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Fruits and perils of the ‘bloc within’: The Comintern and Asia 1919-25 (Part 3)

 

 

Chen Duxiu

 

By John Riddell

 

January 28, 2018 
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary website — The most advanced experience of Communist alliance with national revolutionists occurred in Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) prior to the Baku Congress. However, it was not mentioned at the congress, even though one of its architects – the Dutch Communist Maring (Henk Sneevliet) – was present in the hall. Maring had been a leader for many years of revolutionary socialist Dutch settlers in Indonesia, who had achieved the remarkable feat of transforming their group into one predominantly indigenous in leadership, membership, and programmatic orientation. The key to success had been a close alliance with a mass national-revolutionary organization of the type described by the Second Congress, called Sarekat Islam.

 

Their tactic, which they called a “bloc within,” involved building a Communist fraction within the Islamic organization both by sending comrades into the movement and recruiting from its ranks. The bloc with Sarekat Islam, which started up before the Comintern was formed, had resulted in consolidation of a small but viable Communist party in Indonesia.[1]

 

Maring’s silence at Baku and his evasive report to the Second Congress (1920) probably reflected uncertainty whether the Sarekat Islam bloc was compatible with Comintern policy, particularly since Sarekat Islam was a pan-Islamic movement of the type that was roundly condemned by that Congress. The Baku Congress would seem to contradict the Second Congress pronouncement, at least in spirit. Two years later, Tan Malaka, a leader of the Comintern’s Dutch East Indies party, helped convince the Fourth Congress (1922) to adopt a more flexible policy on pan-Islamism.[2]

 

In the late spring of 1921, the Comintern sent Maring on a mission to China. Based on his subsequent actions, he must clearly have thought that the Sarekat Islam experience was relevant to his Chinese assignment.

 

The Far East in upheaval

 

The restabilization seen in the Middle East and Central Asia in 1921 did not extend to the Far East. A Japanese interventionist army still occupied Vladivostok and Russia’s Pacific maritime provinces; counterrevolutionary armies operated that the region and in Mongolia. Through an extended campaign lasting through 1922, Soviet forces defeated the White Guard armies and forced the Japanese army to withdraw. In the process, pro-Soviet forces prevailed in Mongolia, which regained its independence as an ally of Soviet Russia.

 

To the south, however, China remained dismembered by rival warlord armies and the intrusion of many rival imperialist powers, including Japan. The revolution of 1911 had overthrown the emperor and established a republic, but reactionary and centrifugal forces soon gained the upper hand. Sun Yatsen (Sun Zhongshan), a leader of the revolution and first president of the republic, launched a political movement, the Guomindang (GMD – also known as Kuomintang or the Chinese “Nationalists”), to seek realization of the revolution’s progressive ideals. In 1921, Sun established a regional government in Guangdong, an important southern province. Meanwhile, in July 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed by a small group of revolutionary intellectuals. The GMD and the CCP remained the main actors in Chinese political life until the triumph of the Communist-led revolution in 1949.

 

The Moscow congresses: Progress and frustration

 

The Comintern’s Third World Congress held its final week of sessions in the very month when the CCP was formed, July 1921. The International was gripped by a grave crisis arising from events in Germany, and no time was found in the three-week event for a substantive discussion of the colonial and semi-colonial countries. Three sets of theses, reflecting experience of communists in Iran, India, and China, were submitted to the congress, but they were not taken up. Efforts to draft a resolution on the East were unsuccessful. The single session dedicated to the East provoked a strong protest from M.N. Roy for its slipshod approach, while French delegate Charles-André Julien complained that “the main role has been played by cinematography.”[3]

 

The three sets of draft theses differed in their approach, reflecting a diversity of experience in Iran, India, and China. M.N. Roy’s draft stressed the revolutionary potential of the nascent proletariat in the colonies; drafts by Sultanzade and Zhang Tailei called for a revolutionary anticolonial alliance, anticipating what became known as a revolutionary anti-imperialist united front.

 

There were similar frictions at the Second, Fourth, and Fifth World Congresses regarding the weight accorded to discussion of the East. What is more, none of the three major expanded Executive Committee conferences of the Comintern in 1922 and 1923 took up struggles of colonized peoples.[4] The tensions on this issue reflected an underlying disproportion. The victims of colonial and semi-colonial subjugation, as Lenin had pointed out, made up 70% of the world’s population, but in 1921 communists from these regions amounted to only about 1% of the International’s membership. The Comintern’s magazine Kommunistische Internationale devoted about 10% of its articles in the early 1920s to the “East,” a creditable achievement under the circumstances but far less than what was needed to develop policy for still poorly understood regions.

 

Delegates from Asia did not fail to note the disrespect suggested at certain moments of the congresses. In the Third Congress, the esteemed Bulgarian Communist Vasil Kolarov announced, just at the start of substantive discussion of the Eastern question, that speeches would be limited to five minutes and would not be translated. No measures of this type were adopted in any other early Comintern congress. Kolarov brushed off the protests by Roy and Julien with the remark that the Eastern question had been adequately discussed the previous year. Delegates from the East should be satisfied, he said, with the opportunity afforded them to “make contact with the international proletariat.”[5] The following year, at the Fourth Congress, two full sessions were devoted to the Eastern question and a resolution was adopted. Even so, pent up frustrations boiled over. Delegations from 10 Asian countries joined to “protest the fact that the Presidium and the Congress … have not devoted appropriate attention to the question of the East and the colonies.” Complaints regarding handling of the Eastern question at this congress were unique in frequency and vehemence. The response from the Presidium were dismissive. Replying to Eastern delegates’ complaints that their work did not meet with interest, Radek stated that “interest in parties is tied to their deeds.”[6]

 

More positively, the Fourth Congress proceedings give evidence of increasing collaboration and cross-fertilization among the delegates from colonized and racialized peoples. In fact, both the 1921 and 1922 congresses display confident self-assertion and often effective pushback from the national delegations.[7] The submission to the Third Congress of three resolutions on the anti-colonial struggle was surely the result of a common project. The joint protest to the Fourth Congress showed a high degree of mutual confidence. The shift at the Fourth Congress toward a more positive assessment of pan-Islamism resulted from protests by delegates of both Indonesia and Tunisia. Two New York-based delegates from the African Black Brotherhood to the Fourth Congress secured adoption of Theses on the Black Question reflecting a broadly pan-Africanist viewpoint.[8]

 

The Comintern remained unique in its firm commitment to colonial freedom and racial equality, but complaints about insufficiencies in this domain persisted. Frustrations found expression again in the Fifth Congress (1924), when Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) famously upbraided Communist parties in the metropolitan powers for doing “more or less zero” to aid the struggle for colonial freedom.[9] Such complaints persisted through the 1920s.

 

When metropolitan parties did step up collaboration with Communists in the colonies, the results were not necessarily all that positive. Indian historian Sobhanlal Datta Gupta tells us that the British Communist Party was chronically patronizing in its relations to the party in India, with the result that Indian Communists who had lived in Britain or collaborated with the British movement had privileged status back home. Roy’s independence of thought led to his expulsion from the Comintern in 1929. Many Communist parties in Asia were able “to carve out their own space rather autonomously in conformity with local conditions,” Datta Gupta says. “[B]ut in India this did not happen.” When the Comintern came to be strictly aligned with the Russian Communist Party, he adds, “[f]or the Communist parties the losses incurred were incalculable.”[10]

 

Opportunity in China

 

At the time of Maring’s mission in 1921, China and the Soviet Republic can be said to been linked by a natural affinity. Both countries had been battered by imperialist interventions, and both were struggling to unify their territories. Both countries had recently experienced revolutions that overthrew ancient empires. Their populations consisted mostly of unlettered peasants. They shared an immensely long Asian frontier.

 

The situation in China also bore a similarity to events in Turkey: an insurgent nationalist movement was challenging the grip of imperialism and its local allies. But in contrast to the Kemalist movement, the GMD, while bourgeois in leadership, had a progressive cast; its leader Sun Yatsen advocated a form of socialism for China. Starting in 1918, Soviet diplomats made repeated attempts to establish contact with Sun, stressing their perception of “common aims” in terms of “popular liberation” and “enduring peace.” On 28 August 1921 Sun responded, writing to Soviet foreign affairs commissar Georgii Chicherin of his intense interest in Soviet activity, particularly in education of the new generation, which he aimed to conduct “in the same way as Moscow has done.”[11]

 

Maring’s discussions in 1921 with Sun Yatsen helped set in motion Soviet aid to the GMD, which contributed significantly during the next five years to its rising power and military success.

 

Anti-imperialist unity in China

 

The nascent Communist movement in China faced a daunting challenge. While communism in Europe grew out of a long-established Marxist movement, there was no Marxist tradition in China. The few dozen pioneer Chinese Communists had little class-struggle experience and few contacts in the working class. The country was vast, with an immense population. The Communists’ isolation was all the more striking compared to the Guomindang, which – although not structured as a mass party – had immense prestige flowing from its continuity with the 1911 revolution and the reputation of Sun Yatsen.

 

Maring’s initial observations of the Communist movement, as summarized by historian Alexander Pantsov, was that its members must find a way to work within the GMD. This would, Maring believed:

 

make it easier for the CCP [Chines Communist Party] to get in touch with the workers and soldiers of South China, where the government was in the hands of Sun Yatsen’s supporters. Maring emphasized that the CCP must not “give up its independence, on the contrary, the comrades must together decide which tactics they should follow within the KMD … The prospects for propaganda by the small groups [of Communists], as long as they are not linked to the GMD, are dim.”[12]

 

Maring shared his views with leading comrades in China, who were quite resistant.

 

Toward a consensus

 

Independently of this discussion in China, the Comintern convened a conference in Moscow of Communist and national revolutionaries from the Far East, held on 21 January – 1 February 1922. Among about 140 participants from Asia, the largest delegations came Korea, China, Japan, and Mongolia. Notably, GMD representatives took part.

 

The main reports reiterated the Second Congress strategy of support for national-revolutionary forces while applying it to different national contexts. Directly addressing the GMD delegates, Bolshevik leader G.I. Safarov declared:

 

We are supporting and will continue to support your struggle insofar as it is a matter of a nationalistic and democratic uprising for national emancipation. But at the same time we shall independently carry on our Communist work of organizing the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses of China.[13]

 

Meanwhile, in China, Maring’s proposal to the Chinese Communists went further than conditional support to the GMD; it involved joining the movement and carrying out Communist work within it. Meeting resistance, Maring pressed his case, bringing into play the authority of the Comintern Executive Committee (ECCI). In response, the party’s Second Congress (15-23 July 1922) resolved:

 

[I]t is imperative that the proletariat gain freedom and join the democratic revolutionary movement. There is no other way. [This] does not mean that the proletariat surrenders to the democratic elements who represent only the bourgeoisie…. Yet it is a fact that there must be a temporary alliance with the democratic elements to overthrow the exploitation by our common enemies – the feudal warlords internally and the international imperialists externally. … [U]nder no circumstances should [the proletariat] become dependent on them or merge with them…. It must assemble in the political party of the proletariat – under the CP’s banner – and independently construct its own movement.[14]

 

The Chinese party leadership continued to oppose aspects of the ECCI’s policy toward the GMD through to the disastrous collapse of the alliance in 1927. Initially, this alliance appears to have aided the CCP’s growth and integration into working-class struggles, increasing its membership into the tens of thousands by 1925. The party’s general secretary, Chen Duxiu, commented the following year that “[T]he victory of the United Front will of course be a victory for the bourgeoisie. But only in the United Front will the young proletariat be able to fight by actual deeds and not by the mere avowal of principles.”[15]

 

The Chinese party position was essentially reiterated in a directive sent by Comintern leader Karl Radek to Maring in August 1922. The full text, published in English in 1994, has been aptly summarized by Pantsov as stressing “absolute independence of the Communist party inside the Guomindang.” The directive “pointed out that intra-party cooperation with the GMD must last only until the CCP became a mass political party in its own right as a result of the deepening of the ‘gulf between the proletarian, bourgeois, and petty-bourgeois elements’ in the alliance.’” (For Radek’s full text, see footnote.)[16]

 

Fourth World Congress: A moment of hesitation

 

The report to the Comintern’s Fourth Congress written in November by Chen Duxiu, by then a GMD member, essentially restates the Second Congress and Radek positions.[17] Given this apparent consensus, it is thus puzzling that the Fourth Congress, held in Moscow 5 November-5 December 1922, had very little to say about China.

 

As stated, the anti-colonialist struggle in Asia was fully in focus at the Fourth Congress. While celebrating the expulsion of imperialist armies from Turkey and the Soviet Far East, the congress also took note of the International’s extension into Africa and of the global Black liberation struggle. The concept of unity with national liberation struggles was reformulated as an “anti-imperialist united front.” A resolution on Black liberation was adopted that expressed the spirit of anti-imperialist unity by recognizing its kinship with the Second Congress theses on national and colonial struggles. Tarar Boudengha, a Tunisian Communist, highlighted survivals of racist prejudices within some Communist parties and the inadequate support for colonial freedom struggles. He received strong support from Safarov, Leon Trotsky, and the congress resolution.[18]

 

The one speaker on China, Liu Renjing, talked of the Guomindang only briefly and in a downbeat mode. Noting his party’s decision to enter the GMD, he posed it as a form of “competition with this party,” an effort whose goal was “to split the [Guomindang] party.” In the resolution on the Eastern Question, the GMD went unmentioned except for a parenthetical criticism that some of its representatives advocated “state socialism.”[19]

 

This skepticism is expressed more strongly in a text by Radek found in the Comintern archives under the heading, “Resolution of the Fourth Congress.” Radek dismisses the GMD as a force allied with imperialism and does not propose that the CP members support it. The text was presumably a working draft; it is not mentioned in the congress proceedings and was not published at the time. Radek’s congress speech to the congress is pessimistic regarding prospects in China but does not take up GMD policy.[20]

 

One possible reason for this shift in GMD policy is perhaps indicated in the speech by Liu, which laid stress on the GMD’s ouster from government in Guandong, a setback that was soon to be made good. Following the congress, however, on 12 January 1923, the ECCI adopted a statement hailing the Guomindang as “the only serious national-revolutionary group in China” and confirming that Chinese Communists should join it. The ECCI also reaffirmed that the CCP should remain an independent, centralized organization whose main task was activity in the working class to “establish a basis for a powerful mass communist party.”[21]

 

On 26 January, Sun Yatsen signed a basis of collaboration with the Soviet Union. Soviet aid to the GMD soon followed, and the first Soviet military advisors arrived at the GMD’s Whampoa military academy. Meanwhile, CCP members played an increasingly influential role in the GMD. There was some talk of trying to merge the CCP into the large organization and win it over, but CCP and ECCI statements on China hewed closely to the basic established policy.[22]

 

In 1925, however, Comintern policy shifted sharply toward reliance on its GMD alliance. The catalyst for this move seems to have been a discussion between ECCI official Grigorii Voitinsky with Joseph Stalin in April 1925, in which Stalin reportedly expressed surprise that the CCP still existed as a separate organization. A speech by Stalin the following month sketched out a different policy, advocating a shift from united front policy to a bloc in the form of a single workers’ and peasants party, “a bloc of two forces – of the Communist Party and the party of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.”[23]

 

The new policy was adopted and pushed through by the Comintern over the objections raised not only by Chinese Communist leaders but also by Maring and ultimately, within the Bolshevik party, by the United Opposition led by Trotsky, Grigorii Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev. The policy led to disaster. Sun Yatsen had died in March 1925, and the new leadership, under Chiang Kai-shek, steered the GMD toward a more conservative course and greater distance from the CCP. The Communist Party, imprisoned by Moscow-imposed policy, was unprepared for a hostile blow from the GMD. During the revolutionary offensive of 1927, the GMD turned against the CCP, unleashing a terror campaign in which about 20,000 Communists were killed. The party’s influence in the cities was broken, amd the surviving Communists began armed struggle against the KMD in some rural areas.[24]

 

Balance sheet of a strategy

 

During the Comintern era (to 1943), the anti-imperialist united front became a decisive factor only in China. Elsewhere in Asia and Africa, the pace of anti-colonial revolution was much slower than had been anticipated in 1920, when this policy was conceived. Communist parties were also slow to develop mass roots and broad influence. Europe, with its colonial empires still largely intact, remained the centre of world politics and the working-class movement, and thus also the focus of Comintern attention.

 

Nonetheless, during its first years, the Comintern gave attention to and built support in colonial and semi-colonial countries in a manner without parallel in previous socialist history or in the practice of other socialist currents at that time.

 

The grip of “Eurocentrism” was weakening. However, it gave way in the Stalin era to what one could call Moscow-centrism, in which policies dictated by the Comintern to the parties in dependent countries were increasingly aligned to the needs of the ruling elite in Moscow and the state apparatus over which it presided. Major course reversals in Moscow in 1928, 1935, 1941, and 1945 disrupted Communist parties in the Global South as elsewhere, placing in question these party’s credentials as reliable allies of colonial liberation. On the other hand, in many colonial countries, Communist movements developed strong local roots and leaderships; in China and Vietnam they were soon to win state power.

 

The anti-imperialist united front was a logical fit with Comintern strategy in dependent countries. It was adopted universally and without friction and pursued consistently – at least in the early years – in the colonial and semi-colonial regions. This record contrasts with that of its analog, the united front in developed capitalist countries, which the Comintern adopted later (December 1921) and against much resistance, and which was then implemented in fits and starts.

 

The anti-imperialist united front contained an inherent contradiction: the sought-for allies included bourgeois forces which, at best, would march with the Communists along only a limited segment of the road to socialism. Such allies might well break away and become enemies. Coping with this contradiction posed no insuperable difficulties for Communists. However, like implementation of united front policy as a whole, it raised a host of questions that could not be resolved by reference to basic principle but required instead well-honed tactical flair grounded in local experience. This capacity was particularly urgent when, as in China, the Communists undertook to work within a bourgeois-led formation. The Comintern’s founding documents stressed the importance of autonomy and self-reliance for national sections, but even in the early years, this was not always observed in practice.

 

United-front experience in Indonesia contrasts interestingly with that in China. Progress in the Dutch colony was achieved without assistance from abroad, while the Chinese Communists received a great deal of aid and advice from their World Movement. Ultimately, however, the Chinese experience showed the limits of hands-on direction from afar. Useful at first, remote control soon became a handicap.

 

And what of is the relevance of the anti-imperialist united front today? It adds, of course, to the broad corpus of experience that shapes the thinking of today’s movements for social justice. However, the political and social landscape has been transformed. The great antagonists – Comintern and colonial empires – have passed away.

 

It is hazardous to deduce “lessons” from these century-old struggles. Still, the concept of an anti-imperialist united front has been present in some of the varied mass struggles of the new century, such as in Nepal, Venezuela, Bolivia, Greece, and elsewhere. The very flexibility of anti-imperialist united front policy has given it continued relevance in our time.

 

Notes

 

[1]. See Ruth McVey, The Rise of Indonesian Communism (Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell, 1965).

 

[2]. For Maring’s report from Baku see De Tribune, November 3, 1920. For his report to the Second Congress see Riddell, Second Congress Proceedings (Pathfinder, 1991), 1:30-1, 254-60. For the new position on pan-Islamism see Riddell, Fourth Congress (Toward the United Front, Brill/Haymarket, 2012, 1182.

 

[3]. See Riddell, Third Congress (To the Masses), 44 (assessment), 1181-3 (draft theses), 855-6 (Roy), 865 (Julien).

 

[4]. The record of the Executive Committee conferences will appear in Mike Taber, ed. The Communist International at a Crossroads (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

 

[5]. Riddell, Third Congress, 854, 870.

 

[6]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 707.

 

[7]. John Riddell, “The Comintern in 1922: The Periphery Pushes Back,” in Historical Materialism, 22:3-4 (2015), 52-103.

 

[8]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 28-33.

 

[9]. Datta Gupta, Comintern and India, 134-7. Ho Chi Minh’s speech is available online at < https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/ho-chi-minh/works/1924/07/08.htm>

 

[10]. Datta Gupta, Comintern and India, 355, 364-5, 368.

 

[11]. Alexander Pantsov, The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919-1927 (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000), 46; Xenia Eudin and Robert North, Soviet Russia and the East 1920-27 (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1957), 217-21.

 

[12]. Pantsov, Chinese Revolution, 46-7

 

[13]. Comintern, The First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East (London: Hammersmith, 1970), 193-4.

 

[14]. Tony Saich, ed., The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party: Documents and Analysis, (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), 39. For Maring’s account of his role, see Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (New York: Atheneum, 1966), 109. Aspects of Maring’s account have been questioned, see Dov Bing, “Sneevliet [Maring] and the Early Years of the CCP,” in The China Quarterly, 48 (1971), 677-97, and subsequent discussion, ibid., issues 54 and 56.

 

[15]. See:

 

Gregor Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries: Explorations in the History of Chinese Trotskyism, 1921-1952 (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996 (CCP opposition).

 

Michael Weiner, “Comintern in East Asia 1919-1939,” in Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Agnew, eds., The Comintern: A History of Communism from Lenin to Stalin (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1996), 170-1 (CCP growth).

 

Tony Saich, The Origins of the First United Front in China: The Role of Sneevliet (Alias Maring) (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 362 (Chen Duxiu report).

 

[16]. Alexander Pantsov and Gregor Benton, “Did Trotsky Oppose Entering the Guomindang ‘From the First’?” in Republican China, 19:2 (1994), 52-66 (Radek text); Pantsov, Chinese Revolution, 42 (summary). The relevant text of Radek’s memorandum is as follows:

 

The ECCI regards the Guomindang as a revolutionary party that preserves the testaments of the Revolution of 1912 and seeks to build an independent Chinese Republic. In the light of this, the tasks of Communists in China must be as follows; a) The education of ideologically independent elements which must in future form the embryo of the Communist Party; this party will grow in proportion to the growing gulf between proletarian, bourgeois, and petty-bourgeois elements. Up to that time, Communists are obligated to support the Guomindang and that wing of it that is based on the workers and artisans. In pursuit of the implementation of these tasks, Communists must set up groups of supporters inside the Guomindang itself and in trade unions.

 

From these groups must be set up the whole army of propagandists who will propagandize the ideas of the struggle against foreign and Chinese exploiters.

 

Pantsov and Benton explain that all but the first sentence of this passage is missing from the version published in the Soviet Union in 1969 and translated in Saich, Origins of United Front.

 

[17]. Saich, Origins of United Front, 361-7.

 

[18]. For a guide to Fourth Congress debates on the colonial and semi-colonial countries, see Riddell, Fourth Congress, 28-33.

 

[19]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 711-14 (Liu); 1184 (resolution).

 

[20]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 32 (summary); 731-3 (Radek speech). For Radek text, see M.L. Titarenko, VKP(b), Komintern i natsionalʹno-revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie v Kitae: dokumenty, (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1994), 1:119-21; Saich , Rise to Power, 1, 377-8. For a different interpretation of Radek’s role at the congress, see Pantsov 2000, 51-2.

 

[21]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 32; Pantsov, Chinese Revolution, 59. For ECCI resolution, see Titarenko, Komintern, 1:37-8.

 

[22]. Saich, Rise to Power, 60-86.

 

[23]. Pantsov, United Front, 84-91.

 

[24]. For the opposition’s case against Stalin’s policy, see Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1957); Trotsky, Leon Trotsky on China: Introduction by Peng Shu-Tse (New York: Monad Press, 1976); Harold Isaacs, Chinese Revolution.

 

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