The awakening of the Chinese workers’ movement
From Revolutionary History, Vol.2 No.4, Spring 1990. Used by permission.
The pieces put together here first appeared in the British Militant on 17 and 30 March and 9 June 1972. and are reproduced by kind permission of the translator, Gregor Benton. They illustrate the high level of consciousness already shown by the Chinese working class when it first emerged into political awareness, as well as its internationalist identification with the Russian Revolution. The Proclamation of the Shanghai Workers of June 1919 was issued at the time of the strike against the arrest of the student leaders of the 4 May demonstrations, which succeeded in releasing them. The May Day Declaration of the Shanghai Trade Unions of 1920 was the belated response of the Shanghai workers to the publication of the declaration of the Russian government of 1919 renouncing all Tsarist rights in China and offering a treaty of friendship. The letter of Li Chung, a Shanghai naval dockyard worker, which appeared in Loo-tung-chieh (Workers’ World) in September 1920, is the first evidence of which we are aware of the penetration of Marxist ideas into the working class itself from radical student circles, and its confident internationalism and demands for a workers’ China are striking evidence for the rapid progress made in working class consciousness which was a prerequisite for the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party. The background to this ideological development can be found in Harold Isaacs. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, first edition, London 1938, pp.69-71. Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism, Oxford 1989. pp.212-4, and Elizabeth Millward, The Working Class in the Second Chinese Revolution, in Workers’ Liberty, nos.12-13, August 1989, pp.50-56.
The tyrannical oppression suffered by our people has today reached its highest point. The foreigners are seizing our territory, and the government is selling out our people – if correct principles are not abided by, how can there be justice? The students have stopped studying and are forfeiting their youth, and yet the government has no compassion.
The merchants have stopped trading and are forfeiting tens of thousands of dollars, and yet the government still has no compassion – truly, our people can sit down and await death!
However, the principles of universal justice will conquer tyranny. We, the hundreds of thousands of Shanghai workers, will sacrifice our lives and form the rearguard of the students’ and merchants’ struggle against barbaric tyranny. We propose that the workers act for themselves, that the workers in each trade organise various sorts of small workers’ groups. Afterwards, they can come together to form big workers’ groups.
The first step is to launch a campaign of workers’ demonstrations through the streets. The second step is to organise a big strike throughout industry. The third step is to sacrifice our red blood, the blood of hundreds of thousands of workers, in the struggle against this barbaric tyranny.
Signed in blood by ... [there follows 24 names]
Brother workers and peasants of Russia and the workers’ and peasants’ government of Russia:
We, the workers relegated to a special category by the Washington Conference of Labour, were exceptionally moved to receive your Manifesto. Further, we warmly thank you for renouncing the wealth and various sorts of special rights seized by the former bandit government (ie Tsarist Russia).
We trust that the Chinese toilers, who up to now have lacked an internationalist point of view, are today listening to your words of brotherly love.
The responsibilities we have, due to the existence of mankind, and our personal experiences of oppression at the hands of the bandit social classes, are clearly impressed upon our minds and we will never be able to forget them. We must take pains to construct a new and beautiful world for humanity, a world of lasting peace, and we have decided to set about that task in co-operation with you.
At present, we are oppressed by the moneyed classes, both at home and abroad. We hope that you, who first rose up to support us, will come to our aid together with our brother workers in India, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
We realise that, as workers, our knowledge is very scanty, and that we are constantly exposed to the temptations offered us by the capitalist class and the stinking politicians, and we count all the more on your leadership. Our future happiness will truly be unbounded, and we especially hope that you will make mighty progress!
We, the minority of workers, will unite with the majority of workers who speak our language and are of our kind, and so become a grand association of workers. Our association will then unite with other similar ones, and so form a grand All-China association. We will unite with other similar associations in other countries, and so form a grand world association.
Our minority group of workers is a first beginning. But we must bear in mind three essential points:
Firstly, we must properly assess our position. Beloved brother workers, when the moment arrives, all the dark fogs and black storms will lift; all the hellish prisons will be opened and all class chains will be broken. This flood will rage more terribly and swiftly than the waters of the Yellow River which descend from the heavens.
No man, whoever he may be, will stem the waters of this new Yellow River! No man will have the strength to stop these waters and order them to flow upwards from the river-bed into the heavens. The workers’ movement is a tide more rapid and more terrible than the Yellow River.
The society of the future must be made a workers’ society, the China of the future – a workers’ China, and the world of the future – a workers’ world. Those who are not workers will not be allowed to live in a workers’ society – a workers’ China – a workers’ world. We will hasten their way off the face of the earth, so they can seek their living in Heaven.
Beloved brother workers! Russia is already a workers’ Russia. Italy will soon be a workers’ Italy and England will soon be a workers’ England. This tide will soon reach China. We workers are the masters of this tide and we intend to create a workers’ China. But do we properly understand that point?
Secondly, we must achieve unity. If we wish to create a workers’ China, we must first unite China’s workers – in the minority group, in the associations, in each village and town, in our nation, in the world, in each country and profession.
Seize the houses we build! Eat the rice we grow! Make our own clothes with the silk we cultivate! Let us not surrender up these things to the layabouts who use and consume them. Let us take into our control the railways we build! Let us sail in the ships we build! Let us take the weapons that we forge! Let us occupy the factories we build! Let us withhold these things from the gangster-capitalists, who control them, sail in them, take them and occupy them for force!
The worst is not that they gain advantages from us, but that they grievously mistreat us, we the workers who provide for them. For instance, we work nine hours a day, 12 hours a day, 15 hours a day! We get one-tenth of a silver dollar for a day’s work, with a cent or two thrown in. In this way, we are forced to eat stinking food, wear stinking clothes, live in stinking houses – in all things our bitterness knows no limits.
In such a situation, my face often turns ashen and I shed tears. Is it not true that we desire a great unity? First of all, we will settle the question of hours and pay, then we will settle the other questions – ‘we ourselves living in’, ‘we ourselves eating’, ‘we ourselves wearing’, ‘we ourselves sailing’, ‘we ourselves taking in hand’, ‘we ourselves occupying’. But if we do not succeed in achieving unity, we will not be strong enough to do these things.
Thirdly, we must show our spirit. On the one hand, the best thing we workers can do is work, and on the other, unite. Work is the destiny of each man, unity the tool of victory. This will be so all our lives, and it is the key to our actions.
Revolutionary History,Volume 2, No 4, Spring 1990
Editor: Al Richardson
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Last updated on 16.8.2003