As a rising labour movement gains strength in China, the reprint of Harold Isaac’s classic Marxist history of the Chinese revolution provides both inspiration and a warning from history, writes Chris Nineham

The Chinese Revolution

Harold R Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Haymarket Books 2009), 500pp

As all eyes are on China, the reprint of this classic Marxist history should be a major event. The book is not about Mao’s peasant led 1949 revolution but the story of the great worker led insurrection of 1925 to 1927. It is an extraordinary half-buried story of popular uprising and political betrayal, brilliantly told. And even though it was written in 1937 it’s a story that throws much light on China’s subsequent development.

Despite its relative obscurity, the Chinese revolution of the 20’s was a major turning point. Isaac’s book helps explain the shape of revolutionary struggle in the twentieth century and up to our day. It gives context to the defeat of the working class internationally in the 1920s and 30s. It also helps to explain the pattern of so many anti colonial uprisings which often succeeded in throwing out colonial occupiers but never in solving the problems of the mass of the population.

It suggests too an alternative model for liberation in the developing world. We are witnessing a new series of struggles for democratic and social change against authoritarian regimes from Burma to Egypt, from Thailand to Nepal. Chinese workers themselves are taking strike action on a scale not seen since the 1970’s. Isaacs’s book is an inspiration and a warning.

The seeds of revolt

Isaacs lived in China for the first part of the 1930s and he outlines the background of desperate economic suffering and imperial oppression in early twentieth century China with a rare combination of anger and insight.

The secret to the revolutionary period was that social change came late and therefore in a concentrated, explosive way to China. The country was drawn into the capitalist world by colonial brutality. The British devastated the export trade and social fabric of China during the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century. They used opium to force entry in to Chinese markets.

The attention of colonial powers had a contradictory impact on China. As well as wiping out traditional manufacturing it created a layer of comprador capitalists who made huge fortunes. The colonialists’ sponsorship of merchants, landlords, officials and warlords helped to perpetuate pre-capitalist forms of organisation but at the same time they introduced the most modern forms of production.

The new market relations ruined millions of peasants whose families had survived off their small plots for generations. Meanwhile the industrial development that was being grafted onto the country in such a chaotic way sucked millions into unprepared cities creating a rapidly growing, immiserated working class.

The movement against imperialism began to stir during the First World War. One fascinating section of the book outlines the impact of the Russian Revolution on the East. Isaacs describes how a combination of war weariness and the example of the Russian revolution generated national and anti-colonial revolts in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Arabia, Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, Indo-China, and Korea and beyond. The revolution’s impact was reinforced when the new workers’ government withdrew its claims on foreign territory in China and elsewhere. The revolution also embodied vital theoretical and strategic lessons.

As it turned out the importance of the Russian Revolution was double-edged. It helped unleash rebellion across the region, but the immense and unchallenged authority it gave to the Russian State became a liability.

The great divide in Chinese society was between the new industrialists, bankers, brokers, capitalist landowners (local and foreign), and the mass of the poor. While the Chinese bourgeoisie played a subservient role to the foreigners and no doubt fantasised about independent capitalist development, the gulf between them and the poor was much greater than any antagonism with their foreign colleagues. For Isaacs, ‘this fundamental fact predetermined the unity of the Chinese and foreign exploiters against the exploited.’

The spreading revolutionary mood collided with the plans of Japanese imperialism and the cynicism of the imperialist horse traders at the treaty of Versailles. On May 4, 1919 there were huge student demonstrations in Peking which were quickly joined by striking workers, some of whose leaders had laboured abroad during the war and had had contact with the socialist movement.

Though the movement led to a huge revival in the mainstream nationalist Kuomintang, it also led to the growth of Marxist and socialist circles, many of which came together in 1920 to form the Chinese Communist Party.

Communists and nationalists

The central problem of the Chinese Revolution was the relationship between the left and the nationalist movement. There was never any doubt that the Communists should fight at the forefront of the anti-imperialist movement. But a new policy was developed by the Communist International for China, which led to a deal between Soviet diplomats and nationalist Kuomintang leader Sun Yat Sen. In January 1923 the two sides issued a joint communiqu√© agreeing that ‘the conditions did not exist in China for the successful establishment of socialism or communism’ and that the immediate aim for China should be the ‘achievement of national union and national independence.’

This was a clean break from the strategy agreed by the second world congress of the Communist International in 1922 and from the whole Bolshevik policy that culminated in revolution in October 1917. It meant an end to political and organisational independence of the Chinese Communist Party and an uncritical adoption of nationalist policies. The turn was justified by the novel argument that the Kuomintang was not the party of the emerging bourgeoisie but a party in which all classes united in common cause against the foreign interloper.

Isaacs argues this nonsense was a rationalisation of a pragmatic change of course in Russia. Listening to the experiences of the activists he interviewed convinced him of the correctness of Trotskys’s analysis of the defeat in China and its connection witrh the degeneration of the Russian revolution. The development of the ‘two stages’ theory of revolution embodied the realism of the emerging Stalinist leadership. It marked a turn away from an internationalist policy of spreading revolution to realpolitik of alliances with ‘progressive sections of the bourgeoisie’. It was part of an accommodation to capitalist reality and it set the pattern for communist policy internationally.

It was a policy that was pursued with great energy by the Chinese Communist Party. Their leaders went out of their way in a series of open letters, articles, telegrams and meetings to reassure the nationalists that there was no prospect of the party threatening the interests of the bourgeoisie.

The results of the policy were catastrophic. The militancy and initiative of the Chinese working class reached great heights. General strikes had spread from Honk Kong and Canton in 1925 and helped create the first power base for the nationalist Kuomintang in Guandong in the South. They also triggered peasant insurgencies across Southern China.

Workers led an insurrection in Shanghai on 21 March 1927 in advance of the approach of the nationalist army. The city was brought to a standstill by a general strike in which more than half a million workers played an active role. A workers militia of 5,000 took the main police stations and military outposts. Although they started off with just 150 pistols in one day they confiscated enough guns to lead the workers in an assault on the key arsenal in the South of the city. There the soldiers surrendered without a fight and the workers were able to arm themselves fully and take the other key strategic targets in the city.

By the time the nationalist troops arrived, all of Shanghai was in the hands of the workers with the exception of the international settlement and the French concession where foreigners cowered, fearing for their lives.

The Shanghai insurrection deepened the rebellion on the land. To the horror of the Kuomintang leaders the slogan ‘Down with the bad landowners’ turned into the longer but rather more radical ‘all who have land are oppressive and there are no gentry who are not bad.’ In Isaacs’ words the shock waves from the workers action had helped ‘generate the realisation amongst the toilers on the land that they too were human beings, that they too existed. From that, the will to live not as an animal but as a man, hurled not one but millions of toilers into a struggle against the system that had made them the packhorses of a civilisation thousands of years old’.

The great Chinese revolt of spring and summer 1927 confirmed Lenin and Trotsky’s analysis that even in the most impoverished and underdeveloped countries revolutionary action led by workers can defeat the best armed ruling classes and change the course of history. This was the basis on which they both fought for the revolution in October 1917.

The tragedy was that the Chinese experience of 1927 also became a negative confirmation of Lenin and Trotsky’s views. Both of them had concluded that the middle classes could no longer be relied upon to play any progressive role, even in anti-imperialist struggles. This was the starting point for Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution and the rationale for the Russian October. But it was this insight that the Communist International had abandoned when it ordered the Chinese Communists into an uncritical ‘alliance of equals’ with the Kuomintang.

The great betrayal

When Kuomintang leader Chaing Kai-Shek landed at Shanghai on the afternoon of 26 March 1927 he was welcomed as a hero by the CP-led workers. The next day a demonstration of 50,000 filled the streets to greet him. The communist leaders failed to inform the workers that the nationalist army had delayed its advance on Shanghai in the hope that the workers movement would be contained or crushed by counter revolutionary forces.

Now the nationalist leaders had to take the situation into their own hands. The workers’ movement had served its purpose for them. It had given Chinese bankers and merchants a lever with which to extract concessions from the foreign capitalists. Now it had to be broken.

The process had started earlier in February when Chiang Kai-Shek had ordered the dissolution of the communist-led Kuomintang in the militant city of Nanching. Leaders had been arrested and the unions and student organisations had been suppressed. Once again the communist leadership failed to explain these facts to the Shanghai workers.

In Shanghai the repression had to be planned more carefully and reach a much higher level. Chiang prepared the ground by removing garrisons sympathetic to the workers and drafting in soldiers fresh from the country. He organised and made deals with occupying armies, particularly the French, but including British and Japanese units. He appeased the communist workers for a few weeks before unleashing a co-ordinated wave of terror.
Unarmed demonstrators were massacred with machine guns, working class areas were terrorised, activists picked up in their hundreds in dawn raids while special courts threw thousands into prison.

Thanks to the policies and active collaboration of the communist leaders the working class was taken completely off guard and was unable to defend itself effectively. The carnival of reaction that followed was evidence of the fact that every section of the Chinese bourgeoisie felt in the end of the day closer to the imperialist capitalists than to the Chinese masses. There were of course different sections of the Chinese bourgeoisie. The comprador capitalists, brokers of foreign capital, were the most conservative and corrupt section of the Kuomintang alliance. But once the workers’ rebellion was in full swing even the most liberal of the Chinese middle classes became alarmed. They acknowledged that the labour movement had been useful but the feeling grew, in the words of one amongst them, that ‘it is one thing to utilize the workers… but quite another to let them bite off more than they can chew.’

Unbelievably the Communist Party learnt nothing from this disaster of Shanghai. A year after the massacre, Mao Tse Tung, the future leader of the Red Army, was once more promising the nationalist leaderships that the party had renounced the struggle for workers’ power. He even provided guarantees that if the forces of revolution raise their heads again the Chinese Communist Party would play the role of executioner.

The result of such capitulation was the decimation of the working class movement and the Communist Party through bitter demoralisation and sheer terror. Bizarrely the CP responded with a sharp left turn and a call to prepare for insurrection. But internal Comintern documents admitted that the CCP had no surviving groups in any of the great industrial centres.

The legacy

The damage was lasting. Remaining leftists fled to the countryside and formed armed groups that sought support amongst the peasantry. There was such a sense of betrayal and distrust amongst the peasants that they often drove Communist Party members out of their districts. In other areas these de-classed Red Army groups managed to rebuild relations with the peasants and regroup. Mao himself was involved in the desperate defensive manoeuvre that was later to be known as the Long March. But the Communist Party lost all connection with the organised workers.

Meanwhile free from any pressure from its left, the Kuomintang fought a half-hearted and purely military struggle against the Japanese occupiers. They relied on British and American aid even though neither state was prepared to openly oppose Japan’s actions and both had ambitions to dominate the region themselves. Such alliances were preferable for the Chinese capitalists to any attempt to stir up mass resistance to the Japanese. The war continued indecisively, exhausting the economy and the country.

In 1935 the Communist International made a turn away from any semblance of revolutionary policy. Frightened by the defeat of the German workers and the rise of Hitler, Stalin turned to a policy of wooing the western democracies as potential allies against fascism. The Communist International announced its struggle was now not for workers’ revolution but for bourgeois democracy. Communist parties everywhere were officially suspending hostility towards capitalist governments in return for alliances with Moscow. What remained of the party in China moved towards another deal with its own butcher, the Kuomintang.

The turn in the Communists fortunes came on the basis of a concerted peasant war against the Japanese and then the Kuomintang itself. When it came a decade after Isaacs wrote his book, the liberation of China was led by the Communist Party. Mao Tse Tung, who had rebuilt his support amongst the peasantry, led a decisive struggle against the discredited Kuomintang. The world started talking of a ‘victory for communism’ in China. The Chinese Communist Party was however to characterise its military victory over the Kuomintang as the ‘victory of the national bourgeois democratic revolution’ which had begun 38 years earlier. And for good reason.

The theory of the two stages of the revolution had been completely internalised by the world Communist movement. What this really amounted to was the internalisation of bourgeois nationalist politics, the accommodation of Marxism to the demands of national capitalist development. Workers played no role in the final liberation of China, not because they were unorganised, but because they were told not to by the CP. As they approached the cities Red Army leaders sent orders ahead that ‘workers and employers in all trades will continue to work and business will operate as usual.’ When Mao announced that the transformation to socialism would come later what he meant was workers’ rights would have to wait and workers aspirations would have to be put on hold, as the first and only priority was capital accumulation.

For all the romantic myths that surround Mao, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were nothing but the working out of the brutal logic of the two stage revolution. They were centralised and savage attempts to increase work discipline and productivity. The project of state-led capitalist development succeeded in driving China forward but at a terrible price.

Now Chinese workers have started to rebel against the conditions created by the final accommodation of the Chinese Communist Party: the opening to the market. The tragic story of the workers insurrection of the 1920’s shows how history could have taken a very different course. The working class is incomparably stronger than it was in the twenties but anyone fighting for workers’ rights, democracy and social change today would do well to investigate the half forgotten story of the Chinese revolution and study its lessons. Isaacs’ book is a fine place to start.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.