Li Fu-jen

Leon Trotsky:
Revolutionary Teacher Of the Colonial Peoples

(August 1944)

Li Fu-jen, Revolutionary Teacher Of the Colonial Peoples, Fourth International, August 1944.
Copied from the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The development of a Marxist program and strategy for the colonial revolution belongs exclusively to our epoch – the epoch of wars and revolutions leading to the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society. It was Lenin who first outlined this program and strategy. But its detailed unfoldment and its first concrete applications were the work of Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s great co-worker. Trotsky’s writing on the problems of the colonial revolution, many of which still await publication, would fill numerous volumes. They form an integral and indispensable part of the program and strategy of the world socialist revolution and rank with the greatest of Trotsky’s immense contributions to the development of Marxist theory and revolutionary socialist practice.

In a preface to the Afrikaans edition of the Communist Manifesto, first published by Marx and Engels in 1848, Trotsky observed that this founding document of the international socialist movement contained no reference to the struggle of colonial and semi-colonial countries for national independence. This was due, he pointed out, to the fact that the founders of scientific socialism considered the socialist revolution in Europe to be, at most, a few years distant. The destruction of capitalism in Europe would “automatically” bring liberation to the oppressed peoples. However, history did not adhere to this optimistic time table. Not only did the European proletariat fail to destroy capitalism in its classic stronghold, but capitalism penetrated ever more deeply into the backward colonial countries, leading in time to the creation of powerful national liberation movements. Here was a new and mighty revolutionary factor. Its emergence set up an objective need for a colonial revolutionary program and strategy.

If in the period of the progressive upswing of capitalism the seizure of colonies was essential to enable the discharge by the bourgeoisie of what Marx described as their special historic mission, namely, “the establishment of the world market, at any rate in its main outlines and of a production upon this basis” (Karl Marx, letter to Engels, Oct. 8, 1858) – then today, in the era of the decline and decay of capitalist economy, retention of colonies, with the opportunity to plunder their natural riches and exploit their inhabitants, has become a vital condition of the very survival of capitalism on a world scale.

Revolutionary Internationalism

It is this profound and demonstrable truth which furnishes the basis of the reciprocal inter-relationship of the socialist movement of the proletariat in the advanced capitalist countries and the national liberation movement in the colonies and semicolonies. These latter countries embrace more than half of the world’s population. The liberation of their inhabitants is as important for the working-class as their continued enslavement is for the imperialist bourgeoisie. For Trotsky, this was the point of departure in the work of creating a colonial revolutionary strategy. It was the internationalist axis around which he always and unfailingly built. “The Communists,” declared the Manifesto of 1848, “everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” To which Trotsky added:

“The movement of the colored races against their imperialist oppressors is one of the most important and powerful movements against the existing order and therefore calls for complete, unconditional and unlimited support on the part of the proletariat of the white race.” (Leon Trotsky, 90 Years of the Communist Manifesto, New International, Feb. 1938.)

National liberation movements in the colonies and semicolonies unfolded after the first imperialist world war and were the immediate product of conditions created by the war.

Growth of the Working Class

Until the end of the nineteenth century, imperialist exploitation bore almost exclusively the character of outright robbery and spoliation. Economic development of colonial areas was confined to such measures as were necessary to aid in the extraction of raw materials and the marketing of finished commodities produced in the capitalist countries of the West. It was British commercial capital, for example, which first penetrated India. Such industrial development as took place was incidental to the central aim of commercial exploitation. Britain’s capitalists built cotton mills in Bombay only when it was discovered to be cheaper to process Indian-grown cotton on the spot, with cheap Indian labor, than to ship it to Lancashire for spinning and weaving, especially since a large part of the finished products was destined for sale in India and nearby countries. In line with the same policy, British capitalists erected cotton mills in Shanghai to handle the Chinese cotton crop as well as part of the Indian crop.

The most important political consequence of this incidental industrial development was the appearance in these vast backward lands of an industrial proletariat, pitted against the imperialist exploiters. Whereas foreign commercial capital had merely raised up an embryonic native or national bourgeoisie as agents of imperialism (the compradores), the foreign industrial capital which followed produced an industrial working-class which had a single, undisguised interest in relation to the imperialists – uncompromising struggle against them!

During the first world war, when the economic pressure of the imperialists was relaxed because of preoccupation with the military struggle in Europe, the industrial development of the big colonial lands took on an accelerated pace. The native compradores and some of the big native landowners entered the industrial field, creating enterprises in competition with those of the imperialists. Thus the “national” bourgeoisie came to flower. The industrial proletariat grew correspondingly. It was these developments which set the class pattern for the great revolutionary upheavals in the colonial countries in the decade after the war, above all the abortive Chinese revolution of 1925-27.

Class relations are decisive for revolutionary Marxists in determining the character and perspectives of revolutionary movements and the political strategy necessary to bring them to fruition. The class criterion is as mandatory for the colonial countries as it is for the capitalist metropoli, Trotsky, following Marx and Lenin, insisted upon this criterion in opposition to Stalin and all the other revisionist opponents and betrayers of socialism. It runs like a red thread through his voluminous speeches and writings on the problems of the colonial revolution. Most of these speeches and writings were concerned with China and the Chinese revolution. In the class relations of China are refracted the class relations of the colonies in general. The essence of Trotsky’s thought on China will therefore furnish the key to revolutionary Marxist policy in the entire colonial question.

Character of the Revolution

“In its immediate aims,” Trotsky wrote in 1938, “the incompleted Chinese Revolution is ‘bourgeois.’ This term, however, which is used as a mere echo of the bourgeois revolutions of the past actually helps us very little. Lest the historical analogy turn into a trap for the mind, it is necessary to check it in the light of a concrete sociological analysis. What are the classes which are struggling in China? What are the interrelationships of these classes? How, and in what direction, are these relations being transformed? What are the objective tasks of the Chinese Revolution, i.e.. those tasks dictated by the course of development? On the shoulders of which classes rests the solution of these tasks?

“Colonial and semi-colonial – and therefore backward – countries, which embrace by far the greater part of mankind, differ extraordinarily from one another in their degree of backwardness, representing an historical ladder reaching from nomadry, and even cannibalism, up to the most modern industrial culture. The combination of extremes in one degree or another characterizes all of the backward countries. However, the hierarchy of backwardness, if one may employ such an expression, is determined by the specific weight of the elements of barbarism and culture in the life of each colonial country. Equatorial Africa lags far behind Algeria, Paraguay behind Mexico, Abyssinia, behind India or China. With their common economic dependence upon the imperialist metropoli, their political dependence bears in some instances the character of open colonial slavery (India, Equatorial Africa), while in others it is concealed by the fiction of state independence (China, Latin America).

“In agrarian relations backwardness finds its most organic and cruel expression. Not one of these countries has carried it democratic revolution through to any real extent. Half-way agrarian reforms are absorbed by semi-serf relations, and these me inescapably reproduced in the soil of poverty and oppression. Agrarian barbarism goes hand in hand with the absence of roads, with the isolation of provinces, with ‘medieval’ particularism, and absence of national consciousness. The purging of social relations of the remnants of ancient and the encrustations of modern feudalism is the most important task in all these countries.

The National Bourgeoisie

“The achievement of the agrarian revolution is unthinkable, however, with the preservation of dependence upon foreign imperialism, which with one hand implants capitalist relations while supporting and recreating with the other all the forms of slavery and serfdom. The struggle for the democratisation of social relations and the creation of a national state thus uninterruptedly passes into an open uprising against foreign domination.

“Historical backwardness does not imply a simple reproduction or the development of advanced countries, England or France, with a delay of one, two or three centuries. It engenders an entirely new ‘combined’ social formation in which the latest conquests of capitalist technique and structure root themselves into relations of feudal or pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and subjecting them and creating a peculiar relation of classes.

“Not a single one of the tasks of the ‘bourgeois’ revolution can be solved in these backward countries under the leadership of the ‘national’ bourgeoisie, because the latter emerges at once with foreign support as a class alien or hostile to the people. Every stage in its development binds it only the more closely to foreign finance capital of which it is essentially the agency. The petty bourgeoisie of the colonies, that of handicraft and trade, is the first to fall victim in the unequal struggle with foreign capital, declining into economic insignificance, becoming declassed and pauperized. It cannot even conceive of playing an independent political role. The peasantry, the largest numerically and the most atomized, backward, and oppressed class, is capable of local uprisings and partisan warfare, but requires the leadership of a more advanced and centralized class in order for this struggle to be elevated to an all-national level. The task of such leadership falls in the nature of things upon the colonial proletariat, which, from its very first steps stands opposed not only to the foreign but also to it own national bourgeoisie” (From the Introduction by Leon Trotsky to Harold R. Isaacs’ The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, London, 1938.)

These views concerning the peculiarity of class relations and, consequently, the special character of “bourgeois-democratic” revolutions in historically belated countries do not rest as Trotsky proceeded to point out, on theoretical analysis alone. They had been submitted to a “grandiose historical test” in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and February and October, 1917. These three revolutions proved beyond all question the incapacity of the national bourgeoisie in a backward country to solve the tasks of the democratic revolution. Hence the need to orient the proletariat toward the seizure of power. Lenin put the matter thus:

“Our revolution is a bourgeois revolution, the workers must support the bourgeoisie – say the worthless politicians from the camp of the liquidators. Our revolution is a bourgeois revolution, say we who are Marxists. The workers must open the eyes of the people to the fraud of the bourgeois politicians, teach them not to place trust in promises and to rely on their OWN forces, on their OWN organization, on their OWN unity and on their OWN weapons alone.” (Lenin, Works, Vol.XIV, Part 1, p.11.)

The Chinese Catastrophe

In the case of Czarist Russia the Bolshevik theory of the hegemony of the proletariat in the revolution received positive vindication in the victorious October overturn. The Russian workers, allied with the lower layers of the peasantry, and led by the Bolshevik Party, overthrew both Czarism and capitalism. The tasks of the democratic revolution were solved through the dictatorship of the proletariat, which then proceeded to socialist tasks.

In China, on the contrary, the theory of proletarian hegemony, the very core of Bolshevik policy, received negative confirmation in a monstrous revolutionary catastrophe. Stalin and Bukharin, the then theoreticians of the Communist International, chopped the historic process into separate, independent stages in accordance with a lifeless scheme which decreed that only the “democratic” revolution was on the order of the day and that consequently the leadership of the revolution belonged and could only belong to the bourgeoisie. The formula of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” which Lenin had discarded in 1917 in favor of the proletarian dictatorship, was revived and expanded into the infamous “bloc of four classes,” prototype of the so-called Popular Fronts of later years. In this bloc – in reality a bloc of party tops and nothing else – the right to represent the peasantry was given to the party of the national bourgeoisie, the Kuomintang. The Communist Party, the party of the proletariat, gave up its political independence and entered the Kuomintang. The workers were thereby subordinated to the political control of the national bourgeoisie. And this criminal break with proletarian class policy, this disregard of the plain lessons of Russian revolutionary history, this rejection of the still fresh teachings of Lenin, was palmed off on the young and inexperienced Chinese Communist Party as – Bolshevism!

In order to justify this treacherous policy of class collaboration, Stalin-Bukharin adduced the fact of imperialist oppression which supposedly impelled “all the progressive forces in the country” toward an alliance against imperialism. Thus the national bourgeoisie was invested with a progressive role, that of a fighter against imperialism for national liberation. But this, as Trotsky pointed out, “was precisely in its day the argument of the Russian Mensheviks, with the difference that in their case the place of imperialism was occupied by Czarism.”

Bourgeois Counter-Revolution

As we have already seen, the national bourgeoisie is incapable of conducting a progressive fight, a fight to the end, to realize the aims of the democratic revolution, foremost of which, in the colonial countries, is the destruction of imperialist domination. This incapacity has a dual basis: 1. The close ties of the bourgeoisie with the imperialists and the elements of rural reaction; 2. Fear of mobilizing the masses, who, in the high tide of the struggle must inevitably pass over to the fight for the destruction of bourgeois property. But when the masses rise against imperialism as they did in China in 1925-27, the bourgeoisie endeavors to take charge of the movement and to use it to extract concessions from the imperialists. It then stamps upon the revolutionary masses and drives them back to their old slavery. Such, in reality, is the character of the “democratic” revolution under bourgeois leadership.

Nevertheless, insisted Stalin-Bukharin, Chiang Kai-shek (the leader of the Chinese national bourgeoisie) were conducting a struggle against imperialism. And so it really appeared to the superficial minds in the Kremlin. Actually Chiang was engaged in a limited struggle against certain militarists who were the agents of a single imperialist power – Britain – in the hope merely of forcing concessions from the imperialist overlords of the country. This is not the same thing as a principled all-out struggle to the finish against the entire system of imperialist domination. Today Chiang Kai-shek conducts a fight against Japanese imperialism, and in the process passes into the service of Anglo-American imperialism, thus preparing a new slavery for the Chinese nation. The alleged anti-imperialist role of the national bourgeoisie was sharply characterized by Trotsky in words which he sought to burn into the consciousness of the revolutionary vanguard:

“The so-called ‘national’ bourgeoisie tolerates all forms of national degradation so long as it can hope to maintain its own privileged existence. But at the moment when foreign capital sets out to assume undivided domination of the entire wealth of the country, the colonial bourgeoisie is forced to remind itself of its ‘national’ obligations. Under pressure of the masses it may even find itself plunged into a war. But this will be a war waged against one of the imperialist powers, the one least amenable to negotiations, with the hope of passing into the service of some other, more magnanimous power. Chiang Kai-shek struggles against the Japanese violators only within the limits indicated to him by his British or American patrons. Only that class which has nothing to lose but its chains can conduct to the very end the war against imperialism for national emancipation.” (From the Introduction by Leon Trotsky to Harold R. Isaacs’ The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.)

The Lesson of China

According to Stalin-Bukharin, the policy of the bloc of four classes was to lead to completion of the democratic revolution in China and thus open the road to the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat. What happened is a matter of history. Chiang Kai-shek, instead of leading a “democratic” revolution, emerged as the leader of a triumphant counter-revolution, The shaken imperialists recovered all their positions. The agrarian problem remained unsolved. What does all this mean for future revolutionary policy?

It means – and this is the most vital part of the lesson which Trotsky taught to the new revolutionary cadres – that between the bourgeois-military dictatorship of (Chiang Kai-shek and the dictatorship of the proletariat there can be no intermediate “democratic” regime. It means that if, in the high tide of the coming colonial revolutions, the proletarian vanguard party should seek to bring about the establishment of such a regime, instead of orienting the workers toward the seizure of power and the creation of a proletarian dictatorship, only fresh revolutionary catastrophes can result.

Almost as if answering in advance the false and treacherous policies of the Stalinist betrayers of the Chinese revolution-particularly the stupid Menshevik theory of stages – Lenin in his famous April Theses, written in April 1917 to rearm the Bolshevik Party and prepare its revolutionary triumph, had proclaimed the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat to be the sole means of carrying through the agrarian revolution to the end and of winning freedom for oppressed peoples. But the regime of proletarian dictatorship could not, because of its very nature, limit itself to bourgeois-democratic tasks within the framework of bourgeois property relations. The rule of the proletariat automatically places the socialist revolution – destruction of bourgeois property relations and the liquidation of class rule – on the order of the day. The socialist revolution is thus uninterruptedly linked to the democratic revolution and is an organic outgrowth of it.

Theory of Permanent Revolution

“Such was (Trotsky observes), in broad outline, the essence of the conception of the permanent (uninterrupted) revolution. It was precisely this conception that guaranteed the victory of the proletariat in October.” (Idem.) In China, it was the violation of this Bolshevik conception, or, more accurately, its outright rejection, that guaranteed the victory of Chiang Kai-shek and the bourgeois counter-revolution.

The theory of permanent revolution was originated by Marx. Lenin made of it a powerful lever of revolutionary victory. Trotsky, the authentic continuator of the work of Marx and Lenin, defended and developed the theory in its manifold aspects in the course of nearly two decades of struggle against the Stalinist falsifiers and betrayers, thereby rearming the revolutionary vanguard in preparation for future great struggles. Trotsky’s writings on the permanent revolution are the theoretical mainspring of proletarian revolutionary strategy and are an obligatory study for all who aspire to lead the working-class in the struggle for socialism, whether in the capitalist countries of the West or in the backward colonial countries. The theory of the permanent revolution is the Marxist antithesis of the reactionary theory of socialism in one country which, under Stalin, became the official state doctrine of the Soviet Union. It also stands in diametrical opposition to Stalin’s Menshevik policies which brought the Chinese revolution to disaster.

“The permanent revolution, in the sense which Marx attached to the conception.” wrote Trotsky. “means a revolution which maker no compromise with any form of class rule, which does not stop at the democratic stage, which goes over to socialist measures and to war against the reaction from without, that is, a revolution whose every next stage is anchored in the preceding one and which can only end in the complete liquidation of all class society.” (Leon Trotsky, Introduction to The Permanent Revolution, New York, 1931, p.xxxii.)

Trotsky Explains Theory

What does this mean for the so-called backward countries the colonies and semi-colonies? Trotsky proceeds to explain:

“With regard to the countries with a belated development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks, democratic and national emancipation, is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.

“Not only the agrarian, but also the national question, assigns to the peasantry, the overwhelming majority of the population of backward countries, an important place in the democratic revolution. Without an alliance of the proletariat with the peasantry, the tasks of the democratic revolution cannot be solved, nor even seriously posed. But the alliance of these two classes can be realized in no other way than through an intransigent struggle against the influence or the national liberal bourgeoisie.

“The dictatorship of the proletariat which has risen to power as the leader of the democratic revolution is inevitably and very quickly placed before tasks that are bound up with deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property. The democratic revolution grows over immediately into the socialist and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.

“The conquest of power by the proletariat does not terminate the revolution, but only opens it Socialist construction is conceivable only on the foundation of the class struggle, on a national and international scale. The struggle, under the conditions of an overwhelming predominance of capitalist relationships on the world arena, will inevitably lead to explosions, that is, internally to civil wars, and externally to revolutionary wars. Therein lies the permanent character of the socialist revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country, which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.

“The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it conflict with the framework of the national state. From this follow, on the one hand, imperialist wars, and on the other, the utopia of the bourgeois United States of Europe. The socialist revolution commences on the national arena, is developed further on the inter-state and finally on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.” (Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, pp.151-155.)

In the domain of practical politics, these views of the character and class dynamics of the revolution obligate the party of the revolutionary vanguard in the colonial countries to a policy of irreconcilable struggle against imperialism and its native ally, the national bourgeoisie. It must not permit itself to be led into a policy of class conciliation and class collaboration when the national bourgeoisie, for its own class reasons, displays a “left” face to the masses, as did Chiang Kai-shek. It must remain completely independent of all other parties and enter into no blocs or alliances with them. It must not mix its own class banner with the banners of other classes and parties much less kneel before another’s banner. It must keep unswervingly to the single aim of leading the proletariat toward the conquest of power in alliance with the masses of peasants.

During the revolutionary crisis in China, Trotsky strove to imbue the Communist International with these fundamental revolutionary ideas, and through the C.I. to deflect the Chinese Communist Party from the fatal opportunistic course to which it was being held by Moscow. To no avail. Reaction against the Leninist ideas of the October Revolution was mounting. The Chinese revolution went down in disastrous defeat. Trotsky and the Bolshevik-Leninists of the Left Opposition were expelled from the ranks of the Russian party. Trotsky himself was exiled.

This was not, as bourgeois commentators believed, a mere personal defeat for Trotsky. It was a defeat for Bolshevism, a defeat for Marxism and Leninism. This defeat reflected the growth of reaction both within and without the Soviet Union. Thus Trotsky appraised what had occurred. But Trotsky was not only a revolutionary Marxist theoretician. He was also an active revolutionist. For him the defeat of the Chinese revolution, and the triumph of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and the Communist International, called for a Marxist analysis in order to avoid future catastrophes and clear the road for future revolutionary victories. The first need was to understand what had happened, and why, in order to furnish a basis for m grouping and rearming the revolutionary vanguard.

Rearming the Vanguard

Trotsky’s efforts to steer the Chinese Communist Party on to a correct revolutionary path in the great and tragic events of 1925-27 had a great preparatory value for this later work. Several thousand young Chinese Communists had gone to Moscow for training in the Communist University of the Toilers of the East. A large number of them, influenced by Trotsky’s tireless fight to guide the Chinese revolution toward victory, joined the ranks of the Left Opposition. Most of the remainder were silent adherents of Trotsky’s Bolshevik program. On November 7, 1927, the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, when Stalin was preparing to exile Trotsky from the Soviet Union, the young Chinese revolutionists paraded through Moscow’s Red Square with other foreign Communist delegations. On the banners which they carried were inscribed the slogans deemed appropriate by the Stalinist controlling clique. But as they passed in front of Stalin they flipped the banners over and disclosed a slogan reading: “Long Live Trotsky!” This was not just a personal tribute to Lenin’s greatest comrade-in-arms, but a declaration of solidarity with his ideas. The banner-bearers were arrested and later murdered by Stalin’s counter-revolutionary regime. A few – very few – of the Chinese revolutionists in Moscow at that time escaped the blood-purge and managed to return to China to form the nucleus of the Left Opposition which later became the Chinese section of the Fourth International.

In his first place of exile, in Alms Ata, Trotsky set himself the task of analyzing the revolutionary disaster in China. The Stalinist clique in Moscow sought to make the Chinese Communists the scapegoats and to prevent any real discussion of what had occurred. Trotsky, however, insisted on dragging the whole lamentable story into broad daylight, drawing from it all the necessary lessons, in order to lay bare the mainsprings of the defeat and prepare for future victory. For, as he said, “one unexposed and uncondemned error always leads to another, or prepares the ground for it.” In this essential work he had in mind not only the arrival – even if with some delay – of a new revolutionary situation in China, but the future of the entire colonial revolutionary movement. In Alms Ata he wrote:

“The lessons of the second Chinese revolution are lessons for the entire Comintern, but primarily for all the countries of the Orient. All the arguments presented In defense of the Menshevik line in the Chinese revolution must, if we take them seriously, hold trebly good for India. The imperialist yoke assumes in India, the classic colony, infinitely mere direct and palpable forms than in China. The survivals of feudal and serf relations in India are immeasurably deeper and greater. Nevertheless, or rather precisely for this reason, the methods which applied In China, undermined the revolution, must result in India in even more fatal consequences. The overthrow of Hindu feudalism and of the Anglo-Hindu bureaucracy and British militarism can be accomplished only by a gigantic and an indomitable movement of the popular masses which precisely because of its powerful sweep and irresistibility, its international aims and ties, cannot tolerate any half-way and compromising opportunist measures on the part of the leadership.” (Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, New York, 1936, p.212.)

From his various places of exile, first in Alms Ata, later in Turkey, France, Norway and Mexico, Trotsky followed with passionate interest the regroupment of the revolutionary vanguard in the colonial countries, first as cadres of the Left Opposition, later as sections of the Fourth International, on the basis of the Bolshevik-Leninist program. It was largely due to his efforts, brought to bear through participation from afar in their discussions, that three separate groups of Chinese Left Oppositionists were united in the year 1931 to form the Communist League of China, now the Chinese section of the Fourth International. And it was on the basis of Trotsky’s teachings on the colonial revolution – above all the lessons which he drew from the abortive Chinese revolution – that sections of the Fourth International later grew up in India, Ceylon and Indo-China and in the semi-colonial countries of Latin America.


Last updated on 27.2.2023