This letter represents one part of a vigorous exchange among ‘Left Opposition’ comrades regarding developments and strategy in the beginnings of the Chinese Revolution. This letter has particular significance as in it Preobrazhensky questions Trotsky’s positions as regards the stages and historic tasks before the Chinese working class at that time.
Preobrazhensky’s challenge to Trotsky calls into question the formulations at the heart of Trotsky’s ‘Theory of Permanent Revolution’ and he defends Lenin’s somewhat more conservative positions which posit that an historical stage of the “Democratic dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry” is necessary prior to the establishment of socialism. This debate still has currency amongst revolutionary socialists. Adherents of a form of the theory advocated here by Preobrazhensky include U.S. Socialist Workers Party members Joseph Hansen (see The Theory of the Cuban Revolution 1961) and later Jack Barnes (See Their Trotsky and Ours) who call for the establishment of a “Workers and Farmers Government” as a precursor to the establishment of a socialist regime
Trotsky & Preobrazhensky, Letters on the Chinese Revolution
The Reply of Preobrazhensky
From New International, Vol.3 No.2, April 1936, pp.59.
I consider your raising the Chinese question inopportune. Why so? Because, according to all indications, the Chinese revolution is in a stage of reflux. We have plenty of time before a new upsurge. During this time we will have ample opportunity for a fundamental study of Chinese history, its economic life at present, the relation of classes, and the dynamics of the development of the entire country. As you know, there never was unanimity among us on the Chinese question. Neither Radek, Smilga nor myself are of an age to change our views under the influence of new arguments in politics (all the more so, under the influence of repeating old ones). Our views can be influenced only by new facts of decisive importance. If the Canton insurrection was an adventure – and it was undubitably that, i.e., it was not an undertaking that grew out of the mass movement – then how can such an undertaking create a new situation, a starting point for new experience and a revaluation of all former conceptions? It is impermissible to consider the Canton insurrection as an adventure, and at the same time try to strip another hide from this ox for such a revaluation.
I candidly confess that to all outward appearances I emerged defeated out of my controversy with you on the Chinese question ( I think it was either early or in the middle of November 1927) but I was not convinced. I have pondered these themes more than once subsequently, but my conclusion still remains the same: you are wrong. Here are my views in brief.
Your position is strong only in its external impressiveness, only in its schematic simplicity and clarity, but it is not viable. The analogy with the course of our revolutions speaks not for you but against you. We had an unsuccessful bourgeois revolution in 1903. Despite the fact that the bourgeoisie even at that time had revealed itself to be a counter-revolutionary force (during the December uprising), our party oriented the proletariat towards a new bourgeois-democratic revolution, as a necessary stage in the future struggle for socialism, under a new relation of forces. Was Lenin right or wrong when, even back in 1915-1916, i.e., after advancing the slogan of turning the imperialist war into a civil war, he considered it necessary for Russia, during the first stage, to orient towards the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and not the dictatorship of the proletariat; while he deemed puerile the position of Bukharin and Pyatakov (who spoke of advancing the slogan of a direct socialist revolution). I think Lenin was right. And it was only after the bourgeois-democratic revolution was achieved, but not completed, in February, that Lenin advanced the slogan of dictatorship for the proletariat, the slogan of revolution which must, en route, complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and pass on to the socialist reconstruction of society. Meanwhile, both of the Chinese revolutions have not yet given us what we obtained from February alone, neither in the sense of material conquests, nor, what is more important, in the sense of creating the conditions for the organization of workers’ and peasants’ Soviets on a mass scale, something we obtained immediately after the downfall of Czarism. On the other hand, I do not believe that in China today, any sort of movement is secured in the bourgeois direction along evolutionary lines, as the peaceful withering away of feudal remnants was secured in Germany after the unsuccessful revolution in 1848. My summary: China still faces a colossal, bitter and protracted struggle for such elementary things as the national unification of China, let alone the colossal problem of the agrarian bourgeois-democratic revolution. It is impossible to say today whether the Chinese petty bourgeoisie will be able to create any sort of parties analogous to our SRs, or whether such parties will be created by the Right wing communists who split off and so on. One thing alone is clear. The hegemony of the future movement still belong the the proletariat, but the social content of the first stage of the future third Chinese revolution cannot be characterized as a socialist overturn. You will hardly be able to show, if we are always to resort to analogies, that the present situation in China is the stage between February and October, only extended over a period of years. There has been no February in China, the movement was smashed on the threshold to February, although in some things matters progressed even beyond February (the counter-revolutionary spirit of the entire big and middle bourgeoisie, of the kulaks and mercantile capital). Your fundamental error lies in the fact that you determine the character of a revolution on the basis of who makes it, which class, i.e., by the effective subject, while you seem to assign secondary importance to the objective social content of the process. The November revolution in Germany was not made by the bourgeoisie, but no one considers this revolution as proletarian. The revolution of 1789 was brought to its completion by the petty bourgeoisie but no one has characterized the Great French Revolution as a petty bourgeois revolution. The Chinese revolution will be led from its outset by the proletariat and it will exact payment for this from the very beginning, but notwithstanding this fact, the first stage of this revolution will remain a stage of the bourgeois-democratic overturn, while the composition of the functioning and state organized forces will remain that of – the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.
One word on your remark about ignoring the “many-millioned peasantry and the agrarian revolution”. You refer to it as a “pitiable objection”, and add “Zinoviev” in brackets. You could have hardly forgotten that both Radek and myself have raised this objection to you. I am not opposed to sharp attacks in principled polemics between friends but I am opposed to being ambushed together with Radek under the pseudonym Zinoviev. We are quite able to engage in battle under our own honorably acquired names.
I have a very urgent request to make of you, Leo Davidovich: if you write a reply in refutation and send it to our entire exile commune, have my letter on China typed and sent out, too. But in general, as I have already remarked, I am not in favor of a discussion on this question at this time. Nor do I consider our differences as essential, i.e., we have always been unanimous on what the Chinese CP should do in practise, at the present time and when a new upswing takes place in the revolution.