Dear Chinese Communist Party: Please Rehabilitate the Chinese Trotskyists!

Richard Kagan and Phil Picha

We can be grateful for the prodigious work by Gregor Benton in compiling a corpus of works by and about Chinese Trotskyists into a single volume. The Chinese Trotskyist movement, 1927-1952, harbored many intellectuals and critics in ideological and political opposition to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. This small, but not insignificant faction within the Party, provided many counter arguments. However, they suffered from their political weakness, disorganization, and inability to protect their members from the harsh repression by the Party authorities.

The long title of the book telegraphs many of its themes. Although Benton informs us by footnote that the original reference for the title, Prophets Unarmed, is from Machiavelli who observed that unarmed prophets do not win, only armed ones are victorious. Most likely the phrase became a popular reference to the lives, tribulations and sacrifices of Trotsky and the Trotskyists after it was initially referenced in the first two volumes in Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky. It is not a coincidence that Deutscher was aided in his research by a leader of Chinese Trotskyism, Peng Shuzhi.

The use of the term ‘limbo’ in the subtitle (War, Jail, and the Return from Limbo) suggests the significance of the work. The thematic promise of a return to some prominence in China through a possible rehabilitation at best or recognition at least of the legitimate contribution of this movement becomes suggested by a spiritual if not religious awakening. The reader cannot help but wonder why this word is used in this context. The common meaning of limbo designates that one has been forgotten or disregarded. Despite the number of pages and the weight of this work, one cannot easily raise this group up from history or the political dogma of the Chinese Communist Party with an exonerating identity. But what is striking is the theological application of this term referring to a place where the innocent and righteous souls are unbaptized. Despite hopes to the contrary, the Chinese Communist Party has not yet absolved their Trotskyist brethren.

The title aside, the author promises a tour de force in his Introduction to a source book on the Chinese Trotskyist movement. Benton has received many awards for his prolific writings on China, including being designated by the Association for Asian Studies for the Best Book on Modern China, and the PEN award for his translation of Hu Feng’s Prison Years.

Benton’s voluminous study appears to be an extension of an earlier volume of essays entitled China’s Urban Revolutionaries: Explorations in the History of Chinese Trotskyism, 1921-1052 (Atlantic Heights, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996) which consists of 13 chapters with two translated essays by Trotskyist leaders. In this smaller 200-page work Benton supplies pages of biographical notes and copious footnotes. It is written with some emotion and with a clear view of the nature of the movement and its leadership. For those interested in entering a wading pool before the deep dive into the larger work of translations and analysis, the shorter worker is a welcoming pre-submersion.

Benton’s current contribution to the discussion of the Chinese Revolution builds on his long personal and academic concern with the individuals involved in this remarkable faction that opposed the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. One might claim that Benton’s sense of responsibility to explore this historic yet little appreciated movement derived from his decades long friendship with a famous Trotskyist refugee, Wang Fanxi, who moved from Macao to Leeds and Benton’s home in 1975. Wang introduced Benton to the leadership and literature of this movement.

Benton organizes the book into 18 parts. For scholars who seek documentary evidence for specific research questions, there are plenty of sources provided: Autobiographical Accounts; the Trotskyists in the early Revolution in China; Trotskyists in Moscow; the unification of four factions; the correspondence with or about Leon Trotsky; the 1930’s and 40’s; the historical role of five leaders; Reflections on Mao’s Revolution; Guerrilla Warfare; Culture and Literature; and three chapters of biographical accounts. Any study of the political history of the Chinese Revolution can obtain insight and context from these materials.

For the reader who is curious about this topic, an introductory understanding would be to read Parts 15–17 which contain the Biographies and the Obituaries of the leadership. These provide the emotional resonances of the lives of these ardent activists who pursued their view of social justice with a martyr’s innocence. One reads about Wu Jingwu who died just three months after being released from a labour camp. She was considered an heroic ‘rank-and-file soldier of the revolution’ (p. 1172). Her memorialist concludes his homily: ‘I would therefore like to commend [her]tradition of Chinese Trotskyism to the younger generation of revolutionary Marxists in the world’.

The most significant leader of the Trotskyist struggle is Chen Duxiu who had been Dean at Peking University, a founder of the Chinese Communist Party, and the organizer of the Trotskyist Party. His life story and significance have never been so fully narrated and valued as in the many articles in this source book.

The first two articles – the Introduction by Benton, and a recent history of the movement by Wu Jimin – work one through the political history. For some of the readers, this may be a muscular read full of details, Chinese names, esoterica of Communism, and geographical place names. However, a patient reading will be beneficial for an understanding of the perils, struggles, and leadership conflicts that roiled the communist revolution prior to and after its success in China.

Trotskyism in China criticized the Chinese Communist Party for not listening to the workers and peasants. The Trotskyists were willing to be jailed for supporting people’s assemblies (known as constituent assemblies) which would allow for democratic discussion of policies and for open criticism of the Party leadership. In addition, there were the arcane yet politically sensitive debates on the timing of revolution, the strategy of a united front with the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek, and the nature of the war in Europe and Asia. These policies usually found the Trotskyists in opposition. They did not renounce the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. Many left by being denounced, kicked out of the Party, arrested, murdered or driven into exile.

Despite the voluminous coverage of this movement, there are some who have complaints about the narrowness of the book’s focus. A review published in the Socialist Standard expressed its concern: ‘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’.[i]

In order to put this praise of the Chinese Trotskyists into a critical context, it helps to read the critique of Trotskyism and Maoism in China. Fred Halliday, a renowned professor of international relations who has served on the editorial board of the New Left Review has written a review of a book on the Chinese revolution by Livio Maitan, a leader of the Trotskyist Fourth International.[ii] In this 25-page essay, Fred Halliday lays out major problems of the Chinese Trotskyite position, namely: ‘There is an issue that Maitan would have to discuss in order to provide a theory of how the Chinese revolution came about, namely the legacy of Trotsky’s own views on China and those of his Chinese followers. While Trotsky’s writings on China contain important and valid judgements, they also raise difficulties for those in the Trotskyist tradition. Sometimes these difficulties have been evaded by an over-simplified account of Trotsky’s views and a unilateral concentration on the fate of the Chinese revolution in the 1920s.’

Oddly enough, Halliday’s 1976 prescient commentary highlights the limitations of Benton’s presentation. His book concentrates on the pre-49 politics. Though two of Chinese Trotskyist fled to Europe after the Cultural Revolution, they did play a role in the Fourth International where Maitan was the President. There is no mention of them or Maitan in Benton’s book.

Benton’s overriding purpose is to prove beyond doubt that these followers of Trotsky, no matter how ‘naive’ (Halliday’s epithet) deserve for their sacrifice, their commitment to the Chinese people, and their idealistic hopes for the future of a democratic socialist world to be rehabilitated into the Chinese Communist Party’s revolutionary pantheon of heroes and leaders.

The sense of Benton’s subtitle regarding the ‘Return from Limbo’ is more an aspiration than a current reality. As is mentioned in the book, such an event will come only when the political system in China has changed. We can only hope that one day these maligned martyrs will be recognized and honored by the Party they tried to change.

[i] Paul Bennett, Unarmed and unforgiven, book review of Prophets Unarmed, accessed 27 August 2018.
[ii] Fred Halliday, Marxist analysis and post-revolutionary China, New Left Review I, no. 100, November–December 1976,, accessed 27 August 2018.