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New International, June 1939



The War in China and Japan

From New International, Vol.5 No.6, June 1939, pp.187-189.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We reproduce below a private letter written from China at the end of March, which contains invaluable information and viewpoints on the Chino-Japanese war and the general situation in both countries. – Ed.

FROM my letter, you will have observed the coincidence in our views on the subject of the agrarian revolution. Every fact in the present situation confirms their correctness. In the agrarian interior where guerrilla forces are in control (i.e., in areas behind the Japanese lines), rural reforms, some of them quite drastic, have had to be introduced as the very condition for survival of the struggle against the Japanese army. Partisan fighters, with greater immediacy than in the case of a regular army, must have the sympathy and active support of the population. Thus we find that in some areas, notably in the Northwest where the 8th Route (former Red) Army operates, and in the Kiangsu-Anhwei-Kiangsi border area where the New Fourth Army (Stalinist-controlled) operates, the land tax has been reduced, land rents cut, and so forth. In some places, administrative power has passed completely into the hands of the guerrilla forces and village councils voice the demands of the peasants.

This is a very interesting phenomenon, for it shows that the Stalinists have been compelled by the very necessities of the anti-Japanese struggle to violate their reactionary program. It is very easy to stop the agrarian struggle on paper, at a “united front” conference table in Yenan or Chungking. In the villages, however, they are compelled to change their tune. The reforms are grudging and niggardly in comparison with the objective needs. The Stalinists strive by might and main to prevent the peasants from demanding “too much”, for then Chiang Kai-shek will be offended and the “People’s Anti-Japanese Front” endangered. Ever since the war began there has been friction between the Stalinists and the Kuomintang. This, in essence, is a reaction at the top of the struggle below. Chiang Kai-shek has good reason to be skeptical of the ability of the Stalinists to scotch the agrarian movement.

The Stalinist-controlled guerrilla forces enjoy great popularity among the peasants because of the reforms they have introduced. The peasant looks at everything in terms of taxation and land rents. We may expect in time that he will insist on going beyond the niggardly “reforms” of the Stalinists, but for that a new leadership is needed if the developing movement is to fructify and not be strangled. Above all, a powerful proletarian movement in the cities is needed to give leadership arid courage to the villages. That is now lacking.

Class relationships in the village are extremely interesting in the areas behind the Japanese lines. During the past few months I have talked to many travelers who have spent time in these areas and they all tell the same story. Where the guerrillas are in control of a village, the landlords and gentry display an extraordinarily conciliatory attitude toward the peasants. In some places they have voluntarily reduced land rents – something hitherto unheard-of in China. They are animated by a quite understandable fear of the dark masses who have suddenly acquired a new confidence in themselves. They come forward and offer a 10% reduction. If they didn’t do so, the peasant might himself reduce the rent 50% – or, worse still, refuse to pay anything. The Stalinists, of course, always counsel “moderation”. They act, not as the representatives of the peasants and their needs, but as social arbitrators between the peasants and the landlords.

The degree of the “conciliatoriness” of the landlords and gentry – here is a most illuminating fact! – is invariably in direct proportion to the nearness (or remoteness) of the Japanese army. When the enemy is near, and it seems likely that the area will be occupied, the landlords grow bolder, more arrogant, and more harsh in their dealings with the peasants. How reminiscent this is of the agrarian revolution in Russia! The landlords are divided from “their own” peasants by the wide gulf of exploitation. Threatened in their age-old property rights, they see in the alien invader their social savior. When a country town or village is occupied by the Japanese army, it is always the landlords and gentry who come out on the streets with Japanese flags to welcome the invaders. It is this class which composes the “puppet” administrations which the invaders install.

However, in the anti-Japanese struggle, the role of the landlords is not by any means one of passive waiting for events. There are many instances in which they have given military information to the invading army concerning the strength, organization, equipment and strategic plans of the guerrilla forces in order to facilitate the task of the enemy. When these traitors are caught they face a firing squad. Nothing less will satisfy the outraged peasants. And then reports filtered in to Chungking that the “communists” are double-dealers; that although they promised to give up their class-struggle policy they are in fact shooting the lords of property in the villages. Chiang Kai-shek demands an accounting. In vain do the Stalinist leaders explain that the people being shot are traitors. The “united front” weakens. In village relationships we see the indissoluble connection between the agrarian revolution and the anti-imperialist struggle. Without the vigorous unfolding of the former, the latter becomes impossible.

Rural impoverishment will force the peasant movement beyond the limits which the Stalinists seek to impose on it. As a first installment, the peasant welcomes land rent and tax reductions and hails the party which gives them a sort of legal sanction. But from this it is but a step in his consciousness to the idea that there should be NO land rents at all, especially when the rent collector, the landlord, turns out to be a traitor to his country. This change in peasant psychology is, in fact, already taking place. In many villages, the peasants have demanded outright confiscation of the land held by traitors. The Stalinist leaders have been compelled to concur or lose their following. But when one landlord, or two, or a dozen in a small village are found to be traitors, the peasant begins to think: “Perhaps all the landlords are by nature traitors?” This is the greatest danger for the Stalinists. It is the sure guarantee of a fresh, gigantic upsurge of the agrarian movement. When it unfolds, it is our hope that the ranks of the workers will have been reformed and that a powerful proletarian movement under the leadership of the Fourth International will insure its victory. This is our perspective. It is toward this end that we shall strive.

You will, of course, be interested to learn what the situation is in the areas under the direct rule of the Kuomintang. There nothing has been changed for the peasant except for the worse, since the war began. The destruction of Chiang Kai-shek’s armies in the first phase of the fighting in the eastern, seaboard provinces created the necessity for extensive recruitment to fill up the depleted ranks. But in the far west, much more than in the east, the peasant is possessed of little “national consciousness”, if any. Wars and armies have been his greatest tribulation through the centuries. Fight against the Japanese? Who are they? The peasant has never seen one. He doesn’t read and there are no newspapers anyway. The enemy depicted to him by the recruiting officer is unreal. He listens to the stories of Japanese atrocities in Nanking, etc. They sound like fairy tales out of history. He picks up his hoe and goes back to his fields. There are no recruits. The peasant knows no enemy but the landlord who takes 50% of his crop, or more.

How to meet this problem? Conscription ! Press-gangs whose methods are redolent of the Middle Ages in Europe descend on the villages, round up the able-bodied youths and take them under guard to the nearest training camp. The youths complain. Who will plant the crops; who will harvest them? The older ones left behind echo the same thought. But to no avail. If there is resistance, a few are shot as an example to the others. The others are marched off, roped or chained together like galley slaves. A comrade who travelled to Chungking from Ichang on the Yangtze River told me he saw 80 such “recruits” roped together, lying on the deck of the ship, with armed guards placed over them. In villages where he stayed during his travels, the young men would barricade themselves inside their houses when the recruiting squads came along. In several villages near Chungking there were regular massacres of peasants resisting conscription. These are facts which foreign newspaper correspondents do not cable abroad. Most of these journalists are (as were their confrères in Spain) enthusiasts for the People’s Front. If there is something rotten in this state of Denmark, they believe it should be covered up, because to criticize “our side” would be to help Japan. There was one honorable exception: Donald M. Davies, Associated Press correspondent in Chungking, who reported in The Nation (New York) scenes of “recruiting” he had witnessed near Chungking, at the same time lifting a corner or two of the curtain enshrouding the inner activities of the Chiang Kai-shek government. He was promptly dismissed: AP’s formal pretext was that none of their correspondents is allowed to write for any publication except through AP. We may be sure, however, that Chungking and the AP worked together in this matter.

Chungking’s unwritten formula for the war against Japan would read, if written, “Win the support of the masses, but leave the social relationships unchanged.” This is why, in reality, an impassible gulf separates the government from the masses. In Spain, the Popular Front “uniting the whole nation” was a political fiction which contradicted the social reality, but it had the appearance of a reality because of the large membership and following which the workers’ parties enjoyed. In China, especially when one considers the size of the population, neither the Kuomintang nor the Communist party has any real mass following. The following of the CP is confined to the area of Northeastern Shensi, where the 8th Route Army is in control, to the central China area (very small) where the New Fourth Army dominates, a small area in Kwangsi, and apart from this to certain circles of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia.

The Kuomintang rests exclusively on the army and the bureaucracy and is hated by the masses. Hence the “People’s Anti-Japanese United Front” is a political fiction, an unprincipled congregation of CP and Kuomintang bureaucrats united for defense of the status quo. The Kuomintang sits in the seat of power precisely because there is no mass movement, and because its beginnings have been stifled very largely by this “People’s Anti-Japanese Front” whose sole accomplishment has been the gratuitous handing of military victories to Japan. When fresh events force the oppressed masses on the road of struggle, the Fourth Internationalists will have their day. We are obliged by all the circumstances to confine ourselves to modest efforts for the present, mainly propaganda and the establishment of points of support among the masses, first of all the workers. I do not doubt that these efforts will bear fine fruit in the not too distant future.

Japan is facing acute difficulties. The Tokyo imperialists have bitten off much more than they can chew. They calculated that by occupying all of eastern China they could force the early capitulation of Chiang Kai-shek. But this has not happened. With help from Britain and the USA, Chiang continues to “resist”, that is, continues to refuse to agree to Japan’s demands. The fight in China now is not really one between China and Japan, in which China fights for her independence. It is a fight between Japan, on the one hand, and Britain and America on the other, for the enslavement of China. The Anglo-American entente in the Far East, however, is not an entirely happy affair. The aims and ambitions of the two great powers clash at many points and there are audible undertones of hostility between them. That is why Japan can proceed with impunity against the trade interests of both, as she is doing. But still Japan’s position is difficult. So far she has found it impossible to construct a central “puppet” government and the “occupied” areas are therefore still under regional administrations. A central puppet government is absolutely essential, both as a foil to Chiang’s regime (since it will not submit) and in order that Japan may reap the economic benefits of conquest. The cost of maintaining a huge army of occupation in China is becoming unbearable. It eats up the fruits of conquest. Then, too, Japan’s capital resources have been so depleted by the military campaign that there is insufficient capital available for the exploitation of China. Even when it is a question of finding the cash to buy a building from British interests in the Japanese-occupied section of Shanghai, the negotiations bog down for lack of ready money.

To secure funds for the prosecution of the war and for carrying out ambitious economic schemes in China, Japan is trying desperately to expand her foreign exports. This requires heavier imports of raw materials, especially raw cotton and wool. But there is nothing with which to pay for such imports. The specie reserves are nearing vanishing point. This situation recently compelled the government to introduce a bill in the Diet authorizing the Bank of Japan (government-owned) to issue more notes against diminished reserves. Now it is proposed to devalue the yen by 30% in a desperate attempt to regain some of the lost export markets.

The effects of the war upon the different classes in Japanese society have, of course, varied. Government control of economic life, the war bonds which the banks (finance capitalists) have been compelled to absorb, and the inability of the bourgeoisie generally to cash in on the army conquests, have engendered dissatisfaction with the ruling military clique. Hiranuma replaced Konoye because war needs required further inroads on the big concentrations of wealth. and Konoye was too close to the owners of these sources. Hiranuma is completely the tool of the military. Government regulation of industry and trade had dispossessed large numbers of the shopkeeping bourgeoisie. They have been flocking to China in the hope of recouping themselves, but this ruined country offers no prospects to the petty capitalist or the capitalist who has lost his capital. Many of these people come to Shanghai or other points, dissipate their little remaining money, and then return home to Japan bitterly disillusioned. I have spoken with a few of these people and know their thoughts well. They are turning against the ruling class, for military victories which bring no economic benefits no longer have any luster. The peasants are also hard hit. Curtailment of Japan’s imports in order to cut down the adverse trade balance has made fertilizer scarce, for example, little of it being produced in Japan, while the industries making it (chemicals) have been drafted for war purposes. Then, too, horses are being virtually confiscated for the front – this is always a step the peasant rebels against. Agricultural prices have fallen while the cost of manufactured commodities has risen sky high. This creates an impossible situation for the peasant. Meanwhile the villages are being drained of their manhood to keep the front supplied with cannon fodder. The productivity of the land is declining, but government regulation of farm prices prevents the peasant from lessening the gap between the price of his produce and the prices of manufactured articles. A huge army has to be fed. Ruined China cannot entirely feed it. The Japanese peasant must submit to confiscatory prices.

The military coup of Feb. 26, 1936, when a number of young officers slew the heads of the government, was a direct reflection of agrarian dissatisfaction. It may well be that a new crisis is on the way. The 1936 coup led directly to the invasion of China the following year. What is there now to offer to allay the discontent in the countryside? It is indubitable that the Japanese ruling clique is nearly at the end of its tether. A great revolution in China would have toppled it from the throne of power. The army is shot through with discontent. This is clearly revealed in diaries found on killed or captured Japanese soldiers. At least half a million Japanese soldiers have been killed since the war started, and probably twice that number wounded. The government admits nothing but the smallest figures, but the people have their own way of calculating such things.

Demands for man-power for the army have led to a shortage of industrial labor, and thus far, in essential respects, the Japanese proletariat has benefited from the war. Wages have risen, often more than the cost of living. The Labor Bureau of the Welfare Ministry reported last week that munition workers are earning as much as Yen 10,000 a year – an unheard-of wage. These, of course, are exceptional cases. But average wages have gone up considerably. From a daily wage averaging not more than 50 sen, there has been an increase to Yen 10 and even more. This “prosperity” will not last very long if the military operations continue. The ruling clique will be obliged to attack the workers’ living standards. And then the fat will be in the fire. For the present, however, war prosperity has kept the workers quiescent, though there are innumerable grievances on various scores. For all “ordinary” members of the population in Japan, life has become a nightmare of rules, regulations, restrictions, some of an extremely reactionary character, on personal conduct. The life of the individual is being prescribed by the government down to the last detail. It is the middle class which feels this loss of liberty first. The workers, “accustomed” to being enslaved and ordered about in feudal fashion, will take time to rebel. There is no doubt that the rulers of Japanese society are sitting on top of a volcano. That it has not exploded ere this, is entirely due to the hopelessly bankrupt policies of the “People’s Front” in China, which have given the Japanese imperialists a series of quite important military victories, no matter how much the Stalinists may belittle them. That the volcano will explode is, in my opinion, certain. The great danger is a headless revolution, for there is no revolutionary leadership, and thus far the ruling clique has been able to divert mass discontent, to a large extent, into patriotic channels. If, however, a social upheaval in Japan should coincide with a similar upheaval in China, or if the one can precipitate the other, the prospects will be fine. There is, of course, the possibility that a European war may come to the aid of the Japanese rulers, enable them to further their aims in China, give them a breathing spell in which to consolidate what they have won.

I realize that I have drawn a far from complete picture of the situation in China and Japan, but that in any case is impossible within the compass of a letter.

SHANGHAI, Mar. 1939

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