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Translator's Preface to Harold Isaac's The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

René Viénet

Unpublished text, refused by the editor (1967)

Translated by Sally Schuman

IT IS KNOWN THAT there was a revolution in China. It is generally not known that it took place not in 1949, but in 1925. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, written by a Marxist, is the history of this proletarian revolution; the analysis of its failure. In 1937, Trotsky wrote the preface to the first edition of this book. The last Bolshevik drew his conclusions from the last of the Bolshevik revolutions. In thirty years, not a single journalist, sinologist or historian has been found to translate this book into French. With Stalin dead, those who were the vassals of his strategy still don't want to see the role of the Comintern in China, in Spain, and elsewhere brought to light. It is necessary, in order to perpetuate their careers, to continue as long as possible the Holy Alliance of the Popular Front and the post-war period, when the enthusiasts and the critic of the USSR agreed to recognize its status as a "socialist state," being very pleased to see, in short, that a proletarian revolution was nothing more than that.

Isaac's book ought to shake-up all the readers of Man's Fate, plus a number of others. In fact, from chapter four to chapter seventeen, Isaacs recounts what Malraux saw through the wrong end of the binoculars. The source of all values, real history, is also the source of all truth; and the books of Malraux, as he willingly admits in his epilogue to the 1949 edition, are related "only superficially to history." If the author swam and the book floated on the surface, it's because he had hastily digested certain values indirectly tied to the Europe of that time (and the play among them), and made them into literature: the Romanesque consciousness flees the real history of the Chinese Revolution (and that of man's fate) by imagining itself to be something superior to the consciousness that the Chinese proletariat had of its own practice. The "praxis" of Malraux against real praxis. But to speak of the shortcomings of a storyteller is only a detail when we draw up the lists of liars and lies. In this respect, the reader will appreciate Harold Isaac's work of clarification. If the translator must write a preface, under the circumstances he must devote it to rectifying the image which has been created of the book in France, even before its translation.

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution is not a work of Trotskyist propaganda. Isaacs clearly renounced Leninism. However, he did not go so far as to conclude his research into a more illuminating radicalism, nor to discover in the Bolshevik Revolution here in China the battlelines of the antagonism between the bureaucracy which wanted to guide the revolution and the revolutionary masses themselves. The documents that Harold Isaacs collected himself are almost sufficient. But he failed to consider this question and several others, and for this reason his book is slightly out of date for the informed reader. For the others, no. Scarcely polished in the edition that the author determined to see translated, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution is a history book comparable to The Civil War in France. Certainly, it is a book marked by a quarrel and the epoch of this quarrel — the Stalin-Trotsky confrontation — the vestiges of Bolshevik power against its bureaucratic offspring. But the Chinese Revolution found its necessary mise en scene precisely in this confrontation. It was objectively a confrontation of the same type in China itself, but with a ridiculous discrepancy in the entree en scene of the necessary actors.

Stalin only existed in Russia through the victory of Lenin and Trotsky; and the untimely directives of Stalin pushed back by more than twenty years the reign of a Chinese Stalin. Whoever would want to write the history of China in the Twenties could not dissociate the Chinese workers' movement from the role of the Comintern in China. One can't imagine a Stalinist (that is to say, a culprit) writing a work of even the slightest historical worth. Who would believe a Stalinist? Such complacence "will astonish cold posterity." It is at least one of the evident facts of the history of modern class struggles that only the side of truth can write history. This is why Marx could write, during the very days when the Commune was collapsing, a book which university research has not questioned, and to which it has added nothing. Isaac's book will cease to be classified as Trotskyist the moment that the Stalinist falsification of contemporary history becomes obvious to everyone.

All the serious works published since Isaac's book have recognized their debt to him. If this is not the case in France it is because not a single serious work on the Chinese Revolution has been published. The slumber of dialectical reason conjures up monsters, and it is France — where people persist cold-bloodedly to take Marxism for an ideology and China for communism in action — which is the most backward in its knowledge of these problems. It has taken thirty years to find a publisher, but already in China the particular bureaucratic power, which crystallized between 1925 and 1949, is falling apart. Specialists are confounded by it. They have none of the necessary bases for understanding contemporary China. They know nothing about Marxism, and they do not hesitate to believe that Maoism is an Asiatic truth. For this to be the case, one must not only be unaware that there have been Marxists in China, but in addition one must never have read Marx. Often they haven't read Isaacs either (nor any other Americans who have studied the question with a minimum of rigor) and don't know, among other things, that Chou En-Lai was involved in all the mistakes of all the successive dictatorships of the Chinese Communist Party. Or that Mao Tse-Tung had the questionable merit of dominating the hierarchy of a "workers' party" sunk to the bureaucratic-military conduct of peasant revolts, where he was able to put into operation an apparatus which, between 1945 and 1949 — by recovering here the Li Jishens, there the Tang Sheng-his, the most sinister butchers of Chinese peasants and workers — picked up a power that the nationalists were literally dropping. On the heritage of this defeat rests a China that can be communist, or socialist, or popular, only for those who livelihood is the nuanced but religious study of an imposture. To those sensationalist writers, the fallacy of "socialist power" is dear, because it is their only recognized specialty, their only social function in the West, the qualification of their industrious activity.

The most ridiculous accounts of this Chinese dictatorship have been heard. It was gladly believed that the regime was nonviolent, contrary to Stalinist Russia. But the same loyal people have denied the existence of concentration camps in Russia. All this, up until the "Cultural Revolution." The latter will at least have the advantage of showing those who are unaware of the significance of bureaucratic "monolithism" that, if bureaucratic forces — i.e., the bureaucratic power over productive forces, and certainly the productive forces as the social power over nature — present themselves as independent, detached from the individuals who compose them like a separate world, the reason is that the bureaucrats, whose form they are, are opposed to one another; whereas their form is only real in the relations and connections of these bureaucrats. Thus is rendered autonomous this totality of bureaucratic forces, which have, so to speak, an objective form and are no longer the forces of the bureaucrats but of the bureaucratic machinery.

In no previous period have the bureaucratic forces taken a form so indifferent to the bureaucrats as such. In the present crisis, where the split in the ruling class is combined with the apotheosis of the ideology of absolute identity (the governing with the governed), the abstract delirium of the system has caused it to come close to its own self-destruction by threatening all the bureaucrats without whom it would have no existence. Something rotting on the inside doesn't smell any better outside. The moment China denounces "the new Tsars of Moscow" while Russia recognizes "the continuation of the Manchu dynasty" at Peking, the moment when in China itself, amidst a general collapse of the economy and of the State machine, Mao ends up proving Mao wrong, it is clear that the tragedy of bureaucratic power has begun its last farcical exhibition.

The adventures of the dialectic never come to an end.