Against Trotskyism: Trotsky and the Chinese Revolution
Given the trajectory of Trotsky’s line on the USSR, it shouldn’t surprising that his theories missed the mark on China as well. In fact, if they had been followed, it is clear that they would have done considerable harm to the Chinese revolution. On the question of China, there are two main things that stand out regarding the position of Trotsky and his followers. First, there is the ever present failure to grasp the national-colonial question in the era of imperialism, and second, there is the failure to understand the united front in relation to that.
The Chinese revolution, led by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China (CPC), applied the theories of Lenin to the concrete conditions of China. Mao made a materialist analysis of the class forces at work in China in his 1926 “Analysis of Classes in Chinese Society.” That important article laid the foundation for the strategic orientation of the revolution, concluding,
“... our enemies are all those in league with imperialism—the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big landlord class and the reactionary section of the intelligentsia attached to them. The leading force in our revolution is the industrial proletariat. Our closest friends are the entire semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie. As for the vacillating middle bourgeoisie, their right-wing may become our enemy and their left-wing may become our friend but we must be constantly on our guard and not let them create confusion within our ranks.”
Based on this analysis, Mao and the CPC led the Chinese masses through a long and complex revolutionary struggle from 1927 to 1949. The CPC participated in two united fronts with the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), first against warlordism (warlords sponsored by the imperialist powers) from 1924 to 1927, then again against Japanese imperialism from 1937 to 1945. When the CPC overthrew the KMT in 1949 and declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China, they entered the period of the New Democratic revolution.
The New Democratic revolution was a transitional stage in the Chinese revolution, based on the “bloc of four classes” with the aim of overthrowing feudalism and colonialism, laying the groundwork for the development of socialism. These four classes at the core of the New Democratic revolution are the proletariat, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. Just as Lenin said about the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” in Russia, the “People’s Democratic Dictatorship” is a particular form of the dictatorship of the proletariat in China. Based on the particularities of Chinese reality, new democracy was based on the strategic alliance of these four classes, under the leadership of the working class and the CPC.
All of this was firmly grounded in Leninist principles and the Marxist-Leninist analysis of the concrete conditions faced by the Chinese revolution, taking place as it was in a large, semi-colonial and semi-feudal country. But of course, Trotskyism takes issue with all of this, opposed the united front with the KMT, and advocated a policy of pure proletarian revolution as the way forward for the Chinese revolution.
The essence of the matter is this: It’s the same old story with Trotsky, who would have the working class stand alone, opposed to every other class. In “The Third International After Lenin” from 1928, Trotsky writes,
“The Russian bourgeoisie was the bourgeoisie of an imperialist oppressor state; the Chinese bourgeoisie, a bourgeoisie of an oppressed colonial country. The overthrow of feudal Czarism was a progressive task in old Russia. The overthrow of the imperialist yoke is a progressive historical task in China. However, the conduct of the Chinese bourgeoisie in relation to imperialism, the proletariat, and the peasantry, was not more revolutionary than the attitude of the Russian bourgeoisie towards Czarism and the revolutionary classes in Russia, but, if anything, viler and more reactionary. That is the only way to pose the question.”
Trotsky here begins with an acknowledgement that the bourgeoisie of Russia and China are different, and play a different role on the stage of historical events, but then he backpedals, and treats them as if they’re the same. In practice, the bourgeoisie is the bourgeoisie, plain and simple. He makes no distinction between the Chinese comprador bourgeoisie in league with imperialism and China’s national bourgeoisie, who oppose it. And since, according to Trotsky’s abstractions, the interests of the bourgeoisie are everywhere the same, whether in Russia or in China, the task of the proletariat is, according to Trotsky, again the same: not to ally with any section of them, but to fight all of them.
The Marxist-Leninists understood that the national bourgeoisie were not a reliable ally and would try to seize the leadership of the movement themselves. Likewise, they understood that while it was in the national bourgeoisie’s interest to be rid of imperialist domination, they would not lead the country to socialism. Instead, they would lead the country to compromise with imperialism. Thus, Mao always insisted the CPC must maintain its independence and initiative in the united front, in order to be able to lead the revolution forward towards socialism.
Even so, to fail to unite with the national bourgeoisie would have had two disastrous consequences. It would have prevented the national liberation struggle from defeating the imperialist-backed warlords, and then later Japanese imperialism, militarily. At the same time it would rob the CPC of an important organizational vehicle for its own growth and development in the course of those mass struggles. The fact is, the masses had to learn that the CPC was their true leader in practice, through their experience in the united front with KMT. They had to learn it through deeds, through experiences both positive and negative, and not just through phrases and proclamations.
Essentially, the Trotskyites made three major errors in relation to China. First, they approached the problems of the Chinese revolution dogmatically, without taking into account the particularities of the time, place and conditions. Second, they sought to isolate the Chinese working class from its allies, namely the national bourgeoisie, the peasantry, and the urban petty bourgeoisie and intellectuals. And third, they approached the revolution, as always, from the sidelines, with agitation and propaganda alone, instead of utilizing the mass line to educate the masses through their direct experience.
As a result of these three errors, it advocated an adventurist and ultra-left position in China – breaking the united front and immediately forming Soviets to contend for power. These Trotskyite positions were always out of step with the experience, understanding, and organization of the masses, based on abstractions and dogma. The fact is, had the Chinese Communists followed the Trotskyites, they would have faced disaster and defeat.
Today, the Trotskyites call the People’s Republic of China a “deformed workers state.” This is following from their claim that the USSR was a “degenerated workers state.” They say it is “deformed” because, they claim, the Chinese revolution was “crippled” from the moment of its birth by the leadership of the “Stalinist bureaucracy” in the Soviet Union and the Comintern. Trotskyites today directly and openly oppose the People’s Republic of China, almost universally.
The facts about China are quite different. In short, the CPC transformed China from a semi-feudal and semi-colonial country, plundered by foreign capital and its domestic agents, into a major, independent, industrial power. They rapidly wiped out illiteracy and have since eradicated extreme poverty, accounting for three quarters of total global poverty reduction. They accomplished this on the basis of proletarian democracy and the building of a socialist economy, in line with China’s concrete conditions.
In the next articles, we will look more closely at the Trotskyite view of the national question and the united front. Whereas Marxism-Leninism succeeded in China, we again see Trotskyism fall into ultra-leftism and dogmatism, both in theory and practice, and we’ll see all of those same mistakes arise for the Trotskyites again and again.