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Alexander Pantsov: The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution, 1919-1927
The astonishing advances made by the Communist International in China between 1921 and 1926, followed by the catastrophe that afflicted the Chinese communists in April-July 1927 with the collapse of Stalins China policy, have for a long time gripped peoples attention and been the subject of an extensive literature. Knowledge of the Chinese Revolution was brought to Europe by André Malrauxs book La Condition Humaine (1933) and Harold Isaacs The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938). In the lively debate among historians that has continued ever since, two principal theses have been expounded. That of Harold Isaacs, specifically, brilliantly supported by Isaac Deutscher (1), lays the emphasis upon the theory of socialism in one country, as promoted by Stalin. The Georgians nationalist-communist vision assumed the continuing leadership of the Kuomintang (KMT) over a revolution reduced to the single dimension of anti-imperialism. In this context, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was sacrificed. At whatever cost, it was required to stay within the KMT. Other historians, such as Conrad Brandt (2), have presented the question of China in the Communist International rather as an episode in the Trotsky-Stalin struggle within the Soviet Union. In this view, the Chinese communists were merely pawns in a game played in Moscow.
The opening up of the Communist Internationals archives, which followed the break-up of the Soviet Union in December 1991, made vast documentary resources available to historians. Much of it was previously unpublished, particularly where it concerned relations between the Communist International and the CCP. A joint Russian and German team has already published three volumes of texts in their original versions, both Russian (3) and German (4). This edition has already reached the early 1930s. Since 1998, two volumes of these documents, translated into Chinese, have been published in Peking. A further translation is being prepared for publication in Taiwan. In October 1998, an international conference was held in Berlin entitled New Research and New Perspectives on the Chinese Revolution, with Special Regard to the 1920s. Most of the 26 contributors were either from German universities (in particular from Berlins Frei Universität) or from research and archive centres in Moscow. It was at this conference that Alexander Pantsov, then professor at the Moscow State University, presented a contribution that became the book we are reviewing here. In the meantime, its author moved on to a post in the Capital University of Columbus, Ohio. His presence in America gave him access to the Trotsky Papers where they are conserved at Harvards Houghton Library and the opportunity to interview various witnesses to the tragic demise of Trotskyism in the Soviet Union and China. This is a book founded on an exceptional wealth of documentation, extending beyond its vast bibliography and the further visits to private and public collections in the US and Taiwan, much of it consisting of what are incorrectly termed the Archives of the Communist International and now named the Russian Centre for the Conservation and Study of Records of Modern History. While we identified in the footnotes only 3% of unpublished sources drawn from this collection between 1919 and 1924, we estimated 37% for the chapters describing the genesis, in spring 1925, of Stalins China policy and then the struggle between the Stalinist majority and the Trotskyist and Zinovievist Opposition. This gives some indication of how fresh are the sources used in this book. It is divided into six parts of two chapters each: 1) Russian Communism and the Ideological Foundations of the Chinese Communist Movement; 2) Lenin and the National Revolution in China; 3) Stalins Shift in the Cominterns China Policy; 4) Trotskys Views on China in Flux; 5) Trotsky versus Stalin: the China Question in 1927; 6) The Stalin-Trotsky Split on China and the Chinese Communists.
The thesis that Pantsov advances, without wholly departing from such analyses as those of Isaacs and Brandt, does differ from theirs to some extentthough a little less than he claims himself. He identifies in the classical way three distinct periods in the history of Bolshevism between 1919 and 1927. The first takes us up to the autumn of 1921 and is dominated by Trotskys ideas: the Bolshevik Revolution can survive only within the context of successful world proletarian revolution, capitalism being in its final phase. The epicentre of the earthquake that will reduce the Old World to ruins is to be found in the industrial heartlands of Europe and North America. The second period, running from the end of 1922 to the start of 1925, is marked by the ideas that Lenin expressed at the second Congress of the Communist International in November-December 1922: in the capitals of imperialism the revolution is marking time: a detour must be sought by way of the colonial or semi-colonial worlds controlled by them. In these circumstances, Asian communists must build a united front between nascent proletarian forces and nationalist parties that speak for the local bourgeoisie victimised by imperialism. Zinoviev shares this strategic perspective; and Maring expounds it to the CCP with all the greater conviction for having himself been one of the architects of the policy. Trotsky is won over, for a while at least, though insisting for his part on the CCPs peculiar and independent activity which, he says, should be maintained at any cost. Against this background, the Communist International compels the CCP reluctantly to sign its militants up to the KMT between 1922 and 1924. The third period is that on which Pantsovs book throws new light, being based on far more original documentary sources: this is the time when Stalins leading role is confirmed, within the Soviet Communist Party and the Communist International, with the initial support of Bukharin; and by its end, in summer 1927, the intensification of his power has made it almost absolute. Stalins political line on China is to rely on the hegemony of the KMT which, in his view, because of the agreement between the communists and the nationalist left, has become a a workers and peasants (peoples) party. Speaking on May 18th 1925, to the Communist University for Oriental Workers in Moscow, Stalin refers accordingly to a revolutionary bloc of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie [ ] that can assume the form of a single party, a workers and peasants party, after the model of the Guomindang, provided however, that this distinctive party actually represents a bloc of the two forces, the Communist Party and the party of the revolutionary bourgeoisie (5). It is true that, in February 1926, the Standing Committee of the Kuomintang's Central Committee officially applies to join the Communist International in order to complete the task that the revolutionary movement in China has faced for thirty years, namely, the transition from a national revolution to a socialist one (6); and it is true also that Hu Hanmin declares a few weeks earlier to the leaders of the Communist International that there is only one world revoltion, and the Chinese Revolution is a part of it. On basic questions the teaching of our great leader Sun Yat-sen concur with Marxism and Leninism: this quotation needs to be taken from the book]! With backing from Moscow, this communist penetration of the KMT is henceforth opposed by Trotsky and Zinoviev, in the teeth of the Stalinist majority. In Stalins favour, on the face of it, is that the policy is effective: the Kuomintang and its communist allies enjoy a run of success starting on May 30th 1925, while Canton consolidates its position as a revolutionary base. But this entryist strategy encounters its first reversal on March 20th 1926 with Chiang Kai-sheks take-over of Canton. Nevertheless, Stalin and Bukharin persist in their strategy despite its implicit contradictions, because the Chinese communists have to radicalise the KMT from within, while limiting the spread of popular movements, for fear that the nationalist leaders, who are strengthened by their success, will eject them. So Stalin invites the Chinese communists to go on the retreat, and to await better times when they will be able to take over the KMT. When, in the spring of 1927, this strategy ends in catastrophe, Stalin falters for a moment and then surmounts the crisis by weaving a theoretical approach based on stages in the Chinese Revolution. Within the Opposition, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Radek find the greatest difficulty in reaching a common position: Stalin isolates it, and then destroys it.
Pantsovs book is thus at once exciting and reassuring. It adds proofs and significant details to what we already knew without, in the main, challenging the judgements made by earlier historians. It is true that many documents relating to this period have already been published, if only after the raid by Zhang Zuolins forces on the Soviet Embassy in Peking on April 6th 1927 (7). Thanks to Pantsovs book we may follow much more closely the debates within the Soviet governing apparatus; and we can fully understand the decision-making mechanism in the Communist International and the Soviet Communist Party. What is particularly stricking is the poor knowledge of Chinese realities among almost all the actors in the drama. Karl Radek alone had sought to study Chinese history, starting with the Sung dynasty; this, moreover, had led him to exaggerate the capitalist nature of Chinese society. Trotsky applied to China his picture of the Russian Revolution between 1905 and 1917. Chiang Kai-sheks take-over in March 1926 became known in Moscow only a month or more after the event: the effectiveness of decisions taken in such conditions can only be very uncertain.
From this point of view, it is a shame that Pantsov should not occasionally have remembered the realities of a revolution that was transformed or travestied, according to requirements, throughout its development, by those very men who sought to control it from so far away. One of the factors in Trotskys defeat seems to me to have been that his perspective on China in 1925-27 was even falser than Stalins. And Pantsov seems to have adopted for himself Trotskys unrealistic plans for a proletarian revolution to be carried out by a working class that, broadly speaking, did not yet exist: this much has been established by the half-dozen books published since the 1980s on the workers communities of Shanghai, Tianjin, Hunan and Canton, and by the opening up of archives in China itself (8). The bibliography to Pantsovs book, while rich in good Russian and American writings, lists only Jean Chesneauxs 1962 account of the Chinese working class movement, which itself is largely drawn from the highly orthodox A Brief History of the Chinese Labour Movement (1919-26) by Deng Zhongxia (9). We read this book, which takes us so deeply into the very heart of a once mysterious governing apparatus; and we come to dream of a further book that might go beyond this enriched political history, one that might reveal the profuse complexity of the real world swept along by the whirlwind of social changea transformation reduced here to little more than concepts.
Translated from French original by Philipp Liddell
1. The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989.
2. Stalins Failure in China: 1924-1927, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1958.
3. Edited by Mikhail Titarenko and others: VKP(b), Komintern i natsionalno revolyutsionnoye dvizheniye v Kitaye: Dokumenty. (The Soviet Communist Party, the Communist International and the nationalist-revolutionary movement in China. Documents.), Moscow, AO Buklet, 1994, 1996, 1998.
4. Edited by Kuo Heng-yü and M Titarenko: RKP(b), Komintern und die national-revolutionäre Bewegung in China: Dokumente, Munich, Ferdinand Schöningh. From 1996 onwards.
5. Pravda from May 22nd 1925. From 1927 onwards this phrase had disappeared from the Works of Stalin.
6. Archives of the Russian Centre, according to Pantsov, The Bolsheviks , p. 90, notes 59, 60 and 61.
7. Which gave place from 1956 onwards to the indispensable book by Martin Wilbur and How Julie Lien-ying, re-issued since with new material under the title Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet advisers and nationalist China, 1920-1927, Cambridge (Mass), Harvard University Press, 1989, 903 pp.
8. Lynda Shaffer, Mao and the Workers. The Hunan Labor Movement, 1920-1923, Armonk (N.Y.), M.E. Sharpe, 1982; Gael Hershatter, The Workers of Tianjin (1900-1949), Stanford (Ca), Stanford University Press, 1986; Emily Honig, Sisters and Strangers. Women in the Shanghai Cotton Mills, 1919-1949, Stanford (Ca), Stanford University Press, 1986; Alain Roux, Ouvriers et ouvrières de Shanghai, à lépoque du Guomindang (1927-1949), Thèse de Doctorat dEtat, Université de Paris I - Panthéon-Sorbonne, 1991; Elizabeth Perry, Shanghai on Strike: the Politics of Chinese Labor, Stanford (Ca), Stanford University Press, 1993; Alain Roux, Grèves et politique à Shanghai: les désillusions (1925-1931), Paris, Editions de lEcole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1995; et Y.K. Daniel Kwann, Marxist Intellectuals and the Chinese Labor Movement: A Study of Deng Zhongxia, 1894-1933, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1997.
9. Deng Zhongxia, Zhongguo zhigong yundong jianshi (1919-1946), First published in Kalgan in 1946 and frequently re-issued subsequently.