This month the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrates its 100th anniversary. The CCP achieved astonishing things. It led the Chinese Revolution, an epic struggle for power lasting over two decades. However, it is safe to say the party founded 100 years ago was the direct opposite of what it has become today. It is both Communist and a party in name only. It heads a state that defends capitalism. But a century ago, it was founded by dedicated communists prepared to risk their lives to overthrow the capitalist state.
The party was founded as a healthy Bolshevik organisation. But within only a handful of years, these promising beginnings were distorted by heavy Stalinist interference from Moscow, which led to the defeat of the first Chinese Revolution in 1925-7. It is the founding of the party and this tragic revolution we examine here.
Opium Wars and imperial humiliation
China was on the path to social revolution ever since Britain dragged it into the world market in the criminal Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60). The British used the battering ram of addictive opium to prise open the Chinese market, creating mass pauperisation, landlessness and the decay of the old social order, which the British propped up.
By the beginning of the 20th century, there was a ferment of discussion amongst the youth on how to revive, renew and modernise China. At first, the dominant idea was to reform China into a constitutional monarchy or bourgeois parliamentary system. But the old regime would not reform itself away. As a result, various revolutionary organisations and journals proliferated. But socialist, and certainly Marxist ideas, had not yet really penetrated into Chinese society.
The rot of the old regime was deep, and territory after territory was ceded to various imperialists. In 1911, a ‘revolution’ took place, the Emperor abdicated in 1912 and a republic was declared. It would appear that China had finally had its bourgeois revolution. Yet only nine years later, the Chinese Communist Party was to be formed and within another four years, a second, far more comprehensive revolution would begin.
This ‘revolution’ was actually carried out by disaffected local gentry, military men and bureaucrats. Its leader, Sun Yat Sen, was compromising and deferential both to the old regime and the imperial powers. The emperor was allowed to stay in his palaces, kept at public expense. In other words, the ‘revolution’ was simply a change of personnel at the top.
It was the failure of this revolution that led to a radicalisation within the Chinese youth and, crucially, the nascent Chinese proletariat. In 1919, many still looked with hope to the Versailles peace negotiations after World War I. They hoped that the redrawing of the world map would liberate China. But their hopes were dashed. Despite having supported the Allies, the Treaty of Versailles actually handed over control of parts of China to Japan. This harsh lesson in imperialism sparked a mass movement of Chinese students known as the May 4th Movement.
A new class, a new party
By the early 20th Century, a modern, urban working class and industry were developing.
The Russian Revolution had a profound effect on the consciousness of Chinese youth and workers. The most forward-thinking people would now look to Marxist ideas for a way ahead, and not those of liberalism.
In 1919, the Soviet government relinquished the territories that the Tsarist government had stolen from China in the past. In the context of the disgraceful handing of Shandong from German hands to the Japanese behind China’s back in the Versailles Treaty, along with all the other humiliations exacted upon the Chinese people by the West, this act of the revolutionary Russian government had a massive impact on the Chinese at the time.
By 1919, Chen Duxiu’s New Youth Magazine had been advocating socialist ideas for some time. He was inspired by the disciplined and revolutionary Bolshevik party that had led Russia’s revolution. Li Dazhao, the other outstanding founder of the CCP and Professor at Peking University, had also embraced the Russian Revolution and formed a Marxist study group amongst students. He made contact with the Comintern and joined with Chen Duxiu and his numerous followers to make preparations for founding the CCP.
The Manifesto of the CCP was published in November 1920. It openly declared the intention to lead the working class to power in a socialist revolution, marking a fundamental break with the hitherto dominant idea of the need to form a Western style bourgeois, parliamentary democracy.
Following this initial propaganda activity, the group held a founding conference in July 1921. At the time of the conference, the party could claim only 50 members, with about 12 of them attending the meeting. It is astonishing that within four years this party would find itself leading a proletarian revolution. Without the formation of the Comintern there can be no doubt that the CCP would not have been formed, certainly not in such a timely fashion and with such a clear commitment to revolution.
May 30th Movement
The CCP was founded so early in the development of the Chinese working class, that it actually preceded the formation of trade unions in China. In fact, most of the early trade unions were created by the CCP in the early ‘20s.
Just like the CCP, the labour movement grew with astonishing speed and militancy. The Chinese working class was still numerically small, but had an enormous social weight, first of all in its essential economic role in carrying out the work in all the key areas of the economy, and secondly in its ability to develop a consciousness of this power.
Militant strikes had been taking place at a Japanese owned cotton mill in 1925 in Shanghai. One of the Japanese foremen shot dead a protestor. During the student solidarity demonstrations that followed, British police shot at and killed several protestors, sparking demonstration after demonstration and strike after strike all over China. The imperialists and their puppet government knew not what to do, so furious was the revolt.
After more protestors were killed by British soldiers, a general strike was declared.
“Hong Kong, fortress of Britain in China, was totally immobilised. Not a wheel turned. Not a bale of cargo moved. Not a ship left anchorage… In Guangzhou, workers cleaned out gambling and opium dens and converted them into strikers’ dormitories and kitchens. An army of 2,000 pickets was recruited from among the strikers and a solid barrier was thrown around Hong Kong and Shameen. The movement was, by all accounts, superbly organised. Every fifty strikers named a representative to a Strikers’ Delegates’ Conference, which in turn named thirteen men to serve as an executive committee.” (Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution)
The workers were sending out a clear signal that this was their revolution. Unprompted by anyone else, they expressed a bold creativity, determination and fearlessness in the face of the mightiest military powers on earth, taking to the organs of workers' power in an exemplary fashion.
In the key cities of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the workers effectively held power. The CCP, aided and advised by the Comintern, should have understood and helped the workers become conscious of the power that lay in their hands. As the tragic experience of the German Revolution had just shown, such a situation is fraught with danger. If the workers challenge the power of the capitalists, but fail to replace it with anything, counter revolution is inevitable. So why did the CCP fail to help the workers take the initiative?
The CCP had been founded when the Comintern was still led by Lenin and Trotsky. However, by 1925, Stalin had usurped power in the USSR, and consequently, in the Comintern. He represented a conservative caste of bureaucrats able to come to power thanks to the isolation of the revolution to one country and exhaustion of the Russian working class. His caste had no interest in world revolution. They turned the principle of internationalism on its head, and subordinated the Comintern and the international proletarian struggle to their own narrow interests.
From their conservative perspective, the Chinese revolution was unrealistic. As bureaucrats, they had no faith in the Chinese working class. Their method was instead to cut a deal with a more ‘realistic’ party in China. This was the already well-established Guomindang, the party of Sun Yat Sen. It was a bourgeois nationalist party.
Despite all the facts on the ground, the Stalin-controlled Comintern was to continually maintain from 1923 onwards that the CCP and the working class could play no leading role in the coming revolution, but could at best be an auxiliary to the Guomindang and the Chinese bourgeoisie. Under an agreement with the then-leader of the Guomindang, Chiang Kai Shek, CCP members would have to join the Guomindang as individual members and were denied the right to criticise its leadership! It should be noted that Chiang Kai Shek was praised to the heavens by Stalin, and even given a post on the Comintern leadership, despite never having been a member of the communist or labour movement, in an attempt to buy his loyalty.
Stalin could not understand that the militancy of the Chinese workers would inevitably drive the Chinese bourgeoisie away from the striking working class and into the hands of the imperialists, barring any possibility of a meaningful Comintern/Guomindang alliance.
This line was always opposed by the party’s founder Chen Duxiu. In fact, many leading members of the CCP, including Chen Duxiu, would go on to join Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which also opposed supporting the Guomindang. The Stalinised Comintern resorted to expelling these members and installed a leadership that was subservient to Stalin.
In this way, the CCP went from having the most promising of beginnings to finding itself criminally unprepared for the revolution.
The Guomindang Piggybacks on the CCP
Without a leadership able to present a programme to take the movement forwards, the strike wave abated. In Guangzhou, despite the militancy of the working class, the refusal of the CCP to organise it for the conquest of power enabled the Guomindang to come to power.
Despite the stunning power and organisation of the pickets in Guangzhou, there was little change in social conditions under the new Guomindang government. The masses were effectively told to be patient and not to expect any immediate change in life by the very people who had ridden to power on their backs.
Whenever the workers and peasants moved against imperialism, they were condemned by the Guomindang for not involving all the classes of China. “The Guomindang is placing before itself the task of freeing from oppression not only the workers and peasants, but also the industrialists and merchants.” (Left Guomindang statement, 25 May 1927, Hankou).
A growing awareness of the danger of the working class and the Communists sprung up within the Guomindang, and movers and shakers within the party began to organise. Chiang Kai-shek, the Guomindang general supported by Stalin, quickly came to represent this layer of Guomindang rightists in their mission against the workers.
The more intelligent imperialists quickly understood what the outbreak of mass strike action meant, and initiated a policy of rapprochement with the Chinese bourgeoisie. They played on the fears of the Chinese bourgeoisie that the strikes were out of hand and threatened private property, and would bring the whole of Chinese society down with them.
Prior to these events, the imperialists had managed to alienate the whole of Chinese society with their racism, cordoning off special areas of cities as “concessions” in which only rich westerners were permitted to move (with allowances for their servants, of course). Even the most illustrious of Chinese businessmen were denied entry to these gentlemen’s clubs.
But revolutions are good at bringing into sharp relief the real class relations. In this gravest of hours for imperialism, the British, American and French suddenly forgot their racism. Eminent Chinese “gentlemen” were invited into a special meeting with the most powerful western businessmen in precisely the concession area in Shanghai from which they were previously denied access. High praise and sickly sweet compliments were exchanged from both sides, an hour of dire need was declared, and a common interest in preventing any future nonsense from the working class agreed.
The Guomindang general Chiang Kai-shek, like a true military man, seized the initiative and took power in a coup, in which the Guomindang left wing, as well as the CCP, were openly defeated. He used the cover of darkness to secure all positions of power over the mass movement with his military forces, so that by the next morning his power was already cemented, leading to utter confusion and demoralisation both amongst the left Guomindang and the CCP.
And yet Stalin still refused to draw the conclusions, and hid news of this embarrassment from the whole Comintern for a year, sowing massive confusion among Chinese communists who did not know that ‘their man’ in the Guomindang had just organised a counterrevolutionary coup. After all this Stalin accepted Chiang’s ridiculous and pathetic ‘apology’ for this ‘mistaken action’ and continued to supply him with arms!
These alarming developments put to the test the relationship of the CCP to the Comintern, which constantly acted over the heads of the Chinese communists to secure what it wanted. Time and again, leading Chinese communists tried to move resolutions against the policy of support for the Guomindang, time and again Moscow overruled them. They even went so far as to suppress these motions in the hope of keeping up the ‘alliance’ with the Guomindang.
Having secured power in the South, Chiang marched towards Shanghai and against the various warlord governments throughout China. Prior to his arrival The Shanghai General Labour Union (GLU), which was founded and led by CCP comrades, organised and coordinated an immense upturn in strike activity in the early months of 1927 with the intention of weakening the existing regime and, tragically, of welcoming their ‘saviour’ Chiang Kai Shek.
These strikes utterly paralysed the city and regime, and won over the rank and file of the military and police in the city, who joined the workers in setting up the Provisional Workers’ Bureau of Public Safety. In effect the workers of Shanghai had formed their own revolutionary government without Chiang’s help.
But following the slavish logic of appeasing Chiang to avoid a ‘premature conflict’, the Comintern ordered the workers to hide or bury all the weapons they had just taken at such heroic effort.
The day after Chiang’s arrival in the city he ordered the closure of the GLU – just a matter of days after it had organised the taking of Shanghai! The day after that Chiang conducted an interview for a foreign paper in which he promised to ‘remove all obstacles’ to restoring ‘friendship’ between China and the West. Then in early April, leading Chinese bankers offered Chiang 15m Shanghai dollars on condition he “suppress Communist and labour activities”.
China experienced its second and most decisive coup at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek on 12 April 1927, in the city of Shanghai, one year after the first. Hundreds of CCP comrades were killed that night, and it is estimated that around 12,000 CCP members and sympathisers were executed in Shanghai in the whole of April.
Birth of ‘Maoism’
This bloody coup marked the defeat of the 1925-7 revolution. But as elsewhere, Stalin could not admit to being wrong, nor allow any criticism of his obvious errors. As a result, it was declared that all this had been foreseen, that Stalin knew Chiang would expose himself as a counterrevolutionary, and only now was the time right to come out against him. So the CCP was ordered onto the offensive, and in Shanghai, Nanchang, Guangzhou and Hunan, one after the other, the CCP launched hopeless, completely unprepared insurrections without any support from the wider working class.
In each case, small numbers of CCP comrades quickly captured strategic positions in the cities and declared a commune. But these ‘communes’ were created behind the backs of the by-now demoralised working class. In every one of these instances, the Guomindang’s military was able to recapture the cities easily, and execute the leading CCP members involved.
These routs were so comprehensive, they effectively ended the CCP presence in all the major cities of China. In fact, it is actually these harebrained insurrections that gave rise, unintentionally, to what is known as Maoism, for the remaining CCP comrades fled into the countryside. The bases established there became the famous ‘rural soviets’ led by Mao.
The inability of the party to honestly digest these defeats was once again forced onto the party from Moscow. Many of course came to their own conclusions, and more and more young CCP members were turning to Trotsky’s left opposition. Moscow intervened heavily to ensure that anyone suspected of ‘Trotskyism’ be expelled from the party, including the party’s founder Chen Duxiu. A new, more compliant leadership was installed.
As a result, the party was prevented from learning from these experiences. Instead of reorganising to rebuild their base amongst workers, they ploughed headlong into the rural struggle, completely losing their base amongst the urban working class. As a result, the eventual overthrow of Chiang’s regime was achieved not from the cities and by the working class, but by means of the rural armed struggle.
The success of the revolution in 1949 is testament to the heroic sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of CCP comrades. Well over 90 percent of their membership died in this struggle. Capitalism was overthrown in China, but at immense cost to the Chinese communists, and no thanks to Stalin.
The failure of the 1925-7 revolution should not lead us to drawing pessimistic conclusions, however. But we must learn the lessons of that failed revolution - the working class must fight on an independent basis and against capitalism. The fact that such a new working class came so close to overthrowing capitalism shows how quickly the class can learn, and how bold it can be. 100 years later, a new, far larger working class has been forged in China - the world’s biggest. When this class moves there will be no power on earth that can stop it.
For more information, we recommend these two articles on the history of the CCP from 1927-37, and 1937-49; as well as China: From Permanent Revolution to Counter-Revolution by John Peter Roberts, available from Wellred Books here.
Originally published on marxist.com on 1 July 2021.