As the title of this journal suggests,
its mission is to capture the complex reality of todays China from a variety
of perspectives. But, the present having its roots in the past, this approach
should not exclude an occasional looking back on what was, to reveal hitherto
hidden or less well known episodes in Chinas recent history. In this respect
the tumultuous careers of two leading figures in the Chinese Trotskyist movement,
Peng Shuzhi and Chen Bilan, are of particular interest. It therefore seemed appropriate,
now that their ashes have found a final resting place in Paris, to invite Cheng
Yingxiang and Claude Cadart, their daughter and son-in-law, to give us their assessment
of this revolutionary couple whose lives practically spanned the history of 20th-century
|Cheng Yingxiang and Claude Cadart|
Once prominent figures of the Chinese communist movement
in its heroic early period (1927-28); of the Chinese Trotskyist movement (1928-1947);
and then later, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, of international Trotskyism, Peng Shuzhi
and Chen Bilan died some years agoPeng on November 28th 1983, in Los Angeles,
aged 88; Chen on September 6th 1987, in Hong Kong, aged 85. Yet it was only recently
that we were finally able to have a tomb worthy of their names built for them
in Montparnasse cemetery. On March 31st 1998 the tomb, a single slab of white
stone, was unveiled in the presence of forty guests; on April 22nd the two urns
containing their ashes were placed inside.
It would, of course, have been more natural and desirable
for them to have been interred in Shanghai, the city which had brought them together
and where their love for each other had begun towards the end of 1925 as they
threw themselves into their work. It was in Shanghai that, side by side, they
had struggled the longest, right up to the start of 1948, to change Chinas
fate and, by extension, the fate of the world. Up to the end of 1994 we had thought
this might be possible. We had, for obvious reasons, temporarily put our plans
on hold after the massacre of June 6th 1989 in Peking, but then the nature of
political developments in China in the years which followed brought so much disappointment,
anger and despair that we finally abandoned any thought of returning their ashes
Most of their long years of exile in the West had been
spent in France. Here, in this country whose cultural traditions, way of life,
and turbulent history they especially appreciated, they lived for twenty-two years,
from 1951- 1973, before moving to California. So Paris, their favourite city after
Shanghai, was chosen as their final resting place.
Peng Shuzhi, Chen Bilantwo names erased from the
record or dragged ignominously through the mud by Stalinists and Maoists world-wide,
especially the Chinese ones, for years on end; hence the widespread ignorance
(although there are other contributing factors) about their lives among contemporary
China specialists and the popularisers, journalists and others reputably in the
know who make a living out of the topic. It is this which has prompted us, as
historians and as individuals closely involved with them, to give this account.
Two children of May 4th Movement
They both came from the very heart of China, from the two
Hu, the provinces of Hubei and Hunan. Peng was born in Hunan in 1895 into a family
of relatively well off and relatively well educated peasants who lived in Tonglucun,
a very small village in the Shaoyang region (then Baoqing). Chen was born in 1902
in Huangpi (near Hankou) in Hubei province, into a family of mandarins and local
scholars. Both were Han Chinese; politically, they were of the same generation,
despite the difference in their ages.
They were both very receptive, with lively minds, and from
the earliest age anxious to change the world and change themselves by freeing
the country from its miserable state of dependence and backwardness and saving
themselves from the same fate. Even before they met each other, they had both
made a name for themselves (although this was far from their intention) in their
home provinces, and even nationally, caught up as they were in the powerful currents
which had been sweeping through China since the trauma of the 1911 Revolution,
and even more so by the May 4th Movement, the patriotic, cultural and ideological
process of national self-examination which had in fact started in 1915 and would
only end in 1925. They were thus children of May 4th which, as it
happened, made its greatest impact on them at the very moment it burst apart like
an exploding firework, its most moderate components (who were also, let us not
forget, the most numerous) joining the Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party of Sun
Yat-sen, or shunning politics completely, while its most brilliant and radical
constituents opted for Marxism, communism, and Russo-tropism, under the influence
of people like Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao.
In Peng Shuzhis case, the watershed year was 1920:
in April, in Wuhan, (where five and a half years later he was to meet Chen Bilan)
he became a Marxist and communist, shocked into commitment by the appalling conditions
of modern industry and the living conditions of the workers; in September, in
Changsha, he was among the first to join the Hunan communist group (not, as it
happens, led by Mao Zedong but by He Minfanstill a non-person as far as
the official history is concerned); and in October, in Shanghai, he entered the
Central Group of the Chinese Communists School of Foreign Languages for
a three-month stint studying Russian before leaving for the Soviet Union. For
Chen the crucial years were autumn 1921 to summer 1923. It was during this period,
while she was still in her early twenties, that she was attracted to the more
radical expressions of the new ideas in the air, helped in this by one of the
teachers at her school, a member of the Hunan communist group; there she became
the leader of a cultural, feminist and anti-feudal movement which
scandalized Wuhan and led the school authorities to expel her; there also her
strengths as a skilled and courageous agitator and propagandist began to show;
then she joined the Communist Party, and made trips to Peking and Shanghai in
preparation for her own stay in the Soviet Union.
Peng entered the Red Far East at the beginning
of March 1921 but it was not until September that he arrived in Moscow after numerous
delays and setbacks. He stayed in the Soviet capital, which was also the capital
of the Comintern-led World Revolution, for almost three years, first as a student
(1921-23), then as a teacher (1923-24) in the Chinese section of the University
of the Toilers of the East. It was during these three years (as we shall see)
that, unbeknown to him, his destiny took shapeall the vicissitudes of his
later life, and almost all those of his future companion, Chen Bilan, can be traced
back to his prolonged stay in this cradle of the Leninist-Trotskyist mutation
of pristine communism. He himself later understood this, as we realised in the
late sixties in Paris when, barely containing his very obvious emotions and sucking
on his pipe with more than his usual vigour, he recounted at length, objectively,
this episode from his past.
After a disappointing year in Peking and Shanghai doing
nothing in particular, Chen set off for Moscow in autumn 1924 just a few weeks
after Peng had come back, although the two had yet to meet. Both within the University
of the Toilers of the East and outside she again revealed her leadership qualities,
as a feminist for whom feminism was one aspect of Mans liberation and not
a revengeful act of emasculation. There she grew in political maturity. But she
stayed there only one year rather than the planned three. In autumn 1925, along
with many other young Chinese communists in Moscow, she was called back to Shanghai
by the Centre in the aftermath of the revolutionary explosion which
was the May 30 Movement 1925. This created the conditions for the Chinese Communist
Party to make itself felt. It was Peng Shuzhi, number two in the Centres
hierarchy, who had played such a decisive role in preparing the groundwork for
the movement, from autumn 1924 to spring 1925. Lacking cadres who were both keen
and competent, the Centre lost no time in appointing Chen to the Jiang-Zhe-Wan
quwei, the Party executive committee for the three provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang,
and Anhui, with special responsibility for Women and Workers.
It was in this setting that Peng Shuzhi and Chen Bilan came to know each other.
Chen was not only an active and enthusiastic revolutionary, she was also very
attractive and a sensitive, clever woman of remarkable vivacity (a quality which
stayed with her till the end of her days). Peng was also good-looking, a young
man in his thirties who exuded intelligence and drive, and whose prestige within
the Party had soared since the beginning of 1922.
From then on they remained inseparable except when circumstances
kept them apart. They followed the same path, to the end, without compromising
their own very different personalities, and sometimes very different ideas. They
had three children. The last two, both boys, are now dead; their elder sister,
known today as Cheng Yingxiang, is one of the writers of this article.
The Communist Years
If we disregard their very early years, the lives of Peng
Shuzhi and Chen Bilan can be divided into two distinct periods which, albeit of
very different lengths, are politically speaking, of roughly equal weight: the
communist years (1921-29) and the Trotskyist years (1929-1983).
In the first period Peng, later backed up by Chen, played
a leading role in the preparation, and then in the conduct of the 1925-1927 Revolution.
This Second Chinese Revolution, as Peng called it, to distinguish it from the
First Chinese Revolution of 1911, failed (although he was not to blame). Throughout
this period Peng remained steadfastly against the Chinese communists line
of organic collaboration with the Kuomintang which took manifest pride in requiring
that all communists join Sun Yat-sens Nationalist Party in its new Moscow-restructured
formatin other words, that the party of the working class submit to the
party of the Chinese national bourgeoisie. Peng was outraged when
the Comintern imposed this line on the Chinese Communist Party in the summer
of 1922. He vigorously opposed it, right up to April 12th 1927, when the disaster
it was fated to culminate in happened.
Four periods stand out in particular in these first eight
years of Pengs political life.
The first was his time in Moscow. There he immediately
took on the duties of secretary to the group of young Chinese studying at the
University of the Toilers of the East, using his positionwith their enthusiastic
supportto advocate a return to the orthodox and reasonable line
which would allow the Chinese Communist Party to develop independently of the
Kuomintang, and free itself from the demands and constraints of its collaboration
with the KMT.
The second was the six months he spent in Shanghai from
the beginning of August 1924 to the end of January 1925, during which he managed
to bring round to his own way of thinking the Partys two still active communist
leaders, Chen Duxiu and Cai Hesen. With them, and at breakneck speed, he completely
revamped the Partys line on all fronts and engineered its approval by the
4th Party Congress held in Shanghai in January 1925, thus paving the way for the
May 30th Movement of the same year.
The third was his trip to Canton in May 1926 in the aftermath
of Chiang Kai-sheks coup against the citys communists on March 20th
1926. His mission there, as representative of the Centre and the communists in
Shanghai, was to demand of Borodin, the Comintern representative, and the Partys
Guangdong Provincial Committee, that they punish Chiang for his actions, abandon
for good the servile organic collaboration line with the Kuomintang, and arm the
workers with the thousands of rifles they would need to defend themselves against
Chiangs ill-disciplined troops if there was another coup. The mission was
a failure but while Peng came out of it with his honour intact the same cannot
be said of those comrades who made it a failure.
The fourth is the period during which Peng and Chen Bilan
did their highly effective groundwork for the successful workers insurrection
in Shanghai from March 20th-22nd 1927. But their victory was short-livedno
one had foreseen that Chiang, who was making preparations to enter the city, would
order his National Revolutionary Army to slaughter the insurrectionists and then,
from April 12th onwards, pitilessly hunt down all the communists they could find.
Between the end of March and April 10th the principal Party leaders and the communist
leaders of Fortress Shanghai, suspecting nothing, began leaving for
Wuhan to attend the 5th Party Congress. Peng left at the beginning of April, Chen
eight days later. Only on his arrival in Wuhan did he learn of Chiangs act
of supreme treachery and the beginning of the end of the Revolution.
The Stalinists in Moscow, who had been fully in control
of the Comintern since 1924, had already made up their minds before the Second
Revolution collapsed to rid themselves of the Chen Duxiu-Peng Shuzhi duo whose
refusal to toe the line they found intolerable. This they intended to do with
the help of a group of fratricidal troublemakers within the Party headed by one
of their faithful henchmen, Qu Qiubai. The collapse of the Second Chinese Revolution
set in train by Chiangs April coup (and not finally completed until December
that year) provided an unhoped for opportunity for doing this quickly, and with
minimal fuss. All they had to do was to shift the blame for the collapse of the
revolution on to Chen and Peng while covering up the fact that in fact it was
they who were the real culpritsin the time-honoured tradition of leaders
who, when guilty of the grossest of errors, blame the people who carried out their
orders for making a mess of things and castigate them with all the alacrity of
those who know that it was they who were in the wrong and not their victims. The
Stalinists in Moscow were cruel past-masters in the use of the sacrificial scapegoat
and they lost no time in getting their Chinese communist faithful to sacrifice
Chen Duxiu and Peng Shuzhi at the 5th Party Congress in Wuhan held at the end
of April 1927, and subsequently at the famous extraordinary meeting
held in Jiujiang in Jiangxi province, on August 7th 1927, and the 6th Party Congress
held in Moscow in June 1928.
Peng Shuzhi and Chen Duxiu, however, had no intention of
becoming scapegoats. Initially thrown by the turn of events and all the more so
as they, unlike Qu Qiubai and his friends, knew nothing of the fierce struggle
raging in Moscow in which the Chinese question had become one of the
major issues of the new confrontation between Trotsky and Stalin, they quickly
recovered from the shock and went on the offensive. They refused to accept blame
for mistakes which were not of their own making, rejecting the charges laid against
them and the stupidly putschist line which the Chinese Communist Party, at Moscows
behest, was faithfully putting into practice and which had no other effect than
to accelerate the defeat of the Revolution. They shook off the quasi-religious
bonds which hitherto had held them to the Comintern and thus unfettered, began
to think for themselves again. Evidence of this was their refusal to attend the
CCPs 6th Party Congress in Moscow at the invitation of the Comintern. But
they remained unsettled and not a little demoralised by what had happened and
found it difficult to articulate clearly their thinking on what had happened to
them since 1920.
Thus it was with immense relief that in the summer of 1929
they came across a number of key texts which Trotsky had recently written on the
Chinese question. These had been brought back from Moscow by young Chinese
communists who had sided with the Left Opposition. They expressed, in clearer
language than they themselves could have found, what was on their minds. Reading
these texts they realised that in some ways they had unwittingly been practicising
Trotskyism for the last two years already. They were converted. Immediately they
set themselves up as champions of the Left Opposition in China and in this capacity
demanded that the new leadership of the CCP (since 1928, Li Lisanreplacing
Qu Qiubai), and the Party in its entirety, undertake a critical enquiry into the
causes of the defeat of the Second Revolution. On November 15th 1929 they were
summarily expelled from the Party by order of the leadership, followed a fortnight
later by Chen Bilan, expelled by her party cellthe Trotskyist years of Peng
Shuzhi and Chen Bilan had begun. December 15th 1929 marked the starting point
of this second period in their lives with the publication by Peng and Chen Duxiu
of a solemn declaration of adherence to the Left Opposition, signed by 81 party
activiststhe Declaration of the 81 as it was known.
The Trotskyist years
A complete account of the lives of Peng Shuzhi and Chen
Bilan would fill more pages than a novel and be no less rich; here we will focus
on eight episodes from this second period in their political careers.
1. From the end of 1929 to autumn 1932 , Peng, constantly
aided by Chen Bilan, and in collaboration with Chen Duxiu and militants from other
Trotskyist groups, managed to win over a huge number of communist cells from Stalinist
control and ensure support for the Left Opposition in Shanghais working
class districts. This rebirth of social and political resistance was a clandestine
operation carried out under the nose of the Kuomintang dictatorship. It was underpinned
by a resurgence of anti-imperialist patriotism in the aftermath of Japanese aggression
against China in the former Manchuria, and in Shanghai itself, from September
1931 to January 1932, occasioned by the Kuomintangs weak-kneed response
to these acts.
2. But in Shanghai, as elsewhere, the KMTs police
were on the alert. In hunting down its opponents they made no distinction between
Stalinists and Trotskyists. And repression was made all the easier by virtue of
the CCPs leaderships continued adherence to its suicidal putschist
strategy dictated by Moscow which bred despair and treachery among the remaining
party militants and encouraged informers. These were extremely difficult times
for Peng and Chen Bilan and they became even more so. On his way to a meeting
on the night of October 15th 1932 Peng walked into a trap set up by a comrade
working for the enemy. Almost at the same time Chen Duxiu and ten or so other
comrades were also taken, again the work of the same traitor. For the KMT it had
been a very successful round-up.
3. For five years, from autumn 1932 to autumn 1937, circumstances
kept Peng and Chen Bilan apart. Peng and Chen Duxiu were in jail in Nanking, saved
from certain death by the prestige they enjoyed, much though Chiang Kai-shek would
have liked to eliminate them. As it was they were sentenced to eight years. In
prison they quarrelledPeng remaining a convinced Trotskyist, Chen Duxiu
turning his back on all forms of communism without exception.
For Chen Bilan the problem was not only keeping herself
out of the hands of the KMTs police but making a living to support herself
and her two children. Fortunately, old friends came to her rescue and helped her
start her life again in the publications section of the YMCAwhich was controlled
by the Shanghai branch of the party. Almost every month she wrote articles for
the major Shanghainese periodicals, especially Dongfang zazhi (The Oriental
Magazine), on a wide range of social issues. Signing herself Chen Biyun, she wrote
about the problems of women and children and education and soon attracted quite
4. The entry of Japanese troops into Chinas eastern
provinces, which had begun with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (July 7th 1937),
and the realisation that the Chinese army was incapable of withstanding the invasion,
caused such confusion and disorder in Nanking that the competent authorities
felt that they had no other option but to release first Chen Duxiu and then Peng
Shuzhi, the following month. In appalling conditions, with Japanese bombs raining
down on the regions roads and railways, Peng made his way back to Shanghai.
No sooner had he located Chen Bilan again than he tried
to start up a Trotskyist workers movement from the haven of
the International Concession which the Japanese had yet to occupy. But Pearl Harbour,
which brought America and Britain into the war against the Empire of the Rising
Sun at the beginning of December 1941, put paid to that initiative. He had had
little success in any case, so stacked against him were the objective conditions
And the situation got worse when the Japanese occupied
the International Concession. From 1942 to the end of the war they did everything
they could to lay their hands on him. They accused of him sabotaging the Japanese
war effort by instigating strikes, yet these were few and far between and, when
they did occur, were savagely put down. Several times he just missed being captured
and certain death before a firing squad. But with the help of the ingenious Chen
Bilan and her sixth sense for danger, and his own long experience of surviving
in the worst conditions, he always managed to slip through the net.
5. During the war against the Japanese Peng, who in the
meantime had changed his name, found a teaching post in a private university.
This in the end became his principal activity. He had read very widely and this,
and the solid intellectual foundation he had been able to give himself in prison,
made him a brilliant teacher of the history of Chinese thought. He taught it in
relation to the history of ideas worldwide. This novel contextualisation of Chinese
ideas slowly attracted a large number of young left-wing disciples and when the
liberation came it was among them, from autum 1945, that he found the supporters
for his latest and now quasi-public attempt to create a Trotskyist movement.
Already between 1937 and 1945 he had quietly built up a
dense network of adult sympathisers who now helped fund the publication of two
Trotskyist magazines, both quite successful. One was Youth and Woman, edited
by Chen Bilan and the other was The Search for Truth, edited by Peng himself.
They began publishing in early 1946 and folded at the end of 1948. When it became
increasingly obvious that they would have to leave Shanghai for good to seek refuge
in Canton in autumn 1948, the Trotskyist organisation they had set up had hundreds
of members. It, of course, did not survive the arrival of the Maoists.
When they took the boat from Shanghai to Canton, Peng and
Chen had no intention of leaving China. They were simply relocating in order to
maintain their two-pronged struggle against the Party of Mao Zedong and the Party
of Chiang Kai-shek, as their leadership roles in their organisation required.
They kept up the fight when they had to flee Canton for Hong Kong in 1949 and
again when they had to move on to Saigon when harassment by the British police
forced them out of the colony. There they remained until their remaining comrades
were murdered by the Vietminh along with the last surviving Vietnamese Trotskyists.
At this point they decided to go to Europe. They arrived in Marseilles in June
1951 where they stayed a short while before leaving for Paris, the headquarters
of the 4th International.
7. While Peng and Chen were now more or less part and parcel
of the leadership of the 4th International, their foreign comrades, for whom Maos
victory was a still cause for celebration, were loath to listen to their attempts
to remove the scales from their eyes by exposing the true nature of this victory
which, for them was nothing more than an oriental national revolution
led by the urban petit bourgeoisie with the support of the peasantry, and not
an authentically socialist, non-Stalinist revolution of a completely new type.
Not only that, from the moment they arrived in Europe they had rejected the entryist
lineTrotskyists were to become members of the Stalinist partiesadvocated
by Michel Raptis, alias Pablo, which, in the early fifties, he had persuaded all
sections of the 4th International to adopt as their major policy principle.
Justification for this was provided by the theory that
war between the USSR and the United States was inevitable. But this suicidal policy,
as it transpired, perhaps reminded Peng and Chen of the CCPs fateful collaboration
with the KMT in the years 1922-27.
8. In their years of exile, first in Paris and then in
Los Angeles, Peng and Chen were unremitting in their efforts to promote or resuscitate
the international Trotskyist movement. All their time was spent trying to bring
its very diverse components together and to stop it breaking up into endless fractions,
as it had a tendency to do. They also closely followed international affairs,
discussing the latest developments with their comrades from all over the world
and writing numerous commentaries.
They also kept a close watch on what was happening in China
and were frequently disappointed by developments there. But from 1976 there was
more cause for hope. There were the events of April 5th 1976 and then, in 1978-79,
the Democracy Wall. It was at that time that Peng Shuzhi told us he was now sure
that he had plenty of successors in China. May he be right.
Not the dinosaurs they might appear
What is the significance of Peng Shuzhi and Chen Bilan
for us, the people of 1998? The cause they served so noblya world-wide Leninist-Trotskyist
revolutionhas been doubly defeated: once because in eastern Europe, in China,
in Korea, in Vietnam and in Cuba and in nearly all of the worlds communist
parties, the Stalinists triumphed over their ideological competitors (1927-1989);
twice because all kinds of communism, even all kinds of socialism, in every corner
of the world, including China, Vietnam, Korea and Cuba, have fallen victim to
the juggernauts of global ultra-liberalism flying the American flag. However respectable
Peng and Chen might be, are they worthy of our attention as anything else but
historical relics, or even just archaeological ones? Are they, seen from 1998,
nothing more than a couple of admirable dinosaurs?
Below we give five reasons to show that this is not the
1. Peng and Chen were people who always looked to the future
with the conviction that it could be made a better place than the present. They
never lost hope. And while they can be criticised for believing that the international
Troytskyist movement still had a future after the distortions wreaked upon it
by entryism and the endless petty squabbling between factions and
individuals, they cannot be reproached for remaining loyal to it in order to work
for a better future. Even in old age they remained as energetic as ever, avidly
following the news and monitoring the struggle of all the worlds people
against exploitation and oppression.
2. Their idealism was always tempered by a critical turn
of minda rare combination, which one finds in the great Marxist thinkers,
the early communists, whether or not one agrees with their views or their philosophy.
They knew when to yield before the facts and enrich or modify their thinking accordingly,
questioning their own certainties as circumstances dictated. No doubt the reserves
of idealism in todays society are not unlimited. But neither were they,
despite appearances, in yesterdays societies. Idealism today tends to concentrate
on causes other than those which revolutionary political movements make their
own. But idealism is still thereit has not disappeared. But what is rare
is this combination of idealism and independence of mindan aptitude to defend,
passionately, what one believes to be true and just, whatever the consequences
it might entail. These are the qualities which Peng and Chen unfailingly displayed,
as the story of their lives well illustrates.
3. They were also patriots, true Chinese patriots who never
lost sight of the need to situate the defense of their country, enslaved by the
imperialist powers, in the context of the interests of humanity in general. Their
national conscience and their conscience as part of the human family mutually
enhanced each other. Is that an out-of-date notion? Of course not. But it is rare,
even in Europe where the conflict between patriotism and internationalism is supposedly
resolved simply by eliminating the former. The dead cannot speak, so we cannot
know what Peng and Chen would have thought of this homogenising globalisation
which the all-powerful theoreticians of the Global Village, backed
by the financial markets, have imposed upon us. We suspect that they
would have made a distinction between this kind of globalisation and internationalist
globalisationa worthier mission by farwhich respects the diversity
of nations, as they themselves did. Nor would they have appreciated the hegemonic
aspirations with which mainland China has evidently been infected for several
4. They both realised that recourse to violence was often
the only way to bring about the future. But they did not like it. They distrusted
revolutions which owed their success to bayonets and then killed off their generals;
they distrusted power which depended on the barrel of a gun. They detested militarism.
For them a revolution was to be a mass movement, led by the workers and beginning
in the cities. They were communists, but as communists, they sought to be democrats.
During the Second Chinese Revolution, Peng Shuzhi never came into open conflict
with Mao Zedong, but if Mao represented the peasantry, rural China, narrow nationalism,
the gun, violence and despotism, he was his antithesis.
5. What they succeeded in doing (and this is what gives
them their relevance today) was to make respect for the individual and an all-pervading
humanismtwo notions which inform the noblest currents of Chinese thought
as well as that of old Europecentral to their thinking and all their actions.
This was the humanism which illuminated their vision of the world revolution,
of any revolution, not excluding the Chinese one. Now, at the end of the twentieth
Century, when it is difficult not to notice the endlessly imaginative ways bureaucrats
and plutocrats the world over are still devising for man to exploit and oppress
his fellow man, there is some comfort to be found in the ideas and the example
of such incorruptible individuals as Peng Shuzhi and Chen Bilan.