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Book Review: 'Prophets Unarmed - Chinese Trotskyists in Revolution, War, Jail and the Return from Limbo'

Unarmed and Unforgiven

'Prophets Unarmed: Chinese Trotskyists in Revolution, War, Jail and the Return from Limbo'. Edited by Gregor Benton (Haymarket $55)

A 1,200-page volume on a political movement that existed for just twenty-five years and had at most a few thousand supporters (and generally far fewer than that), this is an exhaustive study of Trotskyism in China, from 1927 to 1952. It is based primarily on memoirs written years after the events or interviews with elderly former participants, as there are very few original documents surviving.

In the 1920s, many young Chinese left-wingers spent time in Moscow, being indoctrinated and learning how to organise political activity. Some of them came under ‘Left Opposition’ influences, especially from Karl Radek, who was one of their teachers. Many of those who sympathised with Trotsky, or were thought to do so, were sent back to China, where they tried to build some kind of movement in opposition to the Chinese ‘Communist’ Party (CCP). Later, Trotsky-supporters were kept in Moscow, where they could be more easily controlled.

The best-known of Chinese Trotskyists is Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the CCP and its first leader. He was held by Stalinists to be responsible for the failure of the Chinese ‘Revolution’ in 1927, when Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Guomindang violently clamped down on the CCP and its supporters (though he and others were basically just following the Comintern’s line). He was expelled from the CCP in 1929, and died in 1942.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Trotskyists in China were brutally suppressed by, at various times, the CCP, the Guomindang and the Japanese occupiers: imprisoned, tortured, executed. Many CCP members regarded them as Japanese spies. After the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, there was a civil war between the CCP and the Guomindang, during which the Trotskyists were too weak to be anything other than bystanders. In 1948–9 there were two Trotskyist organisations, with just a couple of hundred members in total. A number left the country when the CCP took power in 1949; those who stayed behind were for the most part not politically active.

In December 1952 the remaining Trotskyists in China were arrested and imprisoned, apparently in order to gain more support for the Mao regime from the USSR. These arrests were not publicised or made part of a wider political campaign. Some prisoners were not released until 1979, and they have never been formally ‘rehabilitated’, even posthumously. Opposition to Trotskyism remains part of the CCP’s political line, perhaps because, Benton suggests, such opposition ‘is a badge of commitment to political monolithism.’

There are some references to disputes among Trotskyists as to whether post-1949 China was state capitalist or bureaucratic-collectivist, but unfortunately there are no details of what these disagreements involved. Presumably this is because, as the editor states, ‘the focus of the volume is on Chinese Trotskyism as an active political force rather than as detached commentary.’ But it would have been good to see more on these theoretical issues, rather than so much on long-forgotten doctrinal disputes and splits.

If you are interested in the topic but cannot face a book of this length, reading the editor’s forty-page introduction would probably suffice.   

PB