Pierre Broué

Chen Duxiu and the Fourth International,

(September 1983)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 2 No. 4, Spring 1990.
Originally published in Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no. 15, September 1983.
Translated by John Archer.
Copied with thanks from the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by David Walters for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan (September 2011).

Once again our thanks are due to Pierre Broué and his translator, John Archer, for the appearance of this essay in our journal, which first appeared in Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no. 15, September 1983. Hopefully it will tempt readers in French to consult his longer study, La question chinoise dens I’lnternationale Communiste (1926–27), published by EDI in 1965. Data already existing in English is not at all rich. Apart from that cited in the preface to Damien Durand’s study, we should also add Wang Fanxi, Chen Duxiu: Father of Chinese Communism in Gregor Benton (ed.), Wild Lilies: Poisonous Weeds, London 1982, pp. 157–67; Conrad Brandt, Stalin’s Failure in China, New York 1958; Dave Frankel, China: Stalin Leads the Way to Defeat, and The Chinese Revolution of 1925–27, and Tony Thomas, Why the Chinese Revolution of 1925–27 was Defeated, in the US Militant, 16 February, 2 March and 14 September 1973; Igor Cornelisen and Peng Shu-Tse, Early Years of the Chinese Communist Party, in Intercontinental Press, Vol. 10, no. 22, 5 June 1972, pp.639–42; Theodore Edwards, Mao Tsetung in the Early Years, in Intercontinental Press, Vol. 14, no. 38, 11 October 1976, pp. 1446–51; Ross Dowson, Chinese Revolutionists in Exile, in International Socialist Review, Vol. 24, no. 3, Summer 1963, pp. 77–80; Lynn Walsh, Trotsky and the Chinese Revolution 1925–27, in the British Militant, 18 January 1977; and Bill Grey, Chinese Menshevism, in Spartacist, no. 15/16, April/May 1970, pp. 5–12. Two other studies, Peter Kuhfus, Chen Duxiu and Leon Trotsky: New Light on their Relationship, in China Quarterly, no. 102, 1985, pp. 253–76, and Richard Clark Kagan, Trotskyism in Shangai 1929–32, in Studies in Comparative Communism, Vol. 10, nos. 1/2, 1977, pp.87–108, are not available to us. The Maoist view of these affairs can be found in Kostas Mavrakis, On Trotskyism: Problems of Theory and History, London 1976, Chapter VI, Stalin and Trotsky on the Chinese Revolution, pp. 126–56; and that of Moscow’s pensioner Wang Ming in Mao’s Betrayal, Moscow 1975.

The attempts of the British Trotskyists, on Trotsky’s own suggestion, to embarrass the Communist Party into campaigning for Chen Duxiu’s release are touched upon in Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Against the Stream, London 1986, pp. 100, 108–10, and in Harry Wicks: a Memorial, London 1989, pp. 9, 47–48.

The history of the Left Opposition and of the Fourth International reveals, despite all the Stalinist falsifications, the importance of the international nucleus which Trotsky initially brought together. That same history also reveals how weak, after a few years, was the role which the ‘old men’ other than Trotsky played or, if you prefer it, the demotion into inferior roles or even the departure pure and simple of the leaders of the Fourth International who had been historic leaders of the Third International in the 1920s.

The Chinese and the American sections of the Left Opposition were without doubt the sections which had emerged most directly from the Communist parties themselves, from their cadres and from their flesh and blood. For that reason, the arrest of Chen Duxiu and his collaborators in 1932 must have been good news for the Chinese Stalinists. Completely officially, in the name of the party, one of the Chinese Stalinists, Bo Ku, did not hesitate to demand that the government of Chiang Kai-shek condemn to death and execute this man, who had been one of the founding fathers of the Chinese Revolution. [1]

Chen Duxiu was not only a historic personage, a scholar, the creator of the modern Chinese language, a writer and a militant who had nourished with his ideas the uprising of the intellectual youth in China, but, even more, he was the founder and the first leader of the Communist Party in his country. [2] His exclusion from the Chinese Communist Party in 1929 had not succeeded in cutting him off from the leading elements who had been through the period when he led the party, and who at least retained their respect for him. He had admirers and, on occasion, protectors high up in nationalist spheres. However, his release in September 1937 did not have any important consequences, and was a completely secondary event in Chinese political history. At the same time, it was the spark which led to the explosion of a serious crisis in the ranks of the Chinese section of the old Left Opposition, which in 1936 had become the Movement for the Fourth International, the organisation which he had founded and led at the beginning of the 1930s up to the time of his arrest.

Here we have tried, if not to explain this development, at least to trace its outlines so that the facts may be known.

An isolated leader

No revolutionary organisation, fraction or group can be thought of as a paradise peopled by individuals whose mutual relations are full of generosity and understanding. Still less likely is that possibility when the organisation finds itself – even for a moment – in opposition to the movement of the masses, isolated and persecuted. Damien Durand (in his article The Birth of the Chinese Left Opposition in Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no. 15, September 1983) showed how much discontent was aroused in the ranks even of the supporters of the Left Opposition when Chen Duxiu joined it, because, for the most part, they identified the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party with the policy which had been applied when he was in control during the decisive years of the Second Chinese Revolution, but which, as we know, had been dictated by the Communist International. The ‘Left’ Oppositionists, like the Stalinists, regarded Chen Duxiu as being ‘rightist’: and they tended to devise ‘opportunist conceptions which they attributed to him as being one of the factors in the decisive defeat of the revolution and of his party. The warmth with which his declaration had been received by Trotsky, and Trotsky’s appeal that the Chinese section of the Left Opposition be constructed around the old militant had been a much appreciated turn of fortune after years of humiliation. At that time he had not respected the feelings of those of his opponents and critics who found themselves thus disavowed in a way which they found completely surprising.

But his opponents did not cease their opposition to him, especially the most convinced, Liu Renjing. [3] He had felt that his ambitions were set back when Chen Duxiu joined in 1929, and was relegated to the fringe of the organisation by his permanent dislike of him, his own factionalism and his disillusionment. Liu Renjing tried to recover his position after Chen Duxiu was arrested. On this point, his correspondence with the International Secretariat and with Trotsky is eloquent; he is the candidate for the succession. Nonetheless there were considerable obstacles. First, the Opposition was severely repressed and saw its forces melt away, and then the handful of cadres, disciples and collaborators of Chen Duxiu, who formed the replacement leadership in the underground, isolated the man who always bore proudly the pseudonym of Niel Sih, which, he said, had been given to him by Trotsky himself.


There was one piece of good fortune in the arrival in China and the intervention in the political life of the Chinese Trotskyists of two foreigners, Harold R. Isaacs, the American, and Frank Glass, a South African. [4] Isaacs was a journalist who edited the China Forum and had been a sympathiser of Stalinism up to that time, breaking with the Stalinists in 1932 on precisely the question of the slanders which the Stalinist leaders wanted him to print about Chen Duxiu. He had already been very critical of the policy of the Communist International in connection with Germany, had read Trotsky and had then turned towards the Trotskyists. This was the period in which he conceived the project of writing a history of the Chinese Revolution, and hired Liu Renjing as a confidential translator. They combined with this task the recruitment of a small group of students in the University of Beijing, Liu Lialiang, Sze Chaosheng, Wang Shupen and Fu Huang. [5] They wanted to make these the cadres of the future. Their nucleus was strongly reinforced by the arrival of Frank Glass, a correspondent in China from the American Press, who had for several years been a leader of the Left Opposition in South Africa, after leaving the Communist Party.

At the beginning of 1935 the group of new disciples of Liu was strong enough at the general members’ meeting on 13 January to be able to insist on the election of a provisional Central Committee in which its members occupied posts of command. This victory was the revenge of Liu Renjing, whose document, Five Years of the Chinese Left Opposition, drafted while he was staying with Isaacs, formed the basis of the new orientation and of the severe condemnation of the ‘opportunism’ of Chen Duxiu which it implies. Moreover, the new leadership, which was barely yet grasping the levers of command of the small organisation numbering hardly more than a hundred members, under the inspiration of Liu, began to settle accounts with Chen Duxiu, against whom they launched accusations which were very banal and at the same time highly debatable: ‘opportunism’, to be sure, but also ... ‘slandering the Chinese Red Army’. The Central Committee voted a resolution calling upon him to recognise his mistakes, on pain of exclusion. The ‘Old Guard’ – at least what was left of it, in particular Chen Qizhang and Yin Kuan [6] – protested against what they regarded as alien, or at any rate hitherto unknown, methods in the organisation. The two veterans were excluded on the spot. Were they moving towards the liquidation of the Chinese section under the form of a sect with Zinovievist morals, by way of this ‘Bolshevisation’ in the Stalinist sense of the term?

The attempt burned out, to begin with, because Trotsky heard quite quickly about what had happened. Isaacs had visited him at Honefoss to discuss his book, and together they discussed at length the history of Communism in China, Chen Dwiu and the positions of Liu Renjing. Not only was Trotsky not convinced by the arguments of his young visitor that Liu was right and that Chen was a ‘traitor’, but soon it was the young American whom Trotsky convinced that Liu’s line was sectarian and his pretentions ridiculous. At the moment when this discussion was developing, a new blow of repression hit the young, inexperienced leadership in China, which was ill-prepared and already penetrated by government agents. All the ‘young’, including Liu, were arrested one after another at the beginning of summer 1935.

It is indeed surprising, though not improbable in the circumstances, that the consequences of the split which had happened some months earlier were very quickly overcome. Glass had been duly warned and had become more experienced and better acquainted with the Chinese scene; he adopted the pseudonym Li Furen, and undertook to put the pieces together again, with the support of the conciliator, Chen Qizhang and despite the initial reservations of others of the older generation, such as Wang Fanxi [7], who had been liberated from prison, and, especially, despite the resolute hostility which Chen Duxiu, in prison, held against those whom he called the ‘hairy men’, the foreigners whom he perhaps regarded as being a Trotskyist repetition of the people like Borodin [8] and the other emissaries. The frankness and good faith with which Glass worked finally overcame all the obstacles. Everyone recognised that Liu Renjing had been bluffing when he represented Glass as an ‘emissary’ of the International Secretariat and took advantage of his lack of familiarity with China to pass off his own politics by way of Glass. Even Chen Duxiu agreed to recognise the reorganisation and the reconciliation which Glass achieved. At the end of 1936 there was formed in Shanghai a Provisional Central Committee of the Chinese section, where not only Li Furen and Chen Qizhang were to be found, but also Yin Kuan and Jiang Chen-tong. Wang Fanxi was back in jail. This was the leadership which Chen Duxiu formally recognised. [9]

But new divergences and in other ways more serious ones, arose with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. Already, in the course of the preceding months, the ‘Old Guard’ of the leadership and especially Chen Qizhang were expressing the wish to place the Japanese aggression at the centre of their politics. In summer 1937, Glass, who was meeting Trotsky at Coyoacan [10], spoke to him of a proposal by Chen Qizhang about taking part throughout China in creating patriotic, anti-Japanese societies on the model of the Committee of National Safety. We know that Chen, in jail, had taken a firm stand in favour of a ‘patriotic’ orientation of this type. At the base of the organisation, on the other hand, there were tendencies rather to consider as a major political crime any policy which would imply showing confidence in the Guomindang government, which has slaughtered the revolution in 1927 – and even on the occasion of a war against Japanese imperialism, which, moreover, they did not believe the Guomindang to be capable even of giving an appearance of waging.

So the rumours about Chen Duxiu’s ‘opportunism’ were redoubled, and fed, moreover, by the theses which he developed in prison and sent to his comrades. In 1936, immediately after the first Moscow Trial, for example, he 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’. Some months later, in a study devoted to the development of democracy, he attacked the traditional conception of democracy as a form of the class domination of the bourgeoisie; democracy as an indicator of the character of a state (progressive or reactionary) did not, in his opinion, have a class character of its own. The Central Committee directed Wang to prepare a reply, which was to be published along with Chen Duxiu’s text in the same issue of the theoretical review, Huo Hua. But a new wave of repression cut short this discussion.

The release of Chen Duxiu: a political crisis

The Sino-Japanese War, in the sense of great movements of armies, began in July 1937. Trotsky reacted immediately. A press statement announced that the Trotskyists throughout the world were on the side of China and of the Chinese people in their just, revolutionary war against Japanese imperialism. A few days later, immediately after Japanese planes had heavily bombed Nanking, the Guomindang authorities, who in any case were under pressure from the movement in favour of the political prisoners, decided to liberate all the political detainees who were sentenced to less than 15 years. Between August and November the Trotskyists were freed and Chen Duxiu, among them, came out at the beginning of September, after more than five years’ imprisonment.

We do not know much about his first contact – only by letter – with his comrades in the leadership then located in Shanghai. We know only that it was a catastrophe. When Chen Duxiu came out of prison, he was invited to write articles and contributions to the press. He did so, explaining that he was speaking only for himself, and confined himself to the theme of the patriotic war. The majority of the leaders of the section formed the opinion that the old man, on this occasion, had developed opportunist positions with regard to the Guomindang and its government. Liu Renjing was also liberated, and bombarded Shanghai and the International Secretariat with letters denouncing the opportunism and the capitulation of Chen Duxiu. It was not yet known that he himself while in prison had allied himself to the political principles of the Guomindang and should have been regarded as a capitulator! We do not know in what terms the Central Committee replied to Chen Duxiu, but whatever they were they filled him with fury. From then on it is clear that he regarded them as hopeless sectarians. In reality, the Shanghai comrades and even the faithful Chen Qizhang had at least certain reservations. But Chen Duxiu regarded a man like Liu Jialiang, one of Liu’s ‘young men’ as laying down the law in the Central Committee and did not want to have relations with them.


Instead of rejoining his comrades in the organisation, as they had expected, at Shanghai, Chen Duxiu then turned his back on them, and left Nanking to go to Wuhan, which had become the capital of China. There he renewed contact with a number of his old personal acquaintances, such as the writer Hu Shi [11], one of jewels of the Guomindang, but also with leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, such as Ye Jiangying and especially Dong Biwu [12], who came to visit him shortly after his arrival. Was he really seeking conditions which would have enabled an authentic ‘United Front’ agreement to be reached to make war on imperialist Japan? This is not only possible, but probable. But we do not know anything about the initiatives, if he did take them, apart from his articles and his lectures to students. We only know that those who might have been his partners were unwilling, and let this be known.

Among the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ of the Left Opposition who were more or less isolated since the organisation plunged into total clandestinity, one of the most important, the engineer, Luo Han [13], who still had many friends in the Communist Party, had been particularly pleased by Chen Duxiu’s articles, and, it seems, had seen an appeal for the formation of a huge gathering, independent of the Guomindang, of all the working class and democratic forces hostile to Japan. He talked about this immediately to his old friend, Ye Jianying, who insisted that these propositions must be submitted to Mao Zedong personally. Luo Han accordingly went to Sian, where he was received by another old comrade, the regional leader of the party, Lin Boqu. [14] The latter at once sent a special messenger to Mao in Yennan with Chen’s articles, accompanied by the proposals of Luo Han. Mao Zedong’s reply was laconic but full of meaning: before Chen Duxiu could think of collaboration with the Chinese Communist Party, he must recognise his mistakes and abjure Trotskyist treachery. Chen Duxiu was extremely angry when he heard about this approach, in connection with which he had not been consulted. Meanwhile, the Shanghai leadership saw in this episode a supplementary proof of the ‘equivocal’ character of the positions of Chen.

Following the liberation of Chen’s companions, the leadership of the section had been reorganised. Two leading comrades joined it, whom Chen regarded as personal enemies: his former collaborator, Peng Shuzi, with whom his relations had been very bad in jail [15], and the ‘young’, former disciple of Liu Renjing, Liu Jialiang. The documentation discovered at Harvard, letters and reports, reveal that these comrades had in reality no serious documentation about Chen Duxiu’s activities after the first unfortunate contact. They had summaries or reports about his articles, and some of these appear from all the evidence to have been inspired by Liu Renjing – and they had nothing but clippings from the press, the reliability of which could not be guaranteed, of two speeches at the YMCA. They seemed to believe also that Chen Duxiu was restricting his contacts to the milieu of the Guomindang and of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, he was receiving visitors, two at least of whom were old Trotskyists. One of these was Wang Fanxi, who has left us an account of the visit, and the other was Bo Detsi. [16] According to Wang’s account, Chen did not believe that the revolution could come out of the war in China, at least to the extent that the Guomindang opposed it. He thought that they could not look forward to movements of the working class, because it was broken up by the collapse of industry and destroyed by defeat and repression, but, on the contrary, to explosions and outbursts of anger and discontent from the peasantry. The only problem was to know who would lead these outbursts. The only solution, in his eyes, was the formation of a ‘bloc’, on a broad democratic programme, independent of the Communist Party and of the Guomindang – which would set itself, among others, the aim of infiltrating the armed forces which were waging the war of resistance in order to link them with the peasant mobilisation and even to help it to express itself.


He was completely and even violently hostile to the leaders of the Chinese section, not only for the personal reasons of which we are aware, but especially for political reasons. In his eyes they were sectarians, who were incapable of abandoning the ready-made formulae which served them in place of thinking and simply of seeing changing reality. He even told Wang that the people who were leading the section, sitting in rooms in the international concessions, were in reality able only to comment and not to act, and that their conception of the party journal would come down to ‘a pathetic party journal’ in the course of experience ... His argument no doubt had some effect, because Wang, whose ideas were a long way away from Chen’s, writing years later, confesses that Bo and he were impressed by Chen’s militant way of taking up the question of how to carry on mass work.

At the same time, Chen Duxiu revealed to his two comrades the concrete plan with which he hoped to associate them and which seems never to have reached the ears of the leaders of the Fourth International, neither in Shanghai, nor in Europe, nor in America. He was, in fact in continuous and confidential relations with a ‘Left’ general named He Jifeng [17], commander of the 179th division of the 29th Army, who regarded Chen as his mastermind and was ready to collaborate politically very closely with him. Chen Duxiu hoped that Wang and Bo would accept He Jifeng’s proposal and control the work of political education in his division. The four men were agreed that a programme of agrarian reform, even a limited one, would guarantee a real mobilisation of the peasants, which was the condition for real military effectiveness – and that a divisional commander could try to play such a role.

However, they were mistaken on this point. Was it one of detail? The affair failed thanks to the secret services. He Jifeng was removed from his command even before he had taken it up, while he was still convalescing. This was the setback of one of the first serious attempts by Trotskyists to take up an independent position in the armed struggle against Japan. The two others which are known – that of the former student, Wang Qangyao in Shantung, and that of the worker, Chen Zhungxi, who became chief of the peasant guerilla force in Changsha [18] – arose independently of the activity of Chen Duxiu. The latter, moreover, was soon to experience a second setback in his attempt to form a ‘bloc’ with the parties known as ‘democratic’, the ‘third party’ and the alliance for salvation. The sole result of these initiatives in this area was without doubt to have unleashed a virulent, murderous offensive on the part of the Communist Party, which evidently was more preoccupied with the activity and the gestures of Chen Duxiu than with those of the Shanghai leadership.

In fact, from the end of 1937, the Chinese section of the Fourth International was once again plunged into a grave crisis which was due to divergences on the question of the war and of the attitude towards the government, and was aggravated by the positions which Chen Dwiu took up. Some of those who supported him, and in particular the members of the Liu-Han ‘bloc’, Han Chun [19], the patron of the organisation in Shanghai itself and Liu Jialiang, explained the quarrel as being one of ‘generations’: they claimed to be expressing the will of the workers and of the ‘young comrades’, when they denounced the opportunism of the ‘older generation’, the worst example of which, in their eyes, was the development of Chen Duxiu. Wang Fanxi had come back to Shanghai after his stay with Chen, and went through this crisis firmly refusing to accept this criterion of ‘generations’. He summed up the positions of the three factions at the time in the following terms: ‘In general, there were three political positions: that of Chen Duxiu, which can be defined as unconditional support of the war of resistance; that of Zheng Zhaolin, who opposed any support for the war, arguing that the Sino-Japanese conflict was from the beginning an integral part of the new world war; and the position of the overwhelming majority of Chinese Trotskyists, which can be summed up as support for the war and criticism of the leadership. [20]

But, in this crisis no less than in the others, Trotsky firmly refused to accept the accusations that were hurled at Chen Duxiu. At the beginning, he was disturbed that Liu Renjing – whose disciples, like Liu himself, knew and admitted that he had capitulated to the Guomindang in prison – continued to write letter after letter against Chen and to swell the dossier in the hands of his enemies in the organisation. Trotsky, for his part, decided not to answer these letters, because, as he said, he ‘was not too sure that Liu was not playing a double game’. [2l] Moreover, he went even further in a letter to Glass:

I understand perfectly that Chen Duxiu remains very prudent as regards our section. He is too well known in the country, and his every step is watched by the authorities. It is certain that there are agents-provocateurs, especially Stalinists, ie GPU agents, in the ranks of our Chinese section. Chen could easily be implicated in some infamous frame-up, which would be fatal for him and prejudicial to the Fourth International. [22]

Trotsky was convinced that Chen Duxiu’s life was in danger, and suggested that everything should be done to try and get him to emigrate, preferably to the USA. Trotsky’s determination once more influenced the organisation. After the factional struggle between the ‘young’ and the ‘old’ had been quieted down, a supplementary effort was made in the direction of Chen Duxiu. In the face of the insistence of Trotsky and of the Fourth International, and in order to get round the total breakdown of postal communications between Shanghai and Sichuan, where Chen Duxiu had retired after his setback and after he had been prohibited from writing in the press, the Central Committee decided to send Chen Qizhang to see him, in order to have the necessary political discussion with him and to ask for his agreement to prepare to leave China. The choice of the messenger is clearly a guarantee that the intentions of those who sent him were sincere.

According to reports and notes, the mission was successfully carried out between October 1938 and January 1939. Chen Qizhang’s journey was full of difficulties, but he arrived in the first week of November at the village in Sichuan where his old comrade was living. He spent ten days with him and returned after having spent altogether three months on roads and rivers. His mission was a great success. [23] In fact, Chen Duxiu agreed voluntarily to go abroad, because that seemed to him to be the only way to break out of the isolation to which he was reduced. Particularly, he stated his personal political position as a Trotskyist militant, who was critical of the leadership of his organisation in a declaration dated 3 November 1938. [24] In a letter to Frank Glass, Trotsky openly rejoiced:

I am very glad that our old friend remains politically a friend despite some possible divergences, which I cannot now appreciate with the necessary precision. Of course, it is very difficult for me to form a precise opinion about the politics of our comrades, on the degree of their ultra-leftism and therefore on the correctness of the severe criticism which our old friend levels at them. Nonetheless, the essence of this declaration seems to me to be correct. And I hope that, on this basis, permanent collaboration will be possible. [25]

Trotsky was to receive one more letter from Glass, telling him that the Guomindang government was determined not to let Chen Duxiu leave China. Trotsky was to hear no more of him.

The final break

The split by Chen Duxiu from the Fourth International came nearly at the end of his life. Already, by all the evidence, the link between them was beginning to break at the moment of the great crisis, immediately after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when the Sino-Japanese War was integrated into the Second World War, through the war in the Pacific. The discussion raged in the Chinese section in 1940–41. One tendency, known as the ‘Left’, led by Wang Fanxi, argued that, with the entry of Great Britain and USA into the war, the war against Japan had become an imperialist war, and that they must revert to ‘revolutionary defeatism’ in China. Peng Shuzi denounced this attitude, which he regarded as ‘ultra-left’, and supported the traditional positions of the movement towards the anti-imperialist war of China and the necessary ‘defence of the USSR’.

For Chen Duxiu, who, as we have seen, did not believe that the revolution would come out of the war, it was necessary to choose the ‘lesser evil’ in the approaching world conflict. In this case, he regarded the ‘lesser evil’ as being the camp of the democracies, which contained the possibility of the revolution, as against fascism, which wanted to destroy this possibility. He therefore proposed the abandonment of ‘defeatism’ for democratic countries such as France and Great Britain, and likewise came out against the defence of the USSR, which he regarded as no longer a workers’ state.

The old revolutionary was trying to draw the lessons of the cruel history which was the history of his times. He believed that one must honestly and sincerely recognise the failure of the revolution to create a workers’ state in backward countries. On that matter, he wrote:

If there does not exist people’s democracy, the regime which claims to be that of the people or the dictatorship of the proletariat will inevitably degenerate into being administered by the GPU, under a small number of people like Stalin. Such is the inevitable tendency of things. [26]

Nonetheless, he drew the conclusion from this setback that the imperious necessity of internationalism must be re-affirmed:

The true liberation of the peoples can be produced only at the same time as the Socialist revolutions in the imperialist countries...The one and only hope for a small, weak nation rests in co-operation with the oppressed workers of the whole world and the other oppressed nations. [27]

In his opinion, it was necessary to fight for democracy in order that it could reach its full development under Socialism.

None of the writings of Chen Duxiu from this last period which we know in the West permit him to be regarded as a renegade who abandoned the ideas of his whole life on the eve of his death. On this point, his friend Hu Shi, who wrote the preface to his last writings, defending the thesis that he went back to the principles of Sun Yat-sen, does not carry conviction, though his opinion has been widely relied on! The fact is that Chen Duxiu broke all organisational connections with the Chinese section immediately after its national congress in August 1941, where the final split was achieved between the factions of Peng and of Wang – a year after Trotsky was assassinated. [28]

Fundamentally, and without concealing that much of the evidence we need is lacking, let us recognise the temptation to agree with Wang Fanxi:

The thought of Chen Duxiu in the last years of his life was already distant from Trotskyism ... but I was not alone in thinking that, if he had lived longer, he would certainly have gone further forward and, under the pressure of events, would have returned to Trotskyism. [29]

Chen Duxiu’s years were already numbered. He was old and weakened by the five years of his hard prison regime. Moreover, he suffered from incurable sclerosis. His old comrades retained contact with him to the end and had the medicines which alleviated his condition sent from Hong Kong when they evidently could not be obtained in his Sichuan refuge. He died at Jiangchin on 27 May 1942, and was accompanied to his last resting-place by three old friends of his generation, none of whom was a Trotskyist.

Like some others, he is the symbol of a generation – to which Trotsky also belonged – which carried the Communist International on its shoulders to storm heaven and then was crushed under the load of its degeneration...a generation of which the old man of Sichuan was surely one of the most worthy representatives.


1. Chin Pangxien was also known as Bo Ku (1907–1946); he was one of the ‘28 Bolsheviks’, those former Moscow students who were grouped round Wang Ming and whose role was decisive for the operation of ‘Stalinising’ the Chinese Communist Party. He was to become the General Secretary from 1932 to 1935 and died in an aircraft accident. The reference to the article in which he called for the death penalty for Chen Duxiu is given by Richard C. Kagan in The Chinese Trotskyist Movement and Ch’en Tu-hsiu: Culture, Revolution and Policy, PhD, University of Pennsylvania, p. 155.

2. Chen Duxiu, like Trotsky, was born in 1879. This great teacher and inspirer of the movement of the youth for revolt was, on 4 May 1919, one of the first Chinese Communists. He was General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and then one of the founders of the United Chinese Opposition.

3. Liu Renjing was born in 1899, studied at Beijing and played a role in the movement of 4 May 1919 and joined the first Marxist group of Li Dazhao in 1920. He was one of the 12 delegates to the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party, and then to the Third and Fourth Congresses of the Communist International. He joined the Russian Left Opposition during his stay in Moscow in 1926–29, where he took the name Lensky. Returning home by way of France, he met Rosmer, who arranged for him a stay with Trotsky at Prinkipo. He wrote a short history of the Left Opposition in China.

4. Harold R. Isaacs (born in 1910) (I Losan in Chinese) lived in China from 1930 to 1935 and edited the China Forum up to the time of his break from the Communist Party in January 1934. He left China in 1935. Frank Glass (born in 1901) arrived in China in 1932 and, except for short periods, remained there up to the beginning of the 1940s.

5. Liu Jialiang (1911–1950) was born in Kwantung, and became a Trotskyist at the beginning of the 1930s. He was imprisoned from 1933 to 1937 and interrupted all activity for reasons of health from 1942 to 1946. He took refuge in Hong Kong in 1949 and went to Vietnam in 1950. There he was arrested and murdered by the security police of the Viet Minh. Sze Chaosheng was converted to Buddhism after a long, hard imprisonment. Wang Shupen was executed in a Guomindang prison in 1949.

6. Chen Qizhang (1905–1943) was born in Hunan and joined the Communist Party as a student in 1925. He was a party cadre, joined the Proletariat group and became one of the leaders of the Opposition in 1932. He was arrested under the Japanese occupation and died under torture.

Yin Kuan (born in 1900) came to Marxism as a worker-student in France. He was a leader of the Chinese Communist Party in the province of Anwei from 1925 to 1927 and then joined the Proletariat group. He was in prison between 1932 and 1934 and again between 1935 and 1937. He disappeared in 1946 after being arrested by the Maoist police.

7. Wang Fanxi (born in 1904) wrote the memoirs which are several times quoted in the article by Damien Durand on The Birth of the Left Opposition in China in Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no. 15, September 1983. He settled in Britain in 1983.

8. Michel Borodin (whose real name was Gusenberg) (1884–1951) was the envoy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the Guomindang and the official adviser of the Canton Government, charged with the application in China of the ‘opportunist’ policy of Stalin and Bukharin.

9. Jiang Zhentong (born in 1906), a textile worker in Shanghai, was one of the leaders of the 1927 insurrection and later joined the Proletariat group. He was arrested by the secret police of Mao in 1952 and disappeared. Wang (op. cit. p. 175) reports Chen’s approval of this leadership.

10. L.D. Trotsky, A Discussion on China, 11 August 1937, Leon Trotsky on China, New York 1976, pp. 549–66.

11. Hu Shin (1891–1962), a great teacher, friend of Chen Duxiu, member of the democratic opposition to Chiang Kai-shek, and a man of great prestige, was ambassador of China to Washington from 1938 onwards.

12. Ye Jianying (born in 1898), a career officer in 1919 in the service of Sun Yat-sen, a professor at the military academy of Huangpu (Whampoa), joined the Communist Party in 1927, took part in the Canton insurrection and then spent two years in the USSR. He became a Marshal, survived the cultural revolution, succeeded Lin Biao as a minister and retired from the army in 1978.

Dong Biwu (1886–1975) collaborated with Sun Yat-sen in exile and was one of the 12 delegates to the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party. He lived in the USSR from 1927 to 1932 and then filled important posts at the head of the health service. He was a member of the Political Bureau and likewise survived the cultural revolution.

13. Luo Han (1894–1939), the son of a peasant, studied engineering in France and became first an Anarchist and then a Communist. He was a political commissar in the army at Canton up to March 1926, and went over to the positions of the Left Opposition while staying in Moscow. He spent two years in prison on his return to China, led the October group, played an important role in the unification and financed the movement between 1932 and 1937. He was a military engineer, and was killed in a bombardment.

14. Lin Boqu (1886–1960), a militant in the Guomindang, was a secret member of the Communist Party from its formation, and then lived in the USSR from 1928 to 1932. He took part in the Long March and was General Secretary of the government after 1949.

15. Peng Shuzi (born in 1895), was the son of a peasant, and became a Communist in 1920. He studied in Moscow from 1921 to 1924 and stayed in Moscow until 1925. He was a member of the Central Committee and of the Political Bureau and declared in March 1926 in favour of withdrawing the Communists from the Guomindang. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, reduced on appeal to eight. He was able to get to Europe in 1951.

16. Bo Detsi (alias Xi Liu) (born in 1908) joined the Communist Party in 1926 and the Left Opposition in Moscow in 1928. He was arrested with Chen Duxiu and liberated in 1937.

17. He Jifeng (1897–1980) became one of the most important military chiefs in the army of Chiang Kai-shek after the Second World War, and revolted against him in 1948. He was appointed to governmental responsibilities in the People’s Republic of China.

18. On Wang Qangyao, see Wang Fanxi, Chinese Revolutionary: Memoirs 1919–1949, Oxford 1980, p. 275.

Chen Zhungxi (1908–1943) was a worker from Hong Kong, a Trotskyist from 1930. While a member of the Communist Party, he led a group of rural partisans in 1927. In 1943 he organised a group and was killed in battle.

19. We know hardly anything about him, apart from his death in 1945.

20. Wang, op. cit., p. 228.

21. Letter from Trotsky to Glass, 25 June 1938, in Papers in Exile, bMSRuss 13–1, 8753, retranslated into English, with the permission of the Houghton Library.

22. Ibid.

23. Glass gives his account in a letter to Trotsky dated 12 January 1939, ibid., 10426.

24. This declaration was sent to Trotsky by Frank Glass in his letter of 19 January 1939. See Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no. 15, pp. 102–105.

25. Letter from Trotsky to Glass, 25 February 1939 (8254).

26. Document quoted by Kagan, op. cit., p. 137.

27. Ibid.

28. Wang, op. cit., pp. 235–236.

29. Ibid., p. 239.

Last updated on 25.9.2011