China's "revolution" of 1949: a link in the chain of imperialist war

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According to official history, in 1949 a “popular revolution” triumphed in China. This idea, defended as much by the democratic West as by the Maoists, forms part of a monstrous mystification produced by the Stalinist counter-revolution about the supposed creation of “Socialist states”. It is certain that in the period between 1919 and 1927 China lived through an important working class movement, which was fully integrated into the international revolutionary wave that shook the capitalist world in that epoch, but this movement was ended by a massacre of the working class. What the bourgeoisie’s ideologues present on the other hand, as the “triumph of the Chinese Revolution”, was only the installation of a state capitalist régime in its Maoist variant, the culmination of a period of imperialist struggles on the terrain of China that began in 1928, after the defeat of the proletarian revolution.

In the first part of this article we will lay out the conditions in which the proletarian revolution arose in China, drawing out some of the principle lessons. The second part is dedicated to the period of the imperialist struggles, which gave rise to Maoism, while at the same time denouncing the fundamental aspects of this form of bourgeois ideology.

The IIIrd International and the revolution in China

The evolution of the Communist International (CI) and its activity in China was crucial for the course of the revolution in that country. The CI represents the most important effort made by the working class up until now to give itself a world party with which to guide its revolutionary struggle. However, its late formation, during the world revolutionary wave, without having previously had sufficient time to consolidate itself politically and organically, led it, despite the resistance of the Left fractions[1] into opportunist deviation when - faced with the defeat of the revolution and the isolation of Soviet Russia - the Bolshevik Party, the most influential in the International, began to vacillate between the necessity of maintaining the basis for a future renewal of the revolution, even at the cost of sacrificing the triumph in Russia, or the defence of the Russian state that had arisen from the revolution but at the cost of making treaties and alliances with the national bourgeoisies, treaties and alliances that represented an enormous fount of confusion for the international proletariat and lead to the acceleration of its defeat in many countries. The abandonment of the historic interests of the working class in exchange for promises of collaboration between classes, led the International to a progressive degeneration that culminated in 1928, with the abandonment of proletarian internationalism on the altar of so-called “defense of Socialism in one country”.[2]

Lack of confidence in the working class progressively led the International, increasingly converted into a tool of the Russian government, to search for the creation of a barrier against the penetration of the great imperialist powers, through the support of the bourgeoisies of the “oppressed countries” of Eastern Europe, the Middle and Far East. This policy had disastrous results for the international working class, since through the political and material support of the CI and the Russian government for these supposedly “nationalist” and “revolutionary” bourgeoisies of Turkey, Persia, Palestine, Afghanistan... and finally China, these same bourgeoisies, who hypocritically accepted Soviet support without breaking their links either with the imperialist powers or with the landed aristocracy who they were supposedly fighting, crushed the workers’ struggles and annihilated the communist organisations with the arms supplied to them by the Russians. Ideologically, this abandonment of proletarian positions was justified by invoking the “Theses on the Colonial and National question” from the Second Congress of the IIIrd International (in whose writing Lenin and Roy had played a central role). These Theses certainly contain an important theoretical ambiguity, that distinguished wrongly between the “imperialist” and “anti-imperialist” bourgeoisies, which opened the doors to major political errors, since in this epoch the bourgeoisie, even in the oppressed countries, had finished being revolutionary and everywhere had acquired an “imperialist” character. Not only because the latter were tied to one or other of the great imperialist powers, but also because, after the working class had taken power in Russia, the international bourgeois formed a common front against all the revolutionary movements of the masses. Capitalism had entered into its decadent phase, and the opening of the epoch of the proletarian revolution had definitively closed the epoch of bourgeois revolutions.

Despite this error, these Theses were still capable of warding off some opportunist slidings, which unfortunately became generalised a little while later. The report of the discussion presented by Lenin recognised that in this epoch “A certain understanding has emerged between the bourgeois of the exploiting countries and that of the colonies, so that very often, even perhaps in most cases, the bourgeois of the oppressed countries, although they also support national movements, nevertheless fight against all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes with a certain degree of agreement with the imperialist bourgeoisie, that is to say together with it”.[3] Therefore, the Theses appeal for support principally amongst the peasants and, above all, they insist on the necessity of the Communist organisations maintaining their organic and principled independence faced with the bourgeoisie. “The Communist International has the duty to support the revolutionary movement in the colonies only for the purpose of gathering the components of the future proletarian parties - communist in fact and not just in word - in all the backward countries and training them to be conscious of their special tasks, the special tasks, that is to say, of fighting against the bourgeois-democratic tendencies... must unconditionally maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, be it only in embryo”. But the International’s unconditional, shameful support for the Kuomintang in China forgot all of this: that the national bourgeoisie was already not revolutionary and was establishing close links with the imperialist powers, the necessity of forging a Communist Party capable of struggling against the democratic bourgeois and the indispensable independence of the working class movement.

The bourgeois “revolution” of 1911 and the Kuomintang

The development of the Chinese bourgeoisie and its political movement during the first decades of the twentieth century, rather than demonstrating its supposedly “revolutionary” aspects, illustrates the extinction of the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary character and the transformation of the national and democratic ideal, into a mere mystification, when capitalism entered its decadent phase. A survey of events shows us not a revolutionary class, but a conservative, accomodationist, class, whose political movement neither looked to totally displacing the nobility nor expelling the “imperialists”, but rather to place itself between them.

The historians usually underline the different interests that existed between the fractions of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Thus, it is common to identify the speculator/merchant fraction as being allied with the nobility and the “imperialists”, while the industrial bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia formed the “nationalist”, “modern”, “revolutionary” fraction. In reality, these differences were not so marked. Not only because both fractions were intimately linked by business and family ties but above all, because the attitudes of the merchant fraction and those of the industrial and intelligentsia were not so greatly different given that they both constantly looked for the support from the “Warlords” linked to the landed nobility, as well as the governments of the great powers.

By 1911 the Manchu Dynasty was already completely putrid and on the point of collapse. This was not some product of the action of a revolutionary national bourgeoisie, but the consequence of the division of China at the hands of the great imperialist powers, who had torn the old Empire apart. China had increasingly become divided into regions controlled by warlords, owners of greater or smaller mercenary armies,  always fighting amongst themselves in order to sell themselves to the highest bidder and behind whom usually stood one or other of the great powers. The Chinese bourgeoisie felt that it had to replace the dynasty, as country’s unifying element, although without the aim of breaking up the régime of production in which the interests of the landlords and the “imperialists” were mixed with their own, but rather, in order to maintain it. It is in this framework that the events that took place between the so-called “1911 Revolution” and the “May 4th Movement of 1919” have to be placed.

The “1911 Revolution” began as a plot by conservative warlords supported by Sun Yat-sen’s bourgeois nationalist organisation, the T’ung Meng Hui. The Emperor did not know of the warlords’ plans. They set up a new régime in Wuhan. Sun Yat-sen, who was in the United States looking for financial support for his organisation, was called on to become president of the new government. Both governments entered into negotiations and within a few weeks it was agreed that both the Emperor and Sun Yat-sen should retire, and a unified government would take their place headed by Yuan Shih-K’ai who was head of the imperial troops and the true strong man of the Dynasty. The significance of all of this is that the bourgeoisie put aside its “revolutionary” and “anti-imperialist” pretensions, in order to maintain the unity of the country.

At the end of 1912 the Kuomintang (KMT) was formed; Sun Yat-sen’s new organisation represented this bourgeoisie. In 1913 the Kuomintang participated in presidential elections, restricted to the propertied social classes, which they won. However, the new president Sun Chiao-yen was killed. After this Sun Yat-sen allied himself with some military sucessionists from the central South of the country intending to form a new government, but was defeated by forces from Peking.

As we can see the feckless “nationalists” of the Chinese bourgeoisie were constrained by the games of the “warlords” and consequently by the great powers. The explosion of the First World War subordinated the political movement of the Chinese bourgeoisie still further to the play of the imperialists’ interests. In 1915 various provinces “declared independence”, the country was divided between the “warlords”, backed by one or other power. In the North, the Anfu government - supported by Japan - disputed predominance with Chili - backed by Great Britain and the United States. Czarist Russia, for its part wanted to turn Mongolia into its protectorate. The South was also disputed, Sun Yat-sen made new alliances with some warlords. The death of the Peking’s strong man aggravated even more the struggles between the warlords.

It was in this context, at the end of the war in Europe, that the “May 4th Movement of 1919” occurred, extolled by the ideologues as a “real anti-imperialist movement”. In reality this petty-bourgeois movement was not directed against imperialism in general, but specifically against Japan, which had taken the Chinese province of Shangtun as its prize at the Versailles Conference (the conference where the “democratic” victors redivided up the world), which the Chinese students opposed. However, it is necessary to note that the aim of not ceding Chinese territory to Japan was in the interests of the other rival power: the United States, which was finally to “liberate” the Shantung province from exclusive Japanese domination in 1922. That is to say, that despite the “radical” ideology of the May 4th Movement, it remained encased in imperialist struggles. And it could have done nothing else.

On the other hand, it is necessary to point out that during the May 4th Movement the working class expressed its own aspirations for the first time in its demonstrations, which not only raised the nationalist demands of the movement, but also their own demands. The end of the war in Europe could not put an end either to the conflicts between the warlords or to the struggle between the great powers for the redivision of the country. Little by little two, more or less unstable, governments emerged: one in the North with its seat in Peking, commanded by the warlord Wu P’ei-fu, the other in the South, with its seat in Canton, at whose head was found Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang. Official history presents the Northern government as representing the forces of noble “reaction” and the imperialists, while that in the South represented the “revolutionary” and “nationalist” forces, of the bourgeoisie, the petty-bourgeoisie and the workers. This is a scandalous mystification.

The reality is that Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang were always backed by the southern warlords. In 1920 the warlord Ch’en Ch’iung-ming, who had occupied Canton, invited Sun to form another government. In 1922 following the defeat of first attempts by the southern warlords to advance towards the North, he was thrown out of government, but in 1923 the warlords supported his return to Canton. On the other hand, there is the much talked of alliance of the Kuomintang with the USSR. In reality, the USSR made treaties and alliances with all the governments in China, including with those in the North. It was the North’s definitive inclination towards Japan that obliged the USSR to prioritise its relationship with the government of Sun Yat-sen, which for its part never abandoned its efforts to gain support from the different imperialist powers. Thus in 1925, just before his death when travelling to negotiations with the North, Sun passed through Japan soliciting support for his government.

It was this party, the Kuomintang representative of a national bourgeoisie (commercial, industrial and intellectual) integrated into the game of the great imperialist powers and the “warlords”, that was declared a “sympathizer party” by the Communist International. It is to this party that at one time or another the communists in China had to submit themselves, on the altar of so-called “national revolution”, for whom they served as “coolies”.[4]

The Communist Party of China at the crossroads

According to the official history the development of the Communist Party in China was a by-product of the movement of the bourgeois intelligentsia at the beginning of the century. Marxism had been imported from Europe along with other Western “philosophies”, and the formation of the Communist Party formed part of the growth of many other literary, philosophical and political organisations in this period. With ideas of this kind the historians have invented a bridge between the political movement of the bourgeoisie and that of the working class, making it appear as if they had been one and the same, and giving the formation of the Communist Party a specifically national significance. The truth is that the development of the Communist Party in China was fundamentally linked, not to the growth of the Chinese intelligentsia, but to the march of the international revolutionary movement of the working class.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) was created between 1920 and 1921 from small Marxist, Anarchist and Socialist groups who sympathised with Soviet Russia. As with many other Communist Parties, the CPC was born as an integral part of the CI and its rise was linked with the development of the workers’ struggles that were also following the example of the insurrectional movements in Russia and Western Europe. In 1921 there were a few dozen militants, but within a few years there were thousands; during the strike wave in 1925 membership reached 4,000, and by the insurrectional period of 1927 it had risen to 60,000. This rapid numerical expansion expressed, on the one hand, the revolutionary will that animated the working class in China in the period from 1919 to 1927 (the majority of militants in this period were workers from the great industrial cities). Nevertheless, it is necessary to say that the numerical growth of the Party did not express an equivalent strengthening of the Party. The overhasty admission of militants contradicted the traditions of the Bolshevik Party of forming a solid, tested, vanguard organisation of the working class, rather than a mass organisation. But worst of all was the adoption at its 2nd Congress of an opportunist policy, from which it was unable to detach itself.

In mid 1922, on instructions from the Executive of the International, the CPC launched the wretched slogan of the “anti-imperialist United Front with the Kuomintang” and the individual adhesion of communists to the latter. This policy of class collaboration, (which began to spread through Asia after the “Conference of the Toilers of the East” in January 1922) was the result of the negotiations secretly entered into beforehand between the USSR and the Kuomintang. By June 1923, the CPC’s 3rd Congress voted for all Party members to join the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang was itself admitted to the CI in 1926 as a sympathiser organisation, and took part in the CI’s 7th Plenary Session, in which the United Opposition (Trotsky, Zinoviev...) were not eve allowed to attend. In 1926, while the KMT was preparing its final blow against the working class, in Moscow the infamous “theory” was elaborated that the Kuomintang was an “anti-imperialist bloc of four classes (the proletariat, the peasantry, the petty-bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie).

This policy had disastrous consequences for the working class movement in China. While strike movements and demonstrations arose spontaneously and impetuously, the Communist Party, merged with the Kuomintang, was incapable of orientating the working class, of putting forward independent class politics, despite the incontestable heroism of the communist militants who were frequently found in the front ranks of the workers’ struggles. Equally bereft of unitary organisations of political struggle, such as the workers’ councils, at the demand of the CPC itself the working class put its confidence in the Kuomintang, in other words of the bourgeoisie.

However, it is equally certain that the policy of subordination to the Kuomintang encountered frequent resistance inside the CPC (as was the case with the current represented by Chen Tu-hsiu). From the 2nd Congress there had already been an opposition to the Theses defended by the delegate of the International (Sneevliet) according to which the KMT was no longer a bourgeois party, but a class front to which the CPC had to subordinate itself. Throughout the whole period of the union with the Kuomintang voices arose inside the Communist Party to denounce the anti-proletarian preparations of Chiang Kai-Shek; asking, for example, that the arms supplied by the USSR should go to arm the workers and peasants and not to strengthen Chiang Kai-shek’s army as happened, and eventually posing, the need to leave the trap that the KMT constituted for the working class: “The Chinese revolution has two roads: one is the one that the proletariat can mark out and by which we can advance our revolutionary objectives; the other is that of the bourgeoisie and this will ultimatly betray the revolution in the course of its development”.[5]

Nevertheless, it was impossible for a young and inexperienced party to overcome the erroneous and opportunist directives of the Executive of the International and it fell into them itself. As a result, the working class was unable to stop the Kuomintang stabbing it in the back, because while the Kuomintang was preparing to do so, the proletariat was being pulled into a struggle against the landlords opposed to the Kuomintang. And therefore the revolution in China had few opportunities to triumph, because on the international level the backbone of the world revolution - the German proletariat - had been broken since 1919, the opportunism of the IIIrd International only precipitated the defeat.

The upsurge of the working class

Maoism has used the weakness of the working class in China as an argument to justify the movement of the CPC towards the countryside from 1927. The working class in China at the beginning of the century was certainly miniscule in relation to the peasantry (a proportion of 2 to 100), but its political weight was not limited in the same proportions. There were around 2 million urban workers (without counting the 10 million more or less proletarianised artisans populating the cities) highly concentrated on the banks of the Yangtze, in the costal city of Shanghai and in the industrial zone of Wuhan (the triple city Hankow-Wuchang-Hanyang); in the Canton-Hong Kong complex and the mines of Hunan province. This concentration gave the working class extraordinary potential for paralysing and taking under its control the vital centres of capitalist production. Also in the Southern provinces there existed a peasantry that was closely linked to the workers, since they provided the work force of the industrial cities, which could constitute a force of support for the urban proletariat.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to judge the strength of the working class in China from its numbers in relation to the other classes in the country. The proletariat is a historic class, that draws its strength from its international existence, and the example of the revolution in China clearly demonstrates this. The strike movement, did not have it’s epicentre in China, but in Europe; it was an expression of the expanding wave of the world revolution. The workers in China, as in all parts of the world, launched themselves into struggle faced with the example of the triumphant revolution in Russia and the attempted insurrections in Germany and other European countries.

At the beginning, since the majority of the factories in China were foreign owned, the strikes had an “anti-foreigner” tinge and the national bourgeoisie thought they could use this to apply pressure on the foreign powers. However, the strike movement took on an increasingly class character, against the bourgeoisie in general, without making a distinction between “national” and “foreign” bosses. Strikes for workers’ demands developed from 1919 onwards, despite repression (it was not uncommon for workers to be beheaded or burnt in the fireboxes of locomotives). In the middle of 1921, a textile strike broke out in Hunan. At the beginning of 1922, there was a 3 month sailors’ strike in Hong Kong, which finished when they won their demands. In the first months of 1923 a wave of about 100 strikes broke out, in which more than 300,000 workers participated; in February the warlord Wu P’ei Fu ordered the repression of the railway strike leading to the killing of 35 workers while, the wounded were mutilated. In June 1924 there was a three month general strike in Canton/Hong Kong. In February the cotton workers of Shanghai launched a strike. This was the prelude to the gigantic strike movement that swept all of China in the Summer of 1925.

The 30th of May Movement

In 1925 Russia fully supported the Kuomintang government in Canton. Already from 1923 an alliance between the USSR and the Kuomintang had been openly declared, a military delegation from the Kuomintang headed by Chiang Kai-shek had visited Moscow, while at the same time a delegation from the International provided the Kuomintang with its statutes and organisational and military structure. In 1924, the first official Congress of the Kuomintang sanctioned the Alliance and in May the Whampoa Military Academy was set up with Soviet arms and military advisors, directed by Chiang Kai-shek. In fact, what Russia did was to form a modern army, in the service of the bourgeois fraction regrouped in the Kuomintang, which had been without one until then. In March 1925 Sun Yat-sen visited Peking (with whose government the USSR still maintained relations) in order to try and form an alliance that would unify the country, but he died of an illness before he could put forward his aim.

It was into this framework of an idyllic alliance that the full force of the working class movement burst, reminding the bourgeoisie of the Kuomintang and the opportunists of the International about the international class struggle.

A wave of agitation and strikes arose from the beginning of 1925. On the 30th of May English police in Shanghai fired on a workers’ and students’ demonstration, killing twelve demonstrators. This was the detonator for a general strike in Shanghai, which rapidly spread to the main commercial ports of the country. On the 19th of June a general strike also broke out in Canton. Four days later the British troops of the British concession of Shameen (bordering Canton) opened fire on another demonstration. The workers in Hong Kong launched a strike in response. The movement spread, reaching as far as Peking where on the 30th of July a demonstration of 200,000 workers took place while peasant agitation deepened in the province of Kwangtung.

In Shanghai, the strike lasted three months, in Canton/Hong Kong a strike/boycott was declared that lasted until October of the following year. Here, workers’ militias began to be formed. The working class in China demonstrated for the first time that it was a force really capable of threatening the whole capitalist régime. Despite this, one consequence of the “30th May Movement” was that the Canton government consolidated and extended its powers towards the South, this movement also shook the class instincts of the “nationalist” bourgeoisie regrouped in the Kuomintang, which until then had left the strikes “to get on with it”, since the strikes were mainly focused against the foreign factories and concessions. The strikes in the summer of 1925 generally assumed an anti-bourgeois character, without “respect” for the national capitalists either. Thus, the “revolutionary” and “nationalist” bourgeoisie, with the Kuomintang at its head (backed by the great powers and with the blind support of Moscow), furiously launched itself into a confrontation with its mortal class enemy: the proletariat.

Chiang Kai-shek’s coup and expedition towards the North

In the last months of 1925 and the first months of 1926 there occurred what the historians call the “polarisation of the Left and the Right wings of the Kuomintang”, which according to them includes the fragmentation of the bourgeoisie into two, one part remaining loyal to “nationalism” and the other moving towards an alliance with “imperialism”. However, we have already seen that the most “anti-imperialist” fractions of the bourgeoisie never stopped trying to deal with the “imperialists”. What happened in reality, was not the fractionalisation of the bourgeoisie, but its prepartion to confront the working class, throwing out unnecessary elements inside the Kuomintang (the communist militants, a part of the petty-bourgeoisie and some generals loyal to the USSR). Then, the Kuomintang feeling that it had sufficient political and military force, tore off the mask of “the block of four classes” and appeared as what it always had been: the party of the bourgeoisie.

At the end of 1925, the boss of the “left wing” Liao Chung-K’ai was killed and the harassment of communists began. This was the prelude to Chiang Kai-shek’s coup, which made him the Kuomintang’s strong man, the man to initiate the bourgeois reaction against the proletariat. On 20th March, Chiang, in front of the cadets of the Whampao Military Academy proclaimed martial law in Canton; he then closed down the workers’ organisations, disarmed the strike pickets and arrested many communist militants. In the months that followed, communists were removed from any posts of responsibility in the KMT.

The Executive of the International, completely under the control of Stalin and Bukharin, showed itself to be blind to the reaction of the Kuomintang and despite the resistance from inside the CPC, ordered that the alliance be kept up, hiding these events from the members of the International and the CPs.[6] Chiang Kai-shek brazenly demanded that the USSR support him militarily in order that he could carry out his Northern expedition, which began in July 1926.

As with many other actions of the bourgeoisie, the Northern expedition is falsely presented as a “revolutionary” event, as having the intention of spreading the “revolutionary” régime and unifying China. But the pretensions of the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek were not so altruistic. His cherished dream (as with the other warlords) was to possess the port of Shanghai and to obtain from the great powers the administration of its rich customs duties. To this end he relied on a very important element of blackmail: his capacity to contain and crush the workers’ movement.

When the Kuomingtang’s military expedition began, it declared martial law in the regions which it already controlled. Thus, at a time when the deluded workers in the North were preparing to support the forces of the KMT, it was totally banning workers’ strikes in the South. In September the “left wing” took Hankow, but Chiang Kai-shek refused to support it and set himself up in Hanchang. In October he ordered the communists to stop the peasant movement in the South and the army put an end to the strike/boycott in Canton/Hong Kong. This was a clear signal to the great powers (especially Britain) that the Kuomintang’s advance towards the North did not have “anti-imperialist” pretensions and a little time later secret negotiations began with Chaing.

From the end of 1926 the industrial areas along the Yangtze river boiled with agitation. In October the warlord Sia-Chao (who had just gone over to the Kuomintang) advanced on Shanghai, but stopped some kilometers from the city, allowing the “enemy” troops of the North (under the command of Sun Ch’uan-fang) to enter the city first in order to suffocate the imminent uprising. In January 1927, the workers spontaneously occupied the British concessions in Hankow (in the triple city of Wuhan) and Jiujiang. Then, the Kuomintang army halted its advance in order, in the best tradition of reactionary armies, to permit the local warlords to repress the workers’ and peasants’ movements. At the same time, Chaing Kai-shek publicly attacked the communists and crushed the peasant movement in Kwangtung (in the South). Such is the scenario in which it is necessary to place the Shanghai insurrectionary movement.

The Shanghai insurrection

The Shanghai insurrectionary movement marked the culminating point of a decade of constant struggles and rise of the working class. This is the highest point the Revolution in China reached. However, conditions were extremely unfavourable for the working class. The Communist Party found itself disjointed, struck down, subordinated and tied hand and foot by the Kuomintang. The working class deceived by its illusions in the “block of four classes” was unable to give itself the council type unitary organisms necessary for the centralisation of its struggle.[7] Meanwhile, the guns of the imperialist powers were pointed towards the city and the Kuomintang as it was drawing closer to Shanghai supposedly unfurled the flag of the “anti-imperialist revolution”, whose real objective was to crush the workers. Only the revolutionary will and heroism of the working class can explain its capacity to have taken, in these conditions, the city that represented the heart of Chinese capitalism, although it was only for a few days.

The Kuomintang resumed its advance in February 1927. By the 18th, the Nationalist army was in Jiaxing, 60 kilometers from Shanghai. Then, with the prospect of the imminent defeat of Sun Ch’uan fang, a general strike broke out in Shanghai: “the movement of the proletariat in Shanghai, from the 19th to the 24th of February was objectively an attempt by the proletariat of Shanghai to consolidate its hegemony. With the first news of the defeat of Sun Ch’uan fang in Zhejiang, the atmosphere in Shanghai became red hot and in the space of two days, there exploded with the potential of a elemental force a strike of 300,000 workers who transformed it irresistibly into an armed insurrection which ended up achieving nothing, due to a lack of leadership...”.[8]

Taken by surprise, the Communist Party vacillated about launching the slogan of insurrection, while it was taking place on the streets. On the 20th, Chiang Kai-shek once again ordered the suspension of the attack on Shanghai. This was the signal for Sun Ch’uan fang’s forces to unleash repression, in which dozens of workers were killed, momentarily containing the movement.

In the following weeks Chiang Kai-shek, skillfully manoeuvered in order to avoid being relieved of the command of the army and to silence rumours about his alliance with the “right wing”, the great powers and his preparations against the working class.

At last, on the 21st of March, the definitive insurrectional attempt took place. A general strike was proclaimed on this day, in which  practically all the 800,000 workers of Shanghai took part. “The whole proletariat was on strike, as was the greater part of the petty-bourgeoisie (shopkeepers, artisans,etc...) (...) within a few dozen minutes the whole police force was disarmed. By 2 o’clock the insurgents already possessed about 1500 rifles. Immediately afterwards the insurgent forces moved against government buildings and disarmed the troops. Serious fighting tool place in the Chapi neigbourhood (...) Finally, at four in the afternoon, on the second day of the insurrection, the enemy (approximately 3,000 soldiers) were definitively defeated. This wall broken, all of Shanghai (with the exception of the concessions and the international neighbourhood) was in the hands of the insurgents”.[9] This action, after the revolution in Russia and the insurrectional attempts in Germany and other European countries was another blow to the capitalist world order. It showed all the revolutionary potential of the working class. Nevertheless, the bourgeoisie’s repressive apparatus was already working and the proletariat did not find itself in conditions to confront it.

The “revolutionary” bourgeoisie massacres the proletariat.

The workers took Shanghai, only to open the gates to the national “revolutionary” army of the Kuomintang, which finally entered the city. No sooner had he installed himself in Shanghai, than Chiang Kai-shek began to prepare the repression of the workers, reaching an agreement with the speculator bourgeoisie and the city’s underworld gangs. Likewise, he started to approach the representatives of the great powers and the Northern warlords openly. On the 6th April Chang Tso-lin (with Chiang’s agreement) raided the Russian embassy in Peking and arrested militants of the Communist Party who were later murdered.

On the 12th of April a massive and bloody repression organised by Chiang was unleashed in Shanghai. Gangs of lumpenproletarians from the secret societies who had always played the role of strikebreakers were let loose against the workers. The troops of the Kuomintang - the supposed “allies” of  the workers - were directly employed to disarm and arrest the proletarian militias. The proletariat tried to respond on the following day by declaring a general strike, but contingents of demonstrators were intercepted by troops, leading to numerous victims. Martial law was immediately imposed and all workers’ organisations were banned. In a few days five thousand workers were killed, amongst them many militants of the Communist Party. Raids and killings continued for months.

Simultaneously, in a coordinated action, the forces of the Kuomintang that had remained in Canton unleashed another massacre, exterminating thousands more workers.

With the proletarian revolution drowned in the blood of the workers of Shanghai and Canton, there was still resistance particularly in Wuhan. However, here again the Kuomintang, and more specifically its “left wing”, cast off the “revolutionary” mask and in July passed to Chaing’s side unleashing repression here also. Likewise, the military hordes were let loose to destroy and massacre in the countryside of the Central and Southern provinces. The murdered workers throughout China were counted in their tens of thousands.

The Executive of the International tried to cover up its nefarious and criminal policy of class collaboration, by putting the whole responsibility on to the CPC and its central organs, and more specifically on the current which had rightly opposed this policy (that of Chen Tu-hsiu). In order to finish off this work, it ordered the already weak and demoralised Communist Party of China to embark on an adventurist policy which ended in the so-called “Canton insurrection”. This absurd atempted “planned” coup was not supported by the proletariat of Canton and all it achieved was to unleash yet more repression. This practically marked the end of the workers movement in China, from which it would not recover to carry out a significant expression in the following 40 years.

The policy of the International towards China a focus of the Left Opposition’s denouncation of the rise of Stalinism (Trotsky’s current also ended up by incorporating Chen Tu-hsiu). This was a late and confused current of opposition to the degeneration of the 3rd International, and although it maintained itself on the proletariat’s class terrain in respect to China, when it denounced the subordination of the CPC to the Kuomintang as the cause of the defeat of the revolution, it could never overcome the false framework of the Second Congress of the International’s Theses on the national question which, in turn, was one of the factors which would lead it into opportunism (ironically Trotsky supported the new class front in China during the inter-imperialist confrontation of the 30’s), until it passed into the camp of the counter-revolution during the course of the Second World War.[10] In any case, all the revolutionary internationalists who remained in China were henceforth called “Trotskyist” (for years Mao Tse-tung would persecute the few internationalists who still opposed his counter-revolutionary policy as “Trotskyist agents of Japanese imperialism”)

The Communist Party was literally annihilated, with around 25,000 Communists killed at the hands of the Kuomintang while the rest were imprisoned or persecuted. The remnants of the Communist Party, along with some detachments of the Kuomintang fled to the countryside. But this geographical displacement corresponded to a still more profound political displacement. In the following years the Party adopted a bourgeois ideology, its social base - led by the petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeosie - was predominantly peasant and took part in inter-bourgeois military campaigns. The Chinese Communist Party, despite having conserved the name, had stopped being a Party of the working class and was converted into a bourgeois organisation. But this is a historical question that will be dealt with in the second part of this article


By way of a conclusion, we want to draw out some lessons highlighted by the revolutionary movement in China:

* The Chinese bourgeoisie did not stop being revolutionary only when it launched itself against the proletariat in 1927. Already from the “1911 Revolution” on, the “nationalist” bourgeoisie had demonstrated its readiness to share power with the nobility, to ally itself with the warlords and to subordinate itself to the imperialist powers. Its “democratic”, “anti-imperialist” and even “revolutionary” aspirations were nothing but the cover to hide its reactionary interests, which were exposed when the proletariat began to represent a threat. In the epoch of capitalism’s decadence the bourgeoisie of the weak countries are as reactionary and imperialist as the other powers.

* The class struggle of the proletariat in China from 1919 to 1927 cannot be explained in the purely national context. It constituted a link in the wave of the world revolution that shook capitalism at the beginning of the century. The elemental power with which the workers’ movement arose in China, a section of the world proletariat at that time considered as “weak”, enabled them spontaneously to take into their hands great cities, and demonstrates the potential that the working class has to overthrow the bourgeoisie, although for this to happen it requires revolutionary consciousness and organisation.

* The proletariat can have nothing more to do with making an alliance with any fraction of the bourgeoisie. However, its revolutionary movement can draw behind it sections of the urban and rural petty-bourgeoisie (as the Shanghai insurrection and the Kwangtung peasant movement demonstrated). Nevertheless, the proletariat must not merge its organisations with those of other strata, in some kind of “Front”. On the contrary, it has to maintain its class autonomy at all times.

* To be victorious, the proletariat requires a political party which orientates it in the decisive moments, as much as the council type organisations that cement its unity. In particular, the working class has to provide itself with its World Communist Party, firm in principle and tempered in struggle, in sufficient time, before the explosion of the next international revolutionary wave. Opportunism, which sacrifices the future of the revolution on the altar of immediate “results” and leads to class collaboration must be permanently fought in the ranks of revolutionary organisation.



[1] In the context of this article we cannot deal with the struggle carried out by the left fractions in the International against its opportunism and degeneration, a struggle that took place at the same time as the events in China which we are relating here. As far as we are aware, the latter were alone to have produced a Manifesto signed jointly by the whole Opposition, including the Italian Left. This was the Manifesto “To the Communists of China and the whole world!”, published in La Vérité, 12th September 1930. In this respect, we recommend our book The Italian Communist Left, and the series of articles published in the International Review on the Dutch Left.

[2] The degeneration ran parallel to the degeneration of the state that had arisen from the revolution, which lead to the reconstitution of state capitalism in its Stalinist form. See the “Manifesto of the 9th Congress of the ICC”.

[3] Lenin - Report of the National and Colonial Commission of the Second Congress of the Communist International - July 26th 1920 and the Theses on the National and Colonial Question from the Second Congress. Taken from The Second Congress of the Communist International Vol 1, published by Pathfinder books, 1977.

[4] The expression is Borodin’s; he was the International’s delegate in China in 1926. E.H. Carr Socialism in One Country vol 3.

[5] Chen Tu-hsiu. Quoted by the same in his “Letter to all members of the CPC” December 1929. Taken from the already cited work La Question Chinoise..., p. 446


[6] Only some weeks before Chaing Kai-shek had been named as an “honorary member” and the Kuomintang a “sympathiser party” of the International. Even after the coup, the Russian advisers refused to supply 5,000 rifles to the workers and peasants of the South and reserved them for Chaing’s army.

[7] Much has been said about the role played by the unions in the revolutionary movement in China. It is certain that in that period the unions grew in the same proportion as the strike movements. However, in so far as these did not try to contain the movement in the framework of germinal economic demands, it policy was still subordinated to the Kuomintang (also, they were also obviously influenced by the CPC. Thus, the movement in Shanghai took as its declared aim the opening of the gates to the “Nationalist” army. In December 1927 the Kuomintang unions participated in the repression of the workers. In that the workers only had one means of massive organisation, the unions, this did not represent an advantage, but a weakness.

[8] Letter from Shanghai by 3 members of the CI’s mission in China, dated the 17th of March 1927.

[9] A Neuberg, The Armed Insurrection. This book was written around 1929 (after the 6th Congress of the International). It contains some valuable information on the events of this period, however, it tends to see the insurrection as a coup; furthermore it makes a crude apologia for Stalinism. On the other hand, it ought not to be surprising that the insurrection attempt in Shanghai, despite its size and its bloody repression, is hardly mentioned (if it is not completely hidden), both in the history books - be they “pro-Western” or “pro- Maoist”- and in the Maoist manuals. It is on this basis that it is possible to maintain the myth according to which the events of the 20’s were a “bourgeois revolution”

[10] For a complete understanding of our position on Trotsky and Trotskyism read our pamphlet El Trotskismo contra la clase obrera.




History of the workers' movement: 

Political currents and reference: