Zheng Chaolin, An Oppositionist for Life, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1997, pp330

Gregor Benton, China’s Urban Revolutionaries: Explorations in the History of Chinese Trotskyism 1921-1952, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1997, pp269


ZHENG Chaolin was amongst nearly 1000 Chinese Trotskyists rounded up and imprisoned by Mao’s regime in China in 1952. With him were seized the manuscript of his memoirs, completed in 1945, and the only extra handwritten copy. As Zheng began a 27-year sentence as a political prisoner, his book disappeared into the vaults of Mao’s security forces; one copy was kept in Shanghai, and one was in a sack of documents sent to the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing.

During the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ of 1966-69, the sacks were sent to a paper factory for reprocessing, but, as Zheng explains in a postscript to the English edition of the memoirs, ‘someone with a conscience’ took away two sacks and hid them. That someone who was against pulping literary production took the sacks at random, and did not know what manuscripts they contained. In 1978, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to dismantle the Mao cult partially, some official historians were instructed to research the life of Chen Duxiu, the leader of the party from its foundation in 1920 and a leader of the Chinese Trotskyists from 1930. The ‘someone with a conscience’ then came forward with Zheng’s manuscript. Meanwhile, Zheng was freed from prison in 1979, the historians found him, and his memoirs from 1945 were published in 1986 with additional notes by the author.

Any book with a publishing history like that would probably be worth reading; this one certainly is. It starts with Zheng’s first political awakening in 1919 and his recruitment to the Communist organisation amongst the Chinese students in France in 1922. It covers his spell at the Communist University in Moscow, his return to China in 1924, the revolution of 1925-27 and its defeat, and there is a chapter on the Communists’ relations with the left Guomindang regime at Wuhan, where Zheng worked in 1927-28. The Communists’ discussion of the defeat, the beginnings of Chinese Trotskyism, and the unification of four groups to form the Chinese Left Opposition in 1930 are also covered.

Readers of Revolutionary History will need no convincing of the value of a first-hand account of these events. They may also be delighted by Zheng’s style. He not only observes great events and revolutionaries’ reactions to them with candour and a minimum of adjectives, and brings to life the way that the Chinese Communists developed an internationalist outlook with reference to their own culture and history; he also notices personalities, practicalities and everyday realities that are too often pushed out of revolutionaries’ memoirs by political minutiae.

Chen Duxiu appears as a wise intellectual and farsighted strategist, but with a short temper; and the well-known Chinese Trotskyist Peng Shuzhi as an unpopular apparatus-man and a manoeuverer. Zheng’s characterisations are wonderful — take this one of Ziong Ziong in 1920:

‘To tell the truth, he never learned what Marxism was about. He was childishly naïve: sincere, innocent, pure, ardent and immature. He pursued everything that was new and revolutionary and made friends with everyone who was fervent, brave and rebellious, but he lacked judgement and was unable to distinguish between Marx and Kropotkin. He always wore hunter’s clothes and long boots. A whip hung in his room... He rose early, and if it was snowing, he would go far out into the countryside before dawn to walk across the snow. He was terrible at languages and even spoke Chinese with a strong Jiangxi accent. Later in Moscow, if you ever asked him a question during classes or discussions, he would stand up wide-eyed and wide-mouthed and finally say: “I’ve forgotten.”’

Other minor characters ‘had guts’ (Luo Yinong), despised each other (Xiang Ying and Li Lisan), or stole each other’s partners in love. A whole chapter — which was excised from the 1986 Chinese edition of the book — details the young Communists’ love affairs in the 1920s, and shows how this inevitably affected their relationships as comrades.

As for himself, Zheng leaves the impression of an unassuming and disarmingly honest man. He possesses another quality rare among memoirists: if he can’t remember, he just says so.

No one could have worked harder to fill the gaps in Zheng’s memory, and in the history of Chinese Trotskyism generally, than Gregor Benton, who as well as translating and editing Zheng’s book, has written a meticulously researched companion volume, China’s Urban Revolutionaries. Benton surveys all the sources so far available, and presents an account of Chinese Trotskyism’s development in just over 100 pages. It includes a fascinating chapter on the Trotskyists’ relationship with Chinese literature, and is accompanied by valuable appendices by Zheng Chaolin on Chen Duxiu and the Trotskyists, and Wang Fanxi answering a Stalinist historians’ distortions.

It is to be hoped that Benton’s conclusions will stir debate. Having devoted such great effort to recounting the Chinese Trotskyists’ history, he concludes that they were ‘prophets before their time, for which they paid the price’ (p115); but that they were ‘completely unable to influence the course of Chinese politics between 1931 and 1949’ (p113), mainly because of the overwhelming odds they faced: the Guomindang’s repression on one side, and the Stalinists’ lie machine on the other.

From here, Benton develops a more questionable argument: that the Trotskyists, weighed down by an ‘excess of orthodoxy’, were mistaken after 1927 not to take to the countryside — because ‘for the revolution to succeed, it was essential to start organising the peasants even before the movement in the towns revived’ (p79). Against this it may be argued that a working-class organisation that goes to the countryside and ‘tears itself away from its class’ (to use Trotsky’s phrase about the CCP) will confound the revolution it claims to be carrying out. The discussion of this issue is, of course, bound up with that of the record of the CCP and of whether, and how, it confounded the revolution.

What is not in dispute is that the most important achievements of Chinese Trotskyism — in taking forward the struggle for Marxist ideas against the corruption of them by Stalinism and Maoism — will pave the way for a new development of those ideas today, when the CCP’s dictatorship is dragging China and its much more numerous and potentially powerful working class into a world capitalist system trapped in even deeper contradictions than those of the 1930s.

Simon Pirani