Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

Whole layers of the best cadres in the Chinese Communist Party were won to Trotskyism, and tens of thousands more had been executed or simply left political activity in the face of victorious counterrevolution. In this part of his history of the Chinese Communist Party, Daniel Morley analyses the Trotskyist current within the CCP that emerged after the defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, including its development and eventual failure.


We have already seen how whole layers of the best cadres in the party had been won to Trotskyism, and tens of thousands more had been executed or simply left political activity in the face of victorious counterrevolution. But the abstract, one-dimensional and ultra-left line adopted at the Sixth CCP Congress led to several more hare-brained insurrections. (Read part one)

Opposition within the CCP and the Failure of Chinese Trotskyism

Disaster in Changsha and Wuhan

The need to push for a revolutionary insurrectionist policy to cover up for the embarrassment of Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship led inevitably to a gross underestimation of the task of winning deep roots in the working class first - hence the vague talk of insurrections with no reference to the objective situation. Moscow culpability for this is once again proven by an open letter to the CCP sent from Moscow in October 1929, “which appears to have urged the Party to undertake direct action on a vast scale as soon as possible” (Guillermaz, op cit., p196).

Understandably, acting on such strong orders from the Comintern, in 1930 the CCP under Li Lisan’s leadership embarked on a series of disastrous insurrections which served to finish off whatever base in the cities they had left. Isaacs describes the impatient mentality of Li Lisan’s ultra-leftism in 1930, with its fantasies of conjuring mass working class support out of thin air, very well,

“[Li] was sure that a single puncture in the Guomindang dam would be enough to precipitate a revolutionary flood. “When the revolutionary high wave arrives,” he was later quoted as saying, “90,000,000 can be organised in three days.” In the June resolution he wrote: “Long ago the masses said: ‘When there is an uprising let us know and we shall surely come.’ Now is the time when the Party must bravely call upon the masses: ‘The time for insurrection has come! Organise yourselves!”...In Shanghai he formed a ‘Red Guard’ composed of exactly one hundred and seventy-six workers to prepare for the ‘fourth uprising.’ He plotted an insurrection in Nanjing [Chiang Kai-shek’s government’s headquarters] with a handful of soldiers.” (Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, 1951, p.331)

If ultra-leftism is the tendency for relatively small groups of revolutionaries to grow impatient with the working class and pose as their revolutionary leaders without patiently winning their support, then this was the distilled essence of ultra-leftism. Zhang Guotai wrote at the time that “it is worthwhile to [launch a CCP attack on a city] even if we could only hold a city against the enemy for but a few days. Though it is ideal to plan simultaneous uprisings in both rural and urban areas, there is no need to have those in one area wait for those in the other.” (quoted in Pinckney Harrison, op cit., p.143).

The masses are not born revolutionaries and are not always simply waiting for the opportunity to take power. The masses move towards revolution when the objective conditions have matured, when the crisis of the existing regime pushed them to seek a revolutionary way out. Any move to insurrection must take this elementary idea into account. Conditions for revolution inevitably mature at some point but they must also be preceded by a lengthy period of winning the confidence and involvement of the masses in such a plan. Failure to do so will always mean that the masses are little more than ‘curious observers’ as happened in these insurrections (ibid, p.177).

In July and August 1930 Changsha and Wuhan were taken by the CCP in armed insurrections by handfuls of party members. The few occupying Changsha fled when it was bombarded by British, American, Italian and Japanese gunboats, leaving the local population defenceless. It was the latter, not so much the CCP activists, who paid the price for this, and roughly 5,000 were slaughtered. When they fled, the CCP actually took $400,000 from the city and 3,000 of the city’s most advanced worker-activists - thus decapitating the local labour movement (Isaacs, op cit., pp332-3). The failure in Wuhan, which was immediately surrounded by 6,000 Guomindang troops, led to 40 beheadings per day for a period, with the headless bodies deliberately left on display as a warning.

When, in preparation for these adventures, Li Lisan said in June 1930 that we must “awaken the will of the broad masses to struggle to the death” (Li Lisan, The New Revolutionary Rising Tide and Preliminary Successes in one or more Provinces, 1930) he was more prescient than he knew.

Internal Opposition Develops

This reckless adventurism, which must have sacrificed countless more of the few remaining Communist cadres, and went hand in hand with the abandonment of the urban base and the development of what would be known as Maoism, a mainly peasant based phenomenon, did not go unopposed in the party. But the inability of Stalin to allow any internal democratic life in the Chinese section which could lead to the loosening of his grip on the International meant that such healthy disagreement had to be snuffed out. This had the effect of further weakening the party, especially in its traditional working class base, since it was from these quarters that the dissent came.

Just as Stalin had to blame those below him in China, such as Chen Duxiu and then Qu Qiubai, for all the errors flowing from his policy, so the leadership of the CCP after 1927 were compelled to mimic his bureaucratic methods since they were barred from opening a genuinely democratic discussion. They began to always blame those below themselves, in whose personal failings were to be found all the sources of failure, rather than in a wrong political line.

In opposition to this dictatorial method, the Jiangsu Provincial Committee of the CCP, based in Shanghai, wrote a letter which describes the situation thus

“In spite of the defeat...the Central Committee persists in clinging to the tactic of immediate uprisings and takes as its point of departure an estimation leading to the direct ascent of the revolution...These measures flowed from a subjective estimation of the situation and did not correspond to the objective circumstances. Obviously, under such conditions, defeats will be inevitable


“no attention is paid to the fact that our organisations have lost contact with the masses...if anybody was not in agreement with the new line, without further ceremony he was not permitted to renew his party card and even comrades who had already carried out this operation were expelled...without paying attention to the mistakes of its own leadership, the Central Committee nevertheless demands the most severe party discipline from the rank-and-file militants...It pounces down with accusations and says that the Provincial Committee is no good; the latter in its turn accuses the rank-and-file organisations and asserts that the district committee is bad. The latter also begins to accuse and asserts that it is the comrades working on the spot who are no good. And the comrades declare that the masses are not revolutionary.” (Quoted in Leon Trotsky, The Chinese Question after the 6th Congress)

In response to this outbreak of Marxist criticism, Li Lisan “tried to enlarge the provincial committee with his supporters”. After this was effectively opposed, Party Central under Li’s command sent a delegation to completely take over the Jiangsu Provincial Committee. The same was done to other dissenting committees, which caused those in the Shunzhi Committee to demand “the right to discuss all questions with superior organs and...that the leading cadres be elected by the masses.” For doing this, all these Provincial Committees were now to be under the jurisdiction of the North China Bureau. (Pinckney Harrison, op cit., p160).

He Mengxiong and the ‘Real Work Faction’

Out of this struggle, which took place in 1928-9, stepped forward a very experienced and respected trade union leader, He Mengxiong. As not only a member of the important, Shanghai based above-mentioned Jiangsu committee but also an experienced trade union militant, He’s opposition to Li Lisan’s ultra-leftism and the drift into the countryside represented the party’s true proletarian and Marxist heritage. They named themselves the ‘Real Work Faction’; the implication that they were the only group with a real connection to the working class is obvious.

By all accounts the oppositional position he took was a healthy one, and apparently by 1931 had “many, if not most, lower ranking party members” (Ibid, p.186) in support. He argued for the need of the CCP to have an “accurate evaluation of the movement’s weaknesses” and emphasised the need for the Party to be “enlarged systematically through the trade unions in the towns” (Guillermaz, op cit., p.220). In other words, to patiently work on explaining the defeat suffered and winning new comrades in the cities.

His group became more vocal the more the disaster of the Changsha and Wuhan insurrections became clear, and as Moscow began to try to impose a new leadership on the CCP to replace the disgraced Li Lisan, an act which incensed many comrades. Such was the support in the CCP for Real Work’s opposition that by the end of 1930 it had become an “independent organisation with an executive committee of twenty-seven that continued to lobby for an emergency conference [to oppose any new leadership imposed from Moscow].” (Pinckney Harrison, op cit.).

Pavel Mif, the Comintern representative in China, overruled their campaign and organised a meeting that was to elect a new leadership, initially without even informing these comrades of the nature of the meeting. The meeting was composed mainly of Comintern loyalists, and while many of the Li Lisan-ers kept their positions (by confessing that all the errors of the insurrections were purely down to them and had nothing to do with the Comintern leadership), most were now the ‘Russian returned students’, stooges trained in Moscow and led by the hated Wang Ming.

Mysteriously, when He continued to organise his opposition, and called for Mif to be recalled and a new Party conference to be announced, he was arrested “the very next day” by British police, who handed He and others over to the Guomindang, who executed them one month later (Ibid, p.187). Thus another layer of honest cadres was destroyed.

Lo Zhanglung took over from He and now, following his expulsion, organised a rival CCP with branches in 6 Provinces. Clearly, the basis existed for the Chinese Left Opposition to make contact with dissidents inside the party, and through an intelligent campaign win over sections of the party. However, Lo, like He, was betrayed to the Guomindang two years later. This fact, and He’s execution before that, give a clue as to the causes of the Trotskyists’ failure to really build influence in the CCP despite the latter’s internal crises. Apart from the Trotskyists’ subjective failings, of which there were many, in particular of the sectarian variety, there was the objective problem that any Communist in opposition to the CCP leadership faced a double oppression. They not only had to avoid detection by Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, but also to avoid being expelled from the CCP and handed over to the authorities by it.

The same happened to one of the remaining layers of comrades in a big city when Xiang Zhongfa and 4,700 others were arrested and executed in Shanghai in June 1931. For one reason or another, a CCP comrade defected to the Guomindang, betrayed another comrade, Gu Shunzhang, who then capitulated and betrayed an entire layer, including a leading party member, Xiang Zhongfa. In this way the bulk of the remaining Shanghai membership was wiped out.

Then the new Wang Ming leadership immediately took the initiative and attacked anyone associated with criticism of Moscow and the CCP leadership. He had 1/4 of all comrades expelled. Thus Stalin and his local stooges had in Chiang Kai-shek’s despotic regime (which resembled his own in many respects, if not in its economic base), a powerful tool with which to discipline their membership. That is the real, objective reason why Stalin was able to infect the Chinese party with his own bureaucratic methods, and why the Trotskyists were unable to build an effective opposition.

The Dissolution of Trotskyism in China

Whereas the CCP, despite its dire situation after the routing of 1927, was still able to draw upon $40,000 a month in financial support from the USSR, as well as from the resources in their new rural bases, the Trotskyists shared all the same difficulties, but also lacked any bases or financial support at all. One can barely imagine the material and psychological difficulties a band of around 350 Oppositionists, with no finances at all and coming out of the defeat of a revolution and mass expulsion from their party, must have faced. This not only made it difficult for the Opposition to operate effectively, but also represented an enormous barrier to recruiting the numerous CCP comrades unhappy with the line imposed from Moscow. As Benton points out, “it was therefore a big step for a CCP official on $25 a month - equivalent to the salary of a teacher - to give up this secure income for the uncertain life of a Trotskyist militant” (Gregor Benton, op cit., p60).

Wang Fanxi explains the objective difficulties very clearly,

“No one had joined the Party to make money, so how was it that financial considerations prevented some comrades from joining the Opposition? One reason was that although no revolutionary would put money before his revolutionary beliefs, the situation changed somewhat when it was a question of choosing between two different factions within the same party, as Stalinism and Trotskyism were at that stage. Although many in the Soviet Union sacrificed high state or Party rank to follow Trotsky, even more renounced the Opposition in order to cling to their privileged positions...We had no funds of our own and no external source of finance. As if earning a living was not hard enough, we had to put money aside regularly to finance the work of our organisation...[CCP] comrades could be heard lamenting the fact that they were professional revolutionaries rather than revolutionary professionals, so that they had no job to fall back on should they disagree with the official line and want to distance themselves from the party apparatus. The scarcity of employment under the old regime in China thus helped Stalin to defeat the Trotskyists.” (Wang Fanxi, op cit., p125)

Added to this was the isolation of these Trotskyists from the rest of the Trotskyist movement worldwide, thanks to China’s backwardness and the Japanese invasion. Many Trotskyists were killed by the Japanese and were even, when attempting to fight them, sometimes caught between Maoist and Japanese armies, both of which were hostile to them. Indeed in the 1930s the CCP, following Moscow’s demands that it wipe out Chinese Trotskyism, consciously used the Guomindang dictatorship by tipping it off regarding the Opposition comrades. In this way huge layers of the leading Trotskyists were put into gaol or even executed - Chen Duxiu, along with Wang Fanxi, Peng Shuzi and many others, was put into gaol in 1932 for five years.

These objective difficulties were compounded by, and to some extent caused, the theoretical weaknesses of the Opposition and its tendency towards sectarianism. Of course for a principled Marxist organisation questions of theoretical clarity are extremely important, and so we do not make a fetish out of organisational unity - sometimes it is necessary to maintain the ideological clarity of an organisation at the expense of having less members, since in the long run short cuts to a larger organisation will undermine its ability to understand the working class and the revolution as it really develops.

But splits of a sectarian nature are characterised not by a pursuit for a clear understanding of the revolution but by rigid formalism, becoming fixated with secondary questions, all of which boils down to petty intriguing and egotism masked by pretensions of theoretical greatness. Sectarianism is a kind of failed opportunism or careerism, where one group jealously defends its existence as against the others, however minute it may be. Unfortunately the Trotskyists in China did degenerate in this direction, probably as a result of the habit of being in opposition to the majority of the CCP, coupled with a lack of time and space for discussion to come to a deeper understanding of why the revolution had failed.

For example, many of the Oppositionists were opposed to Chen Duxiu joining them when he was won to Trotskyism in 1929. Instead of understanding that the revolution had failed because of Stalin’s short-sighted opportunism, they blamed the defeat on Chen (who of course, under orders, carried out this opportunist policy) and, probably unconsciously, did not want him involved precisely because he would help them to build - the authority of his name in Chinese Communism would undermine their own importance in the local Trotskyist movement. As a condition for his joining them, they demanded that he disband his group (Benton, op cit., p.30). By 1930 there were already four different Trotskyist organisations competing against one another, and in 1981 “Zhao Ji frankly admitted that the Militant Group had been formed not for ideological reasons but to get a better position for its members in the future unified organisation” (Ibid, p.33).

Chen Duxiu, who towered above this kind of petty intriguing, summed up these errors in a letter addressed to Trotsky in 1939,

“If ultra-leftists who stay aloof from the masses and the real struggle...continue to brag and pretend to be big leaders, to organise leadership bodies that lack all substance, and to found petty kingdoms for themselves behind closed doors and relying on the name of the Fourth International, they will achieve nothing beyond the tarnishing of the Fourth International’s prestige in China.” (Chen Duxiu, quoted in Zheng Chaolin, Chen Duxiu and the Trotskyists)


Trotsky had quickly seen through this sectarianism and defended Chen against the criticisms made against him, which were of a very formalistic nature. He urged that, since there was no principled reason for division, the Trotskyists in China must hold a reunification congress and quickly get on with the task of winning influence within the by now very weakened CCP. Thanks to Trotsky’s intervention, this congress was held in May 1931 and resulted in around 500 Trotskyists joining together. At this point, things looked bright, as the Communist Party leadership had just been replaced with the unpopular Wang Ming, and the Comintern’s authority could not but have been weakened.

But just as the subjective weaknesses of the Trotskyists appeared surmountable, the objective obstacles came back with a vengeance - within three weeks of the congress the whole Central Committee of the unified organisation, known as ‘The Spark’, were arrested by the Guomindang, and just over a year later, the remaining leading Trotskyists, Chen Duxiu and Peng Shuzhi and seven others, were arrested by the French and British police in Shanghai (Benton, op cit., p35).

This effectively spelt the end for Chinese Trotskyism. Without the leading lights of Chen Duxiu and Trotsky (who was increasingly suffering from international isolation by the GPU), the organisation was decapitated, and once again the sectarian squabbling broke out as inexperienced members failed to grasp the meaning of the changing situation. In particular, the war with Japan, which changed everything, threw the group into a confusion which made effective intervention in the situation impossible. The national question has always been one of the trickiest and subtlest of questions for Marxists, and it has tripped up not a few experienced comrades in the past. We should not be surprised that this group, having had such a hard time and without its learned cadres, would make classic mistakes of ultra-leftism on this issue.

Trotsky explained the correct position on the war with Japan thus,

“We do not and never have put all wars on the same plane. Marx and Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great Britain, of the Poles against the tsar, even though in these two nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy...In the Far East we have a classic example. China is a semicolonial country which Japan is transforming, under our very eyes, into a colonial country. Japan's struggle is imperialist and reactionary. China's struggle is emancipatory and progressive...

“But Chiang Kai-shek? We need have no illusions about Chiang Kai-shek, his party, or the whole ruling class of China, just as Marx and Engels had no illusions about the ruling classes of Ireland and Poland. Chiang Kai-shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants. But today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan for the remainder of the independence of China. Tomorrow he may again betray. It is possible. It is probable. It is even inevitable. But today he is struggling...

“But can Chiang Kai-shek assure the victory? I do not believe so. It is he, however, who began the war and who today directs it. To be able to replace him it is necessary to gain decisive influence among the proletariat and in the army, and to do this it is necessary not to remain suspended in the air but to place oneself in the midst of the struggle. We must win influence and prestige in the military struggle against the foreign invasion and in the political struggle against the weaknesses, the deficiencies, and the internal betrayal.” (Leon Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War, 1937)

And yet sections of the Chinese Trotskyists took a criminal position of neutrality in the war against Japan. Why? They argued that since the US backed China, supporting the fight against Japanese imperialism meant supporting US imperialism. In this way these ‘Trotskyists’ allowed the struggle for the emancipation of China to be, in their heads at least, cancelled out in advance because the US gave it support. But the US’ support was not for the emancipation of China, only for the defeat of Japan so that the US may dominate China. The character of China’s war for emancipation from brutal oppression was not defined simply by the US’ role, but first and foremost by the internal dynamics of Chinese and Japanese society. Thus a victory for Japan would mean the strengthening of the regime of Japanese fascism both in China and Japan. A victory for China would mean the weakening of the Japanese regime even in Japan, a strengthening of the Japanese revolutionary movement and of course of the Chinese masses, who would have successfully fought off an external oppressor and in all likelihood their own ruling class as well, who as we shall see, were incapable of effectively opposing Japan.

Arguing that Marxists should not support the war as it may help US imperialism was, Trotsky explained, like opposing a strike in one factory because its victory might mean the strengthening of a different capitalist in competition with this one. Again, to take this position would mean voluntarily cancelling the class struggle for fear of temporarily aiding one capitalist as against another. But Marxists are indifferent as to which capitalist is stronger; we are interested in the weakening of the capitalists as a class, which means the strengthening of the workers as a class. A strike victory in one factory may temporarily strengthen one capitalist, but what is far more important is the raising of workers to their feet and the example to other workers that this one victory represents. Similarly, as Trotsky pointed out, if the Chinese people, through an almighty effort, managed to throw off the chains of one imperialism, they would be all the more able to do so against another imperialism thanks to this victory. As it turned out, this is exactly what happened when in 1949 the Chinese people finally broke free of the yoke of imperialism in general.

This dispute not only weakened the Trotskyists’ capacity for action but also diminished their prestige in the eyes of the masses and members of the CCP. Thanks to a combination of brutal state repression and theoretical weakness, the Trotskyists’ reunification failed to materialise into any real growth and they more or less disintegrated as the war dragged on.  With the victory of Mao in 1949, the final few were gaoled, executed or forced to flee, mainly to Hong Kong.

Part three>>