1927: When China’s workers challenged for power

China’s young working class stood on the brink of a revolutionary seizure of power in the 1920s, writes Feiyi Zhang, but were betrayed by Stalin

Today a new Chinese workers’ movement is emerging out of the strikes at factories like Foxconn and Honda. But the Communist government that tries to break their strikes is no friend of the working class.

Mao’s Communist Party took power in 1949 after a long civil war. But the party was reshaped by the destruction of its working class base in the failed workers’ revolution of the 1920s.

But the Chinese Communist Party, on Russian instructions, made critical mistakes that led to the revolution’s slaughter. Harold Isaacs’ magnificent account The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, written in 1938, uncovers this hidden history.

The contradictions of Chinese capitalism

The turn of the 20th century in China was a turbulent period. The relative lateness of China’s industrial development meant that it had a weak government that submitted to the will of foreign powers. Outside powers including Britain, Germany, France and Japan all established what were effectively colonies along China’s coast known as “concessions”. Foreigners owned nearly half of China’s largest industry, cotton, and operated more than half the shipping in Chinese waters.

Millions of Chinese peasants were thrown into cities to work in slave labour conditions. Isaacs writes that China was, “forced by the pull of a whole world system to make the leap from wooden plough to tractor, from palanquin to aeroplane… This wrench could not happen without the most profound convulsions. Hence the turmoil, the speed, the scope, the depth, the explosive character of events in China”.

The industrialisation of China also resulted in the birth of a mighty Chinese working class.

Millions of peasants were torn from the relative stability of agricultural society and highly exploited by an alliance between foreign and local capitalists.

From anti-imperialism to workers’ power

The conditions of imperialist domination meant that demands for national liberation were intertwined with workers’ other demands. Larger factories were almost all directly or indirectly under foreign ownership so strikes had an anti-imperialist edge.

The May 4 movement in 1919 demonstrated the power of the new working class. It was sparked by the signing of the Versailles Treaty at the end of WWI, which transferred Germany’s imperial possessions in China not to Peking, China’s weak capital, but to Japan.

Huge student demonstrations shook Peking, the old capital. The homes of pro-Japanese ministers were attacked and wrecked. The movement spread across the country, drawing in workers, merchants and businessmen. The working class struck in support of student demands for a new regime, forcing the release of student demonstrators arrested in Peking, and hastened the resignation of government officials. The Chinese Communist Party was formed out of this movement.

In 1925 a new wave of workers’ protest erupted in the May 30 movement. On May 15, a Japanese foreman killed a millworker. A wave of strikes in Japanese mills spread across the country.

A critical point was when the movement spread from Shanghai to Hong Kong. On June 19 the General Federation of Labour declared a strike and boycott of foreign goods in Hong Kong. This paralysed Hong Kong’s economy and lasted for 15 months. The Communist Party grew to 30,000 members, from less than a thousand in 1924.

China’s first workers’ council, the same institutions that had taken power in the Russian Revolution in 1917, emerged in this struggle. It was extremely well organised and operated as a “second government” in Hong Kong. This meant a situation of “dual power” with the workers’ council not just organising the strike but beginning to take responsibility for much wider social functions.

Isaacs records that, “In Canton workers cleaned out gambling and opium dens and converted them into strikers’ dormitories and kitchens. An army of 2000 pickets was recruited from among the strikers and a solid barrier was thrown around Hong Kong and Shanmeen.

“The movement was, by all accounts, superbly organised. Every fifty strikers named a representative to a Strikers’ Delegates’ Conference, which in turn named thirteen men to serve as an executive committee. Under the auspices of this body, actually the first embryo of workers power in China, a hospital and seventeen schools for men and women workers and for their children was established and maintained… A strikers’ court was set up which tried violators of the boycott and other offenders against public order”.

Despite China’s underdevelopment compared to Western Europe there was no need for Chinese workers to postpone the struggle for socialism.

The workers’ councils in Hong Kong could have been extended across the country to provide the basis for the working class to take power.

There was also a need to address the masses of peasants still living in poverty and to support them in seizing the land controlled by large landlords. However unlike Mao’s later “revolution”, this needed to be in the context of a democratic workers revolution from below. This possibility of “permanent revolution” in moving straight from a still largely pre-capitalist society to one run by workers was demonstrated by the successful Russian Revolution of October 1917. As the Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky had argued, it was possible for workers to take power in a still overwhelmingly feudal society.

The role of the Comintern

There was a clear need for decisive leadership from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to carry out a workers’ revolution. But advice from the Communist International (the Comintern) prevented this.

The Comintern was a grouping of socialist parties formed in 1919 on the initiative of the Russian Communist Party with the aim of spreading socialist revolution. But by 1925 the degeneration of the Russian Revolution had put the bureaucratic, reactionary leadership of Stalin in a dominant position. The Russians leading the Comintern had begun to see it simply as a tool to further the interests of Russian foreign policy—which meant winning favour with powerful allies abroad and avoiding upheavals that could threaten their own stability in Russia.

A critical mistake made by the CCP under the order of the Comintern was its alliance with the bourgeois-national Kuomintang (KMT) party, which aimed to build an army and take over China by military force. The Comintern used the fact of imperialist oppression to argue that “all the progressive forces in the country” should form an alliance to achieve Chinese independence.

But as socialist historian Duncan Hallas points out the Kuomintang, “were bourgeois nationalists, with innumerable family ties among merchants, capitalists and land-owners, groups which in China were closely intertwined. Workers’ power and peasant revolt were as frightening to them as to the foreign bosses of Jardine Matheson and the Shanghai and Hong Kong Bank.”

An alliance with the KMT meant avoiding actions they would oppose and therefore subordinating working class and peasant interests to the interests of the bourgeoisie and the KMT.

KMT strikes

In order to maintain the alliance the CCP had to hold back workers as they began to challenge for power and take over the cities. This was true even as the leader of the KMT Chiang Kai-Shek turned on the Communist Party.

On March 20, 1926 Chiang-Kai Shek launched a military coup in Canton. He introduced martial law and arrested Russian and Chinese Communist advisors on his staff. He arrested the Canton strike committee and eliminated the trade union movement there. Rather than oppose this, the Chinese Communists retreated, for they had been instructed to preserve the alliance at all costs. On the instructions of a Communist International delegate they issued a form apology to Chiang for their “misdemeanours”.

In Shanghai an insurrectionary situation was developing. As Isaacs writes, “The bankers and merchants had watched strikes grow into the general strike and the general strike grow into insurrection”. This brought the class contradictions within the national alliance to breaking point.

The movement was expecting Chiang Kai Shek to march across China with his army to overthrow the local warlords propped up by foreign powers and stage a nationalist revolution. Anticipating his advance the General Labour Union called a general strike in 1927. According to Isaacs, “Practically every worker in Shanghai came out on to the streets. Their ranks swelled when they were joined by shop employees and hordes of the city poor. Between 500,000 and 800,000 people were directly involved.”

After taking over Shanghai the working class leadership handed the control of the city to the KMT. Unions organised a return to work after the nationalist troops arrived.

The Communists paid for this mistake with the blood of the workers of Shanghai. Chiang imposed martial law, arrested Communists and KMT left-wingers and banned trade unions and student organisations. Five thousand people were slaughtered, many publicly executed on street corners. The leadership of the strongest centre of the Chinese working class had been decapitated.

Isaacs writes, “the defeat of the mass movement could not be measured merely by the extent of its physical annihilation. The workers and peasants had not merely fallen before a stronger enemy. They had been decapitated by their own leaders, by the men and organisations they had been taught to regard as the standard-bearers of their own revolution”.

The Comintern attempted to cover their disastrous mistakes by ordering an uprising in Canton on December 13. Gross adventurism culminated in tragedy. Thirteen men met to launch a “Soviet” but the masses took no part in the uprising.

Foreign and KMT accounts refer to the Canton events of December 11-13 as “three days of terror”. A correspondent for Peking’s Shuntien Pao wrote, “In every street everywhere were corpses of massacred men and women… Blood seemed to be running in rivers…”

The failed Chinese Revolution showed both the potential power of workers’ struggles in China as well as the costs of the Communist Party’s faulty leadership. Isaacs’ book is a valuable record on the tactical and theoretical failings during this important period in revolutionary history.


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