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China: 90 Years Since Chiang Kai-Shek’s Shanghai Massacre

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On 12 April 1927, a bloody military coup turned the tide on the Chinese Revolution

Vincent Kolo,

Ninety years ago the Chinese working class and its young Communist Party (CCP) suffered a terrible defeat in its stronghold of Shanghai, a decisive turning point in the Chinese Revolution. This important anniversary will pass largely unmarked in China. The Maoist/Stalinist CCP which came to power in 1949, but based on a rural peasant army rather than through the organised power of the urban working class, has never been able to explain what happened in 1927 and even less so today’s ‘Communist’ rulers.

In the mid-1920s a revolutionary upsurge saw explosive growth of the CCP, at that time as an overwhelmingly working class party. It would have been possible – if a correct programme and leadership had existed – for the Chinese working class to take power on similar lines to the socialist revolution in Russia in 1917. In the major cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton) the workers effectively held power, only to be defeated and crushed due to the ruinous policies foisted upon them by Stalin and the new bureaucratic elite that was consolidating its rule over the Soviet Union. In order to stay in power in Russia, the Stalinist bureaucracy used the tremendous authority of the Russian Revolution to propagate policies and methods alien to that revolution.

Had the Chinese Revolution triumphed it would have changed the world. It would have reinvigorated the international working class after a period of setbacks and injected new life into the decade-old Russian Revolution, giving workers the confidence to push back against the Stalinist counterrevolution.

Communists hunted down

The bloody crackdown in Shanghai began before sunrise on April 12, signalled by a bugle blast from the military headquarters of Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang. Armed ‘triad’ gangs wearing workers’ overalls with white armbands bearing the character kung (‘worker’) poured out of Shanghai’s foreign-controlled concessions and began hunting down trade unionists and communists. Soldiers then moved in to disarm the city’s Red Guard workers’ militias, a force of more than 5,000. Foreign military forces, especially France, played a key role in the crackdown with 40 foreign warships taking up positions in the Yangtze River which flows through Shanghai.

Workers were shot and beheaded in the streets; on such a scale that one of Chiang’s generals was given the nickname “The Hewer of Communist Heads” by Time magazine. There were reports of captured communists thrown alive into the furnaces of locomotives.

Mass confusion and disorientation reigned among workers whose leaders had assured them of an unbreakable alliance with the Kuomintang soldiers – trained and armed by the Soviet Union. In The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, a masterful account of this period by American Trotskyist Harold Isaacs, he says April 12 “came as no surprise to anyone except the workers”.

After Chiang Kai-shek’s coup, arrests and executions of CCP members and sympathisers spread across all areas under his control, with around 300,000 killed during the following year. Trade unions were outlawed and strikes banned. Chiang established a one-party dictatorship resting upon Chinese capitalism and heavily dependent on imperialist powers, first Germany, and later America. His regime was vicious against the left – continuing after his forces lost power to Mao Zedong’s red armies in the 1940s and decamped to Taiwan.

The decimation of the CCP after the 1927 defeat – its membership fell from 58,000 to around 10,000 – flung most of the surviving leaders away from the cities and into the rural ‘peasant orientation’ later championed by Mao. This held that China’s most numerous class, the peasantry, were the main focus of revolutionary struggle, with the working class of the cities relegated to a passive supporting role. This lopsided and false approach was bound up with the party’s degeneration along Stalinist lines, with a top-down bureaucratic leadership and increasingly nationalistic perspective.

Permanent Revolution

China had emerged from its 1911 revolution as a ‘failed state’. The old dynastic system had collapsed but the following years showed the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to lead a revolutionary struggle against feudalism, warlordism and foreign domination.

Like their Russian counterparts, the Chinese capitalists had arrived on the scene late and consequently were heavily dependent both on foreign imperialist interests and also on China’s rural landowning class.

Under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership, the Russian Revolution had triumphed as a workers’ revolution which drew behind it the mass of the peasantry and thereby succeeded in abolishing capitalism and landlordism. They understood that the Russian capitalists were too tied to imperialist interests to lead a national capitalist revolution against the existing semi-feudal system and therefore this revolution must be led by the working class against the capitalists.

This process was elaborated most clearly by Trotsky in his brilliant Theory of the Permanent Revolution. He explained that the workers, once taking power, would not stop at the purely capitalist tasks of the revolution (redistributing the land and establishing a democratic republic) but would press onward, implementing socialist measures of state ownership and workers’ democratic control over the economy and spreading their revolution internationally.

It was the Russian Mensheviks (right wing social democrats) who in vehement opposition to the Bolsheviks insisted that the revolution needed to march behind a capitalist leadership, with workers’ parties limiting themselves to a supporting role until capitalism had been consolidated – a process they envisaged would take many decades.

Under Stalinism, this Menshevik ‘stages theory’ became a hallmark of the official Communist Parties with disastrous results in Spain, Vietnam, Indonesia, Chile, and many other countries. The Chinese revolution was the first where these mistaken ideas became official Communist Party policy, putting a brake on the struggle of the working class in the interests of an ‘alliance’ with the capitalist Kuomintang.

Weakness of Chinese capitalism

Sun Yat-sen, the “Father of Modern China” and the Kuomintang’s leader until his death in 1925, personified the political weakness of the Chinese capitalist class. Sun had an exaggerated faith in the imperialist powers and in behind-the-scenes manoeuvres. He was hostile towards the class struggle seeing it as divisive. Sun’s outlook was similar to bourgeois reformers and ‘democrats’ in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan today.

The 1917 Russian Revolution brought Marxism to China. Prior to this, many intellectuals had attributed China’s backwardness to the lack of a ‘strong government’ rather than seeing it as a product of capitalism and imperialism. Chinese intellectuals now began to look to the ideas of Lenin, Trotsky, and the world’s first workers’ government. These intellectuals played the role of revolutionary ‘yeast’ in helping ferment the growth of Marxist ideas among the young working class. The CCP, founded in 1921, grew within a few years into a mass force.

The fighting capacity of the Chinese working class began to show itself in several important struggles in the early 1920s, including the epic Hong Kong seamen’s strike of 1922, which shook the whole of China. These movements began to register with the leaders of the Kuomintang. Sun Yat-sen, whose efforts to woo imperialism had led nowhere, now turned to the Soviet Union for military aid but also for a lever to influence the workers’ movement. This resulted in an agreement whereby the Kuomintang received significant military equipment and training and was recognised by Stalin’s government as “the leading force” in China’s revolution.

Stalin saw the alliance with the Kuomintang as central to his China policy – for a friendly regime that would offer a secure eastern border. The Stalinist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, through which democratic control over the government and economy by the working class was dismantled, meant that the proletarian internationalism of 1917 increasingly gave way to policies serving the national prerogatives of the new bureaucratic elite.

The CCP was told to submerge its forces into the Kuomintang, described implausibly by the Comintern (Communist International) leadership as an “alliance from within”. Sun Yat-sen would not agree to the CCP joining the Kuomintang as a party, only as individual members, which the Comintern/Stalin agreed to. Accordingly, the CCP was politically subordinated to the Kuomintang’s programme and its bureaucratic leadership. There were misgivings among many of the Chinese communists but the prestige of the Comintern was such that the policy was accepted.

Trotsky opposed the policy of entry into the Kuomintang, warning it would rob the communists of their political independence. He was not opposed to a more limited bloc around specific actions, for example against the imperialists who occupied key Chinese cities, but Stalin’s line was tantamount to building a common party with the political representatives of the bourgeoisie in which the specific voice of the communists would be lost. As Trotsky warned, this policy proved catastrophic, leading to the complete disorientation of the CCP on questions of perspectives, programme and tactics for the unfolding revolution.

Revolutionary upsurge

When British troops shot dead eleven workers on a demonstration in Shanghai in May 1925, this triggered a general strike and a revolutionary upsurge across China’s main cities. Millions of peasants also flooded into peasant associations which in many villages began to operate as embryonic soviets complete with armed militias. CCP membership rocketed from 1,000 to 20,000 in 1925, and then more than doubled the following year. New trade union organisations attracted millions of members.

The capitalist class and rural landowners whose sons were well represented in the officer corps of the Kuomintang armies grew fearful of the increasingly radical demands of the working class (for shorter work hours and against the terror regime in many factories) and the peasantry (for land reform and against the crushing taxes of the landlord class). These contradictions led to the first sharp clash between the Kuomintang leaders and the Communists in Guangzhou, where the Kuomintang set up a “national government” in July 1925. The Guangzhou working class had even prior to this established a de facto soviet (elected revolutionary workers’ council), which became known as the city’s “second government”.

In March 1926, Chiang staged a coup in Guangzhou, claiming to have uncovered a Communist plot to kidnap him. His scheme only succeeded because of the confusion in the leadership of the CCP as a result of their wrong perspectives and orientation. The workers’ Red Guards (not to be confused with the student groups during Mao’s Cultural Revolution) were disarmed and top communists were rounded up, including the Kuomintang’s Russian advisors. This occurred despite the presence of thousands of troops loyal to the CCP, not to mention hundreds of thousands of organised workers, thousands with arms.

Chiang established a military dictatorship in Guangzhou, ordering workers’ organisations to be disbanded. Incredibly, the Comintern did not raise a finger in protest. Stalin reiterated his position that the alliance with the Kuomintang must be preserved at all costs. Instead of organising workers to resist the coup, the CCP was told to make new concessions including a ban on CCP members holding top positions in the Kuomintang and army, and a requirement that all communications between the CCP and Moscow must pass through the Kuomintang headquarters.

Criminally, all news of the Guangzhou coup was suppressed within the communist movement internationally because of the embarrassment this would cause the Stalinist leadership. Western press reports of the coup were dismissed as “imperialist fabrications” designed to sow divisions between the CCP and the Kuomintang.

Warning from Guangzhou

Just days after the Guangzhou coup, the Comintern’s Executive Committee voted to admit the Kuomintang as a sympathising section, with one vote against – Trotsky’s. “In preparing himself for the role of an executioner”, Trotsky said, Chiang Kai-shek “wanted to have the cover of world communism – and he got it.”

Trotsky’s analysis and his struggle against Stalin’s disastrous China policy was unknown in China and the wider communist movement due to censorship imposed by the Stalinist machine in the name of ‘party discipline’.

Nevertheless, opposition to Stalin’s line now began to crystallise within the CCP. In June 1926, the party’s founder and chairperson Chen Duxiu won a majority within its leadership for a proposal to replace the party’s imprisonment inside the Kuomintang with a two-party bloc. This was forwarded to Moscow where it was rejected.

In February 1927, the workers of Shanghai rose up against the city’s warlord ruler Sun Chuanfan and through weeks of street fighting defeated his forces, calling a general strike and seizing control of the city’s main arteries such as the railway and printing presses. This victory was achieved well before Chiang Kai-shek’s ‘Northern Expedition’ armies reached the city. The workers’ organisations controlled the city, but this was not a sufficiently conscious movement.

What was necessary was to announce the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ government standing for immediate nationalisation of major enterprises, land reform, termination of foreign concessions, democratic rights and the formation of soviets across China. A special appeal should have been aimed at the rank and file soldiers in the Kuomintang-led army through the building of soldiers’ soviets allied to the workers and peasants. Tragically, no such call was issued because the CCP was trapped in the concept of an “all classes” movement under the leadership of the “revolutionary bourgeoisie”.

Rather than separate historical events or stages, revolution and counter-revolution are opposite sides of an unfolding process. This is why the working class needs a party with a clear programme and leadership to achieve socialism. The tragedy of the Chinese Revolution was that the workers were deprived of such leadership. The young Communist Party was a heroic force but it was not yet a Bolshevik party, and its potential to so develop was sabotaged by the policies foisted upon it by Stalin’s regime.

The Guangzhou events were a dress rehearsal for the much bloodier showdown in Shanghai one year later. Unfortunately, only one side was prepared for this: the capitalist counter-revolution. For the mass of workers and peasants and even their advanced layer the most important lessons of Guangzhou – the danger of counter-revolution and the programme and methods needed to fight it – had not been assimilated. Up to the moment when he struck his killer blow, Chiang Kai-shek was still presented in official communist propaganda as an ally and “leader of the revolution”.

For further reading on the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 we recommend:

Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938)

Leon Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution (1927-1931)

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