The Chinese question (1920-40): The communist left against the treason degenerated Communist International

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From the Left Opposition's debate within the CI to the rejection of national liberation struggles by the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left.

We have already published in our Review a series of articles on so-called Communist China, in which we showed the counter-revolutionary nature of Maoism. If we return here to the fight waged by the Chinese proletariat during the 1920s, up until the terrible defeat it suffered in Shanghai and Canton, it is not only because this was a significant expression of the balance of forces between bourgeois and proletariat at the international level, but also because it played an important role in the revolutionary movement itself, owing to the decisive political battles which it engendered.
As Zinoviev wrote in 1927: "the events in China are of equal importance to the events in Germany in October 1923. And if the whole attention of our party was then focussed on Germany, it is now necessary to do the same with regard to China, all the more so because the international situation has become more complicated and mort' disquieting for us"[1]. And Zinoviev was right to underline the gravity of the situation which was recognised by revolutionaries all liver the world. In effect, the events in China were about to mark the end of the worldwide revolutionary wave as Stalinism imposed itself more and more within the Communist International.

However, the situation in China was also one of the questions which allowed the "Left Opposition" to structure itself, and the "Italian Left" (which published the review Bilan) to affirm itself politically as one of the most important currents within the international opposition, a current which in the years that followed developed an activity and a political reflection of inestimable value.

The crushing of the revolution in China

The mid-1920s were a crucial period for the working class and its revolutionary organisations. Could the revolution still develop and advance on a world level? If not, could the Russian revolution survive for long in its isolation? These were questions that preoccupied the communist movement, and the whole CI was hanging on the possibilities of the revolution in Germany. Since 1923, the policy 0 the CI had been to push for insurrection. Zinoviev, who was still its president, had totally underestimated the scale of the defeat in Germany[2]. He declared that it was merely an episode and that new revolutionary assaults were on the agenda in several countries. The CI clearly had a feeble political compass, and in trying to make up for the ebb of the revolutionary wave, it fell into an increasingly opportunist strategy. From 1923 onwards, Trotsky and the first Left Opposition denounced its grave errors and showed their tragic consequences, but did not go so far as to speak of treason. The degeneration of the CI gathered pace; at the end of 1925 the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin triumvirate came apart, and the CI was then under the leadership of Stalin and Bukharin. The "putschist" policy which had prevailed under Zinoviev was replaced by a policy based on the view that capitalism had entered a long phase of "stabilisation". This was the right wing course, which in Europe centred round the united front with the "reformist" parties[3]. In China the CI adopted a policy which went beyond even what the Mensheviks had advocated for the economically undeveloped countries. From 1925 onwards, it put forward the idea that what was on the agenda was the Kuomintang's policy and the bourgeois revolution: the communist revolution would have to come afterwards. This position ended up leading the Chinese workers to the slaughter.

In fact it was during the ultra-leftist, putschist period that the CI harassed the CCP into entering into the Kuomintang, which at the CI's 5th Congress was declared a "sympathising party" of the International (Pravda, 25 June 1924). It was a "sympathising" party that would be the gravedigger of the proletariat!

The Stalinised CI "considered the Koumintang to be an organ of the Chinese national revolution. The communists went en masse under the name and banner of the Kuomintang. This policy led to the communists entering the national government in March 1927. They were given the portfolios of Agriculture (after the party declared itself opposed to any agrarian revolution and in favour of "stopping the overly vigorous actions by the peasants"), and of Labour, in order to channel the working masses towards a policy of compromise and treason. The CCP July plenum also pronounced itself to be against the seizure of the land, against the arming of the workers and peasants - in other words, for the liquidation of the party and the class movements of the workers and for subjecting them totally to the Kuomintang, in order to avoid a break with the latter at any cost. All were in agreement with this criminal policy. From the right under Peng Chou Chek, to the centre under Chen Duxiu and the so-called left under Tsiou Tsiou-Bo" (Bilan no. 9, July 1934).

This opportunist policy, so brilliantly analysed by Bilan a few years later, having pushed the CCP to more or less dissolve into the Kuomintang, resulted in a terrible defeat for the Chinese workers: "on 26'h March, Chiang Kai-Chek began his coup by arresting a number of communists and sympathisers ... These facts were hidden from the Executive Committee of the CI, whereas much noise had been made about Chiang Kai-Chek's anti-imperialist speech at the Congress of Labour in 1926. The Kuomintang troops began their march towards the north. This would serve as a pretext for stopping the strikes in Canton, Hongkong, etc ... As the troops approached there was an uprising in Shanghai, the first between 19 and 24 February; the second, on 21 March, was victorious. Chiang Kai-Chek's troops only entered the city on 26 March. On 3 April, Trotsky wrote a warning against the 'Chinese Pilsudski'[4]. On 5 April Stalin declared that Chiang Kai-Chek had accepted discipline, that the Kuomintang was a kind of revolutionary bloc or parliament"[5].

On 12 April Chiang Kai-Chek began his coup in earnest; a demonstration was attacked with machine guns. There were thousands of victims.

"Following these events, the delegation of the Communist International, on 17 April, gave its support at Hunan to the 'left Kuomintang'[6], in which the communist ministers participated. There, on 15 July, there was a re-edition of the Shanghai coup. The victory of the counter-revolution was ensured. A period of systematic massacre followed: it was estimated discretely that 25, 000 communists were killed". And, in September 1927 "the new leadership of the CP ... fixed the insurrection for 13 December ... A soviet was set up from above. The uprising was brought forward to the 10 December. On the 13th, it was totally repressed. The second Chinese revolution had been definitively crushed"[7].

The Chinese workers and revolutionaries were plunged into a descent into hell. This is the price they paid for the opportunist policy of the CI.
"Despite all these concessions, the break with the Kuomintang only took place in July 1927 when the Hunan government excluded the communists from the Kuomintang and ordered their arrest". Then, "the Party Conference of August 1927 definitively condemned what was called the opportunist line of the old Chen-Duxiu leadership and swept away the old leaders ... Thus opened the 'putschist' era which found its expression in the Canton Commune of December 1927. All the conditions for an insurrection in Canton were unfavourable ... It must be understood that we in no way want to diminish the heroism of the Canton communards, who fought to the death. But the example of Canton was not isolated. At the same time five other regional committees declared in favour of an immediate uprising". And despite the victorious offensive of the counter-revolution, "... the 6th Congress of the CCP in July 1928 continued to maintain the perspective of 'struggling for victory in one or several provinces'"[8].

The Chinese question and the Russian opposition

The defeat of the Chinese revolution represented the most severe condemnation of the strategy of the CI after the death of Lenin, and above all of the Stalinised CI.

In his letter to the VIth Congress of the CI, July 1928 (see The Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder Press, 1970), Trotsky wrote that the opportunist policy of the CI had first weakened the proletariat in Germany in 1923, then deceived it and betrayed it in Britain and finally in China. "Here are the immediate and indisputable causes of the defeats". And he went on "In order to grasp the significance of the present left turn[9], we have to have a complete view not only of the slide towards the general right-centrist line which was totally unmasked in 1926-27, but also of the previous ultra-left period of 1923-25 in preparing this slide".

In effect, the CI leadership had repeated over and over again in 1924 that the revolutionary situation was still developing and that "there would be decisive battles in the near future". "It was on the basis of this fundamentally false judgement that the Vth Cngress established its whole orientation, around the middle of 1924"[10]. The Opposition expressed its disagreement with this vision and "sounded the alarm"[11]. "In spite of the political reflux, the Vth Congress demonstrably oriented itself towards insurrection ... 1924 became the year of adventures in Bulgaria[12] and Estonia[13]". This ultra-leftism of 1924-25, "completely disoriented in front of the situation, was replaced by a right deviation"[14].

The new United Opposition[15] was created by the regroupment between Trotsky's old Opposition and the Zinoviev-Kamenev group. Several subjects animated the discussions in the Bolshevik party in 1926, notably the economic policy of the USSR and democracy within the party. But the main debate, the one which most deeply divided the party, was the one around the Chinese question.

The Left Opposition stood against the line of a "bloc with the Kuomintang", maintained by Stalin and theorised by Bukharin and the ex-Menshevik Martynov. The problems debated were the role of the national bourgeoisie, of nationalism and the class independence of the proletariat.

Trotsky defended his position in his text 'Class Relations in the Chinese revolution' (3rd April 1927). He argued:
  • that the Chinese revolution depended on the general course of the world proletarian revolution. And against the vision of the CI which advocated support for the Kuomintang in order to carry out the bourgeois revolution, he called on the Chinese communists to leave the Kuomintang;
  • that in order to move towards revolution, the Chinese workers should arm themselves and form soviets[16].

This text was followed on 14th April by Zinoviev's Theses addressed to the Politburo of the CP of the USSR[17]. Here he reaffirmed Lenin's position on national liberation struggles, in particular that a Communist Party must not subordinate itself to any other party and that the proletariat must not stray onto the terrain of interclassism. He also reaffirmed the idea that "the history of the revolution has shown that any bourgeois democratic revolution, if it does not transform itself into a socialist revolution, inevitably lakes the path of reaction".

But the Russian Opposition did not have the means to reverse the degenerating course of the CI, because the proletariat was going through a defeat not only in China but internationally. We could even say that it was within the Bolshevik party itself that "the proletariat went through its most terrible defeat[18]" (Bilan no. 1, November 1933) to the extent that the revolutionaries, those who had made the October revolution, were one after the other being imprisoned, exiled or even murdered. Even more grave was the fact that "the international programme was banished, the currents of the internationalist left were expelled ... a new theory made its triumphant entrance into the CI" (ibid). This was the theory of "socialism in one country". From now on the aim of Stalin and the CI was to defend the Russian state. But the International, by breaking with internationalism, died as an organ of the proletariat.
China and the International Left Opposition (ILO)

However, even if was defeated, the Opposition's combat within the CI was fundamental. It had an enormous international echo, in all the CPs. Above all, it is certain that without it, the present-day left communist currents would not exist. In China itself, where the Stalinists imposed a black-out on the texts of the Opposition, Chen Duxiu managed to send his Letter to all members of the CCP (he was excluded from the party in August 1929; his letter is dated 10 December of the same year), in which he took position against Stalin's opportunism on the Chinese question.

In Europe and the rest of the world this combat enabled the oppositional groups expelled from the CPs to structure and organise themselves. Very soon they found themselves divided and did not manage to go from the stage of an opposition to that of a real political current in France, for example, Souvarine's group "Le Cercle Marx et Lenine", the Maurice Paz group "Contre le Courant", and the Treint group "Le Redressement Communiste" published documents of the Russian Left Opposition and regrouped revolutionary energies. Initially there was in fact a proliferation of groups like this, but unfortunately they proved unable to work together.

There was finally a regroupment after Trotsky was expelled from the USSR, a regroupment which took the name International Left Opposition (ILO), but this also failed to make use of many of the energies of the time.

In 1930 the following groups:
  • the Communist League (Opposition) for France, A Rosmer
  • the united left opposition of the German Communist Party, K Landau
  • the Spanish Communist Opposition, J Andrade, J Gorkin
  • the Belgian Communist Opposition, Hennaut
  • the Communist League of America, M Schachtman, M Abern
  • the Communist Opposition (Communist Left of Austria), D Karl, C Mayer
  • the Austrian CP (Opposition), Prey * the "Internal Group" of the Austrian CP, Frank
  • the Czechoslovak Left Opposition, W Krieger
  • the Italian Left Fraction, Candiani
  • the New Italian Opposition (NOI), Santini, Blasco,

pronounced in favour of the positions defended by Trotsky then those developed in his Letter to the VIth Congress of the CI in 1928. They even signed a joint declaration "To the communists of China and the whole world" (12 December 1930). Candiani[19] signed it in the name of the Italian Fraction.

The declaration was clear and made no concessions to opportunist policies of class collaboration.
"We, representatives of the International Left Opposition, Bolshevik Leninists, have from the beginning been opposed to the Communist Party entering the Kuomintang, and have stood for an independent proletarian policy. Since the beginning of the revolutionary upsurge, we have called on the workers to take on the leadership of the peasant uprising in order to guide it towards the completion of the agrarian revolution. All this has been rejected. Our partisans have been hunted down, excluded from the CI, and in the USSR they have been imprisoned and exiled. In the name of what? In the name of the alliance with Chiang Kai-Shek".

The lessons drawn by the Italian Left

While the ILO had been moving towards a clear understanding of the tasks of the hour, very quickly its uncritical political attachment to the first four congresses of the CI made it tilt towards opportunist positions as soon as the revolutionary tide patently went into retreat. This was not the same with the Italian Fraction which clearly differentiated itself on the three issues under debate concerning the colonial countries (national liberation struggles, democratic slogans and wars between imperialists in these countries).

The national question and the revolution in the countries on the capitalist periphery

Contrary to the theses of the IInd Congress of the CI, the Fraction adopted a Resolution on the Sino-Japanese conflict (February 1932), in which it posed this question in a radically new way for the workers' movement. It make a break with the classic position on national liberation struggles[20]:

"1. In the epoch of capitalist imperialism, the conditions don't exist for there to be within the colonial and semi-colonial countries a bourgeois revolution giving power to a capitalist class capable of defeating the foreign powers...
Since war is the only means of freeing the colonial countries ... it is necessary to establish which class is called upon to lead it in this epoch of capitalist imperialism. In the complicated framework of the economic formations in China, the role of the indigenous bourgeoisie is to prevent the development of the revolutionary movement of the workers and peasants and to crush the communist workers at the precise moment when the proletariat is showing itself to be the only force capable of leading the revolutionary war against foreign imperialism".

It goes on: "The role of the proletariat is to struggle for the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat ...

Point 4: The Left Fraction has always affirmed that the central axis of the situation is the one expressed in the dilemma 'war or revolution '. The present events in the Far East confirm this fundamental position ...
Point 7. The duty of the Chinese Communist Party is to place at the forefront the struggle against the indigenous bourgeoisie, including its left wing representatives in the Kuomintang; the distinguished butchers of 1927 ... The Chinese Communist Party must reorganise itself on the basis of the industrial proletariat, it must reconquer its influence over the proletarians of the towns, the only class which can lead the peasants in a consistent and decisive struggle which will lead to the installation of real soviets in China".
It goes without saying that this meant first and foremost a rejection of the policies of the Stalinist (and soon 'Maoist') Communist Party of China, but it also meant an open criticism of the political positions of Trotsky himself. It was these positions which, not much later, were to lead him to defend China against Japan in the war between these two countries.

During the course of the 1930s, the Fraction's position became even more precise, as can be seen from the Resolution on the Sino-Japanese conflict, December 1937 (Bilan 45):

"The movements for national independence which in Europe once had a progressive junction because they expressed the progressive function which the bourgeois mode of production then had, can now in Asia only have the reactionary function of opposing the course towards the proletarian revolution with conflagrations in which the only victims are the exploited of the countries at war and the proletariat of all countries".

Democratic Slogans

With the question of democratic slogans the same problem was being posed - that of national liberation struggles. Could there still be different programmes for the proletariat of the developed countries and for those where the bourgeoisie had not yet carried out its revolution?

Could democratic slogans still be "progressive" as the ILO maintained: "In reality, the conquest of power by the bourgeoisie does not anywhere coincide with these democratic slogans. On the contrary, in the present period we are seeing the fact that in a whole series of countries the power of the bourgeoisie is only possible on the basis of semi-feudal social relations and institutions. Only the proletariat can destroy these relations and institutions, ie carry out the historic objectives of the bourgeois revolution"[21].
This was in fact a Menshevik position in complete opposition to the one Trotsky had defended on the tasks of communists in China in the 1920.
The position of the Italian Left was radically different. It was presented by its delegation to the national conference of the Ligue Communiste in 1930 (Bulletin d'information de La Fraction Italienne, nos 3 and 4). It defended the idea that "democratic slogans" were no longer on the agenda in the semi-colonial countries. The proletariat had to defend the integral communist programme, because the communist revolution was on the agenda internationally.

"We said that in countries where capitalism had not established its economic and political leadership over society (the example of the colonies), the conditions existed - for a certain period - for a struggle by the proletariat for democracy. But we also insisted that this should not be defined in a vague way, that we had to be precise about the class basis for this struggle ... In the present situation of the mortal crisis of capitalism, this would be destined to precipitate the dictatorship of the party of the proletariat ...

But for the countries where the bourgeois revolution has already been made ... this could only lead to the disarming of the proletariat in front of the new tasks which have been imposed by events ...
We must begin by giving a political meaning to 'the formula of 'democratic slogans '. We think that we can give the following:
  • slogans which are directly linked to the exercising of power by a given class;
  • slogans which express the content of bourgeois revolutions and which capitalism - in the present situation - does not have the possibility or the function of carrying out;
  • slogans which relate to the colonial countries where there is a crossover between the problems of the struggle against imperialism, of the bourgeois revolution and of the proletarian revolution;
  • 'false' democratic slogans, ie those which correspond to the vital needs of the labouring masses.
To the first point belong all those formulations that belong to the life of a bourgeois government, such as the demand for 'parliament and its free functioning', 'elections for communal administrations and their free functioning, constituent assembly', etc

To the second point belong above all the tasks of social transformation in the countryside.

To the third point belong the problems of tactics in the colonial countries.
To the fourth point belongs the question of the partial struggles of the workers in the capitalist countries".
The Fraction went back over each of these four areas, saying that tactics had to be adapted to the relevant situation but that it was necessary to remain firm on principles.

"The institutional democratic slogans

... the political disagreement between our Fraction and the Russian left has expressed itself more clearly. But we have to be definite that this disagreement remains in the realm of tactics, as has been proved by a meeting between Bordiga and Lenin ..."

In Spain, in Italy, as in China, the Fraction clearly demarcated itself from the tactics used by the Left Opposition.
"In Spain, the transformation of the monarchical state into a republican state which, in the past, had been the result of an armed battle, took place through the comedy of the king's departure following the agreement between Zamora and Romanones ...

In Spain, the fact that the Opposition has adopted the political position of supporting the so-called democratic transformation of the state, has removed any possibility of a serious development in our section of the questions that relate to the resolution of the communist crisis.

The fact that in Italy the party has altered the programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat and has taken up the democratic programme of the popular revolution[22] has greatly contributed to the strengthening of fascism (...)

Democratic slogans and the agrarian question

(...) A transformation (the liberation of the agrarian economy from the social relations of feudalism) of the economy of a country like Spain into an economy like the ones in the more advanced countries will coincide with the victory of the proletarian revolution. But this does not mean at all that capitalism cannot set out on the road towards this transformation ... The communist programmatic position must continue to fully reaffirm the demand for the 'socialisation of the land'":

The Fraction had very little room for intermediate slogans for the countryside.

"The institutional slogans of the colonial question

We want to deal here with the colonial countries, where, despite the industrialisation of an important part of the economy, capitalism still does not exist as a governing class in power"

Even if it was necessary to adapt the tactic in certain countries, for the Fraction the slogans for the proletariat in China or Spain were no different from those for the proletariat of the countries at the heart of capitalism.
"In China, at the time of the 1930 manifesto and still in the present situation, there is no question of putting forward a programme for the conquest of political power ... at a time when 'centrism'[23] is performing political acrobatics which try to present as soviets the falsification of the goals and movements of the peasants.
Once again there is only one class that can carry out a victorious struggle and that is the proletariat (...)

The partial demands of the working class

The bourgeois parties and above all the social democracy insist particularly on the need to guide the masses towards the defence of democracy. They demand - and because of the lack of a communist party, have obtained this - that the workers abandon the struggle for the defence of wages and in general of the masses' living standards, as is now happening in Germany".

Here the Fraction defends the idea that the working class can only develop the struggle for the defence of its own interests that it must stay on its own terrain which is the only one that will allow it to advance towards the revolutionary struggle.

The imperialist war and the Chinese Trotskyists

In this domain, Trotsky ended up reneging on the positions he had defended in 1925-27, the ones he had defended in The International After Lenin (as well as in his declaration 'To the communists in China and the whole world' in 1930). At that time he had stood by the idea that the bourgeois solution of imperialist war must be opposed by the proletariat's struggle for its own revolutionary interests, since "the bourgeoisie has definitively gone over to the camp of the counter-revolution". In addressing the members of the Chinese Communist Party, he had added: "Your coalition with the bourgeoisie was correct up until 1924, even up to the end of 1927, but now it has no value".

During the 1930s, however, he began to call on the Chinese workers "to do their whole duty in the war against Japan" (La Lutte Ouvriere, no. 43, 23 October 1937). In Lutte Ouvriere no. 37 he had already affirmed that "if there is a just war, it is the war of the Chinese people against their conquerors". This was the same position as that of the social-traitors during the First World War! And he added: "all the workers' organisations, all the progressive forces in China, without in any way making concessions on their programme and their political independence, will do their duty to the full in this war of liberation, independently of their attitude to the Chiang Kai-Shek government".

Bilan violently attacked Trotsky's position in its Resolution on the Sino-Japanese conflict in February 1932.

"Trotsky, who has a position in favour of the Union Sacree in Spain and China, whereas in France and Belgium he raises a programme of opposition to the Popular Front, is a link in the chain of capitalist domination and no common action can be envisaged with him. The same goes for the Ligue Communiste Intemationaliste in Belgium which takes an internationalist position on China but defends the Union Sacree in Spain" (23).

The Fraction even published an article, in Bilan no. 46, January 1938, which was entitled "A great renegade with a peacock's tail: Leon Trotsky"[24].

Trotsky's degeneration (if he had lived longer and had taken a position on war in continuity with this political stance) would have led him into the camp of the counter-revolution. And in fact this position did lead the Chinese Trotskyists first, and then the whole IVth International, to fall into the arms of patriotism and social imperialism during the course of the Second World War.
Only the group which published L'Internationale around Zheng Chaolin and Weng Fanxi, held to the position of 'revolutionary defeatism', and for this reason certain of its members were excluded from, while other broke with, The Trotskyist Communist League of China (cf International Review no. 94).

At the end of this article it is important to note that only the Italian Fraction was able to develop the arguments which showed why national liberation struggles were no longer 'progressive' but had become counter-revolutionary in the present phase of the development of capitalism. It was the Gauche Communiste de France, and later on the ICC, who were to strengthen this position by giving it a solid theoretical foundation.


[1] Zinoviev's Theses for the Politburo of the CP of the USSR, 14 April 1927.

[2] Cf. the articles in recent issues of the International Review on the German revolution. Trotsky wrote that the failure in 1923 in Germany was "a gigantic defeat" (The International after Lenin).

[3] The name given to the socialist or social democratic parties which had betrayed during the First World War.

[4] The Polish dictator who had just crushed the Polish working class: a founding member of the Polish Socialist Party which was a reformist and nationalist tendency.

[5] Trotsky in The International after Lenin.

[6] The existence of a "Left Koumintang" was a fable invented by the Stalinised CI.

[7] Harold Isaacs. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution 1925-27

[8] Bilan no. 9 July 1934

[9] This was the term for the course followed by the CI after 1927

[10] Underlined by Trotsky himself

[11] idem, Trotsky

[12] An uprising which took place from the 19 to the 28 September before being crushed

[13] In December 1924 an uprising was organised involving 200 CP members. It was smashed in a matter of hours.

[14] ibid Trotsky

[15] At the end of 1925, the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev triumvirate fell apart. An oppositional 'bloc' was formed called the United Opposition.

[16] We know today that this slogan wasn't adequate: Trotsky himself questioned its validity since the course was no longer favourable to revolution

[17] Theses which were to have been discussed at the future 7th Plenum of the CI and the 15th Congress of the CP of the USSR.

[18] This was what the opposition called "The Thermidor of the Russian revolution".

[19] Enrico Russo (Candiani), a member of the Executive Committee of the Italian Fraction

[20] Even today the Bordigist component has trouble taking up the position of the Fraction: for example it accuses the lCC's position of being "indifferentist".

[21] The only tendency which took up the same position as Italian and Belgian Fractions of the Communist Left was constituted by the Revolutionary Workers' League (known after the name of its representative, Oelher) and the Grupo de Trabajadores Marxistas (also known after its representative Eiffels).

[22] This referred to the "Aventin " tactic in which the CP withdrew from the parliament dominated by the fascists and regrouped at Aventin with the centrists and social-democrats. This policy was denounced as opportunist by Bordiga.

[23] This refers to the Stalinised CI and CPs.

[24] For our part, we consider that Trotsky did not betray the working class since he dies before the generalisation of the world war. This doesn't apply to the Trotskyists (Cf our pamphlet Le Trotskyisme contre la Classe Ouvierre).