What does it mean to speak of Chinese Trotskyism, and what is its relevance for us today?1This text is adapted from Li’s contribution to a Haymarket and Historical Materialism book series discussion of Fanxi’s book, available here. While early leaders of the Left Opposition in China were some of the key founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the most knowledgeable readers of Marx, this tradition had also been marginalized, vilified, and later brutally suppressed by the CCP under Mao. The CCP’s treatment of its proponents offers an important paradigm for its treatment of left dissidents that continues today: the Chinese Trotskyists had their intellectual and organizational groundwork completely uprooted in the mass purges of the early 1950s. This is familiar today as we reflect on the deep extent of suppression of dissident mass movements in Hong Kong and China. To echo Gregor Benton’s question from his preface to Prophet Unarmed: “why is anti-Trotskyism such an enduring part of the CCP’s political constitution and so hard for it to disown?”2Gregor Benton, ‘Editor’s Introduction,’ Prophets Unarmed: Chinese Trotskyists in Revolution: War, Jail, and the Return from Limbo, ed. Gregor Benton (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 38. Many of these Trotskyists lack the prowess to effectively organize mass movements behind a coherent program like their Maoist peers. They had only a minimal base of supporters to begin with, especially after years of persecution from imperial Japan, the USSR, the Kuomintang (KMT), and later, the CCP.
Here I offer a few little-known vignettes to paint a picture of what this marginal Marxist movement entailed and through which alternative futures were being imagined on the ground. Li Cai-lian joined the Chinese Left Opposition a year after the devastating Shanghai Massacre in 1927, which decimated the ranks of Communists in the cities. She continued the dangerous work of organizing female workers in Shanghai factories and supported prisoners under the Kuomintang dictatorship until dying at age 24, as the CCP fled to the countryside. In the late 1930s, Liu Ping-mui, another young Trotskyist, conducted anti-Japanese organizing in Guangdong, and offered an unfamiliar perspective on how the mode of struggle against imperial Japan ought to be conducted in a propaganda pamphlet addressed to the citizens of Chongshan. He wrote that “the masses should have the freedom to independently form mass organizations in order to freely combat the Japanese.”
Around the same time, Chen Du-xiu, leading figure of the Xinhai revolution and co-founder of the CCP in its infancy, offered a minority view within the divided Trotskyist factions in a 1938 letter to Trotsky. He called for a national front struggle against Japanese aggression while laboring to “form organizational links to the workers and making propaganda for the democratic and national struggle” as an alternative to the then-struggling CCP at the urban heart of “both Japanese-occupied and Guomindang-occupied territories.”3Chen Du-xiu, ‘Letter to Leon Trotsky (3 November 1938)’ in Prophets Unarmed, 717. While he believed that the Trotskyists would not gain influence until industry revived in the cities, he cautioned that inaction and lack of organization would eventually destroy their movement.
Revolution or Revolutionary War?
These political initiatives have failed. And by and large, they have not been remembered and studied. Many Trotskyists continued to stay active in the war against Japan, though they fought as individuals without an organized program able to offer the masses an alternative to the KMT and the CCP—perhaps not too dissimilar to the left in the suppressed Hong Kong movement in the past few years. In December 1952, the CCP rounded up all of the Trotskyists it could identify, effectively ending Trotskyism as a political force in China altogether. Archives were decimated by the authorities and while some Trotskyists were able to flee abroad, most languished in prison for years or even decades. Most importantly, however, many tried to make sense of the circumstances around their defeat and its lessons for future movements.
It is in this context that Wang Fanxi put forward his critical analysis of Mao’s influences and thought. His goal was not to equate the personality of Mao with the CCP’s political character across time, but to excavate how understanding Mao’s intellectual background and political decisions can give us a glimpse into the contradictions of the Chinese Revolution, and how certain aspects continue to shape the core of the CCP’s politics today. At the heart of this project is Wang’s central inquiry: in what manner should the political revolution against global capitalism be organized?
Wang’s chapter “Brilliant Tactician” captures the essence of his response through his critique of Mao: Wang envisions a praxis of revolution that does not simply see, in his words, “all mass-based non-military revolutionary movements as preparatory to and subordinate to revolutionary war”.4Wang Fanxi, Mao Zedong Thought, trans. Gregor Benton (Chicago: Haymarket, 2021), 113. This is not a rejection of waging revolutionary war, but a theory of revolutionary war as a tactic rather than a strategy. Mao’s key problem for Wang was that everything was reduced to the paradigms of war, rather than independent mass organizing in its own right—even after the CCP’s seizure of state power. The end result of Mao’s formulation is that all expressions of democratic self-organization must be co-opted into the national program of CCP state-building. And the Xi Jin-ping administration today displays a renewed version of this ethos, with its rhetoric of anti-imperialism against “foreign interference” and its “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.
What Wang calls “revolutionary war” in fact points beyond the specific phenomenon of militaristic conflict. It articulates a certain ethos that one can locate in various elements of mass organizing work today: at best, the temporary suspension of democratic process and mass empowerment in the urgent task of effective direct action planning; at worst, the long-term concentration of decision-making power in the hands of paid staff or cadre organizers. Wang contrasts “revolution” to “revolutionary war” since the former “happens from below. It tends to be excessively democratic… the popular will gains the upper hand,” whereas “war, even revolutionary war, is top-down, centralized, and the product of the will of a few leaders who must establish their authority and coercive power.”5Wang Fanxi, Mao Zedong, 113. These lines contain lessons that reverberate beyond the scope of Marxist movements of Wang’s time: they tell us that genuine mass revolutionary energy—from building a local coalition of grassroots movements in a liberal democracy to a city-wide mass movement against the party-state—will always be contained and perverted when not built on democratic and independent organization at the heart of its praxis, rather than militaristic or bureaucratized formations. Wang’s schema rejects, on the one hand, the CCP’s paternalistic and anti-democratic way of relating to their mass base, and on the other, the kinds of “leaderless” movement energies seen in the likes of the Hong Kong struggles, which later valorized adventuristic and atomistic “frontline” actions over collective organizing, in which the masses have the vehicles they need to independently develop platforms and strategies together.