In 1927, the Chinese nationalists smashed the country’s first working-class revolutionary movement – a defeat that would shape the whole subsequent history of China.

Between 1911 and 1949, China was transformed by a protracted and complex process of war and revolution.

The first phase of this process, accelerated by the impact of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, was ended by counter-revolution in 1927. The second phase, triggered by the Second World War, ended with the victory of the Chinese Communist Party and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In the first phase – the First Chinese Revolution – a proletarian insurrection on the Russian model was a possibility. The defeat of this possibility in 1927 was to shape the whole subsequent history of China.

China’s revolutionary crisis was triggered by imperialism. During the 19th century, leading foreign powers had established a series of ‘concessions’ (colonies and associated commercial privileges) on the Chinese coast.

The concessions had been obtained by a mix of bribes, threats, and military action. Chinese nationalist resistance had been crushed. The decaying Manchu dynasty in Beijing had been propped up by the foreign powers as a shield for the concessions.

But in October 1911, the Manchus, hopelessly discredited by their inability to defend national territory, were overthrown in a military revolt. A republic was proclaimed and nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, newly returned from exile, was made president.

Sun Yat-sen was soon displaced by army commander Yüan Shih-k’ai, who dissolved parliament and made himself dictator.

The nationalist bourgeoisie was too weak to carry out its historic tasks – forming a stable government, unifying the country, and carrying out modernising reforms. So its place was taken by army officers. But they too lacked the means to overcome the conflicts tearing Chinese society apart.

Sun Yat-sen and his Chinese National People’s Party (or Kuomintang) established a new political base in the southern port city of Canton. Most of China, however, was ruled by neither the Beijing dictator nor the Canton liberal; most was under the sway of one or another of more than a thousand regional warlords.

The Chinese bourgeoisie was weak for three reasons. First, only one in five of China’s 300 million people lived in towns of any size; it remained an essentially agricultural country of landlords and peasants with few railways, bad roads, and little large-scale industry.

Second, the bourgeoisie was split by its contradictory relationship with imperialism. Some Chinese capitalists wanted to build up native industries and resented the foreign concessions. Others had close economic ties with the foreign capitalists.

Third, the bourgeoisie feared the masses. Even those who wanted to fight for national independence feared they might lose control of events to more radical forces. They remembered with foreboding the T’ai-p’ing and Boxer Rebellions (see MHW 63).

The weakness of both the Canton bourgeoisie and the Beijing dictatorship left a political vacuum. This was filled by the warlords.

The warlords were regional military strongmen who built power-bases by forming alliances with landlords, businessmen, army officers, and criminal gangs in the areas they controlled. The collapse of central state authority meant a breakdown of order and a threat to property. An unstable mosaic of petty bandit-states was the result.

The overthrow of the Manchus therefore had the effect of making China more vulnerable to the depredations of foreign imperialism. The main threat was from Japan.

The Japanese had won effective control of Korea following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, and then of Manchuria following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. These two conflicts made Japan the dominant imperial power in China.

During the First World War, Japan seized the German colonies in China and issued a list of ‘21 Demands’ amounting to a claim to a Japanese protectorate over the entire country.

By the end of the war, Japan, with the third biggest navy in the world, was a great power, and her takeover of the German colonies was recognised by the other victorious powers at the 1919 Versailles peace conference.

In consequence, Chinese delegates refused to sign the Versailles treaty, and when news of it reached Beijing, it triggered a new revolutionary upsurge. Student-led protests against imperialism unleashed a wave of action involving millions of ordinary Chinese, with mass meetings, demonstrations, boycotts of Japanese goods, and a general strike in Shanghai.

The ‘4 May Movement’ of 1919 was far more powerful than that of 1911. War production had increased the size and confidence of the embryonic working class in major ports and production centres like Shanghai. And the Russian Revolution had shown how the working class might lead a socialist revolution in a predominantly peasant country.

A Marxist study circle had begun meeting at Beijing University in 1918, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in Shanghai in 1921. The following year, big strikes erupted across several major cities, with Chinese workers pitted against company thugs, foreign police, and warlord armies. The new CCP became a mass party as a result.

The national and social struggles began to reinforce one another. National independence could not be achieved without mobilising the masses to defeat imperialism and warlordism, and the workers could not end their poverty without taking on foreign capitalists and police.

Between 1924 and 1927, the Kuomintang and the Communists formed an alliance. The Russians set up a military academy at Whampoa to train Kuomintang army officers, and Chinese Communists were encouraged to follow the political lead of Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalists.

When General Chiang Kai-shek led the Kuomintang into action in ‘the Northern Expedition’ of 1926, workers’ and peasants’ risings were organised against local warlords as the Nationalist army approached. A rolling tide of national and social revolution swept across southern China.

Landlords, merchants, and money-lenders fled. Village co-operatives were set up, and urban workers took over their factories. Foot binding, child prostitution, opium addiction, and other ancient oppressions disappeared. A new age of social liberation seemed to be dawning.

Shanghai was the Petrograd of the Chinese Revolution. In March 1927, as Chiang Kai-shek approached the city, 600,000 workers joined a 12-day general strike. Armed union militias took control of the city. A government dominated by workers’ leaders took power.

When the Kuomintang army arrived, the workers were told by their leaders to lay down their arms and welcome the Nationalist soldiers as liberators. No sooner had they done so than, in April 1927, Chiang Kai-shek unleashed his army on the city in a counter-revolutionary pogrom.

More than 50,000 were butchered, the unions broken, and activist networks liquidated. The working-class revolutionary movement in Shanghai was destroyed in a matter of days.

From Shanghai, the counter-revolutionary terror was spread to other cities and provinces. By the end of the summer, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists – now in alliance with landlords, capitalists, and foreign powers – had smashed the First Chinese Revolution. They had thereby wrecked any possibility of mobilising the mass forces required to win national independence.

The Kuomintang was a bourgeois nationalist party. Its leaders and the officers of its army belonged to the propertied classes. The proletarian and peasant revolution of 1926-1927 was therefore seen as a greater threat than warlords and imperialists.

But why had the workers of Shanghai laid down their weapons? Why had they surrendered power to the nationalist bourgeoisie? How could the Communist leadership of the working class have made such a terrible mistake?

The Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky had argued vehemently against the policy of alliance with the Kuomintang. The Chinese workers had to maintain their own independent organisation, he had insisted, including an armed revolutionary militia, and to carry out a socialist revolution.

But he was overruled. Lenin was dead, Trotsky had been marginalised, and Stalin was now the dominant political figure in Russia.

The Chinese Communists had been led to disaster by their foreign advisors because the Russian leadership, isolated and beleaguered, was morphing into a bureaucratic dictatorship hostile to international working-class revolution.

On this tragic development would the history of the 20th century turn.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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