Max Shachtman

Introduction to Leon Trotsky’s
Problems of the Chinese Revolution

(April 1967)

Source: Introduction (dated April 1967) to Leon Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 1967.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxists’ Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Forty years have passed since the culmination of the Communist dispute over the Chinese revolution. With the republication of the present work, the student is more easily able to contrast the dominant Communist position expressed by Stalin and Bukharin with the dissenting position of Trotsky and Zinoviev in the 1926–28 period. That period ended disastrously for the Chinese Communists. But not for them alone. The entry of Russia and the Communist International into the Chinese civil war was their first massive intervention in the life and conflict of Asia. It ended in an equally massive defeat. Stalin found no great difficulty in exculpating himself from the full measure of responsibility for his contribution to this defeat. He simply applied the policy of pillorying innocent scapegoats and purging anyone who could call him to account – he was learning to keep his head by decapitating others. Under the circumstances Trotsky was reduced to arguing that while ‘it would be pedantry to contend that the Chinese Communist Party, had it pursued a Bolshevik policy in the revolution of 1925–27, would surely have come to power ... it is pitiful philistinism to contend that this possibility was entirely out of the question’ (see p. 127). [1] What does seem sure is that the fate suffered by the Chinese Communists could not have been worse had they followed Trotsky’s course instead of the one imposed by Stalin.

In any case, a reappraisal of the dispute should prove rewarding to anyone who, out of an interest in history, theory or politics, is concerned with the evolvement of the Bolshevik revolution, of the revolutions in China, of the Communist movement, and of the current in it which became the Trotskyist opposition.

More rewarding by far, however, is an examination which makes allowance for the events of the last four decades. These have not only radically altered the body, face and mind of Asia, but have inaugurated not less drastic changes in world-wide political relationships and problems. Pre-eminent among these events has been the Communist triumph in China. Despite Trotsky’s forebodings (and for that matter, Stalin’s, too) the Chinese Communists ‘surely have come to power’; and they have maintained it. They have at last united the nation into a sovereign power and brought it into the very centre of world politics. They have so vastly transformed the economic and political life of the people that the eyes of millions everywhere are now directed toward them. They are challenging the supremacy of the world’s greatest power and of the world’s greatest Communist power. These represent no small achievements. How much is appearance and how much is reality, how much reality and how much potentiality, how much is subject to change and to what changes – these questions, for all their vital importance, go beyond the scope set for this Foreword. It is intentionally limited to condensed comments on other aspects of Chinese Communism which, it is hoped, also have their importance.

The Chinese Communist Party was founded, in accordance with the tenets and traditions of Marxism, as a proletarian party. That its actual initiators were scholars, intellectuals and students is quite secondary in significance. The founders of socialist organisations in most of the Western and industrial countries fell into the same category. But in virtually all cases it was recognised that the working class is the natural and indispensable basis of the socialist struggle and that without its decisive participation socialism could never become an effective political movement, let alone a victorious one. So it was in the international Communist movement. So it was with its Chinese section; and it was not long in establishing a wide and strong support among the young but vigorous Chinese proletariat.

The calamitous defeat of the Communists in 1927–28 became the point of departure for a fundamental change of lasting significance. The disastrous adventure of the Canton ‘soviet’ uprising at the end of 1927 was preceded or followed, for several years, by a series of equally hopeless putsches, in Nanchang, in Swatow, in Changsha, and in not a few other localities. They differed from the attempt in Canton mainly in that they were tried at points increasingly removed from the principal industrial and commercial, and therefore political and proletarian, centres of the country. Whatever working-class make-up the Chinese Communist Party had acquired in the period of its first big rise dwindled almost to the vanishing point. It is important to record that from 1928 onward, down to the very eve of the consolidation of Communist power, the Chinese working class of the cities took no part and played no role in the revolutionary and military activities of the Communist movement. In other words the Chinese Communist revolution triumphed without the Chinese working class. This alone voids the Maoist claim of fidelity to Marxism.

To make the triumph possible, a thoroughgoing transformation of the Chinese Communist Party was required. In 1925–26, according to T’an P’ing-shan, peasants comprised only five per cent of the party’s membership. In those days, this could not be considered abnormal for a Communist party, especially in an overwhelmingly agrarian country. It was probably no greater or not much greater than the corresponding percentage in the Communist parties of such countries as, say, Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria or Yugoslavia. But as early as November 1928, 70 to 80 per cent of the party membership was made up of peasants. And by 1930, Chou En-lai reported to the September plenary meeting of the Central Committee that out of a total membership of 120,000, ‘the industrial worker-members only number a little more than 2,000’.

Even where reliable figures are not available for succeeding years, there are more than enough other indications that the Communist Party remained a preponderantly peasant party until the eve of its final victory, that is, when it swept its way from the village to the city.

As far back as 1928 Trotsky had expressed his dismay about the social transformation of the Chinese party, and called it a ‘menacing process’ (see p. 154): ‘... it is only one form of the dissolution and the liquidation of the Communist Party of China, for, by losing its proletarian nucleus, it ceases to be in conformity with its historical destination.’ [2] It is of interest to note that this judgement was not peculiarly ‘Trotskyist’. In that period the ideas of a Communist-party-of-peasants was quite unacceptable even to the Chinese Communist leaders. They expressed their rejection of the idea, which as early as 1927 seemed to be represented by Mao Tse-tung during his partisan activities in Hunan, in a resolution (November 1927) denouncing it as ‘erroneous to make light of the strength of the workers and to regard them as no more than helpmates of the peasants’, and insisting that the relationship between the two classes in the revolution ought to be exactly the reverse. For several years, especially in the period of the leadership of Li Li-san (who was to be displaced by Mao), this conflict continued among the Chinese Communists. But however insistent the emphasis by the pre-Maoist leadership on the need of a working-class base and field of action for the party, its support in the proletariat and in the cities effectively disappeared and its agrarian membership composition became increasingly overwhelming. The artisan of this profound transformation of the party was Mao Tse-tung. It proved to be, in the end, not less important than all his theories on the art and practice of revolutionary guerrilla warfare.

Another change undergone by Chinese Communism during the rise of Mao in the revolution was related to the question of soviets. And although this change did not have the same importance as the one relating to the party’s social composition, it did have a similar significance.

Soviets – representative elected councils of workers’ and peasants’ (or soldiers’) deputies – appeared in both Russian revolutions in 1905 and in 1917, as popular institutions for the organising of revolutionary uprising and then as the basic units of the new revolutionary state. It would be dogmatic to state that never again in the future will they play the role in another land that they played in Russia in 1917. The fact remains, however, that nowhere else in the world have they played that role in the past 50 years: not in the German and Austrian revolutions of 1918; not even in the Bavarian and Hungarian ‘soviet’ republics of 1919, where soviet was more a label than a reality, to the extent that it was a reality at all; and not a significant role throughout the history of the Chinese revolution.

It is, of course, true that the regimes established in various provinces to which Chinese Communist forces withdrew after the 1927 defeat were designated by them as ‘soviet’. However, they bore little resemblance beyond the nominal one to the soviets of the Bolshevik revolution. The whole theory of soviets in the original Communist movement, including its restatement for the backward, or colonial or semi-colonial countries by Lenin at the Second Comintern Congress in 1920, presupposed not only a revolutionary situation, but the political and social leadership of peasant soviets by worker soviets in the cities.

That is exactly how it worked out in the case of the Bolsheviks. They won their decisive victory among workers in practically all the important industrial centres of the country. They won it in the workers’ soviets, in the course of a fair-and-square political contest with all the other parties. With these soviets as the basis of their strength and operations, they consolidated the victory by winning the allegiance of the peasants’ soviets.

Nothing of the sort took place in China. After the 1927 disaster, the Chinese Communists retreated to the village with only a vanishing basis in the cities. The agrarian regions to which they moved were the remoter and more backward areas, the areas of minimal political interest and minimal national conceptions or understanding. The Long March to Yenan, that utterly amazing feat, so singular in world history, was a retreat from politically and economically backward regions to even more backward regions.

‘Soviets’ or ‘provisional soviet governments’ were set up wherever the Communist military forces moved in. There is no doubt that the population in these ‘sovietised’ areas gained a greater feeling of participation in political and even economic life than ever before and was stimulated to a stronger national sentiment. There is no doubt at all that there was an alleviation of its onerous tax, rent and debt burdens. But it had little to do with the important and comprehensive political or military decisions. These were always taken and enforced by the Communists or, more exactly (if party documents of the time are closely examined), by the party’s military hierarchy. Soviets as the democratic political organs of the people, combining legislative and executive powers – that is how they were originally conceived and propagated by Lenin – never existed in China.

Whether they were reality or only façade receives a sufficiently clear answer in the Communist statement on cooperation with the Kuomintang regime and army against the Japanese military intervention in 1937. On 22 September 1937, the Chinese Communist Party (not the ‘Soviet government’ in Yenan, but the Communist leaders) announced that it ‘abolishes the present Soviet government’ and ‘abolishes the designation of the Red Army’. By similar strokes of the pen, and without popular consultation, the name of the ‘Soviet government’ was changed to the ‘Shensi-Kansu-Ninghsia Border Region Government’; the Red Army was renamed the ‘Eighth Route Army’; and even the Marx–Lenin Institute in Yenan was changed to the ‘Lu-hsun Academy’. These redesignations produced no change in government, military or academic leadership and structure, no real political or economic change for the population itself. The complete control exercised by the party remained intact. This alone, not to mention that nothing that even bears the name soviet exists in China today, voids the Maoist claim of fidelity to ‘Leninism’. Incorporated into the founding doctrine of the Communist International was the insistence on soviets as the only road to Communist power and the only form of Communist rule.

Nevertheless, and despite the fact that they flouted and discarded what had till then been considered inviolable Communist doctrine, the Chinese Communists did succeed in taking power. They did establish a new revolutionary state on a national scale. They did wipe out the humble and humiliating position in world affairs to which the imperialist powers and its own old ruling classes had reduced the country. In the face of such success, criticism may seem to be of interest only to academic and doctrinaire disputants.

Whether the theories and policies of the early Communist International, or of Lenin, were or were not applicable to the revolution in China, were or were not religiously applied by the Chinese Communists, is a matter of restricted importance. Whether or not Mao triumphed because he pursued Trotsky’s policies, more or less, or whether or not he now bears the same relation to Moscow that Trotsky bore to Stalin – again, more or less – is likewise of small importance. More than these things is involved in the development of the Maoist revolution. What is mainly involved is of superior importance not only to China but to the great majority of the inhabitants of our globe, the people who seem to be divided by a widening, not narrowing, gap from the minority of the world’s population who live in the economically favoured nations.

At the heart of Trotsky’s original theory of the Russian revolution – the theory of the permanent revolution – was the view that backward, semi-feudal, autocratic Russia would not have to go through all the stages of capitalist development known to the modern Western world. It would fall to the small but highly concentrated Russian proletariat, leading the peasantry, to perform all the tasks of the classical bourgeois revolution. In doing so it would have to lay the foundations for a socialist development under a proletarian dictatorship. The Western European stage of an organic and long-lasting capitalist evolution would be skipped in Russia. During the early days of the Communist International, Lenin supplemented this concept, even if somewhat hesitantly and with modifications, with the idea that entirely agrarian countries of the East, even more backward than Russia, could by revolution in Soviet form skip over the stage of capitalism and proceed directly from a pre-capitalist economy to socialism.

Communist China is now regarded, not only by its leaders, but in wide circles of non-Communists as well, as the confirmation and realisation of this audacious idea. Its influence in the countries of the ‘Third World’ is unmistakable and pronounced. It is in relation to this belief that the two aspects of the Maoist revolution noted above – the non-proletarian ‘Communist’ revolution and the absence of soviets – acquire their real importance.

In justice to the Lenin of 1920, at least three points might well be borne in mind: he looked at the possibility of a soviet development in the agrarian East from the standpoint of leadership by the revolutionary workers’ state of Russia; he still looked at the prospects for a socialist development in Russia primarily from the standpoint of an imminent victory of revolutionary socialism in the advanced countries of West Europe which alone would give substance and sweep to socialism in Russia; and he was not even thinking in terms of the far-reaching economic concessions to capitalism in Russia which he felt obliged to inaugurate a year later in the New Economic Policy. Justice demands no such extenuations for the Maoist regime or its doctrines.

Mao’s party and army of peasants carried him to power with great popular support. It should be noted that Mao was able to break out of the paralysing isolation in the hinterlands and mountain caves of Yenan only with the start of the Sino-Japanese war. The brutalisation and intense exploitation of the peasantry by an alien military power created exceptionally favourable soil for the growth of a brave and aggressive revolutionary party astute enough to identify itself almost exclusively with the cause of national liberation – not with a new social order. Once victorious in the field of arms, the peasantry proved for the hundredth time in modern history that it cannot organise and maintain its own national state and national economy – especially a modern economy – on the basis of its own parochial conceptions, interests and aspirations.

In the absence of soviets, or of any other representative bodies, parliamentary or industrial, the workers were in no position to rule the new state or to organise its economic life. The Communist Party of peasants was not a workers’ party, but neither was it a peasants’ party, except in so far as they made up its troops. It was a military-bureaucratic party, with a hierarchy drawn mainly from the middle classes. The economic experiment that it made in industrialisation and modernisation of the new nation was undertaken fundamentally within the conception, laudable in abstracto, of skipping capitalism and the exploitation of labour inherent in it. Here rose the difficulty that still besets it.

Diversified modernisation, especially in a big country that has never known it, requires capital in vast amounts. Capital is the product of exploited, accumulated, congealed labour, which is attended by a modern, skilled working class, on the one side, and trained administrators and managers on the other.

The new China had and still has little of its own in any of these categories. But it did have a choice. While carefully maintaining its national sovereignty and integrity, it could invite capital from the modern lands which overflow with it. This would entail the guarantee of a reasonable profit to the invited capital. For the assistance in modernising its economy it would then have to pay a limited tribute, but a tribute nevertheless, to foreign capital. Among other things, it would have to modify the modern passion for instantaneous and universal nationalisation and military command over the entire economy of a country – root, trunk, branch and leaf. To the more tender radical ear, this choice – paying tribute to foreign capital – would seem closer to treason than to heresy. Yet Lenin, who was as radical as need be, found in 1921 that precisely this was necessary and correct for revolutionary Russia. The Bolsheviks learned that capitalism could be ‘skipped’ but only in a distinctly circumscribed, almost Pickwickian, sense.

The other choice was the one actually made, first, in Stalinist Russia and later in Maoist China. Modernisation was undertaken not with the aid of capital derived from exploitation of labour in the past and elsewhere, but by means of an extraordinarily harsh exploitation of living indigenous labour in field and factory. This demands a regime which does not brook the slightest resistance from the producer, and which accordingly does not permit the existence of any of the political rights or social institutions by means of which this resistance might be expressed, organised and asserted. All political and economic power is then the exclusive property of an élite of political hierarchs. It delegates the necessary administrative powers to the immediate supervisors, organisers and directors of the economy under conditions which remove them from all possibility of democratic control.

As Russia has shown, it is quite possible in this way to promote the industrialisation of the economy. The price paid is in the maintenance of an autocratic privileged class at the top and an exploitation and disfranchisement at the bottom unrelieved by the existence of any of the rights required for dissent and resistance. The ‘tribute’ exacted in this choice is extraordinarily iniquitous, both in economic terms and in terms of spiritual or human degradation.

It may be acknowledged that all this allows a country to ‘skip’ the stage of capitalist exploitation, even though the socialist victory in advanced Europe and America, which Engels foresaw and Lenin and Trotsky expected, has not, or has not yet, occurred. But it also suggests that there is no skipping of a form of exploitation which, while not capitalist, is not one whit less, and quite often more, oppressive. What this has in common with socialism and its ideals is a mystery. More simply and accurately, it is the new ideological mystification of our time.

* * *

The first American edition of the following collection of writings on the Chinese revolution appeared more than a third of a century ago. Like most of Trotsky’s critical writings of the period, the present work had only a small and declining effect upon the thinking of the Communist audience to which it was directed. In that world it was known almost exclusively in the form of the emasculated or simply falsified excerpts in which it was presented by the official Communist polemics. The full original texts, with few exceptions, were known inside Russia only in the form of multigraphed or multityped documents which had a fugitive distribution among a few thousand party members, at the most, up to 1928–29. After that, all of Trotsky’s writings were prohibited and have ever since been unavailable and unknown. In China, the country most concerned, a few of the writings became known for a brief period after they were made the point of departure for the pro-Trotskyist position which Chen Tu-hsiu, founder and leader of Chinese Communism, suddenly adopted after the party’s defeat. His conversion had only minor consequences. Early in the 1940s a Chinese Trotskyist, M.Y. Wang, translated and published the present volume, together with more than a score of Trotsky’s later writings on the subject up to the year 1940. But it may be doubted that this Shanghai edition circulated widely. In any case, the efforts to establish a significant Trotskyist movement in China on the basis of it were without fruit. Outside the two countries most involved, Trotsky’s writings were translated and scatteringly published by oppositional Communists in Germany and France. The more comprehensive American edition made a profound impression upon Trotsky’s followers in that period; the introduction to the first edition may be regarded as a typical example of this. [3]

That edition, which was limited enough, was soon out of print. It has been available for a good three decades only in a small number of public or private libraries. This presented a difficulty to the reader interested in any of the aspects of the subject dealt with. The difficulty is now removed by the present publication. The value of the documentation represented by Trotsky’s polemical work on the Chinese revolution, and the problems associated with it, will not be questioned by the serious student.


1. See Leon Trotsky, The Canton InsurrectionMIA.

2. See Leon Trotsky, The Chinese Question After the Sixth CongressMIA.

3. This introduction was written by Shachtman, see Max Shachtman, Introduction to Leon Trotsky’s Problems of the Chinese Revolution (1931) – MIA.

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