Li Fu-jen

Chen Tu-hsiu
Chinese Revolutionist

(August 1942)

Li Fu-jen, Chen Tu-hsiu: Chinese Revolutionist, Fourth International, August 1942, pp.238-241. (obituary)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chen Tu-hsiu, a founder of the Trotskyist movement in China and before that of the Chinese Communist Party, is dead. With his passing there has disappeared an important political figure, one of the few remaining revolutionary veterans who survived the turbulent period that succeeded World War I.

According to a United Press dispatch which the metropolitan newspapers did not consider worthy of publication and which appeared in a mid-western sheet, the veteran revolutionist, 62 years old, passed away at Kiangtsin, a small village in Szechwan province, not far from the present Chinese capital of Chungking, on May 24 of this year. The cause of his death was not stated in the dispatch, but Chen had been seriously ill of a heart ailment for a considerable time and this, it may be presumed, finally brought him to the end of his career.

Though not widely known abroad, Chen Tu-hsiu was a national figure in China, not only because of his prominence as a revolutionist but also because of his great contributions to China’s modern cultural advance. The last ten years of his life were spent in comparative obscurity. From 1932 to 1937 he was in prison in Nanking, serving a 13-year sentence for “endangering the safety of the State.” Shortly after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war he was released with other political prisoners. Broken in health, he lived in virtual retirement until his death, but continued his attachment to the Chinese section of the Fourth International. The reactionary Kuomintang government denied him the right to engage even in literary work. The bourgeoisie feared him until the last.

Born into a wealthy Mandarin family in the central China province of Anhwei, Chen Tu-hsiu rose to prominence in the troubled years that set in with China’s first revolution, the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty and the establishment of the republic in 1911. With a group of radical intellectuals he published at Peking a magazine, New Youth, which fought against the decayed ideology of Confucianism and sought to project China’s youth along new and revolutionary paths.

Chen’s Road to Revolutionary Politics

The essence of the Confucian doctrine, which has a distinct counterpart in the Christianity of the western world (and which, like Christianity, represents an important prop of the social status quo), is that social advance must be achieved through individual regeneration. Chen, while instinctively rejecting this reactionary concept of a bygone age, was nevertheless clearly under its influence in his early activities. He observed the ossification of Chinese society with its cultured, leisured Mandarinate and its illiterate, enslaved and poverty-stricken masses. It seemed to him that enlightenment of the masses was the prerequisite to social progress. He proclaimed the need to substitute “science and democracy” for the way of life then buttressed by Confucian philosophy and ethics. And the immediate task, he believed, was to wrest culture from the palsied hands of an outworn social class and make it the possession of the broad masses.

In the Chinese language itself Chen saw the greatest obstacle to the cultural advance of the masses. With its thousands of intricate characters and arbitrary construction, it required years of intensive study for its mastery. How could the son of a poor family ever hope to acquire more than the barest rudiments for everyday intercourse? Chen set himself the task of simplifying China’s written language so that it might become accessible to the common people. After years of devoted labor he produced the pei hua and popularized it in North China, where he was a professor at the Peking National University. Pei hua means, literally, “northern language,” and it derived that name from the fact that it was in the north that it first took hold.

Through the medium of the pei hua reading and writing and the general understanding of the language were enormously simplified. It invaded the newer schools, was used by the newspapers and became the choice of popular writers. It looked as if a long step forward had been taken in opening a cultural avenue for the masses. But Chen was soon to discover that he had merely created the vehicle for a broader culture without giving the masses opportunity for boarding the vehicle.

How could the son of a poor peasant family hope to attend school and learn even the simplified language if his parents were just eking out a bare existence on the land and unable to pay for his education? How could a youth born into the home of a poor working artisan ever reach the portals of even an elementary school (all schools were fee-paying)? What hope of mass cultural development was there in a backward country like China, where almost universal poverty was the rule, where tens of thousands of villages and towns had not a single library or newspaper, often no school, and where the vast majority of families existed on such slender budgets that provision for the purchase of a newspaper, even if one were available, was utterly out of the question?

Posing these questions to himself, Chen Tu-hsiu was drawn into the realm of political ideas and struggles. The October revolution in 1917 exerted its inevitable influence on the idealistic Chen and hastened his development. In backward Russia he saw the European counterpart of China. He came to understand that new life, social progress, cultural advancement could become possible only by overthrowing the landlords and capitalists and establishing the rule of the people. The Russian Bolsheviks had blazed a trail which China must follow.

World War I had brought into being the Chinese proletariat, but it was still immature, its first fiery struggles still lay ahead. By 1919, however, the political ideas unleashed by the Russian Bolsheviks had made their way into the ranks of China’s radical intelligentsia and a number of socialist groups had been formed. Their growth and coalescence were given impetus by the great student uprisings in Peking that year, which have gone into Chinese history as the May Fourth Movement.

One of the leading figures in that movement, which was directed against the rotten Peking government of those days, was Chen Tu-hsiu. In 1920, together with other leading figures among China’s rebellious intellectuals, Chen joined in the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. In July 1921 the party held its first national conference at Shanghai. Six years later, in April 1927, Chiang Kai-shek, political and military representative of the bourgeoisie, slew the Chinese revolution and gave the revolutionary movement its first blood bath. The Communist Party was outlawed and many of its best leaders were captured and executed. Thousands of revolutionary workers and peasants were slaughtered. Chen Tuhsiu became a fugitive in hiding.

The story of how the fatal opportunist policies of Stalin-Bukharin led to the terrible defeat of the Chinese revolution has been told many times and there is no occasion to repeat it here. The executive committee of the Comintern sought, as it had done earlier in the case of the abortive German revolution, to saddle the exclusive responsibility for the disaster on the national leaders of the revolution, principally Chen Tu-hsiu, although it was the Stalin-Bukharin policy, faithfully executed by him, which had brought on the debacle.

At the conference of the Chinese party in August 1927 Chen was deposed from leadership to the accompaniment of loud condemnations of his leadership from Moscow. He retired from active work while the new, and part of the old, leadership switched under Moscow orders from the previous policy of opportunism to the equally disastrous course of adventurism whose high point was marked by the abortive Canton insurrection in December 1927. Chen wrote several letters to the central committee of the party, opposing the new adventuristic course. In August 1929 he reiterated his opposition in a lengthy letter to the central committee and demanded a re-examination of its policies. Shortly thereafter he and about 100 others were expelled as Oppositionists. In February 1930 the Comintern invited him to Moscow, where many political penitents, under pressure of Stalin’s machine, had confessed their “errors.” Chen, to his everlasting credit, refused the “invitation” and demanded that the issues of the defeated revolution be thrown open to full discussion within the Comintern and the Chinese party.

That refusal and demand severed the tenuous thread still holding Chen to the Stalinists. He solidarized himself with one of several groups of Left Oppositionists which subsequently united to form the Communist League of China, section of the Fourth International, and was a leading figure in Oppositionist activity – all conducted from the underground – until his arrest by the Kuomintang in 1932.

On trial before a military court in Nanking, Chen defended his revolutionary Trotskyist views and generally conducted himself in the best traditions of the revolutionary movement, becoming the accuser, he hurled defiance at the Kuomintang military regime, condemned its frightful terrorism against the people. The picture of this slight figure of a man in his faded Chinese gown, surrounded by gendarmes in a heavily guarded courtroom, a possible death penalty in the offing, yet hurling defiance at his captors in the name of the persecuted and downtrodden masses, is one which can inspire our comrades everywhere as they prepare to face the great ordeals which revolutionary activity exacts in these terrible times.

Chen’s Political Limitations

Chen Tu-hsiu embodied in his political personality a remarkable, though by no means unique, contradiction which set the severest limitations on his career as a revolutionist – the fact that he became a revolutionary fighter and leader, a champion of the oppressed, a Communist, without ever becoming a Marxist. Chen’s life, particularly the closing years of it, should serve as an object lesson and a warning to would-be revolutionary leaders who sneer at dialectics and consider themselves amply educated politically after they have read a few popular pamphlets on Marxism.

He had absorbed some Marxist ideas piecemeal, without consistency, on the wing so to speak, while engaged in the tasks of the revolutionary movement, but he never became a consistent Marxist. The fact that he so readily accepted the opportunist policies of Stalin-Bukharin in the 1925-27 revolutionary period – though admittedly with occasional misgivings and sometimes contrary to his own better judgment – was due in large part to the deficiency of his Marxist education. As a thinker he was inclined to be empirical, and bourgeois philosophy, against which he rebelled while a professor but which he nevertheless had absorbed into his system (largely via John Dewey), stood as an obstacle to the further development of his mental powers. It was his misfortune, too, that he did not have the opportunity to study the lessons of the Russian revolution, for these were suppressed by the Moscow bureaucracy and Trotsky had not yet written his monumental history of the great upheaval. Chen was limited, moreover, by his lack of knowledge of foreign languages and few of the Marxist classics were available in Chinese.

Charged with “endangering the safety of the State,” Chen demanded of the prosecutor (I paraphrase his remarks, not having the text available): “How can I be accused of endangering the State? Is not the State the people? In what way am I endangering the State when I fight for the rights of the people?” It was evident that Chen had either not read, or had failed to understand, the writings of Marx on the question of the state or even Lenin’s “The State and Revolution.” The Marxist conception of the state as a political instrument of the ruling class was to Chen a seemingly unknown idea.

At the beginning of his political career, Chen had proclaimed “science and democracy” as the needed substitute for Confucianism if China were to advance. Democracy was here posed, not from the point of view of the struggle of social classes, not in the political context of revolutionary materialism, but as a more or less abstract concept, a non-class “ideal” to be striven for by people of good will. That, of course, was in the days of Chen’s political immaturity. It is doubtful, however, whether in his thinking Chen ever really envisaged his “ideal” democracy – a subject to which he returned over and over again in the later years of his life – in the political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, even if he accepted that idea formally. To Chen, democracy was something of a fetish. His early life as a liberal-radical professor who had to oppose a dictatorship (the old Peking government) in order to disseminate his new cultural ideas; the later consolidation of the Kuomintang regime which systematically polluted the libertarian atmosphere which had developed during the revolutionary years; finally, the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist suppression of all democratic liberties – all these factors contributed to Chen’s fetishistic conception of democracy.

The circumstances of his life, as well as the factors already named, played their part in stopping short the development of Chen Tu-hsiu as a revolutionary leader. I have mentioned his lack of knowledge of foreign languages, especially serious in a country like China. This he tried to make good during his five years of imprisonment and I know that he made sufficient progress in English to be able to read some of Trotsky’s more important works. The five years spent in prison, however, had the corresponding disadvantage that Chen was denied close contact with his comrades in one of the most crucial periods of modern revolutionary history: the final decline and degeneration of the Communist International and the rise of the Fourth International. Such isolation from the live current of events is always unfortunate, but particularly in the case of a revolutionist well past middle age who has not had the benefit of a thorough grounding in Marxism.

Chen’s knowledge of the international movement was sketchy, gleaned from books, pamphlets and articles. Unlike most of the outstanding revolutionists, he had never gone abroad. His entire life was spent within the borders of China and his only contact with comrades from foreign lands was during the Chinese revolution when functionaries of the Cornintern (Borodin, Roy, et al.) were in China to give commands to the central committee of the Chinese C. P. Lack of any personal knowledge of the outside world had limiting effects on Chen’s mental horizons and bred in him a certain provincialism. His contacts with the Comintern functionaries, incidentally, engendered in him an ill-concealed and quite irrational hostility and suspicion toward revolutionists from other lands.

Two years after his release from prison the second imperialist world war broke out to reveal the reactionary content of Chen’s democratic concept. As an advocate of democracy “in general” without reference to social classes, he rapidly developed his thought to the point at which he considered it necessary for revolutionists to support the “democratic” imperialist camp against the fascist camp and urged this policy upon the Chinese section of the Fourth International. A lengthy polemic ensued in which Chen even went to the length of declaring that India should at least postpone its struggle for freedom in order not to jeopardize a “democratic” victory by hampering Britain’s war effort. This polemic, which was carried on by correspondence between the remote Szechwan village where Chen lived and the central committee in Shanghai, left Chen in a minority of one. The polemic was often interrupted or suspended by Chen’s more and more frequent lapses into illness. His views never became publicly known, since the discussion was confined within the organization. He did not break with the organization, and the latter, for its part, saw no reason to use harsh measures against an illustrious comrade who took no public stand against its policies.

In Chinese intellectual circles Chen throughout his life was the object of great esteem – not because of his politics but because of his scholarly attainments and his impeccable integrity. While Chen hewed to the hard revolutionary path, most of his former academic associates and likewise most of his former pupils went the way of most petty-bourgeois flesh, preferring to feed at the troughs put out by the ruling regime. Among them was Dr. Hu Shih, the present Chinese ambassador in Washington, who liked to consider himself a disciple of Chen Tu-hsiu, but spoke not one public word for Chen when he was jailed by Chiang Kai-shek.

Among the intellectuals Chen was esteemed mainly as a philosopher and as a rare master of the Chinese language. He was renowned as a calligrapher and specimens of his writing, exquisitely executed with deft strokes of the brush or pen, are the prized possessions of many of his comrades, friends and acquaintances. Some of his former academic friends who through all the phases of his life continued to hold him in high esteem came to his defense in Hankow in 1938 when the Communist Party, shortly after Chen’s release from prison, conducted a slander campaign against the aging man, accusing him and the rest of the Trotskyists of being agents of Japan. They published a statement recalling Chen’s career as a fighter for social justice, his record in the long battle for China’s emancipation from imperialist control; they cited his incorruptibility, as evidenced by his readiness to suffer persecution for his ideas, to prove it was impossible that such a man could be an agent of Japan. This defense was not political, but it sufficed for a time to put the Stalinists to such public shame as to silence their slander campaign.

Chen’s failure to mature politically was a reflection, in its way, of the backwardness of China. He came to the revolutionary movement as a man of mature years. The younger comrades had many advantages denied to Chen, among them the opportunity to devote themselves to the study of Marxism and the works of its most distinguished continuator, Leon Trotsky. How far the Chinese revolutionary movement has advanced beyond the political level which Chen represented is evidenced most strikingly in the fact that he could not find in the Chinese organization a single supporter for his later political ideas. Personal regard for Chen because of his high integrity the comrades kept until his death, but they never allowed his personal prestige to influence their political judgment.

Despite his serious limitations, Chen Tu-hsiu displayed most of the personal qualities of a great revolutionist. His single-minded devotion to the cause of the oppressed could not be questioned. He abandoned a comfortable and honored academic career for the life of a revolutionist and never looked backward. With his comrades he shared all the vicissitudes of that life, including drab poverty and the dangers of under-ground activity. Never was he known to flinch or complain. His entire political life was one of personal renunciation. Before the court of the hangman Chiang Kai-shek he bore himself heroically. Had he been prepared, like many of the Stalinist capitulators in the worst period of the Kuomintang terror, to disown his revolutionary views and bend the knee to the ruling despot, he could have had almost anything within the despot’s gift. He preferred prison – death, if need be to such dishonor and he remained an exemplar of revolutionary conduct.

For his steadfastness Chen Tu-hsiu will always remain an honored figure in the gallery of revolutionary fighters. The revolutionary youth of present-day China will make good his deficiencies in preparing themselves for their own revolutionary roles. They will carry to fruition the great work in which he strove with a valiance that overshadowed his short-comings.


Last updated on 15.8.2004