The 1925-7 Revolution

The Chinese revolution, particularly the revolution of 1925-27, is one of the greatest events in the whole history of mankind. Here was a people kept virtually at the level of pack animals, the most despised elements as far as imperialism was concerned, who did the work of beasts, and were considered very often to be of less value than beasts. Yet it was these people who stepped onto the scenes of history in a magnificent movement between 1925 and 1927, which if successful would have transformed China and saved the Chinese people the agonies of the following 22 years. It would in turn have altered the whole face of the globe. World history would have taken an entirely different course.

The Role of Imperialism

On the eve of the revolution of 1925-27, China was an extremely backward society that had not completed what Marxists call the tasks of the capitalist revolution:

i) a thoroughgoing land reform giving land to the peasants, which in turn could create an internal market;

ii) the freeing of the productive forces from the stranglehold exercised over the colonial and semi-colonial world by imperialism;

iii) the unification of the country and development of the nation along modern lines.

These are the tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution which were carries out in Britain in the 17th century, and completed in the advanced capitalist world roughly between 1779-1879. China and most of the colonial and semi-colonial world had not been able to carry through these tasks.

China in 1925 was a nation of 400-500 million people with the great majority of the population living off the land. Fifty-five percent of the population was landless laborers. About 20 percent had narrow strips of land from which it was impossible to get any real living. On the other hand, about 65 percent of the cultivatable land was possessed by between 10 percent and 19 percent of the population.

The whole history of China has shown that the colossal revolts of the Chinese peasantry, finding no leader in the cities, were unable to guarantee the carrying through of land reform. Each movement ended with the establishment of a new dynasty. On the other hand, imperialism exercised an iron grip over all of the main levers of economic power. Half of the largest industry – cotton – was controlled by imperialist powers. One third of the railways were directly controlled, and the rest indirectly controlled, through the mortgages held over them by the imperialist monopolies. Half of the shipping in Chinese waters was controlled by imperialism, which carried 80 percent of China’s foreign trade. All the features of backwardness we see today in Africa, Asia and Latin America existed in China at that time.

The history of the conquest of China is as bloody as the history of imperialism in the rest of the world. In contrast to the attitude adopted by the ruling class, today, at least in words, towards drugs, a number of wars were fought between 1840 and 1858 to perpetuate the importation of opium into China. The people were forced to accept opium as payments for their goods. All the silver in China was drained away through the opium trade. This brought about a rather paradoxical development in the middle of the 19th century with the revolt of the Taiping peasantry. This movement of the peasantry had semi-Christian overtones and was initially greeted sympathetically by Chinese missionaries. However, once it came into opposition with the opium trade, that was sufficient for imperialism to come out against the rebellion and back up the Manchu dynasty.

The history of the conquest of China is firstly of gunboat diplomacy – the conquering of different territories of China which became spheres of influence of the imperialist powers. Added to that was the racialist abuse and contempt in which the Chinese masses were held by imperialism. In 1925 one could read, in the so-called ‘foreign concessions’ of Canton and Shanghai, the following notice outside restaurants – ‘no dogs or Chinese allowed in this restaurant’.

Who could carry through the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution? This is one of the most important questions for any socialist, not only in approaching the history of the Chinese revolution, but also the developments in the colonial world today. At the time of the Chinese revolution it was not just a theoretical question, it was a life and death question.

The Role of the Peasantry

The revolution in Russia in 1917 had shown that the tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution could not be carried out by the peasantry. By its very nature the peasantry is split up into different layers. The upper layers merge with the capitalists, the lower layers sink more and more into the ranks of the working class.

Throughout history the peasantry, tied to its small plot of land, has had a very narrow horizon, moreover because it is so heterogeneous it always looks toward the urban classes for leadership. In the modern epoch it is either the capitalists or the working class which provides the lead. If the capitalists lead the peasantry a classical bourgeois development results. The fascists in the advanced capitalist world actively used the peasant masses along with the middle class in Germany and in Italy to create a mass base in order to smash the working class. The Russian bourgeoisie came too late onto the scene, was afraid of the power of the working class, and was incapable of carrying through the tasks of their own revolution.

The Land Question

In 1925-27 the Chinese landlords and capitalists were hardly distinguishable from one another. A thoroughgoing land reform – which was the main feature of the capitalist democratic revolution – could therefore only be carried out against the so-called national capitalists by the working class leading the mass of the peasant population. Having done that, as the experience of the October Revolution showed, the working class would then go over to the socialist tasks of the revolution.

The objection could be raised that China was far too backward to carry through a revolution similar to that in Russia. However, the specific features of Chinese society showed an amazing parallel with Russian society, particularly in the capacity and role of the working class. At the time of the 1905 revolution the industrial working class in Russia was no more than one and a half million workers, and yet they led about nine million people in the urban areas.

In 1917, they in turn were able to lead the overwhelming majority of the population of Russia – the peasants – to carry through the revolution. The development of the working class in China was a more powerful movement, a more inspiring movement in many ways, than even the Russian revolution itself.

The Development of the Chinese Working Class

The industrial working class in China only really developed in the course of the first world war and afterwards. The first modern unions in China were created in 1918 but in the space of six years three million workers swelled the ranks of the general labor unions. Enormous movements were conducted on the question of hours, wages and conditions. Even more significantly, this young working class launched political strikes within one year if 1918 and shook imperialism to its foundations. In 1926-27 in Shanghai it staged a victorious insurrection. Within the space of seven years, two million industrial workers in the cities led behind them ten million coolies, transport workers and other workers involved in trade in the cities.

The Bolshevik Party in Russia was created in two decades of heroic underground struggle. In contrast, the Communist Party in China was created in the first socialist circles in 1919-20. The total membership of the Communist Party at its foundation on 1921 was 51. Even as late as 1923 total membership of Communist Party was 432. Yet by 1927, 60,000 workers were in the Communist Party. There are very few examples of such a lighting development in the whole history of the labor movement internationally. An enormous movement of the working class developed and, unlike the British or German working class, it was not weighed down by an enormous conservative officialdom. It showed tremendous initiative and combativeness, not only on the questions of wages and jobs, but was also the main force in the struggles against imperialism.

All the conditions existed for a movement that could have successfully carried through the revolution. What stood in the way of the working class was not the objective situation, or the relationship of forces but, paradoxically, the very organizations which the Chinese working class had themselves so painfully created.

The Communist International Degenerates

The Russian revolution degenerated from about 19223 onwards, which coincided with the decisive period for the development for the Chinese revolution. The political degeneration of sections of the leadership of the Russian Communist Party and the Communist International in turn affected the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.

The leadership of the Communist International increasingly looked towards the incipient colonial capitalists, leaning on them rather than encouraging the independent development of the labor movement and the Communist Party. They abandoned an independent revolutionary and socialist policy internationally. This was paralleled in the advanced capitalist countries by a policy which looked towards the tops of the labor and trade union movement rather than the working class, seeking a short cut to the revolution through diplomacy and maneuvering with the labor and trade union leaders. In Britain this led to disaster when the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia linked up with the General Council of the TUC thus guaranteeing the wrecking of the 1926 General Strike.

In China in the first period of its existence, the Communist Party had ploughed an independent furrow, gaining a powerful position in the developing labor movement and the trade unions. But by 1924 the line of the Chinese Communist Party had proposed a bloc with the capitalist nationalist organization – the Kuomintang – in the struggle against imperialism. By 1924 the leader of the Kuomintang, Sun Yat-sen, was being offered enormous material support from Russia, and the Communist Party was ordered to subordinate itself to the Kuomintang. This had disastrous consequences for the Chinese revolution.

Stalin, Bukharin and the other leaders of the bureaucracy which was developing in Russia justified this policy on the basis of a ‘bloc of four classes’ – the workers, the national capitalists, the peasantry and the urban petit bourgeois. The history of Russia had shown that the capitalists were incapable of carrying through the tasks of their own national capitalist democratic revolution. This was even more so in China where the Kuomintang, led by Sun Yat-sen, had the opportunity, following the revolution of 1911 and the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty, to carry through the tasks of their own revolution. They were incapable of doing that because they were linked to the perpetuation of feudal and semi-feudal land relationships existing in the countryside. In reality Stalin’s policy was a re-creation on Chinese soil of the ideas of the Mensheviks. The latter who put forward the conception in Russia that the way for the capitalist democratic revolution to be carried through was to link up with the so-called ‘progressive bourgeois’.

A theory of stages was advanced: first establish capitalist democracy, and then – as the music of a vague and distant future – the socialist tasks will be posed once the working class has developed. Trotsky had counterpoised this to the theory of the permanent revolution. This states that the capitalist democratic revolution can only be carried through by the working class leading the peasant masses behind them. The formula of a ‘bloc of four classes’ was to lead to absolute catastrophe in China – to the beheading of the Chinese working class.

The Chinese revolution of 1925, the second Chinese revolution to be exact, really began in the aftermath of the First World War. On May 4th 1919, the students in the main cities of China rose against the Peking government (which was really a stooge of Japanese imperialism) and against the exactions of China under the terms of the Versailles Treaty.

The students joined up with the working class in an enormous movement which developed between 1919 and 1924-25. The whole period was a gigantic movement of the working class to improve their living standards, jobs, hours, education, etc. The slogan of an eight-hour day had an electrifying effect on the Chinese working class because of the terrible conditions in which they existed.

At the same time the Kuomintang, which between 1911 and 1919 had sunk into a state of complete disrepair, was given a boost and became a sizeable organization. With the support of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow it became a powerful force. It is very often forgotten that the capitalist Kuomintang was actually financed and militarily trained by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Chiang Kai-shek went to Russia in 1923. The Russian adviser to the Kuomintang singled him out to become the military leader of the Kuomintang and to head the Whampoa military academy that was set up in 1924.

The Revolution Begins

The revolution began in 1919, but the event that really sparked off the enormous movement of the working class was the shooting down of a demonstration of students and workers by British and French machine gunners on June 23, 1925. This provocation triggered off an explosion that had been gathering in the previous period. The workers of Canton and Hong Kong came out in a huge strike which lasted for about 16 months, and a paralyzed imperialism throughout the whole of China. This movement – a strike and the boycott of French goods, and of British goods in particular – was so complete that 100,000 Chinese workers moved from Hong Kong to Canton, where the workers were the real power. They cleared out the opium dens, closed down gambling joints, improvised an embryonic soviet in Canton (although the movement was not as had developed in Hong Kong where imperialism had a stranglehold).

A unique opportunity existed for the Communist Party. The independent movement of the working class began to change the relationship of forces in China in favor of the working class. But, the Communist Party deliberately subordinated themselves to the Kuomintang and to Chiang Kai-shek. Gradually the gains that the working class had so painfully acquired in the course of the events of 1925 were encroached upon. The counterrevolution more and more gained ground using the gangsters of Canton and Hong Kong to crush the labor movement. At this stage the slogan of the Communist Party in China, and of the Comintern under the direction of Stalin and Bukharin was ‘full support to the revolutionary Kuomintang’. The Kuomintang was accepted as a sympathetic section of the Communist International in 1926.

This movement in the cities in 1925, in Canton in particular, was paralleled by an equally splendid movement amongst the peasantry as well.

The Shanghai working class was also looking expectantly towards the movement in Canton. With the correct leadership, this would have lead to the success of the Chinese revolution. Tragically, that did not happen, because the Chinese Communist Party subordinated itself to the Kuomintang while Chiang Kai-shek gathered the reins of power in his hands.

After 1923, Trotsky opposed the entry of the Communist Party into the Kuomintang. He stood for the complete independence of the Communist Party from the Kuomintang. He was not opposed to a limited bloc on specific anti-imperialist action. There was nothing in principle against a bloc between a workers’ organization and a capitalist nationalist organization on specific questions. But, argued Trotsky, the Communist Party should not have subordinated itself to the Kuomintang. It was quite wrong to foster illusions in Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang leadership, calling it the ‘revolutionary Kuomintang’ and the ‘vehicle for carrying through the Chinese revolution’.

On March 20, 1926, Chiang Kai-shek acted to crush the working class. Workers’ organizations were closed down, workers’ leaders were arrested. About 300 Communist Party members were subsequently shot. Yet the Communist Party never raised its voice in protest until events in Shanghai a month later. All the gains that the working class had made in the preceding years were taken away and a military dictatorship established in Canton. Even in the face of all this the Communist Party still refused to denounce the Kuomintang.

Chen Tu-hsiu, the founder and father of Chinese Communism, had gone along with the strategy of subordination to the Kuomintang before 1925, but after the experiences of 1926 in Canton, he argued for the Communist Party to develop an independent strategy of mobilizing workers and peasants against the Kuomintang to take power. From Moscow, Bukharin and Stalin insisted on continued subordination to the Kuomintang.

The Communist International covered up what had happened in Canton, hiding the fact that the workers’ organizations had been beheaded. The movement of the Chinese working class in Canton and Hong Kong wound up in October 1926, when the Hong Kong strike came to an end. The workers went back without any of their demands being accepted.

Following these events, the Kuomintang leadership argued in July 1926 for a northern expedition, a march towards Shanghai in particular, in order to clear out the warlords in Northern China. From the outset, they had a certain success because the Communist Party provided the military and the political backbone of the Kuomintang – the cadres who went to work amongst the workers and peasants. As a result of their propaganda, together with the advance of the Kuomintang armies to the North, an uprising of the peasantry developed.

The Kuomintang was therefore identified in the eyes of the peasantry as the force which would give them the land, thus ending once and for all the age-old cycle in Chinese society of revolts that only ended with a new dynasty and further exploitation. When the Kuomintang armies advanced, enormous movements of the peasantry took place, paralyzing the armies of the warlords.

Landlords were brought before mass meetings of peasants and dunce hats were put on their heads. They were stood on chairs like naughty children in school. Very few of the landlords were executed, but their land was taken away from them. But as soon as the Kuomintang army conquered an area or a city, the same thing happened as in Canton before. The peasant leaders were arrested, the land was returned to the landlords, the workers were disarmed and all the democratic rights which they had won were taken away from them. Once the real role of the Kuomintang was revealed the further advance of the Kuomintang armies was delayed. The peasants and the workers saw they were not going to benefit. It was only in those areas where the Kuomintang armies were led primarily by Communist Party troops and Communist Party members that the Kuomintang armies advanced rapidly. There the land was given to the peasants and the factories to the workers.

Shanghai Uprising

One of the most important developments in the Chinese revolution was undoubtedly the heroic and enormous movements of the proletariat in Shanghai in 1927. The northern expedition reached the gates of that city by January or February. When the first detachments of the Kuomintang were 25 miles form Shanghai, the trade unions there, particularly the General Labor Union, called for the workers to come out in a general strike on February 19.

The Kuomintang leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and his acolytes deliberately halted the Kuomintang armies at the gates of Shanghai in order to give the capitalists and the northern warlords the opportunity to behead and crush these workers’ organizations. The Kuomintang could then peacefully occupy the city. On February 19 approximately 350,000 workers answered the call for a general strike. Then, however, the detachments of the northern warlords went out into the city, joined by the imperialists from the foreign concessions of Shanghai, and shot down demonstrating workers.

A worker found reading a leaflet was immediately beheaded and his head put on a stake and paraded through the city in order to terrorize the Shanghai working class. A reign of terror ensued in the following week. Yet the Kuomintang armies refused to go into the city. Instead they waited for the Chinese capitalists to crush the workers. There was a pause, then on March 21 at least 500 workers were executed. This was not sufficient to cow the Shanghai working class, who responded with a movement as heroic as that of the immortal Barcelona workers of 1936.

The Shanghai working class rose in a magnificent movement on March 21, 1927, when about 800,000 workers came out onto the streets. They improvised an army of 5,000 workers. Armed with a few pistols, mostly with bare hands, they marched against the barracks and against the troops of the northern warlords and smashed them. Responding to this magnificent uprising, the First Division of the Kuomintang – seasoned troops largely influenced by the Communist Party – decided that they would delay no longer and marched into Shanghai in defense of Chiang Kai-shek’s orders. The leader of the First Division was a general who looked towards the Communist Party. In the main working class areas the northern armies were smashed. The whole of Shanghai was in the hands of the working class within two or three days. Only then did the Kuomintang armies as a whole march into Shanghai itself. Secretly, on the outskirts of Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek met with gangsters and representatives of the imperialist powers. Together they discussed a program of repression to crush the workers’ movement in the city.

Despite the experience of Canton 12 months before, the Communist Party again reinforced the illusions of the Shanghai workers in the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek, with calls of ‘Long live the heroic general! Long live the Kuomintang army!’ Had the Communist Party based themselves on an independent movement of the working class, they could have taken power. The police had been smashed, and the policing of Shanghai was under workers’ control. The trade unions in effect controlled Shanghai and the working class was in the majority, yet the trade unions and Communist Party formed a coalition with the capitalist party – the Kuomintang. Of the 19 representatives in the government, the Communist Party had only 5.

Chiang Prepares His Coup

In the first period, Chiang Kai-shek did not have enough sufficiently reliable troops in Shanghai. He had about 3,000 troops whereas the First Division of the Kuomintang army was fraternizing with the workers. Trotsky, without a knowledge of all the details argued that the Chinese Communist Party must put forward the slogan of soviets – organizations which really represented the working class – in the peasant areas and the industrial areas.

The Shanghai working class improvised embryonic soviets. Every 50 workers sent a delegate to a central organization. All that was needed was to make conscious the power of the Chinese working class, to imbue them with a sense of their own power, then Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang would have been left suspended in mid air. Instead of that, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang were able to openly prepare for a coup. The press in Shanghai gave many examples of this.

Within a week Chiang Kai-shek had closed down the General Labor Union, and had set up so-called new ‘unions’, which were really organizations of the Kuomintang, based on gangsters. Nevertheless, the power of the working class was still intact. What existed in Shanghai at this stage was dual power. The Kuomintang power was really suspended in mid air and could have been pushed aside by the movement of the Chinese working class. On the other hand the working class in Shanghai had real dual power through their own organizations.

The preparation for a coup was very swift. The insurrection took place on March 21 and within a week open measures of counterrevolution were being prepared. Assassinations of workers’ leaders were carried out and Kuomintang troops attacked workers’ organizations.

On the eve of the coup a very important development took place. Chiang Kai-shek knew that he did not b=have any reliable troops in Shanghai. He therefore ordered the commander of the First Division to move his troops out of Shanghai. The commander of this army approached the leaders of the Communist Party and asked, ‘What shall I do? I am prepared to stay here and fight Chiang Kai-shek, arrest Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang leaders.’ This would, in effect, have given complete power to the working class in Shanghai.

The Communist Party leaders and Borodin (the representative of Stalin in China) pondered, hesitated and prevaricated for a period of 48 hours. The Communist Party eventually instructed the army commander to obey Chiang Kai-shek’s orders, and the First Division was withdrawn from Shanghai. The basis had first been laid for the massacre of the Shanghai working class.

There are very important lessons to be learned for today from this incident. Similar developments took place in the Portuguese revolution and in Chile, where sections of the army and police actually approached the Popular Front government and asked what they should do to prevent a coup. In Chile the Communist Party and the Socialist Party leaders did exactly the same thing as in China. In China, had the Communist Party given the First Division general a clear lead, they could have probably won him over, together with other army leaders. But because of their cowardice and their perfidious role, that same general marched against Canton and hunted down the Red Army between 1930-34. This general, and many officers, could have been won over to the side of the working class, but because decisive leadership was not shown by the Communist Party, they went over to the side of the Kuomintang.

The blow was struck on April 12, 1927. The Kuomintang troops used all the dirty tricks of the capitalists. When they attacked one workers’ headquarters in Shanghai, these Green gangsters dressed up in workers’ blue denim overalls. Kuomintang troops came along to ‘mediate’. Once inside the headquarters, the troops lined up the workers against the wall and shot them. The workers were taken unawares because they had been told that the Kuomintang troops were on their side.

In the days preceding the coup of April 12, the General Labor Union had actually warned that a coup was being prepared and that a general strike should be organized. Never once was the fountainhead of the counterrevolution – Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang leaders – mentioned by the Communist Party or the workers’ leaders of Shanghai. Therefore when the blow fell it came from an entirely unexpected quarter. The workers of Shanghai put up heroic resistance against overwhelming military odds, and fought to the last man and woman.

The Shanghai working class was crushed in blood. An estimated 35,000 workers, many of them Communist Party members, were killed in Shanghai alone between April 12 and the end of 1927.

So ignominious, cowardly and unprepared were the leaders of the Communist Party that Chou En-lai (who subsequently became one of the leaders of the Red Army) was in the headquarters of the General Labor Union, when the attack came. He managed to escape, but went straight to the headquarters of the Second Division of the Kuomintang Army demanding to know what was going on and insisting there must be some mistake.

The defeat of the Shanghai working class in 1927 meant the crushing of the Chinese working class for a whole historical era, but it was not the end of the matter. There were the beginnings of movements in Hunan and Hupei, the other two important provinces of China where the peasantry, and the working class, had begun to move into action. Even at this stage, if the Communist Party and the leaders of the Comintern had been prepared to learn from the lessons of Shanghai, it would have been possible, perhaps at the eleventh hour, to change the balance of forces in China in favor of the working class. The final nail in the coffin of the Second Chinese revolution was hammered home in December 1927. The revolution was on the ebb, and the Communist Party staged a putsch in Canton that was bloodily repressed. The American Consul described the aftermath of the Canton rising:

Execution squads patrolled the streets, and on finding a suspect, they questioned him, examined his neck for telltale red (from wearing red neckerchiefs). If found, they then ordered the victim to open his mouth, thrust a revolver into it, and another came to the end of his Communist venture.

Thus, the flower of the Chinese working class in Shanghai, Canton and other cities was annihilated. The way was prepared for more than a decade of ruthless dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek. The scene of struggle shifted from the working class in the cities to peasant-based guerilla war.

Peter Taaffe, 1980