It grew into a revolution that showed the potential of ordinary people to transform themselves and run society.
But tragically it also showed that, without the right organisation and leadership, the ruling class will drown revolutions in blood.
The more profitable parts of China were under the control of various imperialist powers in the early years of the 20th century.
They had opened China up to imports, wrecking much of its own industry. The upheavals this caused led to the collapse of the government in 1911. Outside the imperial concessions, competing warlords dominated the country.
The revolution began as a nationalist uprising—students were protesting against Japanese colonialism in 1919—but it grew into something bigger.
Tens of thousands of workers in Shanghai struck after police arrested hundreds of students. Workers formed unions and struck for better pay and conditions.
The 1917 Russian Revolution was a major inspiration for the movement. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921. Chen Duxiu was elected leader.
As strikes spread to Chinese-owned firms in the early 1920s the warlords fought back. Unions and the CCP were effectively illegal by the end of 1923.
Hatred of imperialism boosted the nationalist Guomindang party. It ran the southern city of Guangzhou. The Guomindang said it would take on the imperialists, though its leaders were a mix of warlords, intellectuals and middle class people.
The CCP worked with the bigger party. By 1923 it had given up much of its independence to act as a left current in the Guomindang.
Workers in Shanghai struck for better pay and against brutal foremen in 1925. Police killed 12 people on a protest on 30 May and the movement became a general strike.
The walkouts spread beyond Shanghai. One researcher recorded 135 strikes directly linked to the 30 May killings. They involved nearly 400,000 workers. The CCP grew rapidly.
On 23 June British and French forces opened fire on a march of students, workers and military cadets in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. They killed 52.
Hong Kong had been part of Guangdong until the British Empire seized it. Workers there launched a general strike and a boycott of British goods.
Some 250,000 workers joined the walkout and the city was brought to a standstill. More than 100,000 workers left and moved to Guangdong.
Harold Isaacs described how the workers organised in his book, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.
He wrote. “Every 50 strikers named a representative to a strikers’ delegates’ conference, which in turn named 13 men to serve as an executive committee.
“Under the auspices of this body, actually the first embryo of workers’ power in China, a hospital and 17 schools for men and women workers and for their children were established and maintained.”
Workers ran Guangdong. Pickets patrolled roads to inspect cargo. Peasants patrolled the coasts and ports. A strikers’ court doled out punishments for anyone breaching the action.
One foreign observer wrote that the boycott “must be regarded as a war on Hong Kong and Great Britain”.
Hong Kong’s name means “fragrant harbour”, but as the rubbish piled up strikers called it Ch’oukang, meaning stinking harbour.
The Guomindang used workers’ action to consolidate its position. Its forces took over more of southern China and at the end of June 1925 it declared a new National Government.
But it was scared by the growing strength and independence of the CCP.
Russian leader Joseph Stalin pressured the Chinese communists to compromise with the nationalists.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had become isolated and Stalin was leading a counter-revolution.
His supporters believed that workers could not lead an independent fight against the capitalists and imperialists, but had to rely on alliances across classes.
In China this meant following the “progressive” nationalist Guomindang.
The scale of workers’ struggle meant the Guomindang used revolutionary rhetoric. But it was never socialist. It aimed to use the revolt to do a deal with the imperialist powers.
Its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, came from a comfortable merchant family. And from the start, some members openly organised against the communists.
As the struggle continued throughout 1925, workers struck at Chinese-owned firms as well as foreign ones.
Chinese liberals who had celebrated the action now talked of its “foolish excesses”. Chinese bosses joined together with foreign ones to organise against the workers.
The struggle exposed the fact that the key divide in society is class, not nationality.
As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, “Everything that brings the oppressed and exploited mass of toilers to their feet inevitably pushes the national bourgeoisie into an open bloc with the imperialists.”
Chen Duxiu and others in the CCP leadership repeatedly called for them to withdraw from the Guomindang, but bowed to the greater experince of the Russian party.
Stalin’s position won out—spelling disaster for the revolution.
In March 1926 Chiang Kai-shek moved to control the workers’ movement. He arrested political workers and raided the Guangdong-Hong Kong Strike Committee. All arms were seized.
Stalin claimed the story was a lie put about by the British.
In May new rules limited CCP influence in the Guomindang. They also required the CCP to win Guomindang approval for any instructions it wanted to give its own members.
In July Guomindang armies began their Northern Expedition to take over the north of China. Struggle in the countryside erupted as peasants sick of local warlords rose up.
Millions of peasants got organised. By January 1927 there were over 2,000,000 peasants registered in associations in Hunan province.
Peasants scrapped taxes, refused to pay rent and took over land. They abolished the binding of girls’ feet, gambling and opium smoking, set up schools and built roads.
Peasants came to see the world very differently. One report said, “The clay and wood gods have already lost their dignity.”
Guomindang leaders used the peasants, as they had the workers, to boost their position.
As Isaacs put it, “The spontaneous rising of the people gave the Guomindang armies little more to do, often, than occupy territory that had already been secured for them.”
But the nationalists also feared the peasant risings. So the CCP member put in charge of agriculture was tasked with controlling them—and peasants were told to only attack those landlords who were “counter-revolutionary”.
Meanwhile Chiang Kai-shek clamped down on workers in Guangdong. In August he outlawed all “labour disturbances” .
By early 1927 the Guomindang was moving towards Shanghai. Unions organised an armed rising to welcome it. But the nationalists delayed—allowing warlords to attack and kill hundreds of workers.
When they finally arrived, workers’ militias took control of the city. The Guomindang demanded they hand over their arms and return to work—and the CCP backed it up.
Nationalist attacks on the CCP intensified. Thousands of union militants were jailed.
Once the Guomindang had used workers’ and peasants’ struggles to take control it turned on the movement. And this gave the green light to all the old bosses and landlords to go on the offensive.
They closed down factories and shops, refused loans to peasants, created runs on banks and hoarded their cash.
The counter-revolution crushed workers’ and peasants’ organisations. Isaacs wrote, “For the scores killed by the revolution, the reaction took the lives of thousands.”
Landlords executed peasants by beheading, burying alive, shooting, strangling, burning and cutting into pieces.
One reporter wrote some landlords “bound their victims to trees and put them to death with one thousand cuts into which they rubbed sand and salt”.
Trotsky had argued that the CCP should build workers’ councils to take the revolution forward. The potential to do this was there. But revolutionaries failed to organise independently.
Thousands of the party’s new militants and many of its leadership were killed.
The experience made Chen Duxiu became a supporter of Trotsky. The Stalinist leadership blamed for him the failures that had come from following Stalin’s advice.
The defeat led the CCP to retreat from organising workers and concentrate on military struggles and the peasantry.
The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution
by Harold Isaacs £16.99
Leon Trotsky on China
by Leon Trotsky £26 marxists.org/archive/trotsky/china
Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary 1919-1949
by Wang Fan-hsi £25
The Mandate of Heaven
by Nigel Harris £13.99
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk