist Party members captured the city. A Soviet Republic was set up, with a radical social program that included confiscating the banks and property of the wealthy bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, relatively few Canton workers joined the rebels. For example, the railroad workers continued on the job, blithely ferrying in trainloads of reactionary Kuomintang troops to crush the revolt. The Canton Commune lasted three days before being destroyed by the KMT forces after heavy fighting in the streets. About 5700 people died in the insurrection, according to KMT records.
Stalinism and the Chinese Communist Party
The ultra-left adventures that the Stalinists prescribed for the Chinese Communist Party in late 1927 were an overture to a new course that Stalin and his followers soon took around the world. According to Stalin’s formula, the world had now entered a “Third Period,” in which insurrections to obtain working-class power and socialist revolution were on the order of the day. The ignominious conclusion to this period took place in Germany in 1933, when the mass Communist Party refused to build a united front with the social democrats against the Nazis, allowing Hitler to come to power with no resistance.
In China, the Communist forces continued their military campaigns throughout the Third Period. Mao Xedong became the political leader as various partisan bands coalesced into the Red Army. Although the Communists achieved little active support from the workers and peasants in the districts that they fought in, they persisted in assuring their followers that once Chiang Kai-shek was defeated, the workers were certain to rise up.
The former Secretary General of the party, Chen Duxiu, sent several letters to the CCP Central Committee criticizing the adventurist attacks and the abandonment of the ongoing struggles of the workers. He was promptly denounced by the party leadership and charged with making common cause with the counterrevolution. As a consequence, Chen and about 100 other CCP members were expelled from the party. Soon afterward, Chen joined Trotsky’s International Left Opposition. Trotsky’s recommendations for the Chinese comrades included rooting their forces in the cities, revival of the labor movement and active participation in the workers’ struggles, and democratic demands culminating in the convocation of a popular National Assembly.
Meanwhile, the CCP army, under the direction of Li Lisan, drove on with the capture of Changsha. Li had been an effective labor organizer in his younger days but was gullible to the delusions of Stalinism. Li now stated his confidence that the occupation of Changsha would initiate an uprising in Wuhan and initiate movement toward a Central Chinese Soviet Republic. As had happened in Canton, however, Changsha fell to Chiang’s troops only a few days after the CCP had liberated it. Li took the blame for the debacle and for “overexaggeration” of the Comintern line; he was removed from his post and called to Moscow to recant his sins. (Li was restored to favor after the Revolution, but was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. He was reported to have committed suicide in 1967, although some believe he was murdered.)
Following the defeat at Changsha, the Chinese Communist Party gave up its orientation to the cities. It retreated to the mountains of southern Kiangsi, where in November 1931, it established a Chinese Soviet Republic, with Mao Zedong as president. But the area was a soviet republic in name only. The stratification of social classes remained—big landlords, rich peasants, and poor landless peasants. Although the Communists broke up the estates of the biggest landlords and distributed the land, they felt they had to make concessions to the rich peasants and the merchants in order to obtain food and other goods for their enclave. Workers were told to avoid making “excessive demands” or going on strike, since such actions would “wreck the worker-peasant alliance” (Isaacs, p. 346).
Although these conciliatory actions took place during the ultraleft “Third Period,” they were a precursor to the class collaborationist policies of the Communist International in the epoch of the Popular Front, which was launched a few years later. In China, this meant adherence to the so-called Bloc of Four Classes (workers, peasants, petty bourgeoisie, and “progressive” bourgeoisie—represented in the four smaller stars on the Chinese flag).
From almost the beginning, the Red Armies were besieged by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces. They heroically out-maneuvered Chiang for over five years, but finally were defeated in August 1934. Most of the Communist forces succeeded in breaking through Chiang’s blockade and undertook the grueling “Long March” to the northwest. The March began with 300,000 fighters; when they arrived in Yan’an, only 30,000 were left.
In December 1936, Chiang prepared a new offensive against the forces of the CCP. Before it could get underway, however, Chiang was temporarily deposed by dissident officers among his own forces. Stalin, hearing of this, ordered the CCP to “save Chiang Kai-shek” and to offer to place their troops under Chiang’s command to fight the invasion by the Japanese. The CCP made the overture for a “Second United Front” to Chiang, but cooperation always remained shaky between the two forces.
Under the circumstances of the fight against Japanese colonialism and the Second World War, the CCP was able to greatly enlarge the territory under its control. The party hesitated before committing itself to land reform, but once it decided to back the struggle to confiscate and re-divide the big estates, the poor peasants flocked to the CCP banner by the thousands. The liberated area was governed under a coalition government, which included the “progressive” petty bourgeoisie and the “enlightened” gentry. But the Red Army, controlled by the CCP, was the real power.
At the close of World War II, the Communist Party, on Stalin’s prodding, agreed to participate in a conference to discuss setting up a coalition government with the Kuomintang and dissolving the Red Army into Chiang’s Nationalist Army. The United States strongly backed the plan, knowing that it was impossible at the time to send U.S. troops into China to aid Chiang Kai-shek in defeating the Communists. (U.S. troops and Naval personnel, after overcoming the Japanese, had rallied to return to the United States—the “Bring the Boys Home” movement.) As it turned out, the two sides quarreled over the terms of their representation in the new government, and Chiang reacted by attacking the Red Army.
Although the CCP chose to fight, they still called for a “Democratic Coalition Government,”—merely specifying that they would exclude Chiang Kai-shek. Even after Chiang had been defeated and fled the country in 1949, and the CCP took political power, the party continued to adhere to the “Bloc of Four Classes” formula. But under the threat of the Korean War, it set up a planned economy, monopolization of foreign trade, and a system of “state and private joint ownership” to gradually erode capitalist property rights. Finally, in 1956, Liu Shao-ch’i announced that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” had arrived and the “coalition government of four classes” was no longer applicable.
The authoritarian nature of the new “proletarian” regime was signaled four years earlier by the fact that it had rounded up and imprisoned most of the remaining Trotskyists in China—including noted veterans of the CCP’s early years. Many other Trotskyists had been driven into exile.
Some in the socialist movement insist that at some point Mao and the Chinese Communist Party broke with Stalin, and that it no longer could be considered a Stalinist party. Some say that the break took place at the time of the Long March, when the direct agents of the Kremlin abandoned the party to the Maoists, who based themselves on the Red Army and the peasantry. Yet the conciliatory tactics of the CCP following the Second World War were directly in line with Stalin’s attempts to placate the imperialist countries, which required acting to demobilize the revolutionary impulses of the worldwide working class. Most of all, as a buffer against U.S. imperialism, Stalin wanted the establishment of a bloc of “friendly” coalition capitalist governments around the borders of the Soviet Union. Mao and the CCP did their best to toe the Stalinist line, but the advent of the Cold War required them to erect barriers against the power of the bourgeoisie in China and to establish a (deformed) workers’ state.
Moreover, Mao himself stated that the establishment of the “People’s Republic” was a consequence of his understanding of the “teachings of Stalin.” The pamphlet “On the Question of Stalin,” published by the People’s Publishing House in Beijing in 1953, states: “Comrade Mao Tse-tung’s views on the nature and tactics of the Chinese revolution were based on the teachings of Stalin. Comrade Mao Tse-tung is Stalin’s disciple and comrade in arms. … His method of work and his way of reasoning are those of Stalin” (cited in Tom Kerry, “A Mao-Stalin Rift: Myth or Fact?” International Socialist Review, September-October 1969).
The truth is that in less than a decade, the Chinese Communist Party was hopelessly stunted by Stalinism. It no longer resembles the revolutionary working-class party of its first years. Under Xi, the CCP continues the authoritarian methods of Stalinism, which in China, as in the Soviet Union, were aimed at keeping the privileged bureaucracy in power. But the leadership now works to uphold capitalism; the deformed workers’ state is no longer intact. Leon Trotsky foresaw the possibility that the bureaucratic caste, despite its roots in the revolutionary movement, could evolve into the defenders of capitalism. He wrote in “The Revolution Betrayed,” “We cannot count upon the bureaucracy’s peacefully and voluntarily renouncing itself in behalf of socialist equality … it must inevitably in future stages seek supports for itself in property relations. … It is not enough to be the director of a trust; it is necessary to be a stockholder. The victory of the bureaucracy in this decisive sphere would mean its conversion into a new possessing class.”
China under Xi Jinping is now a merciless imperialist power. But tensions are increasing within the country. The bureaucracy has encountered difficulties in coping with COVID, floods, drought, pollution, unequal living conditions, and a host of other problems that have become worse as social protections deteriorate. The revolutionary “socialist” rhetoric that Xi and his cronies resort to can have an unintended effect; it can act to expose the inability of the current leadership of the Chinese Communist Party to fulfill the social objectives that the founders of their party lived and died for. But the Chinese bureaucrats and capitalists will not enjoy power forever. In time the working class will demand that its voice be heard loud and clear; they will rebuild a movement that can shake China, and the world, once again.
Top photo: Workers’ militia parades in Shanghai in March 1927. The following month, on Stalin’s urging, the workers were disarmed, and consequently slaughtered by Chiang Kai-shek.