Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

The question of the Chinese revolution would be an unsolvable riddle if abstracted from the world revolution and imperialism. In the latest part of his series on the history of the Chinese Communist Party and the development of Maoism, Daniel Morley looks at the impact of world events on the revolutionary process inside China.

The tortuous path of the Chinese revolution would be like an unsolvable riddle if abstracted from the world revolution and imperialism. It first reared its head in the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th Century, in form a traditional peasants’ uprising but whose causes and results were shaped by China’s sudden integration into the world market. The proletarian phase of the revolution, beginning in 1919, was from the beginning determined by the Chinese working class’ gravitation towards the ideas and methods of Bolshevism.

[Read part seven here]

The CCP and Japanese Imperialism

The latter phase of the revolution, leading up to CCP victory in 1949, is inseparable from the Japanese invasion of China, which rather than uniting all China against Japan, actually served to bring into sharp relief all the class antagonisms of Chinese society. In the first half of the twentieth century, imperialism did not confront China as an utterly alien force, but rather was an integral part of Chinese society. It was impossible to tell where the Chinese ruling class ended and the imperialists began. This was no more the case than when it came to their attitude to the Chinese masses and the communist movement, to which both were equally opposed. Therefore the CCP’s attitude toward the Japanese invasion of China is fundamental to understanding both the course of the revolution and the CCP’s fortunes in it, as well as the alternative ways the revolution could have developed.

Japan’s emergence as a force on the world market was announced with the First Sino-Japanese War 1894-5, which was fought over control of Korea. China had dominated Korea (as well as East Asia in general) for centuries, so the Japanese victory in this war marked a qualitative change in East Asian politics, brought about by the more successful introduction of capitalism into Japan. Ten years later there followed the Russo-Japan war, a nakedly imperialist war fought as it was over control of the Chinese Eastern Railroad. This railroad was central to trade routes in the wider region and as such was also the scene of the main Sino-Japanese war in the 1930s and 40s. Japan’s victory over Russia represented the first ever Asian victory over a European power in the modern era, and should be seen as the beginning of Asia’s long march to global capitalist pre-eminence.

The Mukden Incident

The Mukden Incident marks the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese war and spelt the doom of the Guomindang in mainland China. On September 18th 1931 Japan carried out a classic diplomatic manoeuvre of imperialism by staging an ‘attack’ on the Chinese Eastern Railroad (which it owned, as an imperialist power) in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, North-eastern China (then known as Mukden, Inner Manchuria). Some Japanese officers planted (pathetically weak, so as not to actually damage their railroad!) explosives on the line, declared it to be an attack from Chinese nationalists, and then invaded the city and subsequently the whole province, which they secured control of in five months.

From the point of view of the CCP, Japanese aggression was a huge opportunity and a lifeline for the Party. To some extent Japanese aggression diverted military resources from attacking the Soviet bases, however as we shall see, Chiang Kai-shek minimised this outcome with his policy of non-resistance to Japan. But that policy was sharply in contradiction with the objective needs of Chinese society, which was brutally oppressed and whose development was violently held back by Japanese fascism. Therefore the more Chiang refused to resist Japan to focus on attacking the CCP, the more he provoked mass opposition in China and sympathy for the CCP. This was therefore a ‘win win’ situation for the CCP – if Chiang attacked Japan, it took all the pressure off its shoulders. If he attacked the CCP, he undermined his power.

The corruptness of the Chiang Kai-shek regime pushed it in the direction of making a deal with Japan to crush the CCP. That certainly was Chiang’s perspective. But the extreme reactionary character of the regime and of Japanese imperialism constantly increased the potential support for the CCP (seen as the only force opposing Japan) and therefore pushed sections of the ruling class into opposing Chiang Kai-shek, massively weakening the political leadership of Chinese capitalism. Fascism is an expression of the acute crisis and dead-end of capitalism, hence its viciously reactionary character. The combination of the semi-fascism of Chiang Kai-shek and the imposition of Japanese fascism in China did not signify the strength of the ruling class in China and Japan, but rather their dead-end.

It is indubitable that the crisis provoked by Japan was the most direct contributing factor to the CCP’s victory. The question is to what extent the CCP capitalised on this, and how? One can kick down a rotten door very quickly and effectively, or one can spend days chipping away at its frame so that when the door is opened, it is kept intact. This is not a pedantic point. The way in which the CCP opposed Japanese aggression and the Guomindang’s capitulation to it was at times designed to bring the CCP to power without smashing the Guomindang and its rotten state apparatus. Moscow did not want a huge revolution led by the Chinese masses on its doorstep; it wanted to bureaucratically arrange a friendly Chinese state.

However the initial response of the CCP to Japanese aggression was along the right lines. If they had followed this policy through, the CCP could have been brought to power far earlier and on the basis not of military victories but a mass uprising.

The CCP immediately responded to the Mukden incident with a resolution stating that “the Chinese Communist Party considers the Japanese attack in Manchuria as an imperialist attack”. From this moment onwards the Party never wavered in condemning the hated Japanese imperialism, and won a great deal of support for doing so. The task was to rebuild the Party in the cities on the basis of such a militant opposition to Japanese imperialism and the Guomindang’s sell-out, and to look for points of support in the army.

Thanks to the popular revulsion Chiang’s stance invited and the CCP’s correct statement against it, the CCP made an immediate and very significant gain when 20,000 Guomindang soldiers defected to the Red Army in the Ningdu Uprising of December 1931.

At this time the Comintern was pursuing its ultra-left ‘Third Period’ policy, which was a bureaucratic overreaction to cover up for its previous opportunist sins, as Trotsky said. However a positive by-product of this policy was that it actually encouraged the CCP to take a revolutionary line in relation to the Japanese invasion. In September 1932 the Comintern leadership passed a resolution insisting that the CCP pursue,

“the tactic of the united front from below in the anti-imperialist struggle...organising the masses under the slogan of a revolutionary national liberation war for the independence, unity and territorial integrity of China against all imperialists, for the overthrow of the agent of imperialism – the Guomindang.” (quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit.)

This was followed up in January 1933 with the correct call for military groups to join the CCP in a fighting alliance on condition that they “halt any participation in the Fourth Nationalist Offensive then in progress against the Soviet areas; that there be an immediate guarantee of democratic rights and freedoms; and immediate arming of the masses for war against Japan” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

Although many of the military groups breaking away from the Guomindang over the question of resistance to Japan would have been bourgeois/feudal in their origins and leadership, this policy from the CCP correctly anticipates the fact that all such movements would have represented a split away from Chiang Kai-shek along class lines. The demand for arming the people against Japan in this call for an alliance brings this class character to the fore and would put the bourgeois leadership of such groups under pressure. If combined with skilful tactics on the CCP’s part, they could have then broken these groups away not just from Chiang but also from their own bourgeois leaders, or converted those leaders to the communist cause, as happened with the Ningdu Uprising.

The Rural Burden

How could the CCP use the war with Japan to build an effective revolutionary opposition the Guomindang as well as Japan? How could it shore up and develop its base of support in this new and dangerous situation?

These questions could only be answered with a sober and materialist analysis of the war situation and its effect on the class struggle in China. All the questions boiled down to one – would the invasion push the proletariat into the arms of the ruling class in a fit of anti-Japanese patriotism, or would it exacerbate the class divisions? If it were the latter, it would be vital for the CCP to re-establish a strong urban basis as soon as possible.

Trotsky considered (correctly) that “there are grounds to think that the war will produce a feverish revival of industry...especially if the war will be financed by Great Britain, the U.S., or the Soviet Union.” A more mechanical Marxist might conclude that this would thereby blunt the class antagonism; however Trotsky again correctly drew the opposite conclusion,

“The dependence of the army and the government on internal production will immeasurably raise the role and importance of the Chinese industrial workers...this circumstance opens wide opportunities for economic struggle of the workers. The government will have to be more careful in its repressions in order not to break down the tempo of war industry. Of course, the scoundrels of the Guomindang and the no lesser scoundrels of the Stalinist party will cry that an economic struggle in time of war is ‘antipatriotic’. However, the working masses will hardly sympathise with this advice, especially if the real revolutionaries will be able to expose the tremendous profits of the capitalists and the rapaciousness of the bureaucrats.” (Trotsky, A Discussion on China)

It therefore followed from this understanding that the Chinese Communists (he was writing to his supporters in China, but all his recommendations would apply equally to the CCP itself) must begin with the classic work of a Marxist organisation – building in the factories and trade unions,

“It appears to me that it would be much more correct to try to create ‘war’ organisations on a class basis, for the carrying out of the work which, in a corresponding situation, the trade unions would carry out. For example, if in a given plant, several workers went off to war, it would then be necessary to organise a group for keeping connections with them and for rendering them and their families material and moral aid...demands for workers’ control over industry, especially over war industry, have such a tremendous significance – not only to ‘control’ profits but to make it hard for the capitalists to furnish the army with bad products of poor quality...It is necessary that [workers’] organisations have before them, though, a narrow but fully concrete programme, tied to the interests of the army and the workers.


“The most important preparation for war is to create trade union committees and a party organisation: a systematic propaganda for the liberation from all imperialisms, in the first place Japanese imperialism, not by diplomatic manoeuvres, capitulations, but by a revolutionary military struggle, by a war of the Chinese people against the imperialists. What is important is to create a point of support which in time can become the basis for the mobilisation of the people


“The task of the vanguard consists in that, basing itself on the experience of the war, it is to weld the workers around the revolutionary vanguard, to rally the peasants around the workers”. (Ibid)

But it would remain impossible for the CCP to carry this out on the basis of rural isolation and absorption in a daily battle for bare survival. They could not establish effective contact with the urban movement, which would at moments explode in various forms throughout the 1930s. The CCP was too far away to participate in these movements, too politically distanced to understand the build-up of frustration and to raise concrete demands to connect with them.

The first example of this phenomenon is the student movement against Japan beginning in 1931 in response to the Mukden incident. Despite the CCP’s bold anti-imperialist stance on this matter, they failed to connect to this movement of tens of thousands due to their physical and political isolation from it, and therefore the movement fizzled out.

In early 1932 a five week war over control of Shanghai took place. This was the first major test of the CCP’s ability to influence the struggle against Japan in the all-important urban centres, especially since the crisis it engendered led to a mass mutiny in Chiang’s army with revolutionary implications.

Basing itself on its ‘extraterritorial concession’ in Shanghai – the existence of which was already an act of Japanese imperialism – the Japanese once again staged various ‘anti-Japanese’ attacks in the city. This they used as an excuse for a rapid build-up of Japanese military hardware in and around the city, to ‘protect Japanese citizens and property’. Then suddenly the city was bombed and invaded on foot.

However in contradistinction to Chiang Kai-shek’s pathetic stance of non-resistance in Manchuria, Cai Tingkai led the Guomindang’s 19th Army into a heroic battle with the Japanese invaders. Although unsuccessful, this bold act of defiance inspired millions of Chinese suffering from decades of imperialist insults and colonial indignity to begin the resistance. Correctly “the communists encouraged anti-Japanese demonstrations wherever they could, trying at the same time to direct them towards condemnation of governmental ‘weakness’” (Guillermaz, op cit.)

Certainly there was a basis to break away such movements from any ‘patriotic’ support for the government, since everyone understood that the government was the chief obstacle in defending China. Cai Tingkai was essentially defying orders by defending Shanghai. Chiang’s subservience to imperialism was so humiliating that Cai Tingkai (and many after him) was compelled to openly defy him even up to the point of launching a revolutionary government.

This was the Fujian rebellion, one of the most interesting developments in this period. It seems to encapsulate all that the period of war with Japan involved. In particular the class character of this movement could not help being brought to the surface. As with all the breakdowns in Guomindang authority in the 1930s, we see the question of the revolution and the CCP casting its long shadow.

Following their heroic and massively popular resistance to the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, the 19th Army and Cai Tingkai enjoyed enormous prestige and effectively had a local base of support, giving the army political independence from Chiang Kai-shek. When he ordered them to attack the CCP in their Jiangxi Soviet in November 1933, the army rebelled, disgusted at being ordered to attack the only group openly resisting Japan (other than themselves). Instead they turned on Chiang.

On November 22nd they called an ‘Extraordinary People’s Assembly’, in which they announced the establishment of a ‘People’s Revolutionary Government’ in Fujian Province, and named their army the People’s Revolutionary Army. Amongst their vague plans for social justice in Fujian, they publicly declared the intention to begin the militant fight against Japan and for the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek. They also declared their desire to establish close political relations with the CCP’s Jiangxi Soviet and the Soviet Union in an effort to collaborate in the struggle against Japan. In other words, this huge rebellion met every single one of the CCP’s 1932 criteria for forming a united front against Japan and the Guomindang.

Indeed Cai’s army had begun negotiations with the CCP for a united front in the spring of 1933, before the Fujian Rebellion took place. By October they had agreed to cease warfare against one another and to establish economic relations. When the Fujian government was established, they agreed to release all political prisoners (i.e. CCP members in gaol) and to support the CCP’s revolutionary actions against the Guomindang and Japan.

Inevitably Chiang’s forces led an immediate counter-attack, with three groups as well as the navy attacking within days under direct orders from Chiang Kai-shek (Guillermaz, op cit.). This was the decisive test for the CCP’s revolutionary anti-imperialist strategy. There was no time to waste. Politically speaking, the situation was a gift for the CCP, an open goal. The only popular army in the Guomindang had just launched an open rebellion to Chiang’s authority, and declared itself in favour of establishing relations with the CCP. What’s more, the situation immediately exposed the government and eroded whatever slim credibility it retained, since it now attacked its own forces with far more vigour than it defended China against the Japanese.

But the CCP did the worst of all things – it vacillated. It revealed itself as indecisive at the very moment when a clear revolutionary opportunity emerged. Why?

Zhou Enlai and other leaders were in favour of sending immediate military assistance to Fujian, but they were overruled by the Moscow controlled party leadership (this was still before Mao’s ascent to power) as well as Mao, who feared the uncertain military repercussions and did not trust a movement over which they had had no control. Instead they argued that the 19th Army should march out of Fujian (thus betraying their own call for a ‘People’s Revolutionary Government’), through unknown countryside and into the Jiangxi Soviet, where they would merge with the Red Army. It was felt that the Red Army could thereby absorb and control this movement the more easily (Ibid).

As a result, Red Army troops were sent from Jiangxi, but stopped halfway. The rebels were besieged by the Guomindang. None of the other Guomindang anti-Chiang factions came to the rescue (as had been hoped), in some cases citing the revolutionary character of the movement as an obstacle. Thus the Fujian Rebellion, at first glance a question of nationalism, quickly revealed itself to be a class question. The CCP could be the only force to offer support and to help in extending the struggle around the country. But thanks to the Party’s preoccupation with rural survival their political horizons had been narrowed. Rather than seeing the movement as a confirmation of their class struggle perspectives, they looked upon it as a difficulty and an upsetting of their plans. By mid-January 1934 this brave rebellion was defeated.

This further underlines the fact that rural isolation had placed the Party outside of the crux of China’s class struggle. As soon as the movement developed in the cities, as it surely always would, they had no basis with which to intervene. Had the Party concentrated on building a solid base in the trade unions they could have launched a nationwide Fujian solidarity campaign, with strikes and appeals to the rank-and-file of the Guomindang military. Even had the government in Fujian still been crushed, this would have left a lasting effect on class relations in China and served to massively increase the CCP’s standing in the working class.

The Creeping Invasion

The Japanese had been testing China since 1931, gauging the new regime’s powers of resistance. By now it was obvious that the regime had none, and from the point of view of Japanese imperialism they would have been foolish not to rapidly take advantage of this fact.

Just before the five weeks war in Shanghai had ended in March 1932, the then province of Jehol (which straddled what is now Hebei, Liaoning and Inner Mongolia) was invaded and annexed to Manchukuo, the name for Japanese controlled Manchuria. The Japanese then used this base to force the evacuation of Chinese troops from East Hebei. In 1934 Japan affirmed special rights and interests in all of China in the ‘Amau Declaration’, just like the US declared all of Latin America to be its permanent sphere of influence with the infamous Monroe Doctrine.

Finding its powers of resistance lacking due to its crippling fear of mobilising the Chinese masses (with their communist sympathies), the Chinese government admitted its ‘nationalist’ name was a fraud when it agreed to Japanese demands for their troops to leave all Hebei and Chahar in mid to late 1935.

This allowed Japan to declare the laughingly titled ‘Autonomous Government of Inner Mongolia’ as well as the ‘East Hebei Autonomous Anti-Communist Zone’. The choice of name for the latter and the Guomindang’s complicity in approving it reveal the real division in this war – the Chinese masses and communists versus the Chinese and Japanese ruling classes. The clearest proof of this came when “strikes in the Japanese mills of Shanghai, partly in patriotic protest against the Japanese invasion of Suiyuan [in Inner Mongolia], were also broken up with considerable violence by the Japanese, in cooperation with the Guomindang” (Snow, op cit.).

This was followed up with a cringe-worthy Japanese attempt at ‘defence’ when it declared the ‘Anti-Comintern Pact’ in November 1936 and claimed the whole of North China as a buffer zone against the USSR. But this stance of ‘defence’ could not cover up the blatant, naked imperialist looting of China which the war really was,

“China had lost to Japanese invaders about a fifth of her national territory, over 40% of her railway mileage, 85% of her unsettled lands, a large part of her coal, 80% of her iron deposits, 37% of her finest forest lands, and about 40% of her national export trade. Japan now controlled over 75% of the total pig iron and iron-mining enterprises of what remained of China, and over half of the textile industry of China.” (Ibid)

Part nine -->