Chapter 01: The Workers' Revolution

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 22, 2016

In 1921, when the Chinese Communist party was formed, China was in a state of grave crisis. The collapse of the old empire in 1911, the cumulative effects of foreign penetration (by Japan, Britain, France and the United States), the impact of the First World War and the Russian revolution, all posed severe problems and released new social forces. On the one hand, the old ruling order could not re-establish its power. Local warlords, petty gangsters and landlords filled the vacuum, dominating the countryside; foreigners controlled the great cities of the eastern seaboard. On the other, the nationalists – the Kuomintang, under their leader, Sun Yat-sen – could not mobilize sufficient military power to overcome local and foreign contenders for China’s territory. The war had vastly expanded China’s industry, which was heavily concentrated in the maritime cities. [1] By 1917, a new force was making its appearance – the Chinese working class.

In 1919, the Versailles treaty transferred Germany’s holdings in China, not to the weak Peking government, but to the new imperialist power, Japan. The student agitation against the treaty – known as the May 4th Movement – rapidly drew into its ranks workers, merchants and businessmen, and spread to attack the privileged and dominating position of foreigners in China. It was the first anti-imperialist movement the country had seen.

The twelve founding members of the Communist party were active participants in the May 4th Movement. The Russian revolution was a powerful inspiration. Not only had the overthrow of the old Tsarist empire produced a régime confident and strong enough to defeat Russia’s white “warlords”, the new Soviet government had repudiated the Tsar’s claims on China’s territory and promised to return all his thefts of the past. The Russians had also pledged their support to all oppressed peoples in the struggle for national independence.

The new Chinese Communist party set as its task the creation of a mass working-class party which would champion the cause of China’s national independence. To achieve victory, the party leadership acknowledged that it would have to displace the Kuomintang and give up the illusion that independence could be secured simply through military conspiracy. The party, though ambitious, was but a small group of intellectuals who lacked support among China’s workers. Harried in the north by warlords and the satraps of foreign powers, the Communists were struggling for political identity against the currents of anarchy and bourgeois nationalism. In 1921, the party claimed fifty-seven members; and 432 in 1923.

Despite its small size, the party participated in the strike wave of the early 1920s which led to the first great Hong Kong strike of 1920-21. The party also experienced the sudden downturn of 1923, when employers and warlords inflicted massive repression to win back control of the workplace. Unused to the rise and fall of popular struggle, the party was plunged in gloom. Without military security and guaranteed civil rights, it seemed, the labour movement could not be built.

The strike wave had other effects. The success with which workers paralysed the British colony in Hong Kong impressed the Kuomintang leadership, who had their headquarters in neighbouring Canton. They contributed to strike funds, encouraged the workers to use Canton as their base of operations, and welcomed the labour leaders under the Kuomintang banners.

The strike wave and the Kuomintang response also impressed the local representatives of the Communist International, the international party set up by the Russian Bolsheviks in 1919. Maring (alias Sneevliet) visited Sun Yat-sen in Canton during the Hong Kong strike. His report to Moscow stressed that only a popular nationalist force was capable of standing up to the warlords and foreigners. The Kuomintang, already famous throughout China, was just such a force. It was, Maring said, the instrument not of a particular class, but a bloc of four classes – intellectuals, overseas Chinese capitalists, soldiers and workers. But it was a loose organization, and could be influenced by the Communist International from without and the Chinese Communists from within.

By August 1922, the Communist International seems to have been urging the Chinese Communist party to enter an alliance with the Kuomintang. But the alliance was not to be a tactical collaboration between two separate organizations; Communists were to join the Kuomintang as individual members, while the Soviet Union provided material assistance and advisers to the Kuomintang leadership. The Executive Committee of the International (ECCI) changed its evaluation of the Kuomintang. It was now a “national revolutionary group”, based “partly on the liberal democratic bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, partly on the intelligentsia and workers”. Nonetheless, the Chinese Communists were instructed to preserve their independence and build a mass party “under its own colours”. China’s revolution would not, the ECCI said, be proletarian, but bourgeois democratic, with the peasantry therefore playing the main role.

In fact, the Kuomintang was not much more than the personal following of Sun and his associates. Its declared aims were Sun’s “Three People’s Principles” – Nationalism, Democracy (people’s rights) and Socialism (people’s livelihood). No concrete proposals gave content to these vague abstractions. The real aim was military power and it was the offer of Soviet military aid which attracted Sun towards the idea of an “alliance”.

Chiang Kai-shek, one of the more energetic young leaders of the Kuomintang, was despatched to Moscow to study Russian military affairs, and a team of Russian advisers under Borodin arrived in Canton. Borodin set about a swift reorganization of the Kuomintang on the model of the Soviet Communist party. [2] This entirely changed the position of the Communists. At the first Kuomintang Congress in January 1924, the Communists pledged individual loyalty to the Three People’s Principles and the Kuomintang leadership. In return, they secured three seats on the twenty-four-man Executive; one Communist became chief of the Kuomintang organization bureau,

Russian military assistance – the first arms shipments steamed up the Pearl river to Canton in October 1924 – brought the real rewards of the alliance. The Russians sponsored a new military academy at Whampoa and Chiang was made director. Sun’s military forces were now substantial enough for him to propose a Northern Expedition in preparation for the conquest of China.

By late 1924, all the actors in the drama were in place. Already a mass peasant movement was under way. Through the winter of 1924-5, the agrarian movement spread with great rapidity in Kwantung, Hunan, Hopei and Shantung. The Russian advisers had transformed the Kuomintang from a civilian clique of aspirant politicians into a serious contender for national power, a centralized party with an increasingly professional army. As the Kuomintang grew in strength, so it attracted new support from those who feared for their property and calculated, rightly in retrospect, that the Kuomintang was their best hope for the future. The Kuomintang Right-wing grew.

The May 30th Movement

In 1925, Chinese workers returned to a phase of intense activity. Early in the year, thirty to forty thousand workers in Japanese-owned mills struck in protest at sackings. A rash of strikes followed that spread from the Shanghai area to Wuhan and Canton in the south. On 15 May, a Japanese foreman killed a millworker. The Shanghai memorial meeting on 24 May was attended by some 5,000 people. On 30 May, a further protest demonstration was attacked by the police; ten demonstrators were killed and fifty wounded.

The May 30th Movement was born. Unlike the May 4th Movement, this was an overwhelmingly working-class reaction to foreign domination. On 1 June, a general strike against foreign capital was called by the newly founded General Labour Union (the leadership included a number of prominent Communists; in particular, Li Li-San and Liu Shao-ch’i). By the 13th, some 130,000 workers were out, and many of them remained on strike until July. The foreign authorities in Shanghai declared a state of martial law, and twenty-six gunboats were moved up the river to the city.

The movement spread. Three hundred thousand demonstrated in Peking, and other protests were launched in all the main cities. In Shanghai, the Communist-Kuomintang alliance led to the creation of a Shanghai Workers’, Merchants’ and Students’ Federation. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce refused to join the Federation, but nevertheless, prominent businessmen and even warlords made donations to the strike fund and, where appropriate, provision for their workers to participate in the protests. It seemed that the political alliance of employers and workers against foreign capital fitted the mood of the momept.

However, even in June, Shanghai business opinion was becoming nervous. Workers in Chinese enterprises discovered, from talking on the streets with their brothers from foreign-owned factories, that their pay and conditions were frequently worse. [3] The Kuomintang leadership might stress that the Chinese workers had a quarrel only with foreign capitalists, but in battle, capitalism did not seem to wear different national faces. [4] On 25 June, the merchants withdrew from the Federation. On 6 July the foreign-controlled Municipality cut off the electricity supply to Chinese firms; the generators had been kept running by the workers so that Chinese capital would not suffer in the agitation.

By August, foreign and Chinese business had decided on a common front against “anarchy”. On the 22nd, gangsters ransacked the headquarters of the General Labour Union. The strikes continued, but the workers tired as the tide of police, gangster and military violence rose. In mid-September, the military banned all trade union organization. In the factories, the employers had built up private armies to intimidate the workforce.

The setback was temporary. The link between the first and the second waves of activity in Shanghai was the revolt in Hong Kong. There, on 19 June, the General Federation of Labour called a protest strike over the deaths in Shanghai. Seamen, telegraph workers and printers responded, and demonstrated in neighbouring Canton with the support of the Kuomintang. The demonstrators marched past the British and French concessions in Canton, Shameen Island, and the watching foreign police opened fire, killing fifty two and wounding over one hundred marchers. A general strike broke out in Shameen, and this spread into an overall boycott of Hong Kong and British goods. By July, 50,000 workers were on strike. The Hong Kong authorities reacted with violence, and the workers flocked out of the city to the sanctuary of Canton. By mid-July, some 80,000 had fled.

The strike and boycott lasted fifteen months. It was a disaster for the Hong Kong economy. As the historian E.H. Carr concludes, the boycott “proved by far the most effective weapon wielded by the nationalists in their struggle against British imperialism; and the Kuomintang could hardly do other than applaud and support it”. [5]

The movement was extremely well organized. The strike was directed by a committee of thirteen, responsible to a delegate conference of

800 (in a ratio of one delegate to fifty strikers), meeting twice a week. The committee supervised the feeding, housing and entertainment of the strikers. It requisitioned gambling and opium dens in Canton as dormitories, rest rooms and education centres. It published a weekly newspaper. Strikers were organized to undertake voluntary work, which included building a road from Canton to Whampoa. By April, the strikers had set up a Workers’ College with eight extra-mural schools for adult workers and eight primary schools for their children. These activities were financed by donations, fines and the sale of seized merchandise. To police the boycott, the committee maintained a force of several thousand uniformed and armed pickets and set up courts to deal with those breaking the regulations. It also maintained a fleet of twelve gunboats to apprehend river smugglers. Furthermore, strikers spread to the villages to raise support for the boycott and advance the movement for agrarian reform.

The strike committee was indeed – as it was called – a “Government Number Two”. It maintained an administration apparently more powerful and of greater ho

nesty, parallel to the Kuomintang régime of Canton. In essence, it was the first Chinese workers’ soviet, one side of a system of “dual power”.

For the merchants and businessmen of Canton, however, the strike committee was a monster. They initially applauded its assault on British capital, no doubt calculating that what British capital lost, Chinese capital would gain. But as the committee’s power grew, business was increasingly constrained. The strike caused a slump in both Hong Kong and Canton; armed pickets prevented Chinese businessmen reaping the reward. Taxes, fines for evading the regulations, confiscation of contraband, and the burden of dole payments weighed heavily on Chinese capitalists. In 1924, Cantonese businessmen, aping their Shanghai brethren and with British support, set up a paramilitary vigilante force to combat the pickets of the strike committee. The “Merchant Volunteers”, as they were called, demanded the government give them arms to maintain “law and order”. The government dithered, but finally agreed. However, the Whampoa cadets refused to relinquish arms from the armoury. The Merchant Volunteers counter-attacked and, at one stage, the government was obliged to flee to the sanctuary of Whampoa, defended by the cadets, the worker pickets and Chiang’s troops.

The alliance under strain

Businessmen were not alone in being compelled to reassess worker participation in the nationalist movement. In August 1924, Sun’s political heir, a well-known member of the Kuomintang Left, was assassinated, apparently at the instigation of the Kuomintang Right. In November, a substantial section of the leadership, calling itself the Sun Yat-sen Society (Sun had died earlier), met outside Peking, proclaimed itself the Kuomintang Executive and expelled all Communists from the Kuomintang (but nonetheless affirmed the Kuomintang’s undying “friendship” with the Soviet Union and its arms supplies).

The International was also nervous that worker militancy might drive Chinese employers into the arms of foreign business. It instructed the Communist party to restrain the workers, to prevent “excesses”. The Communist party leadership was equally alarmed, but its reaction was quite different; it proposed to end the alliance. However, Stalin – now supreme in the Russian party – was not prepared to jeopardize the considerable Russian investment in the Kuomintang and its future role in safeguarding the eastern flanks of the Soviet Union: certainly not for a wild gamble on the possibility of workers’ power. The movement had to submit to the demands of the Kuomintang and its business allies. [6]

Perhaps a policy of restraint would have worked, albeit with severe damage to the popular movement. But the Kuomintang’s commitment to a Northern Expedition upset all calculations. While the Kuomintang felt it needed popular support, it needed the Communists, now heavily involved in the leadership of the worker and peasant movements. But as its military power expanded, it could afford to dispense with these allies, particularly if the allies appeared to threaten Kuomintang power itself. The Northern Expedition contained the threat of substituting military prowess for social revolution.

It was not surprising that the Communists and the Russian advisers viewed the Kuomintang’s military ambitions with suspicion. The Northern Expedition, they argued, was premature; it required first, complete security in the south, and second, sufficient power to deter foreign military intervention. Not all were agreed – for example, the senior Russian military adviser, General Blücher, was an ardent supporter of the Expedition; it is said that Mao was also a supporter. [7]

Chiang Kai-shek, who had assumed great prominence, seemed likely to inherit supreme military command. This perhaps consoled the Russians, for he was seen as their nominee in the leadership. However, Chiang was wary of rising Communist influence in the Kuoinintang. He was instrumental in securing, at the second Kuomintang Congress in January 1926, an obligation by the Communists to limit their membership of Kuomintang committees to one-third, and to submit a list of Communists in leading Kuomintang positions to the leadership.

If the Communists were worried, none of their fears were permitted public expression. The Soviet party’s message to the Congress was all euphoria: “To our Party has fallen the proud and historic role of leading the first victorious proletarian revolution of the world ... We are convinced that the Kuomintang will succeed in playing the same role in the East.” [8]

On such an assessment, the Chinese Communist party had apparently no role.

The first coup

On 20 March 1926, Chiang Kai-shek took the first step to establish command. On the pretext of a Left-wing plot to kidnap him, he introduced martial law and arrested his Russian and Chinese Communist advisers and staff (including the fifty Communist delegates to his military units). The Communists were caught completely off guard, and Chiang swiftly ended all opposition to the Northern Expedition.

At the same time, Chiang arrested the strike committee, the “Government Number Two”, and eliminated the trade union movement in Canton. (The strike was officially called off on 10 October, without any of the original demands being won.) The Communists gave no lead in opposition, for they had been instructed to preserve the alliance. Indeed, they retreated. They promised not to criticize the Three People’s Principles, to divulge full membership lists to the Kuomintang Executive, to submit all Comintern instructions to the Kuomintang for permission to implement them, and to remove all Communists heading Kuomintang departments. Finally, on the instructions of the delegate from the Communist International they made a formal apology to Chiang for their “misdemeanours”.

The weakness of the Russian advisers and the Chinese Communists was revealed. The Russians had only one card to play – the termination of military aid – and they were not prepared to play it. The power of the Communists lay in the worker and peasant movements. But to use it entailed breaking the alliance. The party proposed this to Stalin, but it was reproved as “ultra-leftism”. Instead, Moscow despatched a new Communist International delegate, Voitinsky, to correct “ultra-leftist”, anti-Kuomintang tendencies in the party.

The Comintern banned any news suggesting a rift between Chiang and the Communists. The rumours that circulated in the Western press were denounced as imperialist fabrications, maliciously put about to wreck the “revolutionary alliance”. [9] The Politburo of the Soviet party did not discuss Chiang’s coup, nor was it mentioned in the long resolution considered by the Seventh ECCI in November. Secrecy had become vital, even though it disarmed the labour and peasant movements in China. It was not simply a result of the need to preserve the alliance in China. Indeed, it had little to do with China at all. To admit Chiang’s coup was for Stalin to admit that the criticisms of the opposition in the Russian party, and above all the brilliant critique of policy by Trotsky, were correct. [10]

On 4 June, the Kuomintang leadership ratified the plans for the Northern Expedition and vested’ supreme power in the hands of Chiang. The coup had purged the Kuomintang and begun to roll back the workers’ movement. It was a practice run for what was to happen a year later. It was also a signal to Chinese businessmen and landlords that Chiang was a man to be trusted. Kwantung’s landlords now launched squads of armed men to dismember the peasant associations. The Communists appealed to Borodin for Russian arms to defend themselves. He refused, answering curtly but accurately that “the present period is one in which the Communists should do coolie service for the Kuomintang”.

The Northern Expedition

Chiang might control the leadership of the popular revolt, but not the revolt itself. Communists fanned out before his advancing troops, raising revolt in village and town to greet them. Workers in Hong Kong flocked to the army, to distribute propaganda, to assist in the creation of trade unions and peasants’ associations. In Changsha, the trade unions seized the city. Railwaymen captured the Yueh-Han line to carry nationalist troops, and sabotaged the Hupeh section to block the movement of hostile forces. At the Wuchang arsenal, workers stopped production to prevent arms reaching the enemy.

A host of “second governments” appeared in Hupeh and Hunan, with their own militia and administration. In January, spontaneous strikes behind the Kuomintang lines in Hankow and Kiukiang even forced the British to abandon their concessions there. The Kuomintang reproved the workers for “excesses”, but happily took credit for this defeat of British imperialism. The Communists reproved the workers also; they appealed to the peasants to ally with the “good gentry”, the landlords whose sons were now officers in the Kuomintang army. [11]

The ECCI affirmed that there was to be no confiscation of land except as a penalty for “reactionaries, militarists and compradores and those landlords and gentry who are waging civil war against the Kuomintang National Government”. The Communist party leadership thus had the contradictory task of supporting the Kuomintang and its new officer class of landlord sons, and championing a peasant revolution against the landlords.


By the autumn of 1926, the labour movement was once more in the ascendant. The Communists prepared for the arrival of Chiang’s armies. Forward military units reached Hangchow by February 1927, and then Kashing, only fifty miles from Shanghai. The General Labour Union launched a general strike to greet the army. Three hundred and fifty thousand workers joined in and there was street fighting. The Communists loyally persisted in looking to the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” to lead the struggle, and proposed therefore the creation, not of workers’ soviets, but of Citizens’ Assemblies to represent all classes. Insurrection was proposed for 22 February to coincide with Chiang’s arrival.

However, Chiang had been advised by the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” to keep his troops out of the city lest they be infected by the Bolshevik virus. In the interim, warlord troops, police and sundry gangsters blunted the edge of worker militancy. For a whole month Chiang’s troops delayed while warlord soldiers endeavoured to master the city. A foreign correspondent noted the paradox: “Many people were arrested because they carried handbills which read: ‘Welcome, Chiang Kai-shek, gallant commander of the Cantonese’. They were found guilty and executed on the spot.” [12]

On 20 March, forward Kuomintang troops reached Lunghua on the edge of the city and halted to negotiate with the warlord troops in occupation. On 21 March, the General Labour Union again called a general strike. This time, between half and three-quarters of a million people responded, protected by a 5,000-man militia armed with only 150 pistols. Street-fighting broke out, but now the pickets seized the police stations and military posts and helped themselves to arms. The troops fled for protection to the foreign-controlled districts, the International Settlement. The General Labour Union set up a Provisional Municipal Corporation and, on the basis of this apparent victory, ordered the workers back to work.

On 26 March, Chiang entered the city. On the 27th, he imposed martial law, arrested Communists and Kuomintang Left-wingers, and banned trade union and student organizations. For the communists, it was not entirely unexpected, since Chiang had followed exactly the same procedure wherever his troops had taken over. In Kiangsi, his armies eliminated the labour and peasant movements as soon as they had secured control. But news of these events had been suppressed in the press lest they jeopardize the “alliance”.

The General Labour Union was shut down and, on 12 April, Chiang launched his counter-attack, arresting, killing and disarming the pickets. The leadership of the Union again called a general strike, demanding the return of the arms and punishment for Chiang’s underlings. Too late and too little. For the party still refrained from appealing to its known sympathizers in the Kuomintang armies, which would have blown the “alliance” apart. One hundred thousand responded to the strike call, but Chiang’s troops were now ready and machine-gunned the crowds. Some 5,000 were slaughtered, many of them publicly executed on street corners.

The leadership of the strongest centre of the Chinese working class had been decapitated. In Moscow, as in the first coup, rumours of the disaster were denied. Stalin insisted that the “alliance” was still to be maintained: “Chiang Kai-shek is submitting to discipline. The Kuomintang is a bloc, a sort of revolutionary parliament, with the Right, the Left, and the Communists. Why drive away the Right when we have a majority and when the Right listens to us? The peasant needs an old worn-out jade as long as she is necessary. He does not drive her away. So it is with us. When the Right is of no more use to us, we will drive it away ... Chiang Kai-shek has perhaps no sympathy for the revolution, but be is leading the army and cannot do otherwise than lead it against the imperialists ... (the Right) have to be utilized to the end, squeezed out like a lemon and then flung away.” [13]

In Shanghai, it was not necessary to look far to see who had been “squeezed out and flung away”.

Moscow did not give up so easily. A split occurred in the Kuomintang between the strong military centre (finally located under Chiang in Nanking) and the weak remnant of the civilian politicians (in Wuhan). The Communists were directed to “ally” with the Wuhan government, but now on much weaker terms. It was a brief and ignominious episode, governed by the terror of “excesses”. By July it was over, and the Communists were ejected.

Between 1926 and 1927, party membership fell from 57,900 to 10,000. Between April and December 1927, some 38,000 militants were killed, and 32,000 imprisoned. Trade union membership contracted sharply.

The alliance in retrospect

Events in China between 1925 and 1927 confirmed Lenin’s estimate of the revolutionary capacity of a working class in a backward country. The labour movement developed with such speed because the later a backward country began industrialization, the more rapidly a new working class was concentrated in large-scale production, and the more rapidly the great cities grew. Workers were not snared in the conservative traditions of older working classes; the social structure contained relatively few of the middle classes, and so ideological control of the masses was weak. However, converting militant workers into political cadres depended upon the role of the small Communist party. In the China of the mid-twenties, as in Russia a decade earlier, both objective and subjective conditions for a workers’ revolution briefly coincided.

Yet the workers’ movement was disastrously defeated. Chinese workers never again played an important political role before the Communists came to power. The destruction of the workers’ movement permitted a similar destruction of the peasant movement. It was not the balance of forces which determined the defeat, but the tactics and strategy of the Communist party – or rather, the tenacious loyalty of the Communist International to the Kuomintang, and of the Communist party to the International. The Comintern endlessly repeated the need for the Communists to be independent, yet rendered independence impossible by subordinating the party to the Kuomintang.

The very word “alliance” became mystifying. In Russia, the alliance was between classes, not parties. The Bolsheviks did not organize the peasants, nor lead them in struggles against the landlords, nor even ally with the leading peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries. The alliance entailed that workers seize the State and so defend the spontaneous seizure of the land by the peasants; what Marx much earlier described in Germany as a “peasant war”. After the October insurrection, the Bolsheviks adopted the agrarian programme of the Social Revolutionary party. [14]

In China, “alliance” meant something different. It was not a relationship between social classes, nor was it an alliance of the parties of the exploited, the workers and peasants. There were no institutions to make possible such an alliance, no workers’ soviets or national peasant federations. It was an agreement to subordinate a party which aspired to lead the working class to a party which aimed to lead Chinese capital and landlords. In 1925, these twin aspirations were transformed into reality – real social content, like a gale, filled the sails of the Communist craft. Compromise between the interests of the exploiters and those of the exploited became impossible.

Left to themselves, the Communists would almost certainly have ended the alliance. The Russian government, led by Stalin, decreed otherwise. It was the Russian government which transformed the Kuomintang into an organization which corresponded to the Russian Communist party in structure but without a Bolshevik programme. It supplied the arms and advice, which made it possible for Chiang Kai-shek to win the hegemony of China. Through the Comintern, it directed the Communist party to limit mass endeavours to what was acceptable to the Kuomintang. Finally, when it was obvious that the Kuomintang would sooner or later destroy the Communist party, it protected Chiang to the last by censoring all reports of what was happening.

Throughout, it invented labels to justify its strategy by describing the Kuomintang, in Stalin’s words, as a “workers’ and peasants’ party”, which thereby rendered the Communist party obsolete. [15] The Kuomintang was whatever the tactics of Stalin required.

Stalin subordinated the Chinese Communists to the interests of the Soviet State and Russian foreign policy. To do so, he required a theoretical justification. The form this took was that China faced a “bourgeois revolution” which must – contrary to Lenin’s formulation in Russia – be led by the Chinese bourgeoisie. In Russia, in March 1917 when Stalin advanced a comparable formulation concerning the Provisional Government, it was described as Menshevism. But in China, no April Theses reversed the dominant party position. As a result, the party was compelled to accept the doctrine of “stages” – first came the defeat of imperialism and feudalism, then the development of independent socialist forces. The task of the workers’ movement could not be fulfilled until after the Kuomintang had won power. Until then workers must be “restrained”. The act of popular self- emancipation was detached from the conquest of State power and indefinitely postponed. Yet in Russia in 1917, the act of seizing power was the seizure of the State, the workers seizing the factories and the peasants the land. The revolution was a mass action, not something undertaken by a special political or military group on behalf of the masses.

The Communists slipped further from the leadership of the popular movement as it developed. It was leadership by default, bending all its efforts to curb the militants. The leadership was obliged by the alliance not to champion the most advanced demands, but to fight against them, to reserve the right to decide what popular interests were tolerable. The party’s verbal demands – for example, “Land to the Tillers” – were rhetoric, not to be taken seriously; in practice it meant no more than a twenty-five per cent reduction in rent, and government confiscation of the land of “wicked landlords”. Yet in conditions of revolution, it was the slogan which caught popular imagination, not the fine print. Then the slogan bounced back like a bomb into the middle of the alliance.

It could not be claimed that Stalin and the leadership of the international lacked adequate information. Trotsky had far poorer information than Stalin, yet he identified the impending catastrophe as flowing necessarily from the conjuncture of the alliance’ and a popular revolution. The whole experience of 1917 stood as an object lesson of the need for the independence of the workers’ movement and party. Stalin did not make an error. He pursued a strategy totally at variance with the declared aims of the International. As a result, what Lenin identified as the role of the Soviet Union in the world revolution – “making the greatest national sacrifices for the overthrow of international capitalism” [16] – became reversed; the Chinese party was required to “make the greatest international sacrifices for the preservation of Russia’s national ‘socialism’.” [17]


1. On China’s early industrial history, see John Chang, Industrial Development in Pre-Communist China, Chicago, 1949; on the labour movement, see Jean C. Chesneaux, The Chinese labour movement, 1919-27, Stanford, 1968. The most outstanding political account of the period is Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, London, 1938 edition

2. See his explanation of frictions with the Communists – they were jealous of Russian military aid – in A Documentary History of Chinese Communism edited by Conrad Brandt, Benjamin Schwartz and John K. Fairbank, New York, 1967, p.63

3. “Exploitation in [Chinese-owned] enterprises was generally greater than in foreign-owned industries; the technically backward and relatively undercapitalized Chinese firms were able to compete only by such methods”, Israel Epstein, Notes on Labour Problems in Nationalist China, New York, 1949 mimeo

4. Sun Yat-sen, 1924 May Day speech: “The difference between the Chinese workers and foreign workers lies in the fact that the latter are oppressed only by their own capitalists and not by those of other countries ... The Chinese workers are as yet not oppressed by Chinese capitalists ... They are oppressed by foreign capitalists”. Cited by Isaacs, op. cit., p.71

5. Cited by E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-26, London, 1964, III, p.751

6. Zinoviev, then president of the Communist International, reported to the 14th Congress of the Soviet Communist party in December that “The Chinese party received a directive proposing a certain putting on of brakes” – cited by Carr, Socialism, op. cit., p.761 [The reference is missing in the book. I have placed it in what seems to be the most logical position – EO’C]

7. General V.V. Blücher (Galin), Sep. 1925, Prospects for 1926, translated CQ35, Jul.-Sept. 1968, p.23

8. Inprecor, 7 January 1926

9. See Inprecor 53, 5 April 1926, reprint from the Berlin Rote Fahne, 28 March 1926. The Tass Peking correspondent specifically denied the allegations, 30 March despatch, cited Isaacs, op. cit., p.111

10. For example, see Leon Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution (documents); translated and published, New York, 1932

11. Circular letter of the Central Committee, CPC, 7 August 1927 in A Documentary History, op. cit., p.102 passim

12. New York Herald Tribune, 21 February 1927

13. Unpublished speech, cited by Vuyovitch as a challenge to Stalin at the 8th Plenum of the ECCI, May 1927. Stalin did not deny he made the speech, nor that it was in the terms quoted, but the official transcription was never published; cited by Isaacs, op. cit., p.185, from Documents de l’Opposition Française, pp.36, 64, and included as second appendix to Trotsky, op. cit., pp. 376-90. At the 8th Plenum, Stalin affirmed that events in China had “proved the line laid down was correct” – Questions of the Chinese Revolution, Inprecor, 7/27, 28 Aprril 1927 (from Pravda 90, 21 April 1927)

14. Lenin,CW31, p. 72

15. Problems of Leninism, Moscow, n.d. (written 1926), p. 264

16. From Lenin’s Theses on the Colonial Question, 2nd Congress, Communist International, in Jane Degras (ed), The Communist International 1919-1943, London, 1971, I

17. Isaacs, 1938, op. cit., p.51