The mass rebellions that followed the murder of George Floyd have been a decisive event for revolutionaries in the US. Debate has focused on the question: how should we formulate our tactics in the face of these broad mobilizations?
Of course, we only count as revolutionaries those who proceed from the perspective that the rebellions are correct and important. Those who dismiss them out of hand, or who otherwise act as if they are not part of the political reality of our time, deserve only scorn and contempt.
However, among revolutionaries, the eruption of the rebellions was accompanied by a certain frenzied mentality, voiced in the familiar, breathless refrains that ‘this is the revolution,’ ‘this is a revolutionary moment,’ ‘if we push this far enough, the system will fall,’ etc. etc. This revolutionism speaks to a subjective impatience that can easily become its opposite – resignation or indifference – when hopes crash against the hard rock of reality. Hence the importance of addressing the roots of this perspective as we discuss the path forward.
As the strength and size of the mobilizations diminish, the illusory nature of such judgments has become self-evident. But it would be an error to view the non-revolutionariness of the rebellions as fundamentally a matter of their lack of organization, or their insufficient intensity and persistence – as if revolutions were simple extensions or generalizations of resistance struggles. This is the perspective that rebellions, if they go far and long enough, can on their own culminate in revolutions.
This perspective fails to grasp that in addition to organization, what is needed to advance beyond resistance struggles is a positive project articulated by a leading revolutionary class, organized in its Party and conscious of its class interests and historic tasks. The Party is not spontaneously assembled within the storm of the rebellion, but consciously constructed through a patient work of ideological and political training, formulation of a political program, elaboration of tactics, and protracted, large-scale organizing among the masses. This is a general principle that applies to all revolutions.
Every historical moment imposes specific tasks on revolutionaries that follow from the concrete dynamics of the situation. Before determining these tasks in the present, we must first have a clear understanding of the relation between resistance struggles and the process of revolution. We can examine this relation via the concrete example of the Revolution of 1911 in China, which put an end to the 2000-year-old absolute monarchy – although it failed to transform the semi-colonial, semi-feudal nature of Chinese society. We will divide our analysis of the Revolution of 1911 into its objective conditions and its subjective conditions.
The Revolution of 1911 took place in the context of the transformation of capitalism from its competitive stage into its imperialist monopoly stage, at the turn of the 20th century. The contradiction between various imperialisms (Britain, the US, Russia, France, Japan, Italy, Austria-Hungary) and China sharpened, as the imperialist drive to export capital and divide the world focused on China, while the Qing government acted as an agent of the imperialist aggressors, siphoning off China’s wealth in the form of indemnities and payments on loans. This wealth was largely extorted from the peasantry on the basis of the feudal land system.
In the decades leading up to the Revolution of 1911, resistance struggles by workers and peasants proliferated. Between 1901 and 1910, there were nearly 1000 spontaneous struggles.
Although worker struggles were a consistent feature of Chinese society, the working class was not yet an independent, conscious, and organized class force, and their struggles were largely spontaneous and scattered. They participated in the Revolution of 1911 under bourgeois leadership. Between 1895 and 1911, worker struggles were common, and not all of them economic. For example, in January 1911, a British concession police detective in Wuhan kicked a rickshaw puller to death, which led to a massive demonstration by workers in which 10 were killed at the hands of British soldiers, supported by the Qing government.
Traditional peasant rebellions around taxes and levies – involving riots, arms seizures, attacks on tax-collection posts, etc. – multiplied in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1910, a water carrier in Changsha, Hunan, drowned himself and his family because he could not afford rice, which had been hoarded by officials, gentry, merchants and foreign firms to push up its price. The resulting rice riot led to raids on tax-collectors, mills, rice shops, foreign churches, and the governor’s office. Following the 1900-1901 Yìhétuán Movement, mainly of peasants, against the attempt by rival imperialisms to partition China, peasants spontaneously learned to link the fight against feudalism with fight against imperialism, raising slogans like “oppose the Qing and exterminate the foreigners.”
To be sure, many worker and peasant struggles involved tremendous force and ‘hard’ tactics – often with tens of thousands of people under arms – but they did not on their own lead to the overthrow of the absolute monarchy – nor could they, lacking an independent project and elaboration of strategy and general tactics that could transform China on a national scale.
However, mass resistance did create favorable objective conditions for the success of the revolution. The Qing rulers were increasingly isolated by the increasing pace of mass struggles. This forced them to turn to the tactics of peaceful deception in the form of sham constitutionalism, launched with an imperial edict in 1906 that promised a constitutional government in the distant future.
On the basis of the excellent objective situation provided by the mass movement, the revolution itself was organized along a distinct path by the leading class of the day, the national bourgeoisie.
China’s national bourgeoisie was mainly composed of industrial capitalists and their representatives. The national bourgeoisie suffered from heavy taxation by the Qing government and the flood of imports from abroad. The imperialists had an interest in preventing the development of national capitalism, since it would have shrunk its Chinese market for industrial goods and blocked their pillage of China’s cheap labor-power and raw materials. There were thus sharp contradictions between the national bourgeoisie and the Qing servants of foreign imperialism and domestic reaction.
Diverse local revolutionary bodies sprung up all over China in the last decade of the 19th century. But after the Protocol of 1901, in which the Qing government sold out China to eight imperialist countries, it was clear that what was needed to make the revolution was a national party that had an integrated organizational form and bore a clear political program capable of uniting the revolutionary camp.
In 1905, the national bourgeoisie, led by Sun Yat-sen, formed a unified revolutionary party to lead the bourgeois-democratic revolution on an all-China scale, the Tóngménghuì, or China Revolutionary League (CRL). The CRL adopted Sun’s 16-character program consisting of three principles:
—Nationalism (driving out the Qing and reviving the Chinese nation);
—Democracy (establishing a republic);
—The People’s Livelihood (equalization of landownership).
This was the program around which the diverse classes and social forces of the revolution rallied to the leadership of the CRL. The program made a positive and general project out of the scattered anti-feudal and anti-imperialist rebellions of the time. The CRL forged a revolutionary camp out of the disparate social forces that had a common interest in seeing the monarchy fall.
The decisive event of the revolution was the Wuchang Uprising of October 10, 1911, which began with a rebellion by the Eighth Engineering Battalion of the Qing government’s New Army (xīn jūn). This was not a spontaneous event but the fruit of over a decade of energetic preparatory work by bourgeois revolutionaries in Hubei province, particularly within units of the New Army, which was trained in modern methods of warfare and armed with advanced weapons.
Beginning in 1903, revolutionary youth entered the New Army, distributed revolutionary material among soldiers, and won over a section of the rank-and-file to the revolution. The following year, the Science Tutorial Institute (kēxué bǔxí suǒ) was set up to engage in ideological struggle under the guise of teaching science. Some of its members set up a revolutionary literature distribution hub in a reading room in Wuchang, called the Daily Knowledge Society (rì zhī hui) and in 1906 they had set up a 10,000-strong organization with the same name that held regular meetings in order to analyze and discuss the world situation, China’s crisis, and the path forward.
After the CRL was founded in 1905, Sun made organizational contact and provided leadership to revolutionaries in Hubei. The Daily Knowledge Society disbanded following arrests of its leadership, and another revolutionary organization became the leading center, the Society for Mutual Progress (gòng jìn huì). Eventually the Daily Knowledge Society resumed activity in the New Army through a series of organizations, recruiting thousands of members in the process. In the Spring of 1911, the major bourgeois revolutionary organizations in Hubei were united under a single command.
When the Eighth Engineering Battalion of the New Army rose up on October 10, 1911, it was the revolutionaries’ patient clandestine work in the New Army that made the difference, with only a few battalions offering resistance and the Qing command paralyzed. New Army soldiers soon completely freed Wuhan from Qing rule. They immediately set to work establishing an independent revolutionary army. Workers and peasants rushed to enlist in the new brigades being formed. Outside the army, workers and peasants formed militias and used rudimentary tools to pursue the enemy. In this way, the spontaneous resistance struggles of the masses were channeled into a practicable revolutionary project under the leadership of the CRL, with uprisings in the New Army forming the military backbone of the revolution in province after province. After the worker and peasant mass movement pushed the revolution across the whole country, the Qing regime fell.
The Failure of the Revolution
The Wuchang Uprising above all succeeded because the organized revolutionary class successfully had organized the rebellious masses. Prior to Wuchang – in addition to mass resistance struggles – there had been ten other major uprisings staged by revolutionaries. But in none of these uprisings were the masses organized on a large scale. These were pure military adventures by revolutionaries. In order to establish their leadership, the revolutionaries had to ideologically and politically remold the masses and give full play to their enthusiasm for revolution. The revolutionaries won victory over the Qing only by relying on the strength of the working-class and peasantry.
However, despite having driven the absolute monarchy from power, the CRL was incapable of leading the revolution in a consistent way. This was a result of its objective position as a social class.
The economic weakness of the national bourgeoisie vis-à-vis domestic compradors and foreign imperialism meant they had to rely on both, e.g., importing machinery from the imperialist countries, or purchasing agricultural inputs from parasitic merchants. The CRL thus maintained certain illusions about imperialism, and from the start relied on the local landlords and gentry to maintain social order.
Above all, the national bourgeoisie feared the power of the worker and peasant masses. For example, on the key issue of land reform, instead of encouraging revolutionary action by peasants to seize land, the CRL promoted a system of “land assessment,” with the revolutionary government fixing the price of land that remained with the landowner, and all increases in price after the revolution going to the state or shared by the “citizens” (i.e., the bourgeoisie). The foundation of feudal rule thus remained intact.
In order to win over bourgeois reformists, imperialism, and feudal warlords, the CRL promised “orderly revolution.” In reality, this meant compromise with counter-revolutionary forces. After taking its stand against the old order, the new bourgeois-revolutionary power disarmed the masses, which ultimately allowed the big landlords and compradors to usurp the fruits of the revolution. In the words of the writer Lu Xun:
“As the foxes fled their den,
Peach-wood puppets took the stage.”
The “foxes” of the Qing regime tottered, and all manner of “peach-wood puppets” immediately went about disarming and suppressing the workers and peasants. The revolutionary bourgeoisie had destroyed its own force. On April 1, 1912 Sun Yat-sen resigned as provisional president and a counter-revolutionary dictatorship was established led by Yuan Shikai. It was not until the Chinese Revolution of 1949 – led by the consistently-revolutionary proletariat and relying on the mass movement – that the semi-colonial semi-feudal system would finally be destroyed.
Lessons for Revolutionaries Today
The example of the Revolution of 1911 shows us the crucial importance of rebellions, which always produce correct ideas. In China before 1911, these were anti-feudal and anti-imperialist ideas. Today, they are anti-capitalist ideas.
For correct ideas to become a practicable project, a fraction of the masses must constitute themselves as a leading class, integrally organized and bearing a political program that concentrates the correct ideas of the epoch. It is only through protracted and patient ideological, political, and organizational work that the leading class, organized in its party, can effectively advance the mass movement in the line of revolution.
The Revolution of 1911 in China demonstrates that the mass movement can only be revolutionary when organized by the leading class, and conversely: the leading class is powerless if it does not rely on the mass movement.
Resistance struggles are an objective feature of class society. In capitalist society, each resistance struggle exists within a limited framework determined by a particular effect of capitalism: the bosses extend hours, and workers fight for reduced hours; the landlord raises rent, and tenants struggle to lower rent; the police murder a Black man, and the masses struggle for an end to racist state violence….
On their own, these struggles always end in some agreement with capitalists or the state, whether through a law, an institution, or some other pact. It is an organicist illusion to see these partial and fragmented struggles as somehow spontaneously converging in a unified project of socialist revolution. In the absence of a revolutionary class – by which we mean an organized subjective force bearing a revolutionary program and capable of leading a general popular uprising against the old society – resistance struggles are condemned to repeat themselves ad infinitum.
It is the duty of all revolutionaries today to work for the construction of a Party that bears a political program around which the revolutionary camp can rally. Only such a Party will be able to elaborate a tactics and carry out the painstaking work of tracing a revolutionary path to the future, organizing and channeling the force of the rebellious masses at every step.