Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) was a founder of Chinese Communism and, later, a Trotskyist critic of Stalinism and Maoism.
Born into a wealthy family in Anhui, Chen participated in the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 which overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. Like many intellectuals, he was dissatisfied with the dictatorial rule of President Yuan Shikai and was part of a new generation who proclaimed the need for profound cultural renewal in China.
From the pages of his New Youth magazine, Chen wrote that the task was “to fight Confucianism, the old tradition of virtue and rituals, the old ethics and the old politics… the old learning and the old literature.”
This new cultural movement promoted ideas of democracy, modern science and women’s liberation.
However, demands for national self-determination soon collided with Japanese imperialism. Illusions in the US President Woodrow Wilson were cruelly dashed at Versailles, when the imperialist powers handed over to Japan Germany’s rights to China's Shandong Province.
Chinese youth rose in fury against the weakness of the Peking Government on 4 May 1919; the “May Fourth” movement spread across the country, attacking traitorous ministers and holding mass demonstrations.
As Harold Isaacs has written, the “the October revolution offered [the youth] an example and an inspiration more compelling in its reality. With it came to China belated tributaries of all the main currents of European social thought, democracy, anarchism, syndicalism, and Marxism.”
Radical ideas flourished in journals and societies in schools and universities. It was in this context that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in 1920, with Chen, then a professor at Peking National University, amongst its founding members.
In a nation under the grip of foreign imperialists and ripped apart by feuding warlords, the young CCP faced the problem of how to relate to the bourgeois-nationalist movement in China, led at the time by Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang (KMT).
The policy of the Comintern was for the CCP to enter the KMT as a “bloc within” and seek to win influence in that nationalist movement. However, the policy downplayed Lenin’s warning at the Second Congress in 1920 that even in a national-revolutionary movement the independence of proletarian organisations must be preserved, “even in their embryonic form”.
The development of the working-class movement quickly took a secondary position to the Soviet Union’s diplomatic relations with Sun Yat-sen, and when Michael Borodin took his post as an adviser to Sun in 1923, it was as a representative of the politbureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union rather than the Comintern. His brief was to boost the KMT.
As Stalinism took hold in the Comintern, it declared that the immediate task facing China was the national revolution against the imperialists, and it accorded a central role to the KMT. As Isaacs wrote, the “elevation of the ‘national united front,’ or the ‘bloc of four classes,’ into a mystic fetish to be preserved at all and any cost, had served to bind the Chinese Community Party securely to the bootstraps of the Kuomintang, the workers and peasants to the bourgeoisie.” The latter was increasingly militarised with Russian support and equipped with Soviet methods of agitation.
Chen’s misgivings at this strategy deepened as the working-class movement in China began to develop in its scale and militancy. As Trotsky put it in September 1926: “The revolutionary struggle in China since 1925 has entered a new phase, which is characterised above all by the active intervention of broad layers of the proletariat... The peasants are unquestionably being drawn into motion to an increasing degree. At the same time, the commercial bourgeoisie, and the elements of the intelligentsia linked with it, are breaking off to the right, assuming a hostile attitude towards strikes, communists and the USSR.”
Chen insisted on breaking with the nationalists to form a “bloc without”, though his demands were consistently rebuffed by the Comintern. Despite his doubts, he reluctantly implemented Comintern policy.
In April 1927 the Comintern demanded that CCP militias in Shanghai disarm in the face of Chiang Kai-shek’s approaching armies. The KMT put an abrupt end to its alliance with the CCP by massacring thousands of Communists and purging them from all areas under KMT control.
Chen resigned as General Secretary and was scapegoated by the Stalinists for alleged “opportunism” when he opposed the Comintern’s new policy of forcing uprisings in the second half of 1927 from a position of extreme weakness. The new leadership of the CCP ignored his opinion.
A Trotskyist opposition soon developed in the CCP. They began to issue underground publications and form independent organisations. In 1929, Chen and his followers were expelled from the CCP and led a separate existence until 1931, when all the oppositionists merged under the banner of the International Communist League.
The Trotskyists were few and struggled to play a major role in the class struggle, though they conducted patient agitation in the factories and raised the democratic slogan for a National Assembly against the KMT’s military dictatorship. For this they were denounced by the Stalinists as “agents of Chiang Kai-shek” and at the same time lost many of their best comrades to Chiang Kai-shek’s terror. In 1932, Chen and 11 others were arrested and sentenced to heavy prison terms.
According to Pierre Broué, while in prison in 1936, Chen “proposed to call into question the Trotskyist characterisation of the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state. He stressed that in the USSR the working class had been driven completely out of the state apparatus, and proposed the new definition, a ‘bureaucratic state’.”
Though Chen drifted from the Trotskyist section in China upon his release from prison in 1937, Broué insists he should not be “regarded as a renegade who abandoned the ideas of his whole life on the eve of his death.”
Rather, “he is the symbol of a generation which carried the Communist International on its shoulders to storm heaven and then was crushed under the load of its degeneration”.