The tragedy of the 1925-1927 Chinese Revolution

Part 2

By John Chan
6 January 2009

Below is the second part of a lecture delivered at a summer school of the Socialist Equality Party in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in August 2007. Part 1 was posted on January 5 and part 3 on January 7.

The revolutionary eruption

A young CCP member, Peng Shuzi, who had returned from Moscow in 1924 and later became a leader in the Chinese Trotskyist movement, was among the party's left wing that strongly demanded a more critical policy towards the KMT. He directly opposed the official line of assisting the national bourgeoisie who, with its close ties to the warlords and imperialist powers, was hostile to the working class and incapable of leading the national-democratic revolution. Peng argued that the proletariat had to take the leadership in the anti-colonial struggles.

The polemical struggle had a significant impact. The CCP refocussed the party's work on leading the growing mass movement of the working class, rather than its activities in the KMT. When the CCP held its Second National Labour Congress on May Day 1925, its organisations represented 570,000 workers. Its growing influence resulted in a wave of militant struggles of the working class.

In the strike struggle in Japanese-run textile factories in Shanghai, a communist worker was shot, provoking anti-imperialist protests in the city. On May 30, thousands of students and workers protested outside a police station in Shanghai to demand the release of the arrested demonstrators. British police opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding dozens.

Canton-Hong Kong strike in 1925Canton-Hong Kong strike in 1925

This "May 30th Incident" triggered an unprecedented eruption of the working class that marked the beginning of the Second Chinese Revolution. Some 125 strikes involving 400,000 workers took place, along with mass protests and riots across the country. Three weeks later, on June 23, 1925 when workers and students demonstrated in Guangzhou, Anglo-French military police shot and killed 52 people. Upon hearing of the massacre, Hong Kong workers responded with a general strike. 100,000 workers left Hong Kong and a boycott of British goods was declared, under the direction of a Canton-Hong Kong Strike Committee. This elected body of workers' delegates, with its thousands of armed pickets, was a Soviet in embryo.

Initially the anti-imperialist struggle involved the "whole people", not only students and workers but Chinese capitalists as well. However, the Chinese bourgeoisie was quickly shocked by the heroism and radicalism of the working class. The Chinese businessmen in Shanghai were the first to withdraw and begin cooperating with the imperialist powers against the strike movement.

Chiang Kai-shek Chiang Kai-shek

After the death of Sun Yat-sen in March 1925, the hostility of the Chinese bourgeoisie to the working class was expressed mostly clearly in the political rise of Chiang Kai-shek. The son of a wealthy merchant, Chiang had close ties with Shanghai's bankers and compradors. Unlike Sun, Chiang Kai-shek was no intellectual. He had spent his early years among Shanghai's gangsters, murderers and smugglers, who would later become his shock troops against the city's working class.

The radicalisation of the working class forced the CCP leadership to reconsider its relations with the KMT. In October 1925, Chen Duxiu again suggested that the CCP quit the KMT and cooperate only externally, but the Comintern rejected the proposal. The Stalin clique favoured trying to use the death of Sun to install "left-wing" or pro-Moscow leaders, such as Wang Ching-wei as well as Chiang, into the KMT's central leadership.

Stalin's Menshevik policy

No-one disputed that the immediate tasks of the Chinese revolution were "national-democratic" or bourgeois in character. The issue was: which class would lead the revolution—the bourgeoisie or the proletariat—and in which direction—towards a bourgeois democratic republic or a workers state?

After the working class erupted in 1925, Stalin did not turn to the left, but systematically based himself on an outright Menshevik policy. In opposition to the lessons of 1917 in Russia, he encouraged the illusion that the bourgeois KMT was a "workers' and peasants' party" capable of leading the revolutionary struggle. Later he went further, arguing that in countries such as China, imperialist oppression drew together all "progressive" forces—the national bourgeoisie, petty bourgeois intelligentsia, peasantry and working class—into "a bloc of four classes".

Like the Russian Mensheviks, Stalin claimed that the leadership of the "anti-imperialist" revolution naturally belonged to the Chinese national bourgeoisie. China was too backward for building socialism, he insisted, meaning the proletarian revolution had to be postponed to the indefinite future—as the second stage in the revolution. In the first stage, the task of Chinese communists was to push the KMT to the left, transforming it into a "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry". In practice, Stalin's perspective meant that the Chinese communists had to assist the KMT to come to power and to suppress the struggle by the working class for power.

The very fact that the KMT was compelled to ally with the CCP reflected the organic weakness of the bourgeoisie. Stalin's opportunism allowed the KMT leaders to parade unchallenged before the masses as "revolutionaries" and "socialists" and they seized the opportunity with both hands. In the Sixth Plenum of the Executive Committee of Communist International (ECCI) in February-March 1926, Stalin formally included the Kuomintang as a "sympathising" section of the Comintern and put Chiang Kai-shek into the Comintern presidium as an "honorary" chairman.

The KMT leaders took on a revolutionary appearance precisely because of the strength of the CCP's appeal. In 1920, the CCP consisted mainly of a small circle of intellectuals; in 1927 the party led a movement of almost three million industrial, mining and railway workers—the vast majority of China's relatively small but concentrated proletariat. In 1922, the CCP had only 130 members. Five years later, the party, including its youth movement, the Communist Youth League, had grown to 100,000 members. In 1923, when the CCP started to build peasant associations, it had only 100,000 Cantonese farmers; in June 1927, the number reached 13 million in the two provinces of Hunan and Hubei. Moreover, significant sections of soldiers, numbering tens of thousands, were sympathetic to the revolutionary movement. But the party maintained a conservative policy aimed at constraining these radicalised masses, in order to maintain its alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie.

Hong Kong seamenA demonstration of striking Hong Kong seamen and workers in 1922

Stalin's transformation of the CCP into an appendage of the KMT left the party wide open to great dangers as the KMT made its inevitable turn against the revolutionary movement. On March 20, 1926, Chiang suddenly carried out a coup to tighten his stranglehold over the KMT. He not only toppled the so-called "left-wing" KMT leadership, but also detained 50 prominent communists and placed all Soviet advisers under house arrest. He disarmed the Canton-Hong Kong Strike Committee and effectively established himself as a military dictator in Guangzhou.

After an initial reaction of shock and confusion, Stalin quickly decided to maintain the old policy. He again opposed a fresh initiative by the CCP leadership to leave the KMT. All news of Chiang's coup was covered up in the Soviet and Comintern press or dismissed as imperialist propaganda. Stalin accepted Chiang's hostile measures restricting CCP members to no more than one third of any KMT committee.

Even as Chiang openly demonstrated his counterrevolutionary intentions, Stalin enthusiastically backed his military plan to launch a Northern Expedition against the warlords. In the name of assisting the KMT's war efforts, the 16-month-long Canton-Hong Kong strike that shocked British imperialism was shut down and any independent struggle by workers and peasants banned.

Trotsky waged a systematic political struggle against Stalin's policy on China. In September 1926, Trotsky concluded that the CCP had to immediately leave the KMT. "The leftward movement of the masses of Chinese workers," he wrote, "is as certain a fact as the rightward movement of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Insofar as the Kuomintang has been based on the political and organisational union of the workers and the bourgeoisie, it must now be torn apart by the centrifugal tendencies of the class struggle. There are no magic political formulas or clever tactical devices to counter these trends, nor can there be.

"The participation of the CCP in the Kuomintang was perfectly correct in the period when the CCP was a propaganda society which was only preparing itself for future independent political activity but which, at the same time, sought to take part in the ongoing national liberation struggle. The last two years have seen the rise of a mighty strike wave among the Chinese workers... This very fact confronts the CCP with the task of graduating from the preparatory class it now finds itself into a higher grade. Its immediate political task must now be to fight for direct independent leadership of the awakened working class—not of course in order to remove the working class from the framework of the national-revolutionary struggle, but to assure it the role of not only the most resolute fighter, but also of political leaders with hegemony in the struggle of the Chinese masses" (Leon Trotsky on China, Monad Press, New York, 1978, p. 114).

Trotsky's analysis was vindicated by events. Instead of developing an independent proletarian perspective, the CCP devoted its energy to supporting Chiang's Northern Expedition against the warlords by calling on workers and peasants to assist the National Revolutionary Army. The masses provided intelligence and established guerrilla units to cut transport and to sabotage supplies behind enemy lines. Without this popular support and the exceptional heroism of communist commanders in the army, Chiang Kai-shek could not have reached the Yangtze River valley as he did, in less than four months. (See map of the Northern Expedition)

The National Revolutionary ArmyThe National Revolutionary Army enters Wuhan in 1927

Class tensions, however, were set to explode as the KMT's military victories over the warlords were seen by the Chinese masses only as the beginning of the revolution. When the expeditionary forces liberated Hunan, for example, four million farmers flooded into peasant associations in just five months and half a million workers joined the CCP-led General Labour Union. In Wuhan, a major industrial centre in the Yangtze valley, 300,000 workers formed the Hubei General Union, under the CCP's direction. Moreover, the mass movement was quickly being radicalised. Workers spontaneously took over the British concessions in Hankou. The peasant movement went from demanding lower rents to armed struggles aimed at driving out the landlords.

April 1927: the Shanghai coup

As the masses rose up, Chiang Kai-shek moved rapidly into the camp of the big businesses, compradors and imperialist representatives in eastern China to suppress the revolution. Moscow claimed that Chiang's rightward course could be countered by rebuilding the "left" around Wang Ching-wei in the KMT central leadership, now located in Wuhan. However, the rift between the KMT left and right was purely tactical. Both agreed on establishing a bourgeois "national" government. Their differences centred largely on military strategy, power sharing and, most importantly, when and how to break the KMT's alliance with the Communist Party.

Despite Chiang's empty protestations to Stalin that he would not establish bourgeois domination in China, a showdown was inevitable as the KMT's armies approached Shanghai—the country's economic centre with a large radicalised working class.

The CCP sought to seize the city in advance of the KMT's troops, but Stalin's policy of avoiding a "premature" conflict with Chiang Kai-shek and maintaining the "bloc of four classes" undermined and eventually strangled its initiative. Shanghai workers took power, only to hand it back to the bourgeoisie and then face the fury of Chiang's murderous gangs of thugs.

Under pressure from the rising mass struggles, the CCP leadership issued the call for the breaking of the barrier between the national democratic tasks and the socialist revolution. The party called upon the working class to accomplish the Chinese revolution "at once", by "concentrating railways, shipping, mines and large industries under the control of the state and making the transition towards socialism" (History of Sino-Soviet Relations 1917-1991, Shen Zhihua, Xinhua Press, p31).

Hostile to any attempt by the CCP to violate his "two-stage" theory, Stalin scaled back its revolutionary initiative in the second half of March 1927 by issuing the following orders:

1) no armed takeover of foreign concessions in Shanghai in order to avoid imperialist intervention;

2) maneouvre between the left and right wings of the KMT, refrain from confronting the army, and preserve the forces of the CCP;

3) the CCP should prepare for armed struggles, but must hide its weapons for now as the balance of forces was unfavourable to the working class.

Shanghai workersShanghai workers’ victorious march after the armed insurrection

These directives served to turn what was an exceptionally favourable revolutionary situation into a deadly disaster. On March 21, 1927, the CCP organised an armed insurrection, backed by a general strike of 800,000 Shanghai workers. The working class crushed the warlord forces and took control of the city, except the foreign concessions. However, the CCP was prevented by Stalin's policy from establishing a workers' government, and instead formed a "provisional" government that included leading bourgeois representatives. Its main task was not to advance the interests of workers, but to welcome Chiang Kai-shek and his troops.  

Chiang Kai-shek deliberately remained outside Shanghai for weeks to let the workers exhaust themselves in the fight against the warlords, while he planned his coup in cooperation with Shanghai's big businesses and gangsters, and the imperialist powers. Chiang's plot was no secret to the CCP leadership, which had concluded that the Shanghai working class must arm itself and turn to sympathetic soldiers in the KMT's Second and Sixth Armies.

On March 31, however, the Comintern, in line with Stalin's injunction to avoid "premature" conflict, sent a telegram to Shanghai ordering the CCP to instruct thousands of armed workers to hide their weapons. One CCP leader, Luo Yinong, angrily denounced the order as a "policy of suicide". The CCP was nevertheless compelled to obey.

Trotsky and the Left Opposition strenuously warned of the dangers and called for the building of Soviets as the necessary independent organs of power of the revolutionary masses. But on April 5, in an infamous speech to thousands of party cadres in the Hall of Columns in Moscow, Stalin insisted that the CCP had to maintain its bloc with Chiang.

"Chiang Kai-shek is submitting to discipline. The Kuomintang is a bloc, a sort of revolutionary parliament, with the Right, the Left, and the Communists. Why make a coup d'etat? Why drive away the Right when we have the majority and when the Right listens to us? ... At present, we need the Right. It has capable people, who still direct the army and lead it against the imperialists. Chiang Kai-shek has perhaps no sympathy for the revolution but he is leading the army and cannot do otherwise than lead it against the imperialists. Beside this, the people of the Right have relations with the General Chang Tso-lin [the Manchurian warlord] and understand very well how to demoralise them and to induce them to pass over to the side of the revolution, bag and baggage, without striking a blow. Also, they have connections with the rich merchants and can raise money from them. So they have to be utilised to the end, squeezed out like a lemon, and then flung away" (The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Harold R. Isaacs, Stanford University Press, 1961, p. 162).

Chiang’s execution squad Chiang’s execution squad beheading a communist worker

On April 12, just one week after Stalin's speech, Chiang struck, sending gangs of thugs to destroy the city's General Labour Union. The next day, the CCP called a strike of 100,000 workers, but Chiang Kai-shek responded with troops and machine guns, massacring hundreds of people. In the reign of "white terror" during the following months, thousands of communist workers were murdered not only in Shanghai but other cities under Chiang's control.

To be continued