China 1925-1927

This article is translated from Prometeo 16 – VI series – December 2007

For Trotsky the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 was the most grandiose event after October 1917. It should therefore cast light on aspects which bear on the contemporary situation, given that it anticipated the Spanish experience by 10 years – without the lessons provided by the Chinese proletariat being learnt – and that for many revolutionaries of today, China has begun to "exist" in capitalist terms for, at most, the last 30 years.

1911: the ancient political edifice represented by the semi-god Emperor of the Manchu dynasty collapses, after several decades of capitalist penetration by major powers, which had undermined the feudal economic basis thanks to the system of Extra-Territorial Concessions. Even little Italy had, since 1870, its charge d'affaires at the court of the Celestial Empire.

The situation that follows is chaotic, and sees a number of regional centres of power embodied by the figures of the so-called "warlords", they are often at war and always tied directly to foreign capitalists, the main centres are in Northern China, Beijing, in the centre, Shanghai, and to the south, Canton – both on the coast, an important fact – plus a dozen medium-sized cities inside.

These warlords were used to impose ruthless military dictatorships over their subjects, confident of the economic and military support of this or that foreign power. Also, it was not uncommon to gather taxes many years in advance (e.g. in the early 1920s, some regions had already collected taxes as far ahead as 1935!). They imposed customs duties, often heavy, on goods that were circulating in their territory with the obvious result of increases in final prices. Sometimes they used autonomous systems of measurement, different from the old imperial system of weights, sizes etc. which resulted in chaos.

The Western powers were often direct owners of manufacturing that, thanks to the tax exemption enjoyed by virtue of extraterritoriality granted to them by the Unequal Treaties (whose name expressed their content well...) along with the imperial bureaucracy, competed “unfairly” with the companies owned by the Chinese. Today, our decadent bourgeoisie complains of the contrary... Obviously all these things deeply clashed with the need for efficient movement of goods, which would require a politically unified market, a need felt more by the section of the Chinese bourgeoisie less directly involved in trade with foreigners, the so-called compradores. But, due to their social weakness, this was not expressed openly in a nationalist movement after the collapse of the Empire.

Only in the south in Canton was there a "nationalist" government inspired by the Kuomintang (KMT), known as the Party of the People, that did not hide its ambition of the reunification of the country.

This KMT had its theoretical and political leaders in Sun-Yat-Sen who aspired to merge the traditional Chinese culture with modern Western ideas, his slogans were "Freedom, Progress, and Welfare of the People" - so generic they could, and in fact did, serve to unite all classes in a single project, depending on whether one gave a radical or conservative interpretation. In fact, within it co-existed trends of the left, centre and right, according to their class perspective.

It is important to remember that Southern China, represented by Canton, had an important material advantage compared to the rest of the country, because since 1600 the region had succeeded, thanks to the particular climatic conditions and crossing of varieties of rice, in producing two or even three crops of rice per year instead of one as in the rest of the country. A fundamental factor given that rice as well as being a staple food, allowed for the fielding of larger armies and for longer periods.

Also in Canton the KMT, although not ousted by various warlords in 1923-24, had to rely on the peasants and workers by taking up revolutionary phraseology and imagery, Sun-Yat-Sen himself (who was also graduated by the Bolsheviks' University for Foreigners in Moscow) met the Soviet Ambassador Joffe and the USSR sent weapons, equipment and military advisers in large quantities to the KMT.

The Chinese situation has many similarities with that of Russia, a huge country, a huge population now as then (it is estimated around 400 million people) mostly poor peasants or poor and working class numerically weak (2-8 million) but socially impressive as it was concentrated in a few large cities: in Shanghai, like Petersburg in 1905, the concentration of the proletarians in the total population was equal if not superior to that of Berlin or London.

In the Marxist perspective, the strength of classes is a dialectical factor, rather than the arithmetic sum of statistical numbers as some "revolutionaries" still argue (which is the economist and gradualist vision of the Mensheviks whose political counterpart is the myth of the majority winning).

The main difference was that Marxism was virtually unknown except for anarchist versions, and only in early 1920 were the ideas of October passed on by informal and semi-clandestine means by envoys from the International to two professors at the University of Beijing – Cheng Duxiu and Li Dazaho, known for their progressive positions generally – through which began a work of propaganda, even if only at first on the academic level, with the refutation, in the light of historical and dialectical materialism, of all other philosophies of interpretation of the world. Fairly quickly, study groups were set up around them, composed of students and workers, the so-called "society for the study of Marxism." It began a correspondence with the International with the translation into Chinese of all the major works of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

It is the first spark; Duxiu Cheng, imprisoned for several months for his propaganda work with the troops of the local Warlord, tied to the Japanese who wanted to kill him, was forced to emigrate to Shanghai to continue his work with even more fruitful results in the years ahead.

Many students won over by communist ideas went to work in factories, in manufacturing, railway etc. to propagate the principles by engaging primarily in the creation of trade unions of a class character, at that time either non-existent or totally corporate (eg. unloaders at the port were completely divided into separate guilds according to what they used to unload ships; hands, head, or the classic bamboo pole...).

In a few years millions of workers enrolled in the Unified Secretariat of Trade Unions, where the communists, amongst its founders, would have considerable influence.

In July of 1921 the Chinese Communist Party was born in Shanghai – Chandang Gong in Chinese - with its monthly organ, The Communist, founded by 13 delegates (including the young master Mao Zedong), representing the seven communist groups around the country that, although uneven in degree of assimilation of Marxism, counted on 57 recognised militants and 200 "youth."

The main inspirations were the above-mentioned Duxiu and Dazaho.

The pre-existing Socialist Party, linked to the Second International and the Chinese of Europe, was sarcastically called by them "a party born as a tiger that became a snake", to paraphrase a popular saying. It should be noted that almost all the Socialist Youth, as in Italy, and many anarchists went to the Chinese Communist Party.

The following year the membership would be 195 and 4,000 respectively, in 1925 994 and 2,600 and 20 thousand in total in 1926. Its limitation was certainly its assimilation of the growing gradualism and frontism now emanating from the 3rd Congress of the International, thus placing the main emphasis on the creation of trade unions, and the classical hypothesis of revolution by stages: firstly the creation and strengthening of the inions by forcing wage improvements on the bourgeoisie, then planning to unify the country against foreigners – perhaps in alliance with the "progressive" wing of "their own" bourgeoisie – after that the switch to prepare for the Revolution.

The necessary leadership role of the Communist Party is watered down, so to speak, in alliance with the KMT.

By 1922 the International orders entry into the KMT to "conquer from within."

June 1925 – Guangzhou and Hong Kong

Following the killings by British soldiers of Shangai strikers, a general strike starts in Canton and Hong Kong, the longest of all the history of the labour movement, in fact lasting until the spring of 1926 (!). Employees elect their councils or recallable delegates, forming the Strike Committee, and create their own armed militias to ensure respect for the strike. This creates a classic situation of dual power with the Cantonese KMT government. The Comintern was allied to the latter, especially its left wing, the Chinese Communist Party obeys and does not give the order – the duty of consistent revolutionaries – for the extension of Soviets throughout the region, especially in the countryside. The government cleverly exploits the anti-British feeling of the strikers in a nationalist direction.

The Chinese middle class, albeit cautiously, supported the strike by donations to the Workers' Resistance funds as they were benefitting commercially at the expense of the foreign competition.

March 1926 – Canton

The new leader of the KMT, Chiang Kai-Shek, orders the occupation of the premises of the Strike Committee and workers' organisations (councils, trade unions) and arrests their members with the exact aim of bringing the Communists into line, defining their tasks and status as auxiliary forces of the KMT with a rude, if not fatal, shock.

That is to say, with sabres, and jail.

This is a superb lesson that this political organ of the Chinese bourgeoisie gives to the proletariat against the Zinovievian/Stalinist thesis of the "united front for national liberation", then the "block of four classes" which follows. And, simultaneously, confirming the thesis of the 2nd Congress of the necessity of total political and organizational autonomy of the proletariat even in struggles for national liberation, and its leading role in them.

Indeed, in the name of discipline (why? Not to the Revolution), the Chinese Communist Party agree not to have their newspapers and circles, not to undertake any kind of propaganda activities among workers, peasants and soldiers, to act and speak only on behalf of the KMT, whose founder’s thought is declared "final and fair", and to have no representative in major decision-making bodies of the KMT. Furthermore, the KMT demands – satisfied – the list of names of all members present in Chinese Communist Party organizations (!).

The Chinese Communist Party essentially ceases to exist as an autonomous entity under the instructions of the International, led by Zinoviev. Political suicide, or, from another point of view more consistent with Marxism, full compliance to the needs of stabilization of Russian capitalism in full NEP, pushing for a bourgeois-democratic revolution in China, and nothing more, with the very powerful tools of the International and its discipline, whose attacks the Italian Left was then suffering. The young Chinese Communist Party obviously had little chance to resist all of this politically and organisationally, but some voices - eg. Duxiu - rose timidly against the policy of Moscow’s bowing to the KMT, taking up the criticism of a Trostky already on the path of defeat, even if in a more moderate form (i.e. external support for the KMT).

This was a complete reversal of the way the problem was presented in 1920 at the 2nd Congress; the indispensable leadership of the proletariat and its communist party and their complete and total political, military and organisational autonomy, the proletariat at the head of the other classes, not tailing a mass movement.

The importance of these events for the fate of the world revolution is all the greater since all this happened to coincide with the great general strike that paralyzed Great Britain for weeks, where Prime Minister Lloyd George gave the following well-known answer to the Queen who asked him why did the army not take action against the strikers;

“Your Majesty, in so doing, we could seriously risk finding Soviets in Westminster and Buckingham Palace... We hope this revolutionary wave passes on its own.”

The British Governor General of Hong Kong, under siege for months and paralyzed by a general strike, received a similar response to his request for troops to stop the strike.

Words, not surprisingly, that a few years earlier Giolitti had also said about the occupation of factories in the face of a less cautious bourgeoisie.

This goes to show how the bourgeoisie, in critical moments, is paralyzed and can rely for its survival mainly – if not only – on the lack of clear political direction of its class enemy, the proletariat.

Direction which obviously can only come about via a sufficiently rooted revolutionary party line. Which, as mentioned above regarding the "weight" of the proletariat in the entire population, is not so much a matter of the absolute arithmetic number of its militants as much as their ideological roots in the places and moments of decisive battles.

The KMT in fact joins the Comintern as a "sympathizer" and then immediately begins the so-called Northern Expedition to unify the whole country. During this march the farmers, who see the army of KMT assisted by advisers of the Red Army as their own class army, take part in violent uprisings against the landowners for the redistribution of land. The arrival of the soldiers, welcomed by festive crowds waving red flags and handkerchiefs as well as blue, symbolic of the KMT, soon gives way to the harsh realities (the similarities with the Italian festive crowds at the arrival of the Allies are not unrelated...). Mass arrests, executions and restoration of land to those land owners shrewd enough to have taken the side of the old KMT against the warlords in advance of their arrival. In the countryside there was, for a long time, a kind of partisan army of poor farmers called the "Red Spades" – Serge V. estimates it at about 800,000-2,000,000 members across the country – which was literally repressed and then dissolved by the KMT under pressure from landowners.

The military victories of the KMT were dramatically over-emphasized even by the Comintern in an anti-Western stance, making them more credible than ever in the eyes of the proletarians and peasants in the rest of China.

The Comintern continued to argue that it was necessary to support the KMT, strengthening it with "proletarian blood," until it is made into a class organ.

February-March 1927 – Shanghai

Continuing north the KMT arrives at the gates of the city. Shortly after entry of troops into the city, the proletariat of the metropolis of over two million people rise in revolt against the foreign capitalists barricaded in their Concessions and concentrated in the town a contingent of 15 thousand soldiers and 30 warships, against the local warlord and his troops. Their leading organ – so terribly significant – the Unified Trade Union declares a general strike and the formation of workers' militias. The slogan is "support the army from the South, Viva-Chiang Kai-Shek!"... Poorly organized and prepared, the insurgency is suppressed while the army of the KMT remains outside Shanghai which is exactly what Chiang-Kai-Shek wishes because he wants to enter in a city already partially "cleaned up", where thousands of heads of decapitated proletarians are raised on poles or carried around the city by soldiers and where the "blood flows like rivers", as some appalled Western reporters wrote. At the end of March, the KMT enters the city welcomed with enthusiasm by the masses, who in the meantime had again arisen, better organised this time, forming workers’ militias which attack the arsenal to seize weapons and then the barracks to disarm the soldiers and thus became masters of the streets.

So the KMT army was in a city under the control of the armed proletariat. Still under the leadership of the Unified Trade Union.

Chiang-Kai-Shek is careful to immediately declare himself as a "responsible" element to the Western powers with the magic formula "the relations between capital and labour will not be affected", which immediately earned him a donation of $30 million and unconditional support from the powerful Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Manufacturing Unions, Banks, etc.

Foreigners and the Chinese bourgeoisie, but not the proletariat, were well aware of the situation of extreme danger represented by the dual power, with thousands of workers in arms in a city but devoid of a clear political perspective. It is therefore necessary to disarm them. The Comintern refused to arm the workers' militia, preferring, very significantly, to send weapons and ammunition to the KMT and ordering them to hide the weapons they had "in order to avoid provocations, not to give anyone the excuse to attack the workers..." Chiang-Kai-Shek, who cannot fully trust his army that increasingly fraternises with the proletarians in arms, begins to select the most reliable and better paid elements within it.

He also initiates contacts with representatives of the underworld to recruit the necessary human resources (another textbook example of counter-revolution). He thus creates armed squads known as the Nationalist Workers that on the 12-4 on an agreed signal simultaneously attack labourers’ pickets throughout the city, when these resist they will be smashed by the army now equipped with machine guns and armoured cars, and those pickets that accept disarmament, in the name of peace between classes established by Chiang-Kai-Shek, will face sabres and prison. The dead proletarians of those days are estimated at tens of thousands. The General Union, the workers’ leading organ, continued for several days to accuse the KMT of "injuring democracy”, reminding it of the support that workers had given the KMT, and appeals to its good will.

Arrests in Shanghai – 1927
Arrests in Shanghai – 1927

On the same days in Beijing the local warlords in the pay of the Japanese launched at the same time their own campaign against the Communists and workers' organizations. Among the many murdered by the soldiers there was also the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Li Dazaho. Similar events will be repeated in subsequent weeks in all major Chinese cities. The bourgeoisie, whatever its nationality and whatever its political ideology, thus settled, preventively, in this case, accounts with the proletariat. At the end of 1927 the Comintern decided to launch "from scratch" an insurrection in Canton with great use of resources, money and men to avoid losing the confidence of workers and peasant masses in their sincere revolutionary desire. As expected, it was resolved in a mere street fight with yet another inevitable bloodbath for the generous Chinese proletariat since there was no duality of power nor a revolutionary situation. Such actions, as noted by Vercesi/Perrone in Prometeo a few months later, "only serve to offer up the best, most generous and selfless elements of the proletariat to the bourgeois machine guns and jail, at the same time forcing the retreat of the disillusioned and frightened masses."

With the defeat of the proletariat in China in 1927 the historic opportunity of the 'assault on heaven’ finally closes.

The Chinese Communist Party definitely became a peasant party, nationalist and pro-Stalin up to taking power in 1949 (see the Party pamphlet Per una critica del maoismo).

Soviet power in China – a very possible outcome given a different course of events in Russia –probably would have left very little room for manoeuvre for the imperialist robbers in the crisis of 1929, accelerating the outcome of war. Not to mention the enormous influence it might have had on the other Asian giant, namely India, and therefore directly on Great Britain.

The lesson of China was not assimilated by an international proletariat lacking internationalist political references and 10 years after the Spanish proletariat would be bound and sacrificed by the "Popular Fronts / Anti-Fascist” policies.

During the Second World War it was the turn of the Italian and Greek proletariat to be enrolled in this way in "national liberation fronts".

These struggles still mark a fundamental difference between the internationalists and all that varied political spectrum that more or less consciously has its roots in Stalinism (but never rooted in the truth).

Damiano Signorini