Serge and the Chinese Revolution

by Richard Greeman

Meanwhile, in China a social revolution was developing with powerful, organized movements among masses of workers and peasants under Communist influence. If the 1923 failure of the revolutionary movement in Germany had condemned the Russian Revolution to isolation (and hence to bureaucratic degeneration), the rise of the Chinese revolution four years later revived the hope of salvation ‘from the East’ that had earlier inspired Lenin.* “The Chinese Revolution galvanized us all,” recalled Serge. “The country felt, however confusedly, that a Red China could be the salvation of the USSR”. However, in 1927 Stalin was more interested in wooing the friendship of Chiang-Kai-shek than in encouraging the struggles of the workers, peasants and Communists of China. Their rising militancy could create complications for his newly-stabilized USSR, and their revolution, if successful, would change the balance of forces in the Communist world of which he was the new master.*

Naturally, the internationalist-minded Left Communists in Russia followed Chinese development avidly, and none more so than Victor Serge. As an old Comintern hand, Serge was made a member of the Opposition’s International Commission (along with Radek, Zinoviev’s delegate Kharitonov, Fritz Wolf, and Andrès Nin among others)(Ibid.), and he served as the Opposition Center’s rapporteur on the Chinese question. Given the dearth of information about the confusing situation in China at that time, Serge was surprisingly well informed. With his customary thoroughness, he scoured libraries and the world press, prizing the conservative French daily Le Temps for its solid information (“money has no odor”). Moreover, he was “briefed by comrades who had come back from China and by material from Radek (then Rector of the Chinese University in Moscow), Zinoviev, and Trotsky.” Serge was also acquainted with Joffé, the first Soviet ambassador to China, who in 1923 had won over Sun Yat-Sen, the first President of the Chinese Republic, to an alliance with Russian Communism. And Heinz Neumann, the brilliant, cynical, German Communist with whom Serge had enjoyed all-night talks in Berlin in 1923, was now a Comintern advisor in China –responsible for the Canton communist uprising in 1927.*

Throughout the tumultuous year 1927, China was marked by a series of powerful peasant and worker risings, crushed one after the other by Moscow’s ally Chiang Kai-shek and invariably followed by hideous massacres. Simultaneously, behind the closed doors of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party, the Opposition was conducting a furious battle against Stalin’s disastrous policy in China, and one assumes Serge’s detailed information helped bolster the arguments of Radek, Zinoviev and Trotsky. These same sources also nourished the series of ‘Letters’ on the Chinese Revolution that Serge was able to publish in Paris between March 1927 and February 1928, furnishing readers in the West with a unique and accurate ‘inside story’ account of these momentous events as they were taking place.

Unique because at the time “the positions of the Opposition on the Chinese question were never published.” The debates within the Party were kept secret, and Pravda had rejected Trotsky’s April 1927 article “Class Relations in the Chinese Revolution” whose political orientation Serge’s articles reflected. So in 1927 Serge’s ‘Letters on the Class Struggle in the Chinese Revolution’ were likely the only public exposition both of the repeated tragic defeats of China’s Communist-led revolutionary masses (ignored or distorted by Humanité and the world Communist press) and of possible victorious strategies based on Bolshevik principles.

Obviously, Serge was taking a major risk in publishing what amounted to public indictments of Stalin’s policies, but for him the stakes were momentous. Not only did the fate of the Chinese Revolution but also that of the Russian Revolution’s possible regeneration depend on convincing world Communist opinion to reverse Stalin’s disastrous policy before it was too late. Naturally, Serge was obliged to use cautious indirection and ‘Aesopian language” to get his sensational message across to the pro-Communist audience of Clarté, and of course he was living and working in Leningrad under the discipline of the Russian Communist Party and under the eye of the Cheka. Serge could not directly depict Stalin as the puppet-master dictating these costly blunders from Moscow, but he did dare quote Pravda’s account of the Secretary General’s approval of these ‘petty-bourgeois’ errors, leaving the reader to put two and two together. Rather than directly attacking Stalin, Serge directed his withering criticisms – often based on quotations from Lenin — at the ‘petty-bourgeois’ mentality of the Chinese Communist leaders, and he blasted the inane, Comintern-scripted, declarations of the French Communist leader Marcel Cachin. “The Chinese Revolution is the greatest historical event of the present age,” he wrote in Clarté. “Yet what do we know about it?” he asked, in an oblique critique of the Comintern press:

Taken together, Serge’s 1927 Chinese Letters add up to a volume of 145 pages, and fifty years later they were published under the title The Chinese Revolution by Pierre Naville, the Surrealist-turned-Marxist whom Serge had met in Moscow in 1927 and who subsequently earned a reputation as a sociologist and Sinologist. In his Introduction, Naville writes:

These studies, written on the fly, following events as they developed, have the merit of bringing together detailed information that is rarely found in the theoretical texts of Trotsky, Zinoviev or Radek. They recall in a living manner the particular circumstances of China, notably the extent of the agrarian revolution […] nourished with numerous concrete details that justify [the arguments of the Left Opposition] better than the strictest Marxist logic […] The wealth of their information and the correctness of their perspectives (expressed with moderation) give them an exceptional value today […]

Unfortunately, by their nature and the circumstances of their writing, Serge’s collected Chinese letters make difficult reading today for non-Sinologists. As a volume, The Chinese Revolution lacks the clarity and systematic organization of Serge’s later studies like Year One of the Russian Revolution and Russia Thirty Years After. Moreover, Serge’s recourse to evasive and Aesopian language makes them somewhat opaque to readers who don’t already know the story (confusing enough in itself), and since Serge wrote these occasional pieces ‘on the fly,’ constantly back-tracking, revising or completing his previous reports on the basis of new information, without the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to follow the chronology of events from one article to the next.

On the other hand, close attention to them can be rewarding as I discovered in 1963 as a graduate student plowhing through the collection of Clarté at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. There, perusing Letter Three on “The Strength of the Agrarian Revolution,” I drew my breath as my eyes fell upon the following lines: “I have before me,” writes Serge, “a document of the greatest interest on the peasant movement in Hunan. It is a detailed letter written from Changsha on 18 February last year [1926] by the Communist student Mao Zedong.” The document in question was the first version of Mao’s famous ‘Hunan Report,’ and Serge summarizes it with ample quotations concluding: “I have read much on the Chinese Revolution. But I have found no piece of Communist thinking of better quality than that of this young unknown militant Mao Zedong.” Serge’s report may well be the first actual mention in the West of the future leader of the Peoples’ Republic of China, and it is certainly the first appreciation of Mao’s theoretical originality (discussed below.)

Taken together Serge’s Chinese letters tell a tragic story of a promising Chinese revolution – a rising of tens of millions of the world’s most oppressed people — hamstrung and ultimately betrayed to their perennial oppressors — the landlords, usurers, warlords and corrupt officials — thanks to the repeated errors of their own leaders, the Communists. Serge details the development of powerful mass revolutionary forces, with vivid examples of vast armed peasant leagues and secret societies imposing their law in the countryside as well as of unions and workers’ organization, many of them armed, sustaining general strikes in China’s largest cities and successfully boycotting Western concessions. Serge naturally stresses parallels between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in the Russian Empire and the developing revolution of workers and peasants in the vast, semi-developed, semi-feudal empire to the East. He clearly felt that a similar revolution in China, although uncertain, was eminently possible in 1927. And in such a case, a fledgling Soviet China would, unlike embattled Soviet Russia in 1917-21, have a powerful ally at its back.

Month after month, in hope and anguish, Serge closely followed events as the organized masses in one after another Chinese cities and provinces courageously rose up and made significant gains, only to find themselves betrayed, disarmed and massacred in huge numbers by their official allies, the democratic nationalists headed by the Moscow-trained General Chiang Kai-shek, who a year earlier (March 1926) had carried out a coup d’état in Canton (Guangzhou), brutally repressing the workers and arresting his Communist ‘colleagues.’ Throughout 1927, from Shanghai, to Chansha in Hunan, to Wuhan (Hankow), the masses would again and again, show their organized power, only to see defeat ‘snatched from the jaws of victory’ (in Churchill’s immortal phrase) through lack of leadership . And for Serge, the Communists themselves were to blame for this costly series of blunders, betrayals and bloodlettings, which the official Comintern press and even Clarté often overlooked or presented as gains.

Serge’s pro-Soviet readers in France, to the extent that they were aware of these disasters, were at a loss to understand them. Patiently, he explained that Comintern Chinese policy (to which the small, inexperienced Chinese Communist Party was obliged to submit) was based on principles of anti-feudalism and anti-imperialism. It called for a ‘bloc of four classes’ (workers, peasants, patriotic capitalists and landlords) to unite in struggle against the incursions of ‘foreign capitalists’ (European, US and Japanese) and their collaborators among the warlords and imperial remnants. The goal: national sovereignty. This class alliance had been the founding nationalist principle of the democrat Sun Yat-sen, father of the first Chinese Republic of 1911, who called on China’s impoverished workers to preserve ‘class harmony’ with their exploiters, excepting only ‘foreign capitalists.’

Naturally, unable to appeal to the masses, Sun’s middle-class nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT) was unable to dominate his reactionary opponents, and his was quickly overthrown. Finally, in 1923, in need of allies among the poor, Sun turned left (‘from Wilson to Lenin’ says Serge) under the influence of Adolph Joffe, the Soviet Ambassador to China. The KMT was reorganized along Bolshevik lines (no factions permitted) and Soviet military experts retrained its officers (including Chiang Kai-shek who studied at the Red Military Academy in Moscow).

Moreover, the CPC-KMT marriage was not just an alliance. The KMT was made an affiliate of the Comintern, which ordered the Chinese Communist Party to join the Nationalists as individuals and subject themselves to KMT policy (including ‘class harmony’ as Serge frequently points out). As Trotsky wrote, “Communists do not simply “join” the Kuomintang but they submit to its discipline and even obligate themselves not to criticize Sun Yat-senism.” (Or criticize Sun’s Right-wing successor, the butcher Chiang Kai-shek.) In practice, this ‘unity’ meant the subordination of the class struggle to the national struggle, the subordination of the workers to the native capitalists, and of the peasants to the landlords and usurers. The masses’ role was to be mobilized under KMT generals like Chiang to be used as cannon fodder in the campaigns against the Northern warlords supporting the Peking government.. All this was justified in the name of the ‘anti-imperialist’ alliance.

As Serge pointed out again and again, although Lenin had acknowledged the need for alliances with other classes in the struggle against Czarism, he always insisted that the Bolsheviks and working classes should preserve their independence and struggle for their own interests without regard to their bourgeois allies and with the ultimate goal of a class victory leading to socialism. This was his major theoretical difference with the Mensheviks, who believed that the revolution had to be brought on in stages: first, win the national-democratic revolution, with the masses supporting the progressive bourgeoisie (incarnated in Russia by Kerensky) and then, at some vague later stage of development, unleash the class struggle leading to socialism. So in 1917 they passively supported the Provisional Government rather than the struggle for Soviet power.

For Lenin, the Mensheviks had failed to see that in a semi-feudal developing country like Russia the bourgeoisie was too weak to impose democracy and that they only real choice was between two dictatorships: the reactionaries (General Kornilov) or the Soviets. In other words, the revolution could not stop half way either in Russia or in China, where the role of Kornilov would be played by Chiang Kai-shek (whom Serge also compared with General Gallifet, the slaughterer of the Parisian Communards of 1871.) Serge’s analogy was an audacious one, for tarring Russia’s China policy with the brush of “petty-bourgeois Menshevism” was tantamount to accusing Stalin of counter-revolutionary deviationism, for readers with eyes to see. It is also clear that Serge is applying to China (and by extension other semi-colonial revolutions like India), the theory of continuous or ‘permanent revolution’ elaborated by Trotsky (whom Serge judiciously abstained from citing here, preferring to rely on quotes from the more orthodox Lenin.)

The paradigms of the Russian 1917 and of Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’ were the indispensable lenses through which Serge could analyze the contending social forces underlying the chaos of information he was receiving about the confused and confusing conflicts taking place in China. These included military struggles between Chiang Kai-shek and competing factions within the KMT, between the KMT and the Northern warlords, between the rebellious peasants and workers on the one hand and the allied KMT and the Communist Party on the other – that is to say against their own leaders who in all circumstances subordinated their struggles to the ‘class harmony’ line of the KMT with predictably disastrous results.

The tragic Shanghai uprising of March-April 1927 is the best known of these catastrophes, fictionalized in Malraux’ prize-winning novel Man’s Fate (1933).* The title of Harold Isaac’s classic 1938 history, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, sounds the same tragic note. The story begins in 1926 with Chiang Kai-shek’s successful Northern Campaign, extending the sovereignty of the Chinese Republic by marching from Guangzhou (Canton) toward the great port of Shanghai in the North, and defeating the Northern warlords on the way. Serge’s account gives new meaning to the historic exploit by reminding the reader that this military victory was in great measure accomplished through the activities of thousands of coolies , who mobilized to build roads permitting the army’s advance as well as to volunteer workers-soldiers and Communist cadres, who injected an element of patriotic moral into what was essentially a mercenary army with corrupt officers always ready to change sides. In his Memoirs, where he was free to express himself uncensored, Serge recalled:

When Chiang Kai-shek arrived before Shanghai, he had found the town in the hands of the trade unions, whose rebellion had been superlatively organized with the assistance of the Russian agents. Day by day we followed the preparation of the military coup, whose only possible outcome was the massacre of the Shanghai proletariat. Zinoviev, Trotsky, and Radek demanded an immediate change of line from the Central Committee. It would have been enough to send the Shanghai Committee a telegram: “Defend yourselves if you have to!” and the Chinese Revolution would not have been beheaded. One divisional commander put his troops at the disposal of the Communist Party to resist the disarmament of the workers. But the Politburo insisted on the subordination of the Communist Party to the Kuomintang.

On the very day before the Shanghai incident Stalin came to the Bolshoi Theater to explain his policy to the assembled activists of Moscow. The whole Party noted one of his winged remarks: “We are told that Chiang Kai-shek is making ready to turn against us again. I know that he is playing a cunning game with us, but it is he that will be crushed. We shall squeeze him like a lemon and then be rid of him. This speech was in the press at Pravda when we heard the terrible news. Troops were wiping out the working-class quarters of Shanghai with saber and machine gun.

“Despair was in us all when we met with equal violence in every Party cell where there were Oppositionists. When I began to speak in my own branch, just after Chadayev, I felt that a paroxysm of hatred was building up and that we would be lynched on the way out. I ended my five minutes by flinging out a sentence that brought an icy silence: “The prestige of the General Secretary is infinitely more precious to him than the blood of the Chinese proletariat!” The hysterical section of the audience exploded: “Enemies of the Party!” A few days later our first arrest took place.”

Serge still had an outlet in Clarté, where, at a certain risk, he could at least sound the alarm and propose the obvious remedies, however slim the hope of seeing them adopted. Serge’s ironic hope recalls that of Malraux’s admirable character Kyo, the leader of the Shanghai Communists in Man’s Fate, who travels clandestinely up-river to the KMT capital at Wuhan carrying a futile appeal to the Comintern leaders there to allow the Shanghai workers to defend themselves — and barely escapes with his life. One wonders if Malraux, whose experience of mainland China was minimal and who was living in Paris in 1927 when he began writing his trilogy of ‘Chinese’ novels, was not inspired by reading Serge’s reports in Clarté. We know Malraux appreciated Serge’s writing, which his fellow Parisian esthete Pierre Naville praised for “the correctness of words, syntax and what is known as ‘style’ [which] gives his articles a living quality that one rarely finds in political texts by revolutionaries and counters their dogmatism and abstraction.” In any case, from the point of view of ‘dogma,’ Malraux certainly borrowed his political framework for Man’s Fate from the Left Opposition, whether he got the ‘line” from Serge’s earthy, anecdotal reports or from Trotsky’s abstractions.*

Following these doomed struggles from day to day Serge was overwhelmed by the anguish of ironic impotence, haunted by his Cassandra-like ability to foresee events and fated to see his worst-case predictions realized again and again. “The massacres could have been foreseen,” he wrote in Clarté, “and prevented.” Given Chiang’s record of right-wing repression, Serge insisted, his openly-prepared “betrayals” came as a “surprise” only to the Communists, who presented him as an ally. Serge’s accurate predictions were based on two simple principles: 1. “There can no longer in our epoch be a bourgeois revolution in the classic sense of the word in the great economically developed colonial countries (China, India and Egypt)…. The bourgeois revolution must be transcended, or it will remain unfulfilled.” (Serge’s italics). 2. The proletarian party should never, in the name of ‘anti-imperialism,’ subordinate its permanent class interests and freedom of action to its temporary middle-class allies.

Tragically, Stalin and his successors (including Mao) have consistently flaunted these principles whenever it suited their purposes, manipulating the masses of courageous seekers of social justice and betraying them to former (or new) masters thanks to “the mercilessly, faultlessly functioning Communist apparatus.” Let us note that in 1927 Serge was already extending the lessons of China to countries like India and Egypt. Naville, writing in 1977, says of Serge’s Chinese letters: “They maintain their interest, even today, for vast regions of the globe (Indonesia, India, Latin America, Moslem Africa and Arabia in particular…)” Indeed, and Naville published them in the hope that the lessons about class alliances that Serge drew from the Chinese experience would be heeded. Alas, they were not. Just two years later (1979) in Iran, a mass revolution overthrew Rezza Shah, a cruel U.S.-backed modernizing despot. The vanguard of the revolutionary Committees, proto-Soviets that constituted a kind of ‘dual power,’ consisted of Marxist university students, women activists, oil-workers, Air Force non-coms and members of the progressive, educated secular middle class. However, the Moscow-dominated Iranian Communist Party, the Tudah, insisted on an alliance with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic party, whose social base was the native bourgeoisie of the bazaar. The wily Ayatollah at first adopted a leftist, democratic line in the Committees and then, like Chiang in the KMT, pulled a coup, purged the leftists and turned them over to Savak and the Islamic Guard for torture and massacre. Similarly, in SE Asia, a half million Indonesian Communists were massacred and a million more imprisoned in a 1965 “surprise roundup” under Indonesia’s nationalist dictator Sukarno, Mao’s client and ally, to whose ‘revolutionary’ regime China’s Great Helmsman had subordinated the Indonesian Communist Party. These historical catastrophes, foreseeable if not avoidable, were to a large extent explainable by the subordination of the local class struggle to the national interests of Russia in Iran and China in Indonesia, respectively, in the name of “anti-imperialism.”*

Serge and Mao Tse-dung

Serge, a rarity among Marxists, fully appreciated the fundamental importance of China’s vast, brutally exploited peasantry. The most original observations in Serge’s series are in Letter Three, “The Strength of the Agrarian Revolution: the Red Spears,” which begins: “Next to nothing is known in the West of the main factor in the Chinese Revolution, the peasant movement.” Citing a Russian source, he reviews China’s millennial tradition of enormous peasant rebellions, which on five historic occasions had taken over large sections of the Empire and successfully redistributed the land (only to see the old relations re-emerge over time). For Serge, now that China was becoming industrialized, her teeming peasant masses had a found natural ally in the a militant new proletariat capable of taking over the urban power-centers and of leading the peasants toward national and socialist solutions. But Serge also saw the struggles of the desperately poor peasants as an independant political force, exemplified by movements like the Red Spears, organized by traditional secret societies, present in every village, estimated as able to mobilize 200,000 men, and capable of defeating regular armies.

It is in this context that he writes: “I have before me a document of the greatest interest on the peasant movement in Hunan. It is a detailed letter written from Changsha on 18 February 1926 by the Communist student Mao Zedong, and published in number 20 of the Russian magazine The Revolutionary East. [12] I am obliged to summarize it very briefly. The peasant associations of Hunan, clandestine until the arrival of the Southern troops, came out of illegality with more than 300 000 members. By last January they had two million for the most part heads of families, which meant that their real activity extended to 10 million souls. About half the peasants of Hunan were organized.” Then, quoting Mao:

The peasants … went right into action and within four months [from October 1926 to January 1927] brought about a great and unprecedented revolution in the countryside… The peasants attack as their main targets the local bullies [administrators and local tyrants] and bad gentry [commercial bureaucracy, usurers, etc.] and the lawless landlords, hitting in passing against patriarchal ideologies and evil customs in the rural areas… Those who resist it perish … The privileges which the feudal landlords have enjoyed for thousands of years are being shattered to pieces … [as if] a tempest or hurricane [had blown them away] … The peasant association becomes the sole organ of authority.
“Naturally the urban petit-bourgeoisie,” comments Serge, “which was related to the gentry, quickly raised a cry about scandal, terror, etc. (it was like reading the Russian press in 1917, which unceasingly branded Bolshevism in analogous terms). ‘The peasants declared: Whoever has land is a thief. There are no gentry who are not criminals.’ […] Just as in the Committees of Poor Peasants of the Russian Revolution organized on the initiative of Lenin in 1918, yesterday’s beggars were at the head of the movement.
All those who were formerly despised or kicked into the gutter by the gentry, who had no social standing, and who were denied the right to have a say, have now, to everyone’s surprise, raised their heads. They have not only raised their heads, but have also taken power into their hands.
I have read much on the Chinese Revolution. But I have found no piece of Communist thinking of better quality than that of this young unknown militant Mao Zedong. He advances striking formulae that irresistibly call to mind those of Lenin in 1917-18. Here are his conclusions (and mine):
This leadership of the poor peasants is absolutely necessary. Without the poor peasants there can be no revolution. To reject them is to reject the revolution. To attack them is to attack the revolution. Their general direction of the revolution has never been wrong. To give credit where due, if we allot 10 points to the accomplishments of the democratic revolution, then the achievements of the urban dwellers and the military rate only three points, whilst the remaining seven points should go to the peasants in their rural revolution.

If the leaders of the Chinese Revolution were inspired by so clear a concept of the class struggle, complete victory would be possible. Alas!”
Elsewhere, Serge writes of Mao: “The future military leader of Soviet China was very close to us [the Opposition] in his ideas, but he stayed within the Party line to keep his supplies of weapons and munitions.” Was Mao then a closet Trotskyist?* or Serge a premature Maoist? History reveals that Mao was to continue faithfully following Stalin’s line for three more decades, and his rise in the Party hierarchy was achieved through ruthless purges and extermination campaigns against the Chinese Left, Serge’s comrades and co-thinkers.* Moreover, Mao whole-heartedly embraced Stalin’s doctrine of the ‘bloc of four classes’ and made it the cornerstone of his regime. For this reason, Mao (or his compilers) retroactively rewrote the now famous February 18, 1926 Hunan Report that had so inspired Serge, eliminating the daring equation: “Peasants = 70, urban dwellers and military = 30.” Also excised were phrases like: “the peasants declared: Whoever has land is a thief, there are no gentry who are not criminals” a view which would have contradicted Mao’s appeal to the ‘patriotic’ gentry and rich peasants.

It is nonetheless remarkable that Serge should have recognized Mao’s extraordinary qualities at such an early stage, and there is much else that is prophetic in Serge’s analysis of the role of the peasants in China. For example, commenting on the defeat of the revolution in the cities, he writes: “This reversal underlines the difficult and the necessity at this moment of giving the revolution a territory, and yet this territory is indispensable for deepening and legalizing the social revolution on the terrain conquered by the force of arms.”

This was to be Mao’s strategy in the 1930s, 40s, and 50’s, a tactic which ultimately led to victory. As Mao and other Communist leaders led the survivors out of the defeated cities, the red armies took to the hills and set up “Soviet” zones where they brought justice to the local peasantry. Serge understood that the support of the peasants would make the red armies nearly invincible, wryly recalling Lenin’ cryptic remark as he hastily scribbled his decree giving the land to the peasant during the seizure of the Winter Palace: “Just give us 48 hours to promulgate it” and we’ll be unstoppable. These “Soviet” zones lasted until 1934 when Chiang Kai-shek, having finally defeated the rival Northern warlords, again turned his attentions to the Communists, and launched an encirclement and extermination campaign against these strongholds. Forced to withdraw, the Communist forces retreated thousands of miles across China’s vastness before finally establishing a Soviet zone in the Northeast near the Russian boarder.

As Serge wrote in 1937: “Will it ever be known how much heroism was spent in these struggles? The fact that this epic took place far from us, diminishes neither its greatness nor it significance. Since 1928, Communist armies have resisted victoriously in the heart of China against the dictatorship of the Kuomintang, the national bourgeois party. Since 1928, Soviet republics exist over there…” Of course, the vast majority of the troops and their families had perished during this celebrated “Long March,” but Mao was now undisputed master of the remaining Chinese Communist forces. Or so he seemed to be until 1936 when Stalin once again suddenly changed the Comintern line on China, reverting once again to the policy of an anti-imperialist alliance with Chiang Kai-shek against the encroachment of Japan, a pact under which the Communists were again made to subordinate their politics to the right-wing Nationalist KMT. Serge concludes: “The Chinese Soviets are abolished. The epic is over […] The Chinese Red Armies have just been demobilized after ten years of uninterrupted fighting,” as the Comintern passes “from the class struggle to Popular Front against the USSR’s probable enemies in a possible war.” Serge bitterly concluded his lament for Soviet China with two quotes from the Shanghai Evening Post (An American paper). First: “The national government is against Communism, but if the Communists declare themselves against Communism as well, unity is possible.” And slightly later: “The former Communists have renounced their entire program.”

Meanwhile, after Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 (another Devil’s Pact the ended in massacre), Stalin again subordinated the world’s Communist parties to Popular Front alliances with the “patriotic” bourgeois nationalists in the German-occupied lands. By 1944, as an Allied victory seemed assured Serge’s political friends were full of naïve illusions about the Communist-dominated popular Resistance movements blossoming into social revolutions at the end of the war (for example in France). Serge, rich with his experience with such alliances in China, would have none of it. As he explained to Dwight MacDonald, “the Comintern apparatus governs all the movements it influences mercilessly, perfectly […] You live in too free a country to even imagine it […] I fear we will soon see the rise of totalitarian-Communist condottieri of the Mao Tse- Tung or Tito type, cynical and convinced, who will be ‘revolutionary’ or ‘counterrevolutionary’—or both simultaneously—depending on the orders they receive, and capable of an about-face from one day to the next.”

Only in the late ‘50s did Mao dare break with the Moscow line, and only when, as military and political head of a now-stabilized Red China, he was ready to challenge Russia over the leadership of the world Communist movement and to project China’s influence over the nationalist movements of the Third World (e.g. Indonesia) much as Stalin had influenced China in his own interests. Serge, who in 194? had published his pamphlet The New Russian Imperialism, would have seen this Sino-Soviet rift as an ‘inter-imperialist rivalry’ and would doubtless not have been overly surprised by Mao’s 197? offer of a military alliance with Chiang Kai-shek’s longtime American champion, right-wing Republican President Richard Nixon, who was looking for an Asian ally to help him defeat Mao’s rival Ho Chi-Minh, the leader of Communist North Vietnam.


Meanwhile, back in 1927, Serge was continuing to supply his Russian comrades and French readers with up to date information and analysis on China as one after another the workers’ and peasants strongholds fell into the traps set by their oppressors — the big merchants, landlords, usurers, corrupt officials, and their generals, all more or less mercenaries. Traps into which the Communist Party, under orders, had led them, painting their enemies (the KMT) as friends, forbidding them to defending themselves when attacked or even to bury their arms as a precaution (Shanghai, March 1927). In mid July, defeat was once again snatched from the jaws of victory at Wuhan (Hankow), the capital of the Chinese Republic, ruled by a ‘Left’ KMT government with two Communist Ministers, with a ‘Red’ general at the head of its army. Industrial Wuhan was also a workers’ capital, a vast entrepot where the organized workers have carried out general strikes and pulled off a successful six-month boycott of foreign concessions. Overnight, on July 15, the Communist were expelled from the KMT and arrested, while the generals turned loose the troops against the striking workers. As in Shanghai, the massacres continue long after although some of the Communist forces were able to retreat into the countryside.
There were other defeats. The Hunan peasant movement, Mao’s original base, was also ‘decapitated’ at Changsha, while spectacular workers’ victories at Nanchang and Shantou were quickly followed by forced withdrawals.

Serge is clearly haunted by his role as an impotent Marxist Cassandra. “For some months these articles forecast events with an accuracy that overwhelmed even myself,” he later recalled. He begins his Fourth Letter “The Outcome of an Experience of Class Collaboration” (August 1927) by quoting his earlier warning against it, adding; “I did not expect to see events providing so literal a confirmation of such broad Marxist formulae in so short a time. The Chinese proletariat is defeated at the moment, and the halt in the revolution (even the bourgeois revolution) is a fact.” He reminds his readers of the price of defeat for the masses of the poor, whom the tiny ruling class must decapitate and bleed before they can be sure of lasting peace. He recalls the “4000 years of experience” of the Chinese ruling classes in crushing rebellion. He patiently explains the difference between the Russian Revolution’s Red Armies of workers and peasants fighting for socialism under Communist commissars and these Chinese mercenary armies, officered by sons of landowners and merchants, commanded by venal generals, ‘red’ or ‘white’ by turn, passed off in the Comintern press as ‘Red Armies.’ He demystifies the Chinese ‘Soviets,’ touted by the Comintern, as empty shells created overnight by decree from above with no mass organizations behind them.

“In 1927,” Serge summarized, “as a result of a rapid succession of fatal mistakes, the Chinese proletariat lost the strong positions in Shanghai and Hankou that it had gloriously conquered at the head of the national movement. Thus, December 1927, there remained only one Communist stronghold in China: Guangzhou (Canton) in the South. Even so, the local situation looked relatively secure for the revolutionaries. Canton, the initial birthplace of the revolution, is surrounded by steep mountains and had a long history of independence from the Manchu Emperors. Its commercial relations with the rest of S.E. Asia had opened it to outside ideas and had fostered the growth of a large artisanal and working class with solid revolutionary experience and organization. On the other hand, with Chiang on the anti-Communist warpath and with revolutionary forces in the rest of China depleted and decapitated after a year of defeats, December 1927 was hardly the moment for the working class of Canton to go on the offensive.

However, their fate in December 1927 was being decided not in Guangzhou, but in Moscow, where Stalin was consecrating his victory over the Left Opposition at the XVth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (which dutifully confirmed their expulsion before adjourning). As we have seen, having successfully evinced the Left, Stalin then appropriated its economic policies of industrialization and collectivization of agriculture, thus confounding his former allies of the Right and placing on their shoulders the blame for the famine and hardship under the NEP. The General Secretary also applied the same lurch to the Left to the international question. This meant abruptly ending the period of the popular front class alliances and inaugurating what became known as the ‘Third Period’ policy of ‘class against class’ under which the German Communist Party, for example, designated the Social-democrats now called “social fascists”) as the main enemy, thus opening the door to Hitler in 1933.

The tragic consequences for the workers of Canton were more immediate. The Opposition’s criticism’s of Stalin’s blunders and defeats in China throughout 1927 remained an embarrassment, and he needed a startling victory to consecrate his reign. As Serge recalled, in Canton “the envoys of the General Secretary of the CPSU, Lominadze and my late comrade Heinz Neumann, were under pressure to supply the Fifteenth Congress with triumphal telegrams.” Orders were given and on December 11 Canton the organized workers in rose up, supported by friendly troops, took over the major public buildings, proclaimed a ‘Soviet,’ and placarded the city with posters proclaiming slogans like “rice and meat to the workers!” As Serge recalled:

During the Party Congress, the lightning success of the Canton Commune supervened in a manner peculiarly suited to refute the Opposition, which considered that the Chinese Revolution had been defeated for a long time to come. The press was in raptures. Pravda published decrees, strikingly similar to those of the Russian Revolution, which had been promulgated by the Communist dictators of the Chinese city […] Twenty-four hours later, the torch of Canton was doused in a sea of blood; the coolies who had thought they were fighting for the cause of social justice died in the thousands for the cause of an official dispatch; and the staff of the Soviet consulate, both men and women, perished by impalement.”

In the detailed account he prepared for Clarté (now called Lutte de Classe) Serge spoke of 2500 executions and victims turned into “human torches.” Without naming Stalin, he concluded: “After the opportunist errors of the past year, we have the impression in the face of these precipitate events, this hasty ‘sovietization’, this apparently premature offensive, of an abrupt and clumsily executed turn to the left.” As Serge later recalled:

I met Preobrazhensky, who asked, “Have you written about Canton?”
“Yes, and sent it off.”
“You must be mad! That could cost you several years in jail. Stop it from being published . . .” I changed the name under which it was signed. I was expecting to be deported anyway.

His expectations were not vain. Within weeks he was expelled from the Party and arrested. Serge had published his Chinese letters as a calculated risk, a courageous attempt to bring out into the open the hidden scandal of Stalin’s betrayal of the world revolution in the desperate hope of reversing it, and eventually he paid for it. Within a few weeks the Party expelled him and the Cheka arrested him.


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