[Book] China: From Permanent Revolution to Counter-Revolution

The Defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution

5.1 Introduction

As the NRA advanced, the northern warlords were divided into two groups which were waging a war between themselves, a situation which greatly enhanced Chiang’s chances of success. Shanghai itself had changed hands twice in the previous three years and was now ruled by Sun Chuanfang whose army had taken the Chinese districts (European districts were, of course, almost untouched) in late 1925. The advance of the NRA inspired the Shanghai workers to action. Despite being under the rule of a warlord, over 200,000 Shanghai workers had bravely engaged in some form of strike action, often successfully, in the nine months after the start of the Northern Expedition. By 18 February 1927, the vanguard of the NRA was within 40 km (25 miles) of Shanghai. The bankers, compradors, national and industrial bourgeoisie in Shanghai saw Chiang not only as a stabilising force but as curbing the mass movement, and prepared to welcome him as their saviour. Only the workers were ignorant of the role Chiang would play.[1]

Chen Duxiu recognised that a successful uprising by the Shanghai workers would pose the problem of the ruling power. At the Central Committee (CC), basing his arguments on the revolutionary upswing amongst the peasants and the militancy of the proletariat, he argued:

“The Chinese Revolution has two roads: One is led by the proletariat, then we can reach the goal of the revolution; the other is led by the bourgeoisie, and in that case the latter must betray in the course of the revolution. And though we may co-operate with the bourgeoisie at the present, we must nevertheless seize the leading power.”[2]

The proposal was, of course, rejected.

The peasant unions and workers’ organisations were growing rapidly, and as they grew they made ever more radical demands. Rather than unleash revolution the CCP held the peasants back from taking the land, and workers from political strikes. Stalin’s policies of 1917 (unifying the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks into a single party and limiting the Revolution to national bourgeois demands under the banner of the Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry) were now being enacted in China. But revolutionary situations do not last forever and with no Bolshevik Party to direct the action, the situation in China changed rapidly, and for the worse.

The Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern in Shanghai unanimously opposed Chen, arguing that if a Shanghai uprising succeeded, the ruling power should be handed to the bourgeoisie and it was unnecessary to have any participation in the government by workers’ delegates. This argument was word for word that used by the Mensheviks in St Petersburg in February 1917.[3]

As KMT armies advanced towards Shanghai, the General Labour Union called a general strike to commence on 19 February 1927. The strike involved practically every worker in Shanghai, a section of the petty-bourgeoisie shut their shops and joined in the strike – between 500,000 and 800,000 people were directly involved. The CCP was taken by surprise and immediately contacted the local KMT to discuss what to do. Spontaneously the strike began to develop into an armed uprising under the slogans: ‘Hail the Northern Expedition’, ‘Hail Chiang Kai-shek’. This first stage of the Shanghai uprising was quickly beaten back by the warlord’s troops even as the CCP and KMT discussed their options.[4]

5.2 Chiang Prepares his Second Coup

Chiang understood the threat the uprising posed to the Chinese bourgeoisie and took the political offensive against both the CCP and the left KMT. Co-ordinated gangster attacks on trade unions and peasant associations in the territories controlled by Chiang accelerated. Local union HQs were attacked and smashed up and those defending them beaten and even killed. Peasant associations received the same treatment. In those cases where the pickets successfully defended themselves, police or the NRA would appear and in a neutral capacity disarm and then arrest them, after which the gangsters would take over and ‘reorganise’ the union. In all cases the unions soon re-appeared as yellow unions. Despite the frequency and widespread occurrence of these attacks, the CCP was so blinded by the desire to keep Chiang on side that they closed their eyes to their co-ordinated nature and limited themselves to resolutions urging the military to protect the workers!

On 21 March 1927, the General Labour Union led the Shanghai workers in a second insurrection that took control from the local warlord and within two days armed workers controlled the city. However, the workers fought under slogans provided by the CCP and local KMT: ‘Hail the National Revolutionary Army!’, ‘Welcome to Chiang Kai-shek!’ Internationally the Stalinist press rallied to praise Chiang. Rote Fahne in Germany and L’Humanite in France went so far as to claim that Chiang’s entry into Shanghai would not only be the liberation of Shanghai, not only inaugurate the ‘Chinese Commune’ but would be the beginning of the liberation for the workers of the world.[5] This complete mis-reading of the situation flowed quite naturally from the anti-Marxism of the bloc of four classes. The ECCI and CCP voluntarily restricted the workers’ and peasants’ struggles, limited the goals to what was acceptable to the bourgeoisie, and paved the way for Chiang to carry out in Shanghai the destruction of the mass movement, but in a more thorough and determined manner than he had been doing elsewhere.

While the Shanghai proletariat fought, Chiang Kai-Shek delayed his march waiting for the warlord’s troops to drain the blood of the workers. However, the workers took the city and held it, spontaneously declaring they did not want Chiang to enter. Despite the CCP, they were prepared to fight to stop him. It was this victory of the Shanghai workers that confirmed to Chiang that he could wait no longer. Simultaneously, the ECCI sent a telegram instructing the CCP “to avoid clashes with the National Army and its leaders in Shanghai at any price”, arms were to be surrendered and control of Shanghai given to the NRA.[6,7]

On 26 March Chiang entered the city. On 28 March martial law was declared. Chiang did everything to hide the assault he was planning, a veritable avalanche of statements was produced denying any split with the left KMT or CCP. Chiang even invited Wang Jingwei to return to China and vowed to show ‘explicit obedience’ to the Wuhan KMT. These devices worked better than he could ever have hoped because the left KMT leaders and ECCI wanted to believe him.[8]

On 31 March 1927, Trotsky, on the basis of a permanentist analysis, wrote to the CC and in complete antithesis to Stalin, he argued that without extending and deepening the agrarian revolution through Soviets there was a real risk of a Chinese Bonapartist coup based on the officer cadre.[9] The ECCI and the majority of the CC of the CCP followed the Stalinist line and insisted that feudal forces not the bourgeoisie were behind the reactionary activities. The result was that they disregarded the main and immediate enemy of the revolution – Chiang and the NRA.[10] Their hopes rested on Wang Jingwei, who returned to China (Shanghai), from France (via Moscow), on 1 April 1927.

On 3 April, in an unpublished article Trotsky, argued that in giving up its political independence and submitting to the discipline of the KMT, the CCP was failing to act as a pole of attraction not only to militant workers and peasants but even to radical petty-bourgeois elements within the KMT. This inaction meant, de facto, the strengthening of the power and authority of the bourgeois wing. The consequences of their actions would be just the opposite of what the ECCI expected. At a time when class divisions were accelerating rapidly, the ECCI policy of appeasing Chiang was preparing conditions for a military coup.[11]

Stalin offered the alternative perspective in a speech on 5 April 1927 when he told 3,000 Party members in the Pillar Hall of the Kremlin that “Chiang Kai-Shek cannot do otherwise than lead the army against the imperialists” irrespective of his lack of sympathy for the revolution.[12] Stalin and the ECCI in a major mis-assessment, evaluated the left KMT government in Wuhan as key to the national revolution; events in Shanghai were secondary. Peng Shuzhi and Chen Duxiu pointed out, to no avail, that Chiang Kai-shek had proved in March 1926 that he was the more important factor in the Chinese Revolution and that the Shanghai workers had to defend themselves and their city against the NRA. Chen considered Wang Jingwei the secondary force who would, most likely, fold if tested in action.

To allay the concerns of the workers, the CCP and KMT issued a joint manifesto in Shanghai on 6 April. In all the documents of Stalinism this stands out as one of the most criminal:

“ … counter-revolutionaries both inside and outside China are spreading false reports … that the leaders of the KMT intend to make war on the Communist Party, to suppress the labour unions and to dissolve the workers’ defence organisations. … The military authorities in Shanghai have declared their complete allegiance to the Central Committee of the KMT. If differences of opinion exist they can be amicably settled. The Communist Party is striving to maintain order in the freed territories. … there is no basis whatever for these malicious rumours …”[13]

Wang Jingwei, arrived in Wuhan on 10 April. With full support promised by Borodin, the CCP and the Soviet government, and with Chiang a safe distance away, he sought to re-establish himself as leader of the KMT. Wang called a KMT Central Executive Committee in Hankou at which Chiang (in his absence) was removed from his Party posts but allowed to keep the title of Commander-in-Chief.[14] Chen Duxiu arrived to meet with Wang Jingwei and found him surrounded by known anti-Communists. The weakness of the CCP, demonstrated by its failure to organise opposition to the attacks on workers and peasants in the area controlled by Chiang Kai-shek, pushed Wang and the leaders of the left KMT rapidly to the right, and closer to Chiang.

Until spring 1927, the CCP had a wonderful opportunity before it. If it had followed the proposals of Chen and Peng and assisted the peasants to launch soviets to coincide with and lead the wave of land seizures, there was every likelihood that the CCP could have gained governmental and state power (certainly in southern and central China). The rebellion might initially have had the form of a traditional peasant uprising but with Soviets to act as organising centres, structuring demands on the key and essential agrarian and anti-imperialist questions, the rebellion would soon have become a revolution because only proletarian leadership could ensure the Soviets carried through the agrarian revolution to completion.

5.3 Shanghai Massacre

Amongst the first troops to enter Shanghai (10 April) was a division that sympathised with the workers – the First Division of the Canton army. The commander, Hsueh Yueh proposed to the CC of the CCP that he should remain in Shanghai and fight together with the Shanghai workers against the military overthrow that was in preparation. The CCP leaders, Chen Duxiu included, replied that they knew that an overturn being prepared, but that they did not want a premature conflict with Chiang Kai-shek! The First Division left Shanghai.

At 4.00 am on 12 April 1927 in Shanghai, the NRA, assisted by gangster elements and with the support of foreign authorities, began slaughtering thousands of Communist and CCP sympathisers. Chiang’s detachments marched through the streets, executing on the spot any worker who offered resistance. The CCP, trades union movement, and all workers’ organisations, were annihilated and made illegal. When Chiang Kai-shek openly betrayed the Revolution it was a signal to the bourgeoisie of the entire country. The defeat in Shanghai was the beginning of a defeat throughout China. The coup in Shanghai was followed by similar blows against the workers in Amoy, Canton, Foochow, Ningpo, and Swatow (Shantou). Counter-revolution, backed by imperialism, reigned triumphant in the areas under Chiang’s control.[15]

The Shanghai events had enormously emboldened the reactionary forces across the country and an undeclared civil war was breaking out in those provinces where the peasants had made the greatest gains, Hunan and Hopeh. So widespread were the killings that women with short hair or unbound feet were executed as Communists!

A young Stalinist functionary (Rafael Chitarov) had been sent as an ECCI representative to China and he later presented a report at the 15th Congress of the AUCP(B) (11 December 1927).[16] From that report it is clear that the situation could have been saved even at the eleventh hour. The workers in Shanghai were in power. They were armed with the possibility of gaining support from at least one division of Chiang Kai-shek’s army (there was also the Communist Regiment led by Yeh Ting).[17] But the top of the CCP was paralysed. Rather than prepare for the decisive struggle against Chiang Kai-shek, they proposed to give him a triumphal reception. Chitarov’s report made it clear that the CCP ministers had followed the ECCI line and the leadership of the CCP was praised as “devoted to the cause of Communism”.

5.4 The Wuhan Debacle

Chitarov confirmed that the Shanghai coup made it “clear to everyone that the bourgeoisie was retreating from the revolution” (even at this stage a Stalinist could not admit that the Chinese bourgeoisie was actively counter-revolutionary, that was the role of the feudalists, the slaughtering of tens of thousands of workers was a ‘retreat’). But Stalin and the ECCI still had illusions in the left KMT (Wuhan) government, and this closed their eyes to the preparations of the Wuhan government for its own ‘retreat from the revolution’. Following Stalin’s lead the majority of the CC of the CCP continued to present the Wuhan government as the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry in embryo.[18]

On 17 April, the left KMT expelled Chiang from the KMT, and southern and central China separated into provinces controlled by the Wuhan left KMT supported by the CCP, and those controlled by Chiang. Stalin now adopted the position that Chiang Kai-shek’s coup was good riddance to bad rubbish and not a major defeat for the workers. The KMT had divided into a revolutionary centre in Wuhan and a counter-revolutionary centre in Nanjing. The left KMT was now free to lead a decisive struggle against militarism and imperialism. In close collaboration with the Communists it would eventually transform itself into the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.[19] Completely ignored was the fact that the counter-revolution in Shanghai had been carried out not by feudal elements and Northern warlords, but by bourgeois forces which Stalin and Bukharin had proclaimed could not betray the revolution.

In Moscow, Stalin determined that attack was the best form of defence and presented the Shanghai coup as a Communist victory, as evidence of the correctness of his policies. He almost went so far as to present the massacre of the workers in Shanghai as part of a plan by the CC of the AUCP(B) to expose the rightists and remove them from the KMT.[20]

“As is known, the Central Committee of the CPSU was already at that time of the opinion that the policy of keeping the CCP within the Kuomintang must be maintained, that the withdrawal or the expulsion of the Rights from the Kuomintang must be propagated … The events which followed have fully and entirely proved the correctness of this line.”[21]

The Comintern and Communist Parties around the world published articles proposing the remarkable argument that the slaughter of the Chinese workers in Shanghai was entirely in accord with the prognoses of the ECCI! Stalin had predicted the ‘inevitable’ desertion of the bourgeoisie from the united front; he had been proved correct. That Chiang had been personally endorsed by Stalin, the ECCI and the CCP was totally ignored; that the coup had not been against the KMT but represented the direction in which it was travelling. Completely missing was any explanation of why a correct analysis and prognosis had instructed the CCP to politically and militarily disarm the Shanghai working class in the face of the coup, had left the CCP paralysed, had left the largest city in China in the hands of the class enemy without a fight, and had led to the deaths of over 5,000 Communists.

During the following months, Chiang’s coup was presented as having cleansed the KMT of the counter-revolutionary elements amongst the bourgeoisie. The official journal of the Comintern went so far as to talk about the “revolutionary government of Wuhan” as nothing less than the “Communist Koumintang”.[22] Forgotten was Lenin’s warning of “the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries.”[23]

Stalin continued to argue that Soviets were a danger to the success of a bourgeois revolution because they would stand in opposition to the Wuhan government.[24] This fundamentally incorrect assessment ignored the experience of Russia in both 1905 and 1917. It also mis-evaluated the actual class relations within the Chinese Revolution. Stalin insisted that the left KMT was the only governmental authority in the region around Wuhan when all that really existed was a small number of self-proclaimed leaders resting on the remains of the old, reactionary and mercenary bureaucracy, temporarily supported by a number of local warlords.[25]

In Wuhan’s territory the trade unions were still legal and the workers still enjoyed the opportunity to voice their demands but the Shanghai events gave the employers in Wuhan new heart to resist. They passed over to a counter-offensive; they closed down factories and made every effort to sabotage and paralyse economic life. Peasants were refused loans on any terms meaning they were unable to buy seed and other necessary supplies to tide them over until the next harvest. Speculators drove up the price of rice to unaffordable levels. Foreigners co-operated by closing down their enterprises, curtailing their river-steamer schedules and instituting a virtual blockade of Wuhan. Beginning in May and throughout June and July, the KMT-CCP coalition crumbled under conflicting revolutionary pressures. Not because the CCP was insufficiently subservient, but because the bourgeoisie were no longer prepared to tolerate even the possibility of organised opposition.

This counter-offensive could be defeated only with the unleashing of the mass movement: seizure and operation of the closed factories, shops and ships, the establishment of peasant co-operatives, and support for the peasants’ drive to seize the land. But for such measures revolutionary force was needed based on workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils/soviets in both town and country-side. For the left KMT such measures were unthinkable because they violated the existing property relations. For the Communist Party such measures were unthinkable because the bloc within excluded them.

To make matters worse, the workers in Wuhan insisted on struggling for a living wage – between January and April women and children working in the textile mills fought for, and won, increases from 12 to 20 cents a day, dock workers increased their wages from three to seven Chinese dollars a month, and silk factory workers won a reduction in the working day from 17 to 12 hours. The CCP and the General Labour Union issued call after call to the workers not to make “unjust demands”; to make a supreme effort to preserve “the all-class nature of the revolution”, to suspend struggles against the Wuhan capitalists because the success of the revolution depended on the support of manufacturers and merchants. In the cause of a revolution that was becoming a counter-revolution, the CCP aligned itself with the exploiters against the exploited.

On reflection it seems unbelievable that the CCP implemented precisely the same policy in Wuhan with respect to Wang Jingwei and his generals as it had in Shanghai with Chiang Kai-shek! The CC of the CCP instructed the workers to be obedient to the left KMT which was presented not as a Kerensky-type regime to be overthrown, but as a potential democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants that could grow into socialism.

Chitarov described policy during the Wuhan period:

“… the CC of the Communist Party … invented the so-called theory of retreat. They declared: We must immediately retreat in order to save the possibility of legal work … if we defend ourselves or attempt to advance, we will lose everything. the Communist Party … surrendered one position after another without a battle. … they agreed to subordinate all the trade unions, all the peasant unions and other revolutionary organizations to the KMT; they rejected independent action without the permission of the Central Committee of the KMT; they voluntarily disarmed the workers’ pickets …. etc.”

The policy of the CCP would help the national bourgeoisie crush the masses and annihilate the best proletarian and peasant fighters.

The 5th CCP Congress opened on 24 April 1927 in Wuhan with Wang Jingwei as guest of honour. About one hundred delegates represented over 50,000 members. The Congress formally blamed Chen Duxiu for the Shanghai disaster but re-elected him as Secretary General. Peng was demoted from the Politburo but remained on the CC, Mao was elected to the CC but removed from leadership of the Peasant Commission.[26] The Comintern was advising bold measures – especially for agrarian revolution – but within the constraints of maintaining the bloc within. Across central China, and especially in Hunan and Hupeh, the peasants were in revolt and seizing the land. Against such a background, the Congress could do no less than call for nationalisation of the land without compensation. However, the seizures were to be of only the largest estates; those of more than about 30 hectares (80 acres), an area so large it certainly excluded the rich peasants, and even most landlords.[27] The estates of the military men upon whom the power of the Wuhan government depended were, no matter what their size, exempted.

The Manifesto of the 5th Congress described the Shanghai massacre in terms of the big bourgeoisie ‘seceding’ from the revolution, a departure which was supposed to have transformed the left KMT into a revolutionary bloc. This doubly confused the situation because it prevented any realistic analysis of the left KMT while sowing illusions about revolutionary harmony between the left KMT and the CCP. The over-arching slogan for the Congress was “Long Live the Co-operation of Communism with the Three People’s Principles (of Sun Yat-sen) to the End.”[28] For many of the delegates, their end was rapidly approaching.

The ECCI met (27 April 1927) and Roy reported from China without once referring directly to the massacre in Shanghai! Wang and his Wuhan ‘national government’ were presented as the new revolutionary leaders despite Wang having consistently avoided introducing any radical policies which would have meant conflict with the KMT conservatives. Not one jot of evidence was presented that the left KMT in Wuhan would wage a determined fight against militarism and imperialism, let alone be converted into the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the peasantry.[29]

Just as the peasant movement in Hunan and Hupeh was reaching its height the CCP affirmed its support for the new, supposedly better, supposedly more left-wing KMT. The same rules applied: no agrarian revolution, no anti-KMT agitation, no ‘excesses’, no ‘provocations’. Peasants were clearing out the landlords and taking over the land, establishing peasant associations which were embryo Soviets, taking over the local rural administration and organising armed units to battle with the landlords’ militia. Many of the soldiers of the NRA under the control of reactionary officers were influenced by the peasants. They needed an organised connection with the peasants and the only practical way of doing this was to form soldier-worker-peasant Soviets and then soldiers’ Soviets. With the revolutionary movement on the upswing such a move would have destabilised the Kuomintang armies and halted the reaction.

Instead the CCP accepted the KMT invitation to nominate two Communists to the Government posts of Minister of Labour (Hsu Chao-jen, the Canton trade union leader), and Minister of Agriculture (Tan Pingshan). With this, the CCP formally introduced a class-collaborationist policy in which Communists took governmental responsibility in bourgeois governments. This would become known as the Peoples’ Front and be formally adopted at the 7th World Congress of the CI.[30] Cohen has suggested that the idea of People’s Democracies that rose in Eastern Europe after WWII and developed in parallel with the New Democracy established in China, originated here.[31]

The KMT paper People’s Tribune, explained that the offer was made to tighten the bonds tying the workers’ party to the bourgeois KMT:

“The present co-operative plan is important because it signifies greater control by the Kuomintang over all the forces participating in the national revolution. … The Communist Party will have to fulfil its obligations to enable the Party (the KMT) and the Government to exercise full control over the mass movement.”[32]

The KMT’s plan worked; far from pulling the government to the left, these ministers were used to hold back the Revolution.

Now, at last, Stalin made a call for the arming of the workers and peasants, but this was done in exactly the same way as his warning to beware the bourgeois counter-revolution made before the Shanghai massacre. While sounding like basic common sense, it cut right across everything else he was saying. Arming the workers and peasants was the correct thing to do but it would inevitably have led to the formation of Soviets and that is why it was not done until too late and then in a distorted, bureaucratic and self-defeating manner.

The agrarian question was becoming increasingly pressing for both the left KMT and CCP as the ‘excesses’ of the peasants were met with forcible repression. As petty-bourgeois radicals, the Wuhan leaders were sensitive to the needs of the masses. But now their earlier, radical, pronouncements on the agrarian revolution needed to be translated into action. It turned out that the bonds binding the left KMT to the landlords – whose sons made up the officer corps of the armed forces – were infinitely stronger than the claims of the peasantry.

On 13 May 1927, Stalin met with students at Sun Yat-sen University to consider the issue: “Should Soviets of workers’ and peasants’ deputies, in general, be created in China?”. Stalin’s answer was:

“Yes, they should, absolutely they should. They will have to be created … after the unfolding of the agrarian revolution, in the transformation of the agrarian revolution, of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into the revolution of the proletariat.”[33]

That is, the formation of Soviets would take place at some unspecified time in the future. Historical experience said just the opposite, Soviets had been key in initiating the democratic phase of the revolution in Russia. The problem for Stalin was that if they came into existence in China, no force on earth could stop them posing demands that could be met only by a proletarian regime.

One week after Stalin’s visit to the University, generals loyal to the left KMT made their first anti-Communist move. What happened is almost unbelievable. In Changsha (capital of Hunan province, a town of about 250,000 people, 250 miles from Wuhan and served by a railway), the KMT force consisted of 1,700 soldiers, while the armed detachments of peasants around the city numbered about 20,000. When the peasants heard that the counter-revolution had started they gathered round Changsha and prepared to march on the city. This march was set for 21 May. It was clear that the peasants would seize the city without great effort, but at this point a letter came from the CC of the CCP who countermanded the attack and told the peasants to await instructions from the Government in Wuhan. The military command succeeded in seizing power, shooting the leading activists, dispersing the revolutionary organisations and establishing its dictatorship – only because of the irresolute and conciliatory actions of the CCP leaders.

Similar episodes occurred elsewhere – in north-western Hupeh as many as 20,000 people were killed by reactionaries, many of them executed publicly. The dynamic of events in the real world was reducing the situation to its essentials: would the CCP support the workers and peasants, or would it support the KMT landowners and armed forces? News of the countryside killings reached Wuhan: Communist Ministers joined KMT officials in complaining that the peasant unions were not observing ‘discipline’. According to Tan Pingshan, the peasants had been making excessive demands, and while these demands were a logical result of their long suppression, “it remains a matter of necessity that they be controlled and checked.”[34]

Tan Pingshan would later admit that the CCP, “sacrificed the interests of the workers and peasants … the government always sided with the landowners … as a result of our wrong tactics the right wing won the possibility to act.”[35] In the reality of the class struggle the ‘bloc of four classes’ was consistently found to be a mechanism which disarmed the workers and peasants and then handed them over to the generals to be slaughtered.

The 8th Plenum of the ECCI (18-30 May 1927) again rejected ‘most determinedly’ any suggestion that the CCP leave the KMT. Ignoring the lessons of the Shanghai coup, the ECCI continued to assert that because the revolution was bourgeois and anti-imperialist, those sections of the Chinese bourgeoisie in whose interest it was to overthrow imperialism, could not step aside. This would be ridiculous if it were not so tragic. Stalin ordered the Chinese communists to subordinate themselves to the Wuhan government which, according to Chitarov: “did not even think of leaving the bourgeoisie.”

On 24 May 1927 – three days after the crushing of the workers’ and peasants’ organisations in Changsha and the surrounding areas – Stalin explained to the Plenum why no soviets should be formed in Wuhan:

“It is clear that whoever calls at present for the immediate creation of soviets of workers’ deputies in this [Wuhan] district is attempting to jump over the Kuomintang phase of the Chinese revolution, and he risks putting the Chinese revolution in a most difficult situation … The Wuhan government is not yet a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. … It certainly will become a democratic dictatorship if the agrarian revolution develops to the full.”[36]

Even as the generals trusted by the left KMT gathered to bury the CCP, Stalin and the ECCI demanded the CCP remain its loyal servant and try and transform it “into a mighty mass organization of the revolutionary petty-bourgeois democracy and the working class.” As part of this process it was to deepen the agrarian revolution while halting peasant land seizures! The bloody lesson of Shanghai passed without leaving a trace.

On 1 June 1927, Roy received a telegram from Stalin in response to the Changsha events laying out the course he had in mind for China.[37] Reading the telegram today it is clear that an important function was for it to cover all possibilities so that Stalin could later cite passages from it in defence of whatever actually ensued. This can be seen from the fact that the tasks proposed were mutually exclusive and, in any case, well outside the capacity of the CCP to complete.[38] Fine phrases abounded but the conditions imposed on the CCP by the ECCI robbed them of any real meaning; i.e. the CCP had to “preserve” (sic!) its independence while continuing to be subservient to the left KMT. The comments made here on the contents of the telegram are based on Chen Duxiu’s Appeal to All the Comrades of the Chinese Communist Party dated 10 December 1929.[39]

  • The ECCI was “in favour of the land actually being seized by the masses”, but the estates of the KMT officers should not be “disturbed” and “excesses must be combatted”. There was not a single major landlord in the Hunan and Hupeh provinces who was not related to army officers and protected by them. If seizing the land of such people was an “excess” how could there be an agrarian revolution?
  • It was necessary to stiffen the backs of the KMT leaders or replace them with new leaders. If the CCP could replace the KMT leadership at will then why remain in the subservient position of the bloc within?
  • The CCP should mobilise “about 20,000 Communists and about 50,000 revolutionary workers and peasants from Hunan and Hupeh to form a new reliable army before it is too late.” How was a new army to be created and armed without coming into immediate and direct confrontation with the left KMT and its generals? If the CCP had the perspective, strength and resources to organise its own army, what was the purpose of continuing the bloc within?
  • “… punish officers who maintain contact with Chiang Kai-shek or who set soldiers on the people, the workers and peasants. … The scoundrels must be punished.” This was bombastic nonsense intended only for public consumption! The problem was not how to place these officers before tribunals but how to escape their firing squads.

The telegram was revolutionary phrase-mongering which offered no fundamental change to existing policy. To carry out a genuinely left, revolutionary policy, the CCP had to withdraw from the KMT and assert its independence. It had to establish Soviets of workers, peasants, and soldiers, initiate a truly revolutionary agrarian policy and in that way seize the initiative from the KMT. The Political Bureau wired the ECCI: “We accept the instructions and will work according to their directions, but they cannot be realized immediately.”[40]

Roy showed Stalin’s telegram to Wang Jingwei, apparently in the belief that Wang would take it as confirmation of Russian support for the left and that a joint programme of action could be worked out. Wang had no intention of opposing the generals, and with his closest supporters he began immediate preparations for the expulsion of Communists from the KMT.[41]

On 8 June the leaders of the left KMT left Wuhan for Chengchow the capital city of Honan province to confer with their generals. It was at this conference that the decision was taken to break with the Communists once and for all.[42] The CC met on 20 June to discuss how to respond. Li Lisan’s proposal was accepted: a mass demonstration was to be staged to welcome the return of the National leaders. Its slogans would support the reformist demands that the CCP was asking the KMT to adopt.[43] A week later two delegates from Wuhan met with Chiang to strike a deal.

Stalin adamantly continued to present withdrawal from the KMT as “undermining” the revolution, as “playing into the hands of the enemies”, demanding that the left KMT in Wuhan must be converted into an organ of “the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” which would carry out the agrarian revolution.[44] The ECCI, of course, followed his lead.

The situation in Wuhan quickly deteriorated. Wang Jingwei and his supporters got to work preparing the expulsion of Communists from the KMT, and ever more boldly attacked what they described as the ‘excesses’ of the peasant movement, and called more and more on the CCP to curb the activity of the Wuhan workers. The Party leadership retreated step by step, there was no political counter-offensive, nor any attempt to organise, even in self-defence.

“One afternoon, while I was walking down a street in Hankou, I saw a large fleet of rickshaws stacked high with rifles and accompanied by a group of trade union militiamen. … the trade unions had volunteered to surrender their arms to the commander of the local garrison. … to avoid misunderstandings and convince the government of our loyalty.”[45]

On 23 June, Wang Jingwei was loudly cheered when he appeared on the platform of the 4th National Labour Conference representing three million organised workers.

The leadership of the CCP continued to prostrate itself before the left KMT. On 3 July an emergency meeting of the CC issued a statement re-affirming the KMT’s leading position in the National Revolution. Then in a ghastly replay of what happened in Shanghai, ordered the armed labour pickets and other worker and peasant forces under CCP leadership to submit to the KMT; agreed that the workers’ and peasants’ mass organizations should accept KMT control; ceased all Communist agrarian activities, stopped workers’ defence squads patrolling the streets or taking any actions without KMT permission; forbade labour unions to make ‘excessive’ demands, or to question the right of employers to hire and fire; and then to crown it all emphasised that Communists in the Wuhan government were participating as members of the KMT, and not as Bolsheviks.[46]

Mao’s record at this time was not good. Roy remembers “The chairman of the Federation of Peasant Unions, Mao Zedong, in the critical days of 1927, represented the extreme right-wing view in the leadership of the Communist Party.”[47] Mao was one of the five members of the KMT’s Standing Committee of the Provisional Executive Committee of the All-China Peasant Association and no contemporary records show that he in any way dissented from the policy of keeping the peasants in check while the counter-revolution advanced upon them. Later, Mao would attempt to re-write history as in his interviews with Edgar Snow when he claimed that he had vigorously advocated a radical land policy.[48]

The official assessment of Mao, written during his life-time and with his approval, was that he was a Popular Frontist from the beginning. Mao considered that the Chinese democratic revolution must be carried out to the end. He regarded the opinion then held by the Communist International that the character of the Chinese Revolution remained bourgeois-democratic as completely correct.[49]

Within the Party, Chen and Peng were again arguing for withdrawal from the Kuomintang on the grounds that the left (Wuhan) KMT was following in the footsteps of Chiang Kai-shek and if the CCP did not change its policy they would end up dead. But, as Borodin put it: “I quite agree with your idea but I know that Moscow will never permit it.” For the first time Chen stood his ground, he was in a deep depression because his son had just been executed by the KMT, and he tendered his resignation to the CC.[50] Ch’u Ch’iu-pai became acting General Secretary.

Yes, the left KMT did represent the petty-bourgeoisie. But the petty-bourgeoisie was extremely heterogeneous, stretching from the poor peasants barely able to feed themselves and who genuinely supported the Revolution, to petty exploiters whose families were inter-twined with the landlords, and capitalists. Too many of the leaders of the left KMT were the latter. Their differences with the bourgeoisie were of scale not of kind: they would never support the demands of the peasants for land.

The counter-revolution was moving rapidly through the countryside around Wuhan but the ECCI remained in a state of denial. On 3 July 1927 Pravda presented a photo of the disarming of Chinese workers by troops under the headline “Fraternisation of the Soldiers with the Workers”. On 15 July the left KMT issued an ultimatum to the effect that all CCP members of the KMT and NRA had to resign from the CCP or face punishment; this action ended the bloc within. The military backers of the Wuhan government now began their own murderous coup against the Communists, arresting and killing as many as they could find. Those Stalin had anointed as leaders of the national revolution had metamorphosed from standard bearers to butchers first in Shanghai, then Changsha and now Wuhan. The blame for the disaster was placed on Chen and the CCP.

From the beginning to the end, Stalin and the ECCI had shouted loudly about the Kuomintang as the leadership of the Revolution[51] and this continued until both right and left wings of the KMT became openly reactionary. Now came the most bizarre stage. The ECCI instructed the CCP by telegram: “Only withdraw from the Kuomintang government, not from the Kuomintang.”[52] The Communists were to make a big show of resigning from the very Wuhan government that was busy expelling, disarming, arresting and shooting them, and then because Bukharin was still convinced that the left KMT had a mass peasant base (and to save his face), the CCP had to claim the stained and tattered remnants of the KMT banner as its own![53] Somehow, the Communists after being scattered, on the run and hiding from arrest, torture and death, were to obtain a response from the very movement they had betrayed and destroyed. They had to gain the trust of those they had only recently led to the slaughter and they had to do it under the same KMT banner that was flying over the columns of soldiers destroying the peasant unions in the countryside and the trade unions in the towns.

Two new agents were sent to China in July 1927: Besso Lominadze and Heinz Neumann, with instructions to convene an extraordinary conference of the Party, select a new CC, ruthlessly blame the CCP leadership for the disasters resulting from Stalin’s policy,[54] and to organise putschist uprisings at Nanchang and Canton.

Without any discussions with those leading the CCP these representatives went directly to the Hunan Provincial Committee which was eager to revenge the killing of peasants around Changsha and began organising an ‘uprising’ at Nanchang.[55] Remnants of Communist units of the KMT 4th Army in the area were included in the forces brought together for the attack. The Nanchang ‘uprising’ commenced the night of 31 July and was over by 5 August. It is described in more detail in the next chapter (Section 6.2) as part of the Autumn Harvest Uprisings.

The ECCI representatives then called an extraordinary meeting of the CC on 7 August 1927 in the name of Ch’u Ch’iu-pai (a member of the Politburo only since May and who was prepared to accept the new ultra-left line of the ECCI). The meeting was called in great haste and attended by only twelve or thirteen party members, of whom two were members of the local branch and five were from the CC of the Communist Youth Organisation. Pantsov claims Mao attended this meeting, spoke in support of Lominadze, and used the occasion to argue that political power comes from the barrel of a gun[56] a contribution that the Comintern representative must have welcomed given his perspective of military putsches.

The meeting of 7 August marked a substantial change in the form of the relationship between the ECCI and the CCP. Previously, the CCP had followed the instructions handed down by the CI, but after discussion with the ECCI representatives in which it had been permissible to criticise the application of the line, though never the line itself. It was possible to maintain a semblance of joint agreement. This mask was now discarded and it was clear to all that Moscow intended to crack the whip and expect immediate, complete obedience. The sudden volte-face in the policies of the CCP – from class collaboration to putschism – confirmed the degree of CI control over the CCP.

The extent of the decay within the CCP was unmistakable when this rump meeting (subsequently upgraded to a ‘Conference’ the better to deceive the world Communist movement) blamed the party’s failures on Chen Duxiu’s and Tan Pingshan’s opportunism. Ch’u Ch’iu-pai was confirmed as the new de facto General Secretary. Those dropped from the leadership included Mao Zedong. Stalin’s prestige had to be maintained and a circular letter from the ‘Conference’ declared that the new leadership agreed with the criticisms of the CCP made by the ECCI, and that its policy regarding China had been proved entirely correct. Blame lay with the past leadership which had implemented an opportunist, non-revolutionary policy. However, the perspective proposed beggared belief:

“The Chinese Revolution is not only not on the ebb, but has entered upon a new ‘higher’ stage. … the strength of the toiling masses of China … is only now beginning to manifest itself in a new advance of the revolutionary struggle.”[57]

In reality, across China in all the territories under KMT control there were mass exterminations of Communists and militants. The defeat of the movement was not simply the huge number of dead (Roy later estimated 25,000 Communists lost their lives), but there was also the psychological and moral demoralisation. The masses had been led to defeat by those they trusted and believed in – who could they trust now? Decimated, dispersed, and demoralised with the masses retreating into passivity, the Communists were told that the Wuhan defeat had propelled the Revolution to a new and higher stage.[58] The ECCI instructed the CCP to launch a series of hopeless putschist actions that would be presented to the world Communist movement as victories to act as a cover for the disastrous decisions of Stalin and the ECCI. Even as CCP members who argued against this new ultra-left line were being expelled, the ECCI sought to protect itself and insure against all eventualities by warning against the tactics of ‘skirmishes’. Succeed and the ECCI would take the credit, fail and the CCP would be blamed.

Pravda of 30 September 1927 reported a revolutionary élan in the peasant guerrilla movement and in revolutionary elements of the Canton army which were “winning victories with the help of the peasant risings over the oppressors of the Chinese people.” This Pravda article, confirmed by an ECCI directive on 26 October, marked a change in Comintern policy with respect to peasant insurrections.[59] The CCP now had so little strength left in the towns that the ECCI and CCP leadership were desperately looking for an alternative that they could present to the world Communist movement as a natural extension of the struggles and not have to admit a retreat. Guerrilla warfare was presented as a natural and desirable growth of the struggle of the Chinese peasants. Naturally, to protect itself, the ECCI set conditions: such actions must be integrated into the armed struggle of the masses, and be capable of creating revolutionary base areas which could be expanded.[60] ‘Integrated into’ and ‘capable of’ were, of course, value judgements to be made by the leadership of the CCP and thus, whatever it did could be repudiated by the ECCI – unless successful. The result was a noticeable shift in CCP activities away from the city and into the countryside, attempting revolution using peasant guerrilla tactics, peasant risings, and military operations.

Lominadze’s (and Ch’u Ch’iu-pai’s) perspective was that a revolutionary situation existed in China and would continue for at least some years independent of the mistakes of the CCP. The CC, in November 1927, even passed a resolution to the effect that “by its character it constitutes what Marx called a permanent revolution”, the Chinese Revolution was no longer bourgeois-democratic, it was a workers’ and peasants’ revolution which could and should largely bypass the democratic stage and move to the socialist revolution immediately. This terminology has caused some confusion in the academic world where well-known authorities on China confuse Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (where the democratic revolution flows over into the socialist because the national bourgeoisie cannot carry through the agrarian revolution) with the ultra-left mis-diagnosis of the ECCI representative in China.[61,62]

The new line decided at the ‘Conference’ was a dramatic about-face; substituting isolated attempts at violent insurrection for the previous policy of subservience to the KMT. Soviets, inadmissible in May, were now the immediate task – to be created in a period when revolution was in a downturn. Following the ECCI instructions, the CC accepted that the CCP should proceed to take military action against the forces of the KMT while flying the blue-white banner of the KMT!

The new ruling clique was led by Ch’u Ch’iu-pai and supported by, amongst others, Li Lisan and Zhou Enlai. In its turn, the 7 August ‘Conference’ would take the blame for Stalin’s new mistakes and be criticised for the serious error of raising false hopes for the emergence of a left KMT by calling for action under its banner![63]

5.5 Summary

The ECCI imposed on the CCP, the stagist theory that China had to complete the democratic revolution before proceeding to the socialist, and that the appropriate strategy was the bloc within. The newly-founded CCP, as a member of the CI accepted its discipline and the leadership of Moscow. As the ECCI perspective increasingly clashed with reality and the CCP leadership objected, advice gave way to orders and the true relation of the national sections to the centre in a Stalinist organisation was revealed.

Maintenance of the KMT-CCP block was seen as essential for a successful Chinese national revolution, and as the national revolution was a stage that could not be bypassed, the CCP had to surrender its own particular interests and submit itself to the nationalist party foregoing an independent, critical voice. To a degree and to an extent, there will be genuine common interests of the different classes in a colonial country against imperialism, but Marxism starts from concrete reality and by 1925 at the latest, it was clear that the common interests were fracturing.

It was absolutely correct to support the struggle of Chiang Kai-shek against the northern warlords for a united China. But the nature of the support should have been such as to prepare the proletariat to struggle for its own political independence and to overthrow the Chinese bourgeoisie. By the spring of 1927, the NRA had swept north through the provinces of Hunan, Hubei, and Jiangxi to the city of Nanjing. The mass movement exploded and the generals determined that it was necessary to settle accounts as soon as possible in a military manner, and began recruiting as many mercenaries as possible from the defeated warlords. It beggars belief that the CCP assisted in this process.

In China, a Communist Party of nearly 60,000 and a Young Communist League of about 35,000 were thrown into the class war not to take it forward, not to give the mass movement a revolutionary character and direction, but to side with the bourgeoisie against hungry peasants desperate for land, against women and children fighting for a living wage. The result was the almost complete destruction of the party.

The Stalinists insisted on pursuing a policy that resulted in one disaster after another (from Chiang’s 20 March Coup to the Wuhan debacle) because the interests of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union were more important in determining Stalin’s policy than the success or failure of the Chinese Revolution. For their own factional interests, the response of the bureaucracy to events in China was to cover up, to lie and finally to blame others for the disasters. The bureaucracy withheld from the CCP any knowledge of Trotsky’s proposal to break the bloc within out of fear that the Chinese Communists would compare and weigh the two policies and, in view of their own experiences, might favour what Trotsky proposed. This could have brought victory to the Chinese Revolution, but would have destroyed the Stalinist faction’s control of the AUCP(B), an outcome intolerable to the reactionary, privileged Russian bureaucracy. Peng Pi-lan has argued “the second Chinese revolution was sacrificed for the sake of preserving the privileged position of the bureaucrats in Russia.”[64]

Finally, in a time of retreat by both workers and peasants Ch’u Ch’iu-pai and Lominadze opposed a united front strategy based on democratic and transitional demands that could mobilise the masses. In a time of reaction, democratic and economic activities such as the call for the right to belong to a union and demands for higher wages were thrown overboard. The result was a rapid decline in worker support of the CCP. This confirmed that the ECCI and the CCP did not understand the importance of the defeats at Shanghai and Wuhan. First the mass of the proletariat recoiled from the policies of the CCP, and then so did the peasantry – though this took a little more time.

Borodin, after the Wuhan debacle, said:

“The big bourgeoisie can never unify China because they are not really against the imperialists; they are allied with them and profit by them. The small bourgeoisie cannot unify China because they vacillate between the workers and peasants on the one hand and the big bourgeoisie on the other and, in the end, go over to the latter. The workers and peasants did not unify China because they trusted too much to the small bourgeoisie.”[65]

Roy offered much the same opinion:

“Rather than sacrifice the sectional interests of the reactionary landlords and capitalists, the bourgeois nationalist leaders betrayed the revolution. Class solidarity cut across national solidarity.”[66]

The Second Chinese Revolution had confirmed Lenin’s analysis that in colonial and semi-colonial countries the major tasks of the ‘bourgeois’ revolution could not be solved under the leadership of the ‘national’ bourgeoisie. It also demonstrated a basic tenet of the Permanent Revolution, that the interests of the imperialists, compradors, national capitalists and landlords were integrated to a much greater degree than were the interests of the national bourgeoisie, the peasants and the workers.


[1] Wang Fan-hsi. Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary, Columbia U.P., 1991.

[2] Chen Duxiu Appeal to All the Comrades of the Chinese Communist Party December 10, 1929, w.m.org.

[3] Sukhanov, N. The Russian Revolution 1917 A Personal Record, OUP, London, 1955, p8-9 and 12.

[4] Nassonov, N. Fokine, N. and Albrecht, A. The Letter from Shanghai, March 17 1927, Problems of the Chinese Revolution, New Park, 1969.

[5] Isaacs, H. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, w.m.org, p179.

[6] Pantsov, A., and Levine, S. Mao, Simon & Schuster, 2012, p178.

[7] Chen Duxiu Appeal … Op. cit.

[8] Isaacs, Op. cit. p176.

[9] Trotsky, L. To the Politburo of the AUCP(B) CC. 31 March 1927. www.oocities.org.

[10] Chen Duxiu Appeal … Op. cit.

[11] Trotsky, L. Class Relations in the Chinese Revolution, 3 April 1927, w.m.org.

[12] Isaacs, Op. cit. p185.

[13] CCP and KMT joint manifesto issued in Shanghai on 6 April, International Press Correspondence, 14 April, 1927.

[14] North, R. Moscow and the Chinese Communists, Stanford U.P., 1963. p92-94.

[15] Stranahan, P. The Chinese Communist Party during the Third Period, 1927-34, in In Search of Revolution, I.B. Tauris, 2004.

[16] Trotsky, L. Stalin and the Chinese Revolution w.m.org.

[17] McColl, R. The Oyuwan Soviet, Jnl of Asian Studies, 1967, 27(1)41-60.

[18] Trotsky, L. Problems of the Chinese Revolution, New Park, 1963, p231-232.

[19] Stalin, J. Questions of the Chinese Revolution. April 21 1927 CW9:224-234.

[20] North, Op. cit. p98/9.

[21] Theses of Comrade Stalin for Propagandists, Approved by the CC of the CPSU, International Press Correspondence, 28 April, 1927, p. 543.

[22] Isaacs, Op. cit. p224.

[23] Lenin, V. Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions, June 1920, CW31:149.

[24] Stalin, J. Questions of the Chinese Revolution, April 21 1927, CW9:224-234.

[25] Chen Duxiu, Pravda of 15 May 1927 reprinted the speech of Chen Duxiu made just over a fortnight earlier on 29 April at the Convention of the Chinese Communist Party.

[26] Alexander, R. International Trotskyism 1929-1985, 1991, Duke U.P. rosswolfe.files.wordpress.com.

[27] North, Op. cit. p102.

[28] Isaacs, Op. cit. p256.

[29] Peng Shuzhi, Introduction Trotsky on China, Monad Press, 1976.

[30] Burnham, J. The People’s Front, 1937, w.m.org.

[31] Cohen, A. The Communism of Mao Tse-Tung. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966, p94 et seq.

[32] Isaacs, Op. cit. p145.

[33] Stalin, J. Talk with Students of the Sun Yat-sen University, May 13, 1927 CW9:243-73.

[34] North, Op. cit., p102.

[35] Trotsky, L. Problems of the Chinese Revolution. New Park, 1969.

[36] Stalin, J. Concerning Questions of the Chinese Revolution May 24, 1927 CW9:241.

[37] North, R., and Xenia E. M.N. Roy’s Mission to China, Univ of California Press, p106-107.

[38] North and Xenia, Op. cit., p106.

[39] Chen Duxiu, Appeal … Op. cit.

[40] Chen Duxiu Appeal … Op. cit.

[41] North and Xenia, Op. cit., p108.

[42] Vishnayakova, V. Two Years in Revolutionary China, 1925-27, Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1971, p320.

[43] Tien-wei Wu A Review of the Wuhan Debacle: The Kuomintang-Communist Split of 1927, Jnl Asian Studies, 1969, 29(1)125-143.

[44] International Press Correspondence 16 June 1926, p737.

[45] Fan-hsi, Op. cit. p37.

[46] Chen Duxiu Appeal … Op. cit.

[47] Roy, M. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in China, Renaissance Publishers, 1946, p 615.

[48] Wittfogel, K. The Legend of “Maoism”, TCQ, 1960, No 2, p16-34.

[49] Chen Po-ta. Mao Tse-tung on the Chinese Revolution, 1963 FLPH, Peking.

[50] Chen Duxiu Appeal … Op. cit.

[51] Stalin, J. Questions of the Chinese Revolution, w.m.org.

[52] Chen Duxiu Appeal … Op. cit.

[53] Alexander, Op. cit.

[54] Hsiao Tso-liang Chinese Communism and the Canton Soviet of 1927, The China Quarterly, 1967, No 30 p49-78.

[55] Hofheinz, R. The Autumn Harvest Insurrection, The China Quarterly, 1967, No. 32, p37.

[56] Pantsov AND Levine, Mao, Op. cit. p191-192.

[57] Roy, Op. cit., p405.

[58] Roy, Op. cit. p405.

[59] Thornton, R. The Comintern and Chinese Communists 1928-31, p102-105.

[60] Hsiao Tso-liang, Op. cit.

[61] Thornton, R. Emergence of a New Comintern Strategy for China: 1928, in International Communism and the Communist International 1919-43, MUP, 2004, p66-110.

[62] Stranahan, P. The CCP During the Third Period, 1927-34, in In Search of Revolution, Ed. Worsley, M. Tauris, 2004.

[63] North and Xenia, Op. cit., p112.

[64] Peng Pi-lan, The Chinese Revolution, Education for Socialists, SWP, 1972, p12.

[65] Strong, A. China’s Millions, Univ. of Michigan, 2006, p242&251-2.

[66] Roy, M. The Lessons of the Chinese Revolution, Labour Monthly, Nov., 1927, w.m.org.