The Chinese revolution of 1925–27

CHINESE WORKERS this past spring demonstrated their ability to organize and resist their exploitation with a series of strikes at Japanese-owned Honda plants. Winning significant wage increases, these victories even garnered praise from some business press. TheEconomist wrote on July 31 that these protests are “good for China, and for the world economy.” Eighty-five years ago, that same publication had a less positive view of strikes by Chinese workers. A June 25, 1925, article entitled “The Trouble in China,” reported: “When riots broke out in Shanghai at the end of May, following upon a strike of Chinese workers at a Japanese factory… it was hoped that the trouble would be localized and suppressed. Unfortunately this hope has not been fulfilled.”

What the Economist was describing in 1925 was an uprising in Shanghai over working conditions in the cotton mills. Harold Isaacs describes what happened when British police fired upon a demonstration, killing twelve students:

Shanghai, the great imperialist stronghold with its foreign banks and mills, was paralyzed by a general strike which even drew Chinese servants from the homes of foreigners. Like a giant awakened, the seemingly inert mass of Chinese toilers rose with a rumble that stuck fear into the hearts of employers, Chinese and foreign alike, and passed beyond the seas to shake the doors of imperialist chancelleries. Arrogant foreigners, for decades accustomed to regarding Chinese toilers as just so many dirty but docile and necessary pack animals, blanched when this unrecognizable mass rose and shook its mighty fist in their faces.

Because of passages like this, Leon Trotsky wrote in the original introduction to the book, “[Isaacs] approaches the revolution as a revolutionist, and he sees no reason in concealing it.” In the introduction to the 1951 Stanford University Press edition, which omits Trotsky’s introduction, Isaacs states how he has “reject[ed] the Bolshevism of which Trotsky became the most authentic spokesman,” and made “cuts and stylistic revisions designed to eliminate polemical excesses, subjective comments, and repetitious arguments.” In this new printing of the1938 edition—republished for the first time—we welcome the return of “polemical excesses,” as they add the fitting flavor of righteous indignation against foreign occupiers, their hangers-on, and Stalinism.

At the age of twenty, Harold Isaacs made his way to China in 1930, working odd jobs on freighters and luxury liners. In 1932, he founded and edited an English-language weekly journal called The China Forum, in collaboration with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Two years later, after several arguments with the CCP leadership and requests to publish Stalin’s face on the front page, he suspended publication. He moved from Shanghai to Beijing in 1934 and began three years of work on what eventually became The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, a political chronicle of China’s revolutionary upheaval during 1925–27.

Much like BP’s green and yellow sunflower or the smiley face logo of Wal-Mart, China’s red flag does not even remotely reflect the social structure of the country. According to the Hurun Rich List, in 1999 there was one U.S.-dollar billionaire in China, in 2006 there were fourteen, and now there are more than 130 in this elite club, many of whom are children of high-ranking Communist Party officials. With inequality rivaling that of the United States, it is impossible to define China as socialist.

While the 1949 revolution, led by Mao Zedong, succeeded in freeing the country from foreign occupation and exploitation, this was largely accomplished by the military success of a highly motivated peasant army, eager to throw off the yoke of Japan and other overseas powers. The working class, although significant in size and concentrated in the big cities along the coast, played almost no role in this process. As historian Maurice Meisner writes, the CCP “entered the cities in 1949 no less as occupiers than as liberators, and for the urban inhabitants who had contributed so little to the revolutionary victory, feelings of sympathy were intermingled with strong feelings of suspicion.”

Yet in 1925 a different revolutionary road presented itself in China: that of a united struggle of workers and peasants, led by the former, that combined the struggle for national liberation with an economic struggle for a more sweeping social transformation of Chinese society. Its dynamics, its potential, and its ultimate defeat—which closed the road to workers’ power in the Chinese national struggle—are the subject of Isaacs’s book.

China and imperialism
The source of Chinese nationalism runs deep, as the Chinese people had been subjected to foreign exploitation and robbery since the early 1800s. Up to that point, foreign trade was managed through Canton and the “barbarians,” as the Chinese often referred to outsiders, and had always been regulated by the framework of a strong Chinese state.

The desire for tea, silk, and porcelains meant Western silver was pouring into China, but by the 1830s opium began selling in abundance, and this trade imbalance reversed itself. When the Chinese government attempted to staunch this, England sparked the Opium War. China’s humiliating defeat led to many treaties being signed, and multiple ports were opened along the coast. As Isaacs describes: “Against the driving force and weapons of the Western barbarians, China could pit only the sheer weight of its age, its size, and numbers. These could determine the length and agony of this uneven conflict, not its outcome.”

A section of the Chinese ruling class found a new niche in the amazing amounts of trade that occurred during this period. Because these individuals came from the landed gentry, the wealth they accumulated was generally turned into greater and greater landholdings. This comprador class became intimately tied up with and dependent upon the foreign powers, and both had a vested interest in keeping the peasantry and a growing working class down.

The question of land reform became a fundamental one for national liberation. But the question posed itself, who will lead this struggle?

The peasantry was stratified, atomized, and narrow in its outlook. It had always been subject to the leadership of urban classes. In China, every dynastic change took place because of a peasant uprising, which in the end only led to a different emperor taking power. Only an urban ally, capable of transforming social relations, capable of destroying the old state in its entirety and erecting a new one in its ruins, could release the peasantry from this vicious historical cycle.

The break in this cycle lay with a newly developing young urban working class. Its interests alone led potentially toward a radical revision of both Chinese economic and social life. But what is the relationship between the peasantry and the working class, especially when the former greatly outnumbers the latter? While the differences are many, there were some similarities in China to conditions in Russia at the turn of the century.

In Russia, 90 percent of the population worked on the land, and the rest were concentrated in urban centers. Factory owners and bankers, while unhappy with their lack of political power under the tsar, abstained from leading an open fight for bourgeois democracy because of their even greater fear of further agitating an already combative working class. Overthrowing the monarchy and solving the land question had to be done through an alliance between the workers and the peasantry.

As Isaacs describes,

Bolshevism, fashioned by the genius of Lenin, was rooted firmly in the conception of the unconditional independence of the working class, in its organization and in its policies. It based its whole notion of Russia’s future on the international character of the revolution, on the collaboration of the workers of the more advanced countries.… Lenin held that the bourgeois revolution would be achieved and carried through to the end only if the peasant were drawn behind the worker, not behind the bourgeois.… Following Lenin, Trotsky made a bold theoretical thrust forward and declared that the collaboration of worker and peasant in the bourgeois revolution would and could be realized only through the dictatorship of the proletariat, drawing behind it the peasant millions. This was Trotsky’s famous theory of permanent revolution. Its fundamental premise was that the bourgeois revolution in Russia would have to grow over into a socialist, proletarian revolution, whose final victory, in turn, would be realized only on a world scale.

The political and economic crisis that provided the conditions for the Russian Revolution could also spark workers’ uprisings in the more advanced countries, such as Germany, and therefore provide support for Soviet Russia to transition to a socialist economy. Unfortunately, this did not come to pass, and a series of revolutions failed in Germany between 1918 and 1923. The Russian Revolution, increasingly isolated and desperate, was strangled in its infancy, and a layer of bureaucrats led by Stalin began to turn in a completely different direction, from international socialism to “socialism in one country.”

China’s revolutionary movement
The revolution in Russia brought an end to the First World War, and this brought rebellion in China. With the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Japan was given the approval to continue to occupy resource-rich Shandong province. On May 4, 1919, huge student demonstrations swept the major cities. A new force joined in the fray, as workers in factories struck in support of student demands. The growth of industry had brought a modern working class onto the stage. At the end of 1916, there were nearly one million industrial workers, and this number doubled by 1922.

Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Guomindang (GMD), led the 1911 revolution that toppled the decaying Manchu dynasty. By 1919, his organization was detached and sterile, but the upward tick in struggle inspired renewed activity. He appeared at events in Canton and established links with newly organized trade unions.

The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1920 as embryonic proletarian political organizations were just coming into existence. Leading figures of the May 4 movement made up the leadership, but few workers were present at the first conference in 1921. One of the main questions before it was its relationship to the GMD.

The Communist International (Comintern) was formed in 1919 to unite the revolutionary parties created largely out of the left wing that had split from the social democratic parties that had capitulated to national chauvinism during the First World War; its purpose was to help spread revolution around the world. Several anticolonial struggles were emerging at the time, and communists were encouraged to participate in these and other bourgeois-democratic movements.

At the Second World Congress, in the discussion on the national and colonial question, Lenin’s thesis laid out some key guidelines for revolutionaries in the colonial countries.

It is the duty of the Communist International to support the revolutionary movement in the colonies and in the backward countries for the exclusive purpose of uniting the various units of the future proletarian parties—such as are Communist not only in name—in all backward countries and educate them to the consciousness of their specific task, i.e., to the tasks of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic tendencies within their respective nationalities. The Communist International must establish temporary relations and even unions with the revolutionary movements in the colonies and backward countries, without, however, amalgamating with them, but preserving the independent character of the proletarian movement, even though it be still in its embryonic state. [my emphasis]

Lenin was particularly concerned that genuine revolutionaries “wage determined war against the attempt of quasi-Communist revolutionists to cloak the liberation movement in the backward countries with a Communist garb.”

Sadly, this is not the approach the Comintern took toward the Chinese nationalist movement. Indeed, despite the parallels between Russia and China, the Bolshevik model was not transmitted to the Chinese revolutionaries by the Comintern.

As Isaacs notes, as the Russian Revolution degenerated, the new Soviet bureaucracy

[P]ursued a policy which more and more tended to subordinate the interests of the proletarian movements abroad to the diplomatic requirements of the new Soviet bureaucracy. It became no longer a question of “making the greatest national sacrifices for the overthrow of international capitalism,” but of making the greatest international sacrifices for the preservation of Russia’s national “socialism.” This evolution took more than a decade and a whole series of dizzy zigzags to reach full flower in the Communist Parties of the Western countries. Its effect was sooner felt in the countries of the East where the desire to find strong bourgeois Nationalist allies, and the loss of confidence in the power of the working class, led to the application of policies that stemmed not from Bolshevism and the October Revolution, but directly from Menshevism, with its insistence upon the leading role of the bourgeoisie in the bourgeois revolution and its readiness to subordinate the interests of the workers to those of the bourgeoisie. The pedantic and mechanical concept of rigidly chronological “stages” in the bourgeois revolution replaced the living experience of October which had shown how these stages were fused or telescoped.

The Mensheviks, or moderate socialists in Russia had argued that Russia’s revolution would be led by Russia’s bourgeoisie, and that the Russian working class must refrain from fighting for its own class aims until the bourgeoisie had established its political rule. Now the Comintern imposed this same policy on the Chinese communists.

A decision on the Executive Committee of the Comintern in the winter of 1923 called upon the CCP to give up functioning as an independent force in favor of the central task of building the GMD. The Third Conference of the CCP silenced opposition to entering the GMD and the conference manifesto stated, “The Guomindang should be the central force in the national revolution and should stand in the leading position.”

Isaacs writes, “The course thus laid before the Communists led directly and unavoidably to the idea that the national struggle against imperialism preceded or temporarily postponed the struggle between the classes. The very idea that classes with opposing interests could unite in a single party was based on the assumption that imperialism temporarily welded the interests of the various classes instead of deepening the antagonism between them… [It] put an end to the political and organizational independence of the Communist Party.”

On the opening day of the GMD’s first national conference in January 1924, Lenin died. For Isaacs, this “historical coincidence did not lack its own irony, for the Soviet Union and Communist International he had helped create were abandoning in China the idea of irreconcilable proletarian independence that was Lenin’s richest legacy.”

As these events unfolded, the Chinese labor movement was growing at an astonishing rate. On May Day 1924, a hundred thousand workers marched in the streets of Shanghai, and twice that number in Canton. The leaflets of the day read “The time is past when workers are but cannon fodder for the bosses. They will not cede but to revolution? Then they shall have it.”

It is clear that the workers’ movement already had militancy and courage by the time the GMD had reorganized itself. It also had a healthy suspicion of their bourgeois “allies.” At the May Day rally, Sun Yat-sen said, “The Chinese workers are as yet not oppressed by Chinese capitalists… They are oppressed by foreign capitalists.” Voitinsky, a Comintern delegate, reported to his superiors that workers “gave a cold and dubious reception to the declaration of the responsible representative of the Guomindang who called upon the workers to form a united front with the peasants and intellectuals.”

Chiang Kai-shek, scion of a well-to-do merchant family in Shanghai, took over the leadership of the GMD from Sun when he died in 1925. Before joining the GMD, Chiang’s circle of friends included gangsters, bankers, military men, murderers, crooks, smugglers, and brothel-keepers. When he fell upon hard times, his friends put him back on his feet and sent him to Canton to link his fortunes with Sun.

By this time the GMD had become a major recipient of Soviet military training and aid. The Comintern had established the Whampoa Military Academy in 1924 with Russian funds, and shiploads of arms were streaming into Canton. Russia was becoming more and more isolated, and was desperate to find allies.

Isaacs describes Chiang as a three-headed dog that could simultaneously look left and right while the center focused on his personal ambition. The Comintern put Chiang forward as someone who had no choice but to lead an anti-imperialist revolutionary struggle, and downplayed his dubious history as well as the bourgeois character of the GMD. Chiang presided over the GMD when it was admitted into the Comintern in 1926 as the “sympathizing party” in China. The sole vote against its admission was Trotsky, who wrote that “in preparing himself for the role of an executioner,” Chiang Kai-shek “wanted to have the cover of world Communism—and he got it.”

The theoretical justification behind this practice was the idea that the successful struggle against imperialism in China required a “bloc of four classes.” The alliance of workers and peasants was broadened to include the urban petty bourgeoisie and the “national” bourgeoisie. The argument was that imperialist oppression somehow compelled the latter two into alliance with the former. The main problem with this theory is that it led in practice to the subordination of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie, which was more interested in crushing the working class than removing imperialism from Chinese soil.

On March 20, 1926, Chiang began a coup in Canton, moving in troops. All Communists who headed military units under his command were arrested, as were all Russian and Chinese Communist advisers, and the headquarters of the Canton-Hong Kong strike committee was disarmed (the strike was finally called off in October). The CP was caught completely unaware, and the Russians pretended nothing had happened. “The perspectives for the People’s Government in Canton were never so favorable as they are now,” reported the Comintern in April.

In Shanghai a group of comrades raised the demand for the immediate withdrawal of the party from the GMD. Even the leadership of the CCP, which was carrying out the policy of capitulation under Comintern orders, suggested organizing a two-party bloc outside the GMD. As Isaacs writes, “Borodin [the Comintern’s representative to the GMD] firmly clamped down on the tendencies within the Chinese Communist Party toward the pursuit of an independent political policy. ‘The present period is one in which the Communists should do coolie services for the Guomindang!’ he declared. Proposals to withdraw from the Guomindang were squelched because they meant ‘abandoning the banner of the revolutionary Guomindang to the bourgeoise.’”

The excuse put forward by Borodin was that unity behind the GMD must be maintained at all costs. Radical reforms could not be introduced, or agrarian reforms put forward, because the “mixed class composition” of the Guomindang could not “undertake the confiscation of private property.” Chinese CP leaders were instructed to apologize to Chiang, which they dutifully did.

Why not organize independently? According to Borodin, the workers were too weak. He thought the workers could have “seized power in Canton, but we could not have held it. We would have gone down in a sea of blood.” The true weakness of the workers was not in their strategic inability to seize power in that instance, but in the absence of any independent political perspective. Whether or not it was time to arm the workers and peasants with rifles was a question that could only be answered on condition that they were armed with their own class perspective and their own leadership against that of the Nationalists who were preparing to crush them.

“[S]uch is the bitter irony of history,” writes Trotsky in the introduction. “The experience of the Russian Revolution not only did not help the Chinese proletariat but, on the contrary, it became in its reactionary, distorted form, one of the chief obstacles in its path.”

Despite this political handicap, the CCP continued to organize in the cities, leading strikes among workers and raising peasant revolts in the villages to support the Northern Expedition, a military campaign led by Chiang that moved nationalist forces north from Canton. Threatened by this development, Chiang forbade “all labor disturbances for the duration of the Northern Expedition,” declaring martial law. In Canton gangsters joined with soldiers and the police to roll back the workers’ movement. In the countryside the March 20 coup “was the signal for the launching of a vicious offensive of the landlords against the revolting peasants.”

When the Nationalist troops were less than fifty miles from Shanghai, the General Labor Union called a general strike for February 19 to greet Chiang’s troops. Meanwhile, Chiang kept his troops outside the city lest they be infected by the revolutionary mood. At the same time, warlord troops, gangsters, and police went to work against the working class of Shanghai.

“The workers answered the call with machine-like precision,” writes Isaacs.

Within forty-eight hours more than 350,000 workers were out on the streets.… Street fighting between the workers and the soldiers and police began on the 21st. The workers had already begun to take arms wherever they found them to put up a defense against the terror in the streets.… All this time the Nationalist forces never budged from Sunkiang. There was no military obstacle in the way of their advance on Shanghai.

As the bloody repression continued and still no advance by Chiang’s troops, the workers began trickling back into the factories. With this temporary peace, the garrisons of the foreign settlements had time to reinforce their side. The Communist leadership only demonstrated their continued confusion and vacillation after the uprising was defeated, and stood still in stupor while Chiang and his cohorts moved their forces inside and around the city.

A second general strike was called on March 21. “Practically every worker in Shanghai came out on to the streets. Their ranks swelled when they were joined by shop employees and the hordes of the city poor. Between 500,000 and 800,000 people were directly involved.” Only after the mass movement succeeded in taking control of the city, through street-by-street battles, did Chiang decide it was time for his forces to enter the field.

Isaacs describes the situation:

The bankers and merchants had watched the strikes grow into the general strike and the general strike grow into insurrection. The workers’ conquest of Shanghai had given them the lever they needed to extract terms from the imperialists. But it also served notice that the time had come to disembarrass themselves of the dangerous weapon of mass power. Their own interests were now at stake no less than those of the imperialists. An essential condition of the impending deal between Chinese and foreign capital was the smashing of the mass movement. They had long known that they could look to Chiang Kai-shek, the prodigal now back in their midst, to carry out this task.

Despite ample evidence from the Comintern’s own representatives that Chiang had every intention of entering Shanghai to smash the workers’ organizations, the CCP continued to see the situation as in their favor. In Moscow on April 5, Stalin himself rose to answer the warnings of Trotsky. “Chiang Kai-shek is submitting to discipline, the Guomindang is a bloc, a sort of revolutionary parliament, with the right, the left, and the Communists,” he claimed.

When the right is no more use to us, we will drive it away. At present we need the right. It has capable people, who still direct the army and lead it against the imperialists. Chiang Kai-shek has perhaps no sympathy for the revolution, but he is leading the army and cannot do otherwise than lead it against the imperialists.… So they have to be utilized to the end, squeezed out like a lemon, and then flung away.

Every effort was made to appease Chiang, despite the evidence of what was to come. A banquet was organized in his honor after his arrival, but neither he nor any of the invited generals bothered to attend. A statement was produced by two leaders of the CCP, Wang Ching-wei and Chen Tu-hsiu, which according to Isaacs “embodies the most complete expression of the self-effacement and class conciliation which characterized the Communist policy.” It read:

In the present trend of the Chinese Revolution, this question [of socialism] will not only not be raised at the present time, but will not come up in the near future. What China needs is the establishment of a democratic dictatorship of all the oppressed classes to deal with the counter-revolution, not a dictatorship of the proletariat.… The Communist Party is not the last in loving peace and order. It agrees with the policy of the Nationalist government against taking back the Shanghai settlements by force. Not only did the CCP disavow workers’ power, but they also assured everyone that they posed no immediate threat to the imperialists either!

Every potential resource to mount a defense of the impending attack was given up in the name of the “united front.” Isaacs describes how “the First Division, was composed of seasoned, revolutionary troops, schooled in the revolution, and deeply conscious of the firm bonds of unity between themselves and the workers… One of Chiang Kai-shek’s first aims after his arrival was to remove these troops from the scene.” The division commander offered to the Central Committee of the CCP that he would defy Chiang, and hold his men in Shanghai ready to fight. The leadership vacillated and hesitated. They humbly petitioned Chiang to allow the troops to stay, were denied that request, and the troops were moved out.

On April 12, Chiang launched his attack on the workers of Shanghai, and a bloodbath followed. Communist organizers were hunted down, rounded up, and executed. In the end, it is the CCP that was “squeezed out like a lemon, and then flung away.”

In the year that followed, Chiang’s anticommunist crusade continued, and his forces killed more than 200,000. What was left of the CCP fled for the countryside, never again to have the influence it once did among rank-and-file workers in the cities. If nothing else came of the intervention of the Comintern, the CCP proved to be good students in nationalism, as their success in 1949 demonstrates. While Chiang pulled the trigger that destroyed the CCP’s presence in China’s urban coastline, it was Stalin and the Comintern that made the ammunition and loaded the gun.

Isaacs’s book is not just a damning account of the first great crime of Stalinism outside the Soviet Union; it is also a testament to the fighting spirit of the Chinese peasants and workers. While the outcome ended tragically for our side, we serve their memory best by learning from and applying the lessons from their struggles toward those of today and tomorrow.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John
  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé