Leon Trotsky on China


April 16, 1927

Dear Comrades,

Yesterday, during the discussion on the Chinese question, one of Comrade Stalin's main retorts to Comrade Zinoviev's criticisms and mine of the basic errors in our policy on the problems of the Chinese revolution was to repeat the words: "Why didn't Zinoviev say>" "Why didn't Trotsky write . . . .?" I will not undertake here to go back to what we have said and written on this question. Undoubtedly, if our suggestions and advice had been treated with less prejudice and hostility and given more serious consideration at the time we could have avoided the most important errors.

I will not dwell on the fact that of late fundamental questions are being resolved in closed sessions of the Politburo to which members of the Central Committee are not admitted. The object of this letter is not to recall what has happened in the past, but to pose the basic problem of the present and future: the Question of soviets in China. Comrade Stalin has now opposed the call for the Chinese workers and oppressed masses in general to set up soviets. However, this question has decisive importance for the further development of the Chinese revolution. Without soviets the entire Chinese revolution is going to serve the upper stratum of the Chinese bourgeoisie and through it the imperialists.

The plenum did not address itself to this fundamental question. However, the question is becoming extremely acute. It cannot be postponed any longer because the entire fate of the Chinese revolution is bound up with the question of the formation of soviets. That is why I am raising this question here.

This is Comrade Stalin's reasoning: "Soviets are the essential organs of the struggle for power; to call for soviets means in fact to usher in the proletarian dictatorship, the Chinese October." But why did we have soviets in 1905? "We were struggling against tsarism," answers Stalin. "There is no struggle against tsarism in China. Since we are not heading directly for an October, we should not call for the formation of soviets."

This entire logic represents such a flagrant distortion of the meaning of our entire revolutionary experience, illuminated theoretically by Lenin, that I could never have believed a serious and responsible revolutionary would say such things if I had not heard them with my own ears.

Let us try to briefly analyze the problem.

1. Against the tsar it was permissible to form soviets while not yet conducting a struggle for the proletarian dictatorship. Why, then, is it impermissible, by means of soviets, to wage a struggle against the bloc of Chinese militarists, compradors, landlords, and foreign imperialists without posing as the immediate task the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship? Why?

If one thinks, as Stalin did (and still does?), that the unification of China must be achieved by the bourgeois Kuomintang leadership which, through the Kuomintang, has made the Communist Party subordinate to itself, deprived the CP of its elementary independence (even its press!), and ruled captured territories by means of a reactionary bureaucracy-if this represents the national revolution, then, of course, there can be no place for soviets. If one recognizes, however, that the bourgeois Kuomintang leadership, not just the right wing but the left centrists, too, are incapable of carrying the democratic nationalist revolution to its conclusion or even halfway, and that it will without fail reach an agreement with the imperialists-if this is understood, then it was necessary in good time and now it is even more necessary to prepare to replace that leadership. A replacement does not mean the pure and simple replacement of Chiang Kai-shek with Wang Ching-wei: that would turn out to be the same old brew, with some more slops added. The problem will not be solved by changing the faces. A change means preparing a revolutionary government that relies not on the verbal, but on the real and practical support of the workers, petty bourgeoisie, peasants, and the masses of soldiers in the army. This can be achieved only by providing the masses with the kind of organization that meets the needs of the revolutionary conditions and of the awakening masses with their yearning for independence, a change in their living conditions, etc. This organization is the soviet.

2. Stalin imagines that first the bourgeoisie, with the support of the masses who are not organized for revolution (organized, they would not have begun to support it), must carry to completion the struggle against imperialism, and then we will begin preparations for soviets. This idea is false to the core! The whole question is how the struggle against imperialism and Chinese reaction will be waged and who will play the leading role in this struggle. It is possible to proceed toward the democratic worker-peasant dictatorship only on the basis of the unfolding struggle against imperialism which will be long and drawn out; only on the basis of a struggle against the national-liberal bourgeoisie for influence over the workers and peasants; only on the basis of a mass organization of workers and peasants not just against imperialism but also against the Chinese bourgeoisie. The only form this organization can take is soviets.

3. "Soviets must not be organized in the army's rear," says Stalin. This is the generals' point of view but not ours. The generals also think that trade unions should not be organized in the army's rear. We know, however, that both soviets and trade unions in the rear are an excellent aid to the revolutionary army. "But, don't you see, soviets are organs for insurrection," replies Stalin. "That means you intend to organize an insurrection at the army 5 rear and seize power." This is a false and caricatured formulation of the problem! It is true that soviets are organs of the struggle for power. But they are not at all born as such; they develop in this direction. But only through the experience of struggle can they mature for the role of organs for the dictatorship (in this case, the democratic dictatorship). If we seriously intend to strive for a democratic workers' and peasants' dictatorship, the soviets will have to have the necessary time to develop and intervene in the unfolding events-those involving the military included-so that they, the soviets, can become firmly established, gain experience, and subsequently make a bid for power.

"But, you see, the [KMT] center will not permit soviets." We have nothing in common with this point of view. What the center permits or does not permit will depend on the relationship of forces. This relationship must be shifted to the advantage of the proletariat. While the awakened but unorganized masses follow the lead of the political organization of the Kuomintang upper echelon, they necessarily give the big bourgeoisie and the generals a powerful advantage over the proletariat. To argue that China has not yet reached its October and for this reason to keep the masses in a state of disarray actually means to weaken the proletariat by our own efforts while strengthening the bourgeoisie and its center, and then to plead that this center will not permit soviets at the army's rear.

4. But why can't the workers simply join the Kuomintang? Really, isn't it an adequate organization? To pose the question thus, one has to forget completely everything we have done and learned. The Kuomintang is a party organization tightly controlled by the topmost layer, despite the popularity of its banner. Is it really conceivable that hundreds of thousands, even millions of workers and peasants will join a party organization during the revolution? Where and when has this happened? In fact, the importance of a soviet is that there, on the spot, it draws in those sections of the masses who have in no way become mature enough for the party and will not be for a number of years. To declare that the Kuomintang is a substitute for soviets is to engage in intolerable sophistry. The Kuomintang has 300,000 members. At present these 300,000 (if the number is not exaggerated) are dispersed. Only now is there talk about the need for Kuomintang elections, i.e., elections to fill the leadership organs by polling party members; but it goes without saying that there is no talk of the election of Kuomintang members by the millions of the masses. The fact is that to have to resort to such sophisms as equating the Kuomintang with soviets shows that soviets are knocking at the door and that they cannot be driven off by doctrinaire schemas about whether it is October or not October.

5. But wouldn't the formation of soviets lead to "a premature insurrection"? Premature insurrections erupt more easily and frequently in cases where the masses lack an authoritative organization that embodies their revolutionary will. That is to say, the absence of soviets in the major revolutionary centers will lead to chaotic, premature, and pointless outbreaks as a result of the unorganized state of the class struggle and the absence of correct political leadership. This has always been the case. Every revolutionary experience testifies to it.

6. What will soviets do? The first and most urgent thing they will do is provide an organization for the workers and help them in organizing their fraternization with the soldiers. The first order of business for the soviet of workers' deputies of a given industrial city or region should be to draw into its ranks soldiers' deputies, representatives from the garrisons. This is the surest way-or, to be precise, the only way-to effect a serious guarantee against Bonapartist 20 and fascist attempts by the Kuomintang higher-ups and any other riffraff. Failure to organize soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies will mean turning the soldier into cannon fodder for Chiang Kai-shek and setting the stage for a bloody massacre of the workers like the one that occurred in Shanghai.

7. In the cities, this must (obviously not be restricted to workers only. It is necessary that the petty artisans, small shopkeepers, and the city's oppressed lower strata in general be drawn into the soviets. This will facilitate the workers' revolutionary envelopment of the army. If this is not done, however, the fate of Shanghai, and with it the revolution, will depend on some vile Bonapartist.

8. This should by no means be limited to the cities. The network of soviets should be extended as soon as possible from the major industrial centers to the countryside, relying on the existing peasant unions, broadening their framework, expanding their program, and linking them up with the workers and soldiers.

9. What will the soviets do? They will struggle against the local reactionary bureaucracies, learning and teaching the masses to understand the connection between the local authorities and those who rule the country. They will struggle against those same bureaucracies, against the militarist gangs, against the land- lords, etc., in the rural areas. They thus become organs of the agrarian revolution that cannot be postponed until China is unified ("until there is a constituent assembly").

10. Commissars are powerless figures under the reactionary generals, often outright lackeys who are appointed by these very generals. The only way a commissar can have any weight in the present epoch is by relying on strong local mass organs, and not simply on a political party-especially one like the Kuomintang, which has no serious organizational structure or one like the Communist Party, which is bound hand and foot and deprived of even an independent newspaper. The formation of workers', peasants', and soldiers' soviets prepares the ground for a really revolutionary democratization of the National Revolutionary Army which otherwise will inevitably become the tool of a homegrown Chinese Bonapartism.

11. Through the soviets a real and genuine-not doctrinaire and artificial-regroupment of forces will take place. All of the classes, layers, and strata that are involved in or that will become involved in the real, present struggle against native and foreign reactionaries will enter the soviets. The goading by the various Kuomintang "leaders," the conniving, the counterposing of one person to another, and combinations of these things-all of this backstage chicanery, inadequacy, and impotence, now fully exposed, will be replaced by the other, far more serious, real revolutionary class selection. The alignment of forces will proceed as follows: for or against the soviets, i.e., for preparing the transition of the revolution to a higher stage, or for a deal between the Chinese bourgeoisie and imperialism. If the question is not posed this way, all prospects for a democratic worker- peasant dictatorship, etc.-not to mention noncapitalist paths of development-will remain merely talk to console us while the masses of Chinese people remain the cannon fodder of a revolution led by corrupt nationalist liberals.

12. Whoever opposes the formation of soviets must say: All power to the Kuomintang. But the Kuomintang tells the communists, "place yourself under my command," prohibits them from criticizing Sun Yat-senism, and does not even let them have a newspaper, pointing out that in Russia, too, there is a one-party dictatorship. But, in Russia the one-party dictatorship is the expression of the proletarian dictatorship and the socialist revolution, whereas the Kuomintang is a bourgeois party in a bourgeois revolution. Without soviets a dictatorship in the existing concrete situation means disarming the workers, gagging the communists, a state of disorganization among the masses, and Chiang Kai-shek-type coups.

13. Does this mean war with the Kuomintang? Nonsense! Nonsense! Nonsense! The problem here is organizing collaboration with the Kuomintang on a far broader and deeper basis-on the basis of millions of workers, soldiers, peasants, and other deputies' soviets. Of course, this collaboration presupposes the full and unconditional freedom for the Communist Party to criticize the Kuomintang, and this freedom to criticize presupposes the freedom of the communist press and communist organization.

14. Unless there is a total political split in the Kuomintang, unless it is purged of all Chiang Kai-shekist elements in general, there can be no joint revolutionary work with it. The differentiation, cleansing, and tempering within the Kuomintang will proceed more easily and most assuredly on the question of soviets than on any other. We will work hand in hand with the section of the old Kuomintang that will support the soviets and participate in them, i.e., that will get into real contact with the real masses. Of course, while working hand in hand with a revolutionary Kuomintang, we will keep a very vigilant eye on this ally and openly criticize its indecisiveness, retreats, and errors, not to mention possible treachery. In this way, on the basis of the closest collaboration with the Kuomintang, we will strive to further broaden the Communist Party's influence on the soviets and through the soviets.

15. But wouldn't soviets mean dual power for an indefinite period? On one side would be the national-revolutionary government (if, when thoroughly reorganized, it holds its own and experiences an upturn), and on the other side, the soviets. Yes, this means dual power or elements of dual power. "But we were against dual power." We were against a dual-power regime insofar as we were striving to seize power ourselves as the proletarian party. We were for dual power i.e., a system of soviets, while there was a Provisional Government insofar as soviets restricted any bourgeois pretensions to dictatorship. Dual power during the February revolution was progressive insofar as it contained new revolutionary possibilities. But this progressiveness was only temporary. The way out of the contradiction was the proletarian dictatorship. Dual power lasted only eight months in our case. In China this transitional regime under certain conditions could last considerably longer, and vary in different parts of the country. To call for and begin organizing soviets means in fact to begin introducing in China elements of dual power. This is both necessary and healthy. This alone will open up further prospects of a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. Without this, all talk about this dictatorship is simply chatter which the Chinese popular masses know nothing about.

16. I will not examine here the very important question of future possibilities and paths for the development of the future worker-peasant dictatorship into the proletarian dictatorship and an immediate socialist revolution since it is not now on the agenda. That there is such a perspective and that it has every chance of becoming a reality-given a favorable tempo of development of the proletarian revolution in the West-is, for every Marxist, indisputable. This can and should be discussed. But this perspective need not turn into a philosophic compensation for the present situation when the armed bourgeois traitors have the upper hand. The basic and vital task now is to prepare for the next stage, the only one from which subsequent prospects and possibilities can emerge.

17. That the Chinese revolution at this stage is national- democratic, i.e., bourgeois, is elementary to us all. Our politics, however, do not flow simply from the revolution having a bourgeois label but from the actual development of class relations within this revolution. Comrade Martynov proceeds very clearly and explicitly from the old Menshevik conception that since the revolution is bourgeois but anti-imperialist, the section of the Chinese bourgeoisie whose interest is to overthrow imperialism cannot step aside from this revolution. Chiang Kai-shek answered Martynov on this score by making a deal with the imperialists and crushing the Shanghai proletariat. This is precisely where Comrade Stalin goes astray, since his general definition of the revolution as nonproletarian and bourgeois leads to the conclusion that, therefore, soveits are not ncessary. He wants to replace the actual course of the class struggle with a timetable for the classes. But this timetable is derived from formalistically from defining the revolution as bourgeois. This totally incorrect position is in contridiction to everything Lenin taught.


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