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The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

by | 22 April 2010 | 15 Comments | Last modified: 24 Apr 5:10 am

Haymarket books has just reprinted Harold Isaacs‘ 1938 work on the ‘second’ Chinese revolution (1925-27): The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.

The book has gone through three editions, and Haymarket is publishing the first (more on this anon). The entire first edition is available online at marxists.org, but who among you dear readers doesn’t hanker after the pleasure of real paper in your hands?

The book was the first work of its kind to examine the minutiae of the 1925-1927 revolution. Isaacs spent four years writing the book, and it shows. It’s great writing, written in sweeping brush strokes in the initial chapters, followed by a very detailed account of how the revolution failed, step by painful step. Isaacs was heavily influenced by Trotksy when he wrote the book (Trotsky penned the introduction to the 1938 edition), immediately apparent on several key points. First, in the rejection of the ‘two-stage’ theory of revolution (first bourgeois, next proletarian) that was being foisted on the Chinese communists by the Comintern. Isaacs viewed the Chinese situation as very similar to Russia on the eve of 1917, and advocated a similar ‘telescoped’, one-stage revolution - in Issac’s words “the combination of a proletarian insurrection…and a peasant war.” The ‘national’ bourgeoisie was a hopeless ally of workers and peasants in China according to Isaacs. Since most capitalists were simultaneously landlords, they had strong interests against both workers’ and peasant’s movements, and the slightest pressure had the potential of sending them into the arms of foreign powers eagerly carving up China.

The role of the Comintern in scuttling all the potential of the revolution in China is front and center in Isaac’s account, pervading the entire book. The argument can be summed up with this paragraph from the end of the second chapter:

In a few short, swift years a stupendous mass movement rose from the streets of Chinese cities and the tired land of Chinese fields and threatened to destroy or transform all that was old, corrupt, and rotting in Chinese society. But those who put themselves at the head of these denim-clad ranks did not teach them to break for ever with the deadening tradition of submission, but yoked them, even as they rose to struggle, to the political chariot of their exploiters. The whole weight and authority of the October revolution and the Communist International were thrown not behind the proletariat as an independent force, but behind the national bourgeoisie. As a result of this the masses were halted at the height of their forward surge, their organizations were shattered, their leaders decapitated. The shaken foundations of the system of exploitation they challenged settled back and still stood. This was the tragedy of the Chinese revolution.

The 1938 edition is also now available in its entirety in Chinese. It was reportedly banned in China until quite recently.

Isaacs published a second (1951) and third edition (1974) of the book, repudiating Trotsky and the revolutionary Soviet tradition, but leaving the book’s main narrative intact. Apparently the second edition’s intro is a very good overview of the book and Isaac’s later self-revision, but I can’t find the text online. (Wibble here to see more on the different versions from someone partial to the first).

This writer is very happy to see the book re-published, and hopes it provokes debate.

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15 comments on “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

  1. David Ewing on said:

    I agree that the Issacs book is “important”, but only as a historical relic. It was written based on Issacs’ eye-witness account of the 1927 KMT purge of the CCP. Issacs was a revolutionary who was loosely connected with the Comintern. The great failing of the book is that it was based on an incomplete understanding of Chinese conditions. This is not a particular failing of Issacs, because only a few elements within the CCP, Mao and his allies, knew that only a mass-based rural military strategy — not urban insurrections — could take power. Chiang Kaishek won in 1927 because he had an army at his command. Chiang could fight the warlords for power. The CCP could not. The CCP began building its own army on August 1, 1927. Isaacs book fed Trotsky’s side of the 1927-1928 debate in the Comintern about “Who lost China?” But Trotsky’s view that the CCP could have won, in 1927, based on urban-worker insurrections, was profoundly wrong. This wrong view always remained Trotsky’s strategy for the rest of his life and still rankles the Left today. Trotsky’s 1928 views on China are collected in “Third International after Lenin”, Pathfinder Press. Mao began writing seriously around this time and his views are easily accessible in the five volume Selected works and his one volume “Military Writings”. Stalin’s views are in “Problems of Leninism”, a much harder book to find. One would think that the subsequent history of the Chinese Revolution, which was led to victory by Mao’s peasant army, would have settled the issues of revolutionary strategy, challenged by Isaacs and Trotsky, in favor of Mao (and, partially, of Stalin). But despite these facts, some Leftists still cling to Trotsky’s discreditied views.

    -David Ewing

    Ubi dubium ibi libertas.

  2. husunzi on said:

    “One would think that the subsequent history of the Chinese Revolution, which was led to victory by Mao’s peasant army, would have settled the issues of revolutionary strategy, challenged by Isaacs and Trotsky, in favor of Mao (and, partially, of Stalin)…”

    That would assume that the subsequent history was a success - that the revolution succeeded. Obviously it did not (and here I think we can set aside the question of whether it was defeated externally or failed due to internal problems - the point is that, despite certain clear successes - improvements in quality of life for most Chinese people, for example - the CCP-led revolution did not bring China or the world much closer to realizing a communist society, if anything it ultimately helped to give a new lease to the life of global capitalism, and China may even be approaching the role of America’s successor as the new global hegemon (certainly that is the goal of many young Chinese nationalists I’ve met). It’s probably not possible to attribute these outcomes to particular CCP decisions (by Mao or Chen Duxiu) or Comintern policies - it does seem to me that under the circumstances the Maoist decision to refocus the struggle from urban insurrection to rural guerrilla war was the best option, at least for the CCP’s (non-communist) goals of achieving political power and initiating top-down social reforms and state-led industrialization. And efforts toward communization would probably not have gotten very far in China under the historical circumstances (global hegemony of the US and USSR, for example) - regardless of whether the focus was urban or rural. In other words, it’s not a question of whether Isaacs’ strategical recommendations were right or wrong, and we certainly can’t say history has proved them wrong and the Maoists right, if we’re talking about possible paths to communism. In any case, I’m glad to have learned of this book simply for its data about the struggles in Chinese cities during these years.

  3. Hu De on said:

    Husunzi: “That would assume that the subsequent history was a success – that the revolution succeeded. Obviously it did not…… and we certainly can’t say history has proved them wrong and the Maoists right, if we’re talking about possible paths to communism….”

    We certainly can say that, and I do believe David Ewing just did.

    I’ve no idea what husunzi is doing on a Marxist/Chinese-Marxist/Hintonian/Gao-ian web site like CSG, but let me say this. The revolution succeeded in 1949, and well before that in getting to that point. It then lasted about 30 years or so, give or take a few. In fact some ─ in China and elsewhere ─ would say that revolution is still one of, if not the central problematic of the PRC (in Althusser’s sense).

    That may or may not be a good (useful, productive) way of putting it ─ it is complicated.

    But you can certainly argue for all or some of this─ with difficulty and with real risk to you career if you are an academic or writer.

    Sure you can also do the Trotskyist thing, and you can even do the anarcho/purist/libertarian/hippie/post-Gen-X thing that husunzi seems so keen on. They seem to exist primarily on the internets. I look forward to seeing the diagram that explains the one true path to real communism.

    Alternatively I suggest emphasizing the “study” part of CSG and reading within the “traditional” Marxist and leftist intellectual traditions. To answer a question like the fate of the Chinese revolution requires an ability to think historically and with some philosophical acumen.

  4. langyan on said:

    I think there are two questions here getting a bit mixed up.

    First, as David brings up, is the question of the strategy for gaining revolutionary power. And here I think David is right that Mao was more correct than Trotsky (and also Issacs at the time). Mao did figure out how to put the revolution into practice.

    But Husunzi’s question is quite different: whether that revolutionary seizure of power brought China closer to a communist society. This is a much more contentious issue. One well worth taking seriously. I think Husunzi is right that the Chinese revolution did bring about many clear and important improvements in the lives of the majority of the Chinese people. That is indisputable to any honest investigator. The dramatic change in average life expectancy is the most obvious point to note here. At the same time, and this is the question Husunzi raises, whether that socialist society brought China closer to communism is harder to judge. Although I assume everyone agrees with him that the revolution failed to bring about a communist society.

    Nonetheless, we have to ask: did the strong state created by the CCP and the success of the revolutionary seizure of power end up standing in the way of a revolutionary communist transformation of Chinese society? (Yes, we need to study! And that of course means a critical relationship to various Marxist and leftist traditions.) An investigation of the Cultural Revolution, I think, is key to thinking about this problem, a time in which the question was actually put on the table most directly. We would also have to come up with a real materialist understanding of China’s political economy during the Maoist period. We don’t really have a very sophisticated theorization of the political economy of the Maoist period (one place to start might be van der Linden’s Western Marxism and the Soviet Union). I think, also, that we have to move beyond a simple understanding of the shift toward postsocialism as simply a political shift in leadership terms (Joel Andreas’ book helps here). Paying attention to the actual activity of the working class during the Maoist period is clearly important as well (looking at Jackie Sheehan’s Chinese Workers: A New History is a useful beginning).

  5. Hu De on said:

    Re: mix-ups

    Yes there are some.


    The question of the state is far too complicated to take an a priori “anti” line (or “pro” ─ but no one does that). I can’t explain this here, but allow me to refer you to the discipline of Politics and political theory. Then the question of the state within Chinese history, too, obviously has to be addressed. You want the state to wither away, in China of all places, and I want to live another 100 years. My odds are better. Adorno and Lukacs on the question of “failure” are worth reading here and I’d suggest looking up the word “catachresis” and applying it to the state.

    Your understanding of questions like the state is anarchist and not Marxist (nor is it realist or social democratic). langyan, you once said: “Mao blocked the development of communism in China.”


    You lot assume Mao et al claimed to have achieved something called “communism” (which is only another word for utopia). That simply isnt the case, so the criticism of the Chinese revolution for not having achieved it is misplaced and uninteresting. They claimed to be in a struggle ─ a transitional phase ─ towards socialism. Joan Hinton could clarify that for you btw. Some of us inside and outside of the academy ─ and even in China ─ think that it did make just such progress in quantifiable AND other ways.


    There are important Chinese and global legacies here, the explication of which is to be distinguished from attempts to make Chinese reality fit into the ideal type of “communism” as imagined by middle class, self-proclaimed “ultra-leftist” Westerners. Sinological-orientalism of the left-wing variety.


    Your quest for what is best described as the anarchist sublime is also not helpful for ferreting out the failures and mistakes of the transitional period (or of the present). We already know your answer before you do ─ it’s the state bogey over and over. Or its about betrayal, personal or oriental despotism, etc. Even capitalism for you lot is about the state. I am sure you believe in all of this quite sincerely. But I can also see how you can make a career out of this type of thing, because people do it all the time.

  6. (this is a response to David’s comment)

    Did you glance at the book? Nowhere does it oppose urban insurrections to mass-based rural movements. The book starts and ends with a call for the *joint* actions of workers and peasants (based on the experience of the Russian revolution, and a social theory of China in the 1920s in Chapter 2). Isaacs’s beef (and Trotsky’s, their views are basically the same) is with the Comintern’s national-front strategy that pushed the CCP into cooperation with the GMD, and precluded the development of independent power of the CCP, workers and peasants. This rendered the CCP completely helpless in 1927 to combat the terror unleashed against it. Isaacs is also devastatingly critical of the urban insurrections launched by the CCP in 1927 (see the great chapter on ‘Canton’) when party organizations had very little support left in the cities. I can find no evidence in Isaacs’ or Trotsky’s writings on China to back up your claim that they thought that the urban insurrections at that time (post-purge 1927) had any hope. (and this was Comintern policy ferchristsake!) For them, the die was cast many years before the purge, when the CCP hitched its chariot to the GMD. Hence, the ‘tragedy’ in the title: possibilities squandered.

    If Isaacs and Trotsky were wrong, I think we deserve to get right what they were wrong about.

  7. langyan on said:

    Hu De,

    I am afraid it is you who is making the assumptions here.

    1. Thank you for the reference to the discipline of politics. I will check it out. But I tend to prefer the critique of political economy. The question of the state’s relationship to capitalism is as Marxist as it is anarchist. I would suggest reading Marx’s The Civil War in France. “The working class cannot simply lay hold on the ready-made state-machinery and wield it for their own purpose. The political instrument of their enslavement cannot serve as the political instrument of their emancipation.” And: “It was a Revolution against the State itself, of this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people of its own social life.” For Marx, the state form is inseparable from the making of capitalism. These are Marxist questions as much as they are anarchist questions. And I don’t think your political distinction is very useful here.

    2. I never assume the Mao claimed to have achieved communism. I believe the opposite. So your second point is simply your assumption, not mine. The point isn’t whether or not Mao produced communism, but whether the PRC state was a block to communist tendencies or not.

    3. I am not interested in ideals but tendencies and possibilities. There is nothing orientalist or Sinological about it. Tendencies towards communism can be read in most societies; they are not a product of the western imagination alone. And they certainly aren’t a product of Sinology! In China I think you can find them perhaps most clearly during the CR.

    4. What I was suggesting is an investigation. I suggested some places to begin looking, some folks that I think are helpful on these questions: Marx, Andreas, Sheehan, van der Linden. There are many others as well, and you could add to the list. It is not about a state bogey. As I thought I made clear in my last post, what I think is necessary is a materialist political economy of the Maoist period itself. And I explicitly stated that viewing it as a political or personal betrayal was a mistake–I guess you missed that. Oriental despotism? A poor substitute for a materialist investigation that must be rejected. (Why keep bringing that bogeyman up? There is nothing in what I said that implied that, to the contrary.) What I sincerely believe is that capitalism is not “about the state.” But, following Marx, I would say that the modern state is of capitalist origin. It was a product of the bourgeois struggle with feudalism and it further developed in the bourgeois struggle against the proletariat.

    I suggested, following Husunzi’s post, an investigation into the question of why communism failed in China, one that takes the question of the role of Maoism, the CCP, the Party form, the state and the political economy of the Maoist period seriously. You seem to be saying that no investigation should be undertaken. Why is that? Why are these questions a priori out of bounds? Why are they illegitimate from a Marxist perspective? This is the kind of questioning of which Marx made a career.

  8. langyan, your response is entirely uncomprehending and doesn’t “get it” but only shows the accuracy of what I originally wrote. But others can read and decide on their own.

    I do hope the anarchist thing you guys are up to (despite the auotnomist jargon you now throw in above) doesn’t over-ride the long-standing Marxist, “Maoist” and China-centered political tradition of the CSG, but time will tell.

    I didn’t know you were a “materialist”, “political” economist now, but I look forward to reading the papers and books that result from your investigations.

  9. langyan on said:

    Well, actually, I have always been a materialist and always a reader of Marx. If I “don’t get it,” why can’t you specifically point out where I don’t get it? I think that is telling. I responded to your comments point by point. But you can’t seem to do the same.

    Also, I am not an autonomist in the Italian Marxist/post-Marxist tradition, nor do I use their language or jargon. I was quoting a man named Marx, but you probably see him as an anarchist. I do, however, think it is important to pay attention to the actual activity of class struggle, to which autonomist Marxists have given priority. On the other hand, I do not think their theorization of capital and capitalist crisis is correct.

    True, my political perspective is not “China-centered,” as you put it-it is not nationalist. It is centered on the revolutionary self-activity of the dispossessed and exploited and their push towards a classless society. And that might separate our political perspectives, as you suggest. But I think CSG is a fine place to debate these issues, issues that have always been part of the Marxist revolutionary political tradition as well as others.

    If you have any particular points to make other than name calling, I am certainly ready to respond.

  10. Name calling? Nope. I just looked over what I wrote above, and am happy as a clam with all of it. I think I have your perspective and claims dead to rights. Others can read and decide on their own. No sense in going around in circles. Feel free to have the last word after this.

  11. J. Lowrie on said:

    Well, it is certainly a surprise to find anybody on the CSG website taking Trotskism seriously. Trotsky’s two basic contributions are first, his theory of Permanent Revolution. For a critique of this I recommend ‘Permanent Revolution: a Leninist critique’ by Doug Lorimer, a former trotskyist(Resistance Books 1998), though why Lorimer had to wait till 1998 to understand the fallacies of Trotsky’s position escapes me. More important is his debate with Stalin on the possiblity of Socialism in One Country, a kind of Bolshevik version of how many angels can dance on the head of a needle! Here Trotsky defended a version of the productive forces theory of history: basically, socialism has to outproduce capitalism. Stalin surprisingly enough took the more revolutionary position, perhaps under the influence of Bukharin, who was in turn influenced by the greatest of Russian marxists, Bogdanov. So far as I know there is no serious comparison of the ideas of Bogdanov and Mao( certainly the British Library catalogue contains no reference, but I should be glad to hear from anybody who could advise me here).
    As for Mao and communism, if the peoples communes are not a step in the direction of communism ,I cannot think of a better. Of course they failed to be democratic; but it is just this failure that has to be explained, as with the anti-democratic practices of Lenin and Trotsky. Unlike the latter of course , Mao enjoyed overwhelming popular support, and clearly was looking for a way to sustain the revolution. That he did not find it should not be laid at his door by those who have also signally failed so to do. My own experiences of Trotskists are that they are profoundly anti-democratic, still believing in the old cul-de-sac of the leading role of the party. Remember Mao’s great paradox: the bourgoisie sits in the politburo. It is to solve this paradox that new theories are needed. A great start has been made by Cockshott and Cockerell in their book “Towards A New Socialism”. Cockshott, whom I know very well, was certainly greatly influenced in his groundbreaking theories by the attempts of Mao to transform China in the direction of communism, and his ultimate failure. What might have prevented such a failure? The Trotskyists have no answers. Frankly, their ideas are reactionary. Fortunately, nobody is listening to them!

  12. langyan on said:

    Hu De: “Name calling? Nope.” Hu De (earlier): “anarcho/purist/libertarian/hippie/post-Gen-X.” Enough said on that issue.

    You seem to have no idea what my position is, actually. You don’t even seem to have read what I wrote. Point by point I showed how you were wrong, and you have no response. You make all sorts of assumptions about my position that I pointed out were 180 degrees off. But then you want to continue to believe them despite the fact! Nice way to debate.

  13. David Ewing on said:

    Reply to JJ

    Dear JJ: Thank you for your comments on Issacs. book. This period, the 1920s, is of extraordinary interest to me. I think I am being fair in my criticism of Issacs/Trotsky, but I appreciate your comments, and those of anyone else, who thinks I have it wrong. I think there are two points I can make here that support my contention that Trotsky, in fact, demanded an urban insurrection as the revolutionary strategy for 1920s China. The focus of Trotsky’s critique of the Comintern line was that the Chinese Revolution must be “one stage”, that is, a direct conquest of state power by the urban proletariat.

    1) On the issue one stage worker’s revolution. Here is what Trotsky says in “Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution” (June 1928), “The direct expropriation first of the foreign capitalist and then of the Chinese capitalist enterprises will most likely be made imperative by the course of the struggle, on the day after the victorious insurrection.” See “The Third International After Lenin”, page 196, Pathfinder Press (1966 edition). In this article Trotsky argued that the Chinese Revolution must be more dominated by the urban working class than was the Russian Revolution. So much so that, in Trotsky’s view, there would not be two revolutions, like in Russia, but just one — a workers insurrection. Trotsky said, “… the third Chinese Revolution, despite the great backwardness of China, or, more correctly, because of this great backwardness as compared to Russia, will not have a ‘democratic’ period, not even such a six-month period as the October Revolution had …” Id p.197

    Trotsky did not exclude peasant participation in the next Chinese Revolution. He welcomed it and he advocated sending agitators among the peasants. But Trotsky always considered the peasants a reactionary, small proprietor class, that could never be counted on to support workers power. Trotsky’s strategy was direct working class insurrections in the cities, followed by the immediate transition to socialism.

    Trotsky was NOT advocating immediate insurrections in the wake of the 1927 disaster. And you are right to say that he condemned the later Canton rising as adventurist. But Trotsky saw the Shanghai disaster as confirming his line that urban insurrections were the key. His advice to the CCP in 1928 was to bide their time and wait for favorable revolutionary conditions to emerge again.

    2) Trotsky and Issacs were dead wrong to characterize the Shanghai Uprising as “the Second Chinese Revolution.” My second point goes to the heart of what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding about the character of the Chinese Revolution. In 1927, the workers of Shanghai seized the city as the Northern Expeditionary Army approached. The working class could not have done this absent the approach of such an army. The KMT army sent the Shanghai bourgeoisie, their police, and their troops, into utter panic and flight. It was the approach of the KMT army, not the organizational prowess of the CCP, that made this “insurrection” victorious. Both Issacs and Trostky call this rising “The Second Chinese Revolution.” But is was NOT a worker’s “revolution” at all! The rising was really just part of the military planning for the Shanghai campaign — to disorganize Shanghai’s defenses. And that is all that it was. The fact that the KMT slaughtered the workers after the Northern Expedition entered the city does not convert this tragedy into a “revolution”. The real “2nd Chinese Revolution” was the whole, largely peasant-based, military campaign fought by the Northern Expedition.

    Dave Ewing

  14. Thanks for the reply David!

    I think our disagreement centers around your characterization of Trotsky’s position:

    “Trotsky did not exclude peasant participation in the next Chinese Revolution. He welcomed it and he advocated sending agitators among the peasants. But Trotsky always considered the peasants a reactionary, small proprietor class, that could never be counted on to support workers power. Trotsky’s strategy was direct working class insurrections in the cities, followed by the immediate transition to socialism.”

    I don’t agree with this characterization, and can’t find evidence for it. Why do I say this? First, as you say, Trotsky welcomed peasant participation in struggles in China. Why would he do so if they were a reactionary class they could ‘never’ be counted on to support worker’s power? Doesn’t make much sense. What he meant was that the class basis of a large portion of the peasantry (small holders) conditioned their likeliness to support the mainly urban proletariat in their post-bourgeois struggles. But the ‘petty bourgeois’ demand for land was for Trotsky anything but reactionary – since it served as the very basis of an alliance between workers and peasants against a common enemy. Remember, all this is based on the social theory that China was already ‘capitalist’, that is, the landholding class was so intertwined with the nascent industrial and financial capitalists in China to render the distinction meaningless. Ditto with the national vs. imperialist b. Precisely because of the real basis for an alliance, it was Isaacs’ and Trotsky’s argument that that under ‘correct’ leadership, there was every reason to expect workers and peasants to fight together against a common foe.

    Also, I’m uncertain of what you mean by ‘one-stage.’ Yes, as I highlighted in the original post, Isaacs’ book is crystal clear in advocating against the ‘two-stage’ revolution as proposed by the Comintern. Why? Because Isaacs’ claimed that the nature of the (future) ruling class in China at the time (at the time it was unclear at the time whether they would be led by the KMT or ‘warlords’) meant that they would do everything in their power to prevent progressive, ‘bourgeois’ reforms from going forward. Isaacs and Trotsky argued that the historical conditions for a national bourgeois revolution did not exist in China at the time. Why would the KMT distribute land if their support came from landlords? Why would the KMT grant concessions to urban social movements if they themselves were capitalists and financiers, and had very close ties with imperialists? Hence, there was no basis for the national front strategy, and hence their conclusion that Comintern’s policy of pressuring the CCP to shy away from building up independent sources of power (vis-à-vis the nationalists) with workers and peasants was a disaster.

    My sense is that this period keeps on being viewed through the lens of later disputes between ‘Maoists’ and ‘Trotskyites.’ I think that clouds our understanding of this crucial period in China.

    Also, neither Isaacs or Trotsky thought that Shanghai in 1927 *was* the ‘second Chinese revolution.’ (indeed Isaacs’ chapter on the event is called ‘The Shanghai Insurrection’, not revolution) They viewed the entire 1925-27 period as revolutionary.

    Last, here’s what Trotsky wrote in 1928. I don’t think it fits your characterization:

    “It would be unwise pedantry to maintain that, had a Bolshevik policy been applied in the revolution of 1925-1927, the Chinese Communist Party would unfailingly have come to power. But it is contemptible philistinism to assert that such a possibility was entirely out of the question. The mass movement of workers and peasants was on a scale entirely adequate for this, a was also the disintegration of the ruling classes. The national bourgeoisie sent its Chiang Kai-sheks and Wang Ching-weis as envoys to Moscow, and through its Hu Han-mins knocked at the door of the Comintern, precisely because it was hopelessly weak in face of the revolutionary masses; it realized its weakness and sought to insure itself. Neither the workers nor the peasants would have followed the national bourgeoisie if we ourselves had not dragged them by a rope. Had the Comintern pursued any sort of correct policy, the outcome of the struggle of the communist party for the masses would have been pre-determined-the Chinese proletariat would have supported the communists, while the peasant war would have supported the revolutionary proletariat.
    If, at the beginning of the Northern expedition we had begun to organize Soviets in the “liberated” districts (and the masses were instinctively aspiring for that with all their might and main) we would have secured the necessary basis and a revolutionary running start, we would have rallied around us the agrarian uprisings, we would have built our own army, we would have disintegrated the enemy armies; and despite the youthfulness of the Communist Party of China, the latter would have been able, thanks to proper guidance from the Comintern, to mature in these exceptional years and to assume power, if not in the whole of China at once, then at least in a considerable part of China. And, above all, we would have had a party.”


  15. Guan Hanqiang on said:

    Has anyone read Donald Jordan’s book on the Northern Expedition? Fenby mentions it in his biography of Jiang Jieshi:

    Harold Isaacs, whose Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, published in 1938, set the template for the idea that popular revolt was the vital element in the expedition’s success, wrote that ‘The spontaneous rising of the people gave the Kuomintang armies little more to do, often, than occupy territory that had already been secured for them.’ That verdict was nurtured in decades to come by the Communists, but puts the cart before the horse in pursuit of ideology. The initial advance through Hunan was made possible because Canton had allied with General Tang, not because of a popular rising. Though local farmers were valuable as guides and for logistical support, the soldiers did not enjoy a walkover secured by workers and peasants in their battles with the troops of Wu Peifu or Sun Zhuanfang. A contemporary poster of a peasant, a worker, a clerk, and a student. Hanyang and Wuchang were won by treachery, not mass risings. Labour agitation in Wuhan occured after the three cities had been taken, and the Canton strikers were a drag on the campaign. As the historian Donald Jordan concluded in his authoritative account of the campaign written nearly forty years after Isaacs, the thesis of the expedition as a victory from below ‘seems highly insecure’. It was the army which opened the door to revolution, rathervthan the other way around, even if the subsequent career of the man who led that army made such a truth unpalatable.

    Trotsky’s position on the peasant revolution doesn’t seem to be consistent (and neither are the views of his followers). A lot of his verdicts on peasant revolution no doubt comes from his own experience with the Russian Civil War and the policy of War Communism that provoked several peasant uprisings in 1921. Here’s what he wrote in 1932:

    At first glance the question might appear to be superfluous. The peasant movement is headed by Communists or sympathizers. Isn’t it self-evident that in the event of their coming together the workers and the peasants must unanimously unite under the Communist banner?

    Unfortunately the question is not at all so simple. Let me refer to the experience of Russia. During the years of the civil war the peasantry in various parts of the country created its own guerrilla detachments, which sometimes grew into full-fledged armies. Some of these detachments considered themselves Bolshevik, and were often led by workers. Others remained non-party and most often were led by former non-commissioned officers from among the peasantry. There was also an “anarchist” army under the command of Makhno.

    So long as the guerrilla armies operated in the rear of the White Guards, they served the cause of the revolution. Some of them were distinguished by exceptional heroism and fortitude. But within the cities these armies often came into conflict with the workers and with the local party organizations. Conflicts also arose during encounters of the partisans with the regular Red Army, and in some instances they took an extremely painful and sharp character.

    The grim experience of the civil war demonstrated to us the necessity of disarming peasant detachments immediately after the Red Army occupied provinces which had been cleared of the White Guards. In these cases the best, the most class-conscious and disciplined elements were absorbed into the ranks of the Red Army. But a considerable portion of the partisans strived to maintain an independent existence and often came into direct armed conflict with the Soviet power. Such was the case with the anarchist army of Makhno, entirely kulak in spirit. But that was not the sole instance; many peasant detachments, which fought splendidly enough against the restoration of the landlords, became transformed after victory into instruments of counter-revolution.
    Source: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/09/china.htm

    In “The Permanent Revolution”, he writes:

    there is almost no estate of landlords in China, the landowners are much more intimately bound up with the capitalists than in Tsarist Russia, and the specific weight of the agrarian question in China is therefore much lighter than in Tsarist Russia
    Source: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/pr07.htm

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