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International Socialist Review, Summer 1963


Ross Dowson

Chinese Revolutionists in Exile

Interview Article


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.3, Summer 1963, pp.77-80.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


WHERE is the Sino-Soviet dispute leading? Upon what forces at work in China, impinging on the most vital issues of our time, does this conflict reflect? And what are its repercussions on the thinking of the Chinese masses – on the working class youth, on the students and intellectuals who fervently grasped the promises of Mao’s Hundred Flowers speech only to be driven back into silence, who see in the pages of Renmin Ribao and Hongqi the charge of Trotskyism being bandied about, comments about “the emergence of new bourgeois elements after the victory of a proletarian revolution” in reference to Yugoslavia, and “the revisionist and new social-democratic trends which have now appeared in the international communist movement”?

Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were a belated recognition of the new Soviet realities – that it was no longer possible to rule an advanced and powerful working class in a period of continued expansion of the forces of world revolution, with police state methods. At the same time that the Soviet bureaucracy promised a new deal, it spurred deep-rooted desires that the historic record be straightened, that those who fought the Stalinist degeneration be rehabilitated and honoured, that the cause of the disasters be understood so that there would be no return to that awful time.

Trotsky Excluded

The unrolling of the record has rehabilitated two old Bolsheviks, Radek and Bukharin. Its posing of the rehabilitation of Lenin’s martyred collaborator, Leon Trotsky, has resulted in a fierce repetition of lies, only proving that the process is not to be halted.

In the Soviet Union there can be little physical meting-out of justice. The blood of the chief oppositionists has long since drained into the soil – their bones have been scattered. Only their thoughts and their heroic example could be recalled.

BUT with China this is not so.

Some of those who opposed Stalin’s cynical intervention in China, which led to the tragic defeat of the 1927 revolution, still survive in Mao’s prisons. Two of the leaders live in exile. I met them in Europe last fall where they had been since 1948 when they fled from Mao’s police.

Two Exiles

Peng Shu-tse and Chen Pi-lan live in quite different circumstances than their former co-workers, party chairman, Mao Tse-tung, and chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Liu Shao Chi. They live in two small, damp rooms, sustained by friends, in a foreign country surrounded by a foreign culture, far from the China to whose socialist development they devoted their lives. Probably Peng, as he pores over the Chinese press, likens this period of his life to when he was in Chiang Kai-shek’s jail – considering it a plateau from which release will soon come, so that once again the upward climb can be resumed. That is the life that they lead – one of anticipation. The hours of the day are carefully allocated. Both Peng and Chen are writing their memoirs.

Now 67 years of age, Peng Shu-tse comes from a well-to-do peasant family. In the fall of 1920 he, along with Mao Tse-tung and several others, set up the first communist group in Changsha, capital of Hunan province. Like other communist groups in Peking, Wuhan and Canton, it was established right after the founding of the first Chinese communist group in Shanghai. At that time there were many persons across the country who had been stimulated by the magazine New Youth, by the May 4th movement a little later, and particularly by the October Revolution in Russia.

It was Chen Tu-hsiu who launched New Youth in 1915. Chen had participated in the first 1911 revolution. With its failure and the rise of reaction represented by war-lord Yuan Shih-kai, Chen had decided to publish New Youth as an organ of revolutionary democracy. It waged a vigorous struggle on two fronts – democracy and science – against Confucianism, which represented traditional feudal ideas and superstitions. Intellectuals, students, and advanced workers gathered to its side to form the nucleus of the May 4th movement, which took its name from the stormy May 4, 1919 demonstrations against Japanese imperialism.

THE Chinese Communist Party was organized on the initiative of Li Ta-chao and Chen Tu-hsiu with the aid of a representative of the Third International founded by Lenin and Trotsky. One of the first tasks confronting the small and inexperienced forces was the development of a cadre. Elsewhere, in Europe and America, the Communist Party resulted from a fusion of forces coming from the social democracy and other workers’ organizations. But China had no Marxist tradition or experience with working class struggles.

In order to expedite the development of a cadre, the Comintern representative urged that young revolutionists be sent to Moscow to study Marxism and gain experience. Peng was one of the first group of 20 who went to Moscow to later become the basic cadre of the Chinese CP. The present chairman of the Chinese Peoples Republic, Liu Shao-chi, was also one of the 20.

Visits Moscow

Arriving in Moscow in the spring of 1921, Peng was soon elected secretary of the Moscow Chinese student branch of the Communist Party of China. On the advice of Chen Tu-hsiu, who attended the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1922, it was decided to organize the Chinese student groups in France, Germany and Moscow into one group, with the Moscow group in charge of liaison. Chen also advised the leading cadre in France and Germany to go to Moscow to study. This brought Chu Teh, now chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress; Li Fu-chun, now Minister of State Planning; and Tsai Tsan, now chairman of the All China Women’s Union, with others, to Moscow.

PENG, from a pupil soon became an instructor. At the same time he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and became acquainted with the epochal dispute raging through the CPSU, with Trotsky and Stalin heading up the respective sides. Peng told me that while the Chinese students had a tremendous respect for Trotsky and were not at all impressed by Stalin, they did not express an opinion at the time.

Together with Li Ta-chao, who was co-founder with Chen Tu-hsiu of the CPC, Peng was an official Chinese delegate to the 1924 Fifth World Congress of the Communist International. Following the Congress, Peng returned to Shanghai to work on The Guide, weekly organ of the Central Committee, and shortly became editor-in-chief of New Youth when it became the theoretical organ of the CPC. As a delegate of the Moscow branch, he participated in the 1925 National Convention of the CPC and was elected to its central committee. As a member of the political bureau he was placed in charge of the party organ and propaganda work. This political bureau, chaired by Chen Tu-hsiu, was the leading body of the Second Chinese Revolution of 1925-27.

Chen’s Background

It was in the fall of 1925 that Peng’s path crossed Chen Pi-lan’s, then 23 years old, who was to become his wife. Chen, who came from the intelligentsia (her father was a professor), became a leader in the student struggles under the influence of the May 4th movement while she was at school in Hupeh. She joined the CP in 1922 and the following year went to Peking to participate in party activities under the guidance of Li Ta-chao. In the autumn of 1923 she entered the University of Shanghai, which had been established by the CP and the left wing of the Kuomintang, and the following year went to Moscow to study. Under party direction, she returned to the center in Shanghai when the revolution broke out. While on the Shanghai CP city committee, she became secretary of the women’s section and editor-in-chief of the magazine China Woman. She concentrated her activities among student and working women.

THE policy that led to the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution has been described and analyzed by Harold Isaacs in his book The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. The central committee under Chen Tu-hsiu’s leadership was profoundly disturbed by the party’s subservience to the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek and was convinced that it was necessary to oppose him and defeat him. When Chiang staged his anti-Communist coup in March 1926, the central committee sent Peng to Canton to discuss with Comintern representative Borodin how to deal with Chiang’s policy. In the name of the central committee, Peng suggested that all CP members withdraw from the Kuomintang and lead the workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary movement independently.

Comintern Veto

But Borodin stuck to Moscow’s orders, resolutely opposing the anti-Chiang policy of the central committee and Peng’s suggestions of withdrawal from the Kuomintang. Instead, he reaffirmed the policy of complete subordination to Chiang which resulted in the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution. To the enlarged meeting of the central committee held in July 1927, Chen and Peng again proposed that CP members withdraw from the Kuomintang. The resolution was passed but was vetoed by the Comintern.

From May to July 1927, Chen and Peng clearly sensed the falseness of the Comintern policy, and as the situation deteriorated, they could see no way out. Had Trotsky’s views reached the Chinese party at that time, the situation would have been different; the impasse would have been broken. However, all of Trotsky’s documents were blocked by Stalin.

AFTER the Wuhan Kuomintang government carried out its anti-communist policy in July 1927, spelling the defeat of the Second Revolution, the Comintern changed its policy from extreme right opportunism to extreme left adventurism. Chen and Peng both resolutely opposed this adventurous policy. In August, Chen Tu-hsiu wrote two letters to the central committee demanding an end to this policy.

Peng Dismissed

The same month, Peng was assigned to the party secretary of the northern region which encompassed several provinces north of the Yellow River. His instructions from the central committee were to stage uprisings in the Peking and Tientsin area. In order to avoid futile sacrifices, Peng postponed the uprisings with the excuse that time was not right. Consequently he was dismissed by the political bureau headed by Chu Chiu-pai. Tsai Ho-sen, who was then assigned the task by the political bureau, carried out the uprising in Peking which ended in failure and the sacrifice of all 60 of the leading cadre there.

Following the collapse in Peking, Peng went to Shanghai to join Chen Tu-hsiu. While both remained members of the central committee, neither was given any tasks. It was then that Chen wrote his famous two letters scoring the false policies of the party and placing the responsibility for the disaster on the Comintern headed by Stalin and Bukharin.

The Chinese CP, although composed of brave and devoted cadres, was young and had no experienced leaders other than Chen Tu-hsiu. Only in its seventh year of existence, it had been faced with titanic problems. Chen was convinced of the incorrectness of the Comintern’s policy although it was backed up with all the prestige of the October revolution. But he proved unable to delineate an alternative one.

MOSCOW learned that Chen and Peng were opposed to the policies imposed by the Comintern. In the summer of 1928 Stalin and Bukharin sent a joint wire inviting them to attend the Sixth World Congress of the CI in Moscow. At first Chen could not decide whether to accept or decline the invitation. Peng told Chen that if they went, there would only be two courses open to them. One was to admit that the Comintern’s policies had been correct all along, but in implementing them the Chinese leadership committed serious errors which led to the defeat of the revolution. By making such a statement they might both be returned to the leading bodies of the party. But this would be contrary to the facts and in violation of their conscience. The other course would be to insist that the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution was chiefly due to the false policies of the Comintern. Even if they were not arrested for such a declaration, they would at the least be held in Moscow and prevented from returning. Chen agreed with Peng’s opinion and so declined Stalin’s invitation.

Although they decided not to go to Moscow, nonetheless the clarification they sought came the following spring when some returning students brought back from Moscow two documents of the Left Opposition, written by Leon Trotsky.

Left Opposition Forms

Peng studied these two documents, Summary and Perspective of the Chinese Revolution and The Chinese Question after the Sixth World Congress. The meaning of his experiences were clarified by the theoretical arguments of Trotsky, and he decided to support Trotsky’s struggle in the CI and make known his views to his Chinese comrades. He gave the two documents to Chen Tu-hsiu who returned them shortly, declaring that he agreed with Trotsky’s position and proposing that together they should organize a Left Opposition in the Chinese party.

Chen Tu-hsiu and Peng Shu-tse each wrote to the central committee demanding that the party review the lessons of the defeat of the revolution, change its adventurous policy, and make all of Trotsky’s documents on the Chinese revolution available to the party. Then they gathered 80 members together to formulate a manifesto which systematically analyzed the Comintern’s opportunist and adventurous policies during and after the defeat of the Second Revolution. The manifesto further stated that Stalin had substituted bureaucratic dictatorship for Lenin’s democratic centralism, and employed opportunist and adventurous policies in the Soviet Union. With the publication of the manifesto in December 1929, Chen Tu-hsiu, Peng Shu-tse and the other 80 signers were expelled. Among the 80 was Chen Pi-lan.

THE fledgling forces of the Left Opposition were immediately caught between two fires – vicious attacks from the Stalinists, such as were experienced by Left Oppositionists across the globe, and Chiang Kai-shek’s white terror. Despite difficulties they managed to publish a clandestine periodical The Proletariat and Trotsky’s writings on China. Largely due to the reputation of Chen Tu-Hsiu, the Left Opposition exerted considerable influence inside and outside the CP. Many of the old party cadre, called reconciliationists by the center, were shaken. Valuable opportunities were lost due to the fact that there were three other Left Opposition groupings in Shanghai, formed by students returned from Moscow, that were attacking one another. With Trotsky’s aid, in May 1931 the forces of the opposition were united in The Communist League of China.

Left Harassed

The constant harassment by Kuomintang police made work extremely difficult. One team after another, despite all security precautions, was arrested. Chen Tu-hsiu was forced into hiding. Peng, after missing arrest by a hair’s breadth, was forced to move some 20 times in a period of four years. He eked out a meagre living by translating.

In October 1932 Chen, Peng and eight others were arrested. Following pleas for their life by such prominent persons as Sun Yat-sen’s widow, Soong Ching-ling, at present vice-chairman of the Peoples’ Republic of China, they were granted a trial. The trial lasted two years. Chen and Peng conducted their own defense and received tremendous coverage in the press. They were sentenced to 13 years in prison which, following an appeal, was reduced to eight years. The other eight oppositionists were sentenced to five years.

WITH the imprisonment of Peng, Chen Pi-lan attempted to support herself and their two children by teaching. In order to supplement her income she wrote a number of articles on the woman question from the Marxist viewpoint. They appeared in the well known Eastern Magazine and other left periodicals under the pen name of Chen Pi-yum. These articles, which established her as an authority on the woman question in China, were later gathered and published in two volumes.

With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in August 1937, Chen, Peng and their comrades were released and took refuge in the international settlement. The infamy of the Moscow Trials caused Chen Tu-hsiu to challenge Trotsky’s position of defense of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state. He also had differences on the war and left the movement. His defection was a heavy blow to the Chinese Trotskyist movement. He died in Szechuan province in 1942.

Peng commenced to gather together the forces of the movement. Besides publishing a clandestine organ called Struggle, the Chinese Trotskyists published a legal periodical called Moving Forward. In a short time scattered isolated groups were regrouped, and the movement commenced to make considerable progress.

Two of Trotsky’s most important works, The History of the Russian Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed, were published and exerted a deep influence among revolutionary youth.

LIKE their co-thinkers elsewhere, the Chinese Trotskyists were slandered and villified by the Stalinists. The Chinese CP press repeatedly slandered them as recipients of money from Japanese imperialism, as Japano-Trotskyite fascist agents. In the summer of 1938, four newspapers under the influence of the Chinese CP calumniated Pen Shu-tse as an intimate friend of the infamous traitor Li Kuo-che, who had just been assassinated by a Kuomintang agent and suggested that he should meet a similar fate. Under the threat of legal action the publishers of these papers were compelled to make a public retraction.

The War Period

The development of the Chinese revolutionary socialist movement was again dealt a grievous blow with the outbreak of the Japanese-American war in December 1941. Many leaders were arrested by the Japanese when they occupied the international settlement. All connections between Shanghai and other points were shattered. Peng narrowly escaped on several occasions. Under an assumed name, from 1941-45 he worked as a professor at Shanghai University lecturing on Chinese history, western literature and philosophy. In this way he was able to win many revolutionary youth to the Trotskyist viewpoint.

With the end of the war, the Communist League, with Peng as editor, published a magazine called Searching for Truth. This became one of the better known magazines in postwar China, having a monthly circulation of 3,000 to 5,000 copies. Chen Pi-lan edited a monthly periodical called Youth and Women, later changed to New Voice, which had a circulation of from 2,000 to 3,000 copies. With the publication of these magazines Trotskyism became widely known and highly respected among intellectuals, students and young workers. Connections across the country were again established.

WHEN the third national convention of the Communist League of China was held in August 1948, over 350 members and hundreds of sympathizers attended. This convention adopted a program and changed the name of the League to the Revolutionary Communist Party of China (Trotskyist).

By the end of 1948 the Liberation Army, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, had taken everything north of the Yang-tze River and was preparing to attack Nanking and Shanghai. The political bureau of the RCP met to adopt a policy to meet the new situation. On the basis of their own experiences and the experiences of their co-thinkers in the Soviet Union it was generally agreed that the Communist Party of China after taking state power would in all likelihood suppress the RCP.

It was decided that all members should join the Communist Party, its youth groups, its workers’ and peasants’ organizations, and support every revolutionary measure it would take, such as the fight against the Chiang Kai-shek regime, against imperialism and for land reform. It other branches would transfer to was also decided that active and known members in Shanghai would transfer elsewhere and members of Shanghai, in order to avoid detection and suppression by the CP. The same meeting decided to move the political bureau to Hongkong and to set up a provisional bureau responsible for the guidance of all branches in China.

Plans Derailed

As soon as the CP occupied Shanghai they arrested the entire Trotskyist leadership. Subsequently rank and file activists were arrested – three of them were shot. From September 1952 to January 1953 all Trotskyists, even sympathizers and wives, in all the major cities of China, were arrested and, without any trials, sent to concentration camps. To this day, aside from a report that the wives of a few members have been released, there has been no word of them.

TOWARDS the close of 1948, Peng Shu-tse, Chen Pi-lan and Liu Chia-lien arrived in Hongkong to work with about 100 of their comrades there. They published a clandestine organ, the Chinese edition of the Fourth International. In 1949 there were several arrests. The biggest came when the Hongkong authorities, in collusion with the post office, traced several addresses to which copies of the Militant and the Fourth International, published by the US Socialist Workers Party, were coming. This resulted in the arrest of ten members and their deportation to Macao.

With the police searching for them, Peng, Chen and Liu Chia-lien fled to Vietnam. Two months after their arrival in Vietnam, Liu Chia-lien was arrested along with two leaders of the Vietnamese Trotskyists. He died shortly after in Ho Chi-min’s prison.

Already in difficulty in Vietnam and warned that the Chinese police knew of their presence there, Peng, Chen, and their family left for Europe, arriving there in the summer of 1951. Cast up on the shore, they continue to devote their lives to advancing the internationalist revolutionary struggle for the socialist emancipation of mankind.

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Last updated on 22 May 2009