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Reviewed by:
  • Prophets Unarmed: Chinese Trotskyists in Revolution, War, Jail, and the Return from Limbo ed. by Gregor Benton
  • Alan Hunter (bio)
Gregor Benton, editor. Prophets Unarmed: Chinese Trotskyists in Revolution, War, Jail, and the Return from Limbo. Historical Materialism Book Series, vol. 81. The Netherlands: Brill, 2015. xvii, 1289 pp. Hardcover $263.00, isbn 978-90-04-26976-7. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017. Paperback $55.00, isbn 978-1608465545.

Opposition to Chinese communist policies by a variety of political actors—for example the Guomindang—has been well documented. Less well known is the dissident movement that emerged within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself, namely the Left Opposition or Trotskyist movement. As in the Soviet Union, which played a key role in the events, this opposition was based on a revolutionary socialist critique of the CCP leadership, not on an anti-communist platform. Prophets Unarmed is by far the most authoritative study of the Chinese Trotskyists.

Editor Gregor Benton, Emeritus Professor at Cardiff University, Wales, has a very distinguished record of publications on Chinese history and society. He has made a unique contribution to the historiography of the Chinese revolution, the New Fourth Army, and other political and military campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s. One of his major achievements has been to analyze and document strands of dissidence within and around the CCP. Based on decades of interviews, friendships, discussions, and archival research, Benton's studies have included work on Chen Duxiu and Mao Zedong, on many of the CCP leadership factions, and on writers such as Wang Shiwei and Hu Feng.

Prophets Unarmed is a comprehensive collection of documents on the Chinese Trotskyists who, from the late 1920s, challenged the political analyses and practices of the CCP. Benton explains that the Chinese Left Opposition was "was among the largest of the Trotskyist organisations outside Russia, and the best prepared and the most mature and able. Trotsky himself saw it as the cream of the crop" (p. 30). Analysis is therefore highly relevant to the Chinese revolution overall, to an understanding of trends within the CCP, and to the unfolding dramas within the international communist movements. Apart from Benton's earlier publications, this opposition itself has been almost unknown both in China—where it was thoroughly silenced, crushed, and written out of history—and in the West. Prophets Unarmed provides a wealth of material to [End Page 231] break the silence, showing the political perspectives of the revolutionaries, together with accounts of their motivations and fates.

Part 1 is a translation of the first book on Chinese Trotskyism to appear in Chinese, Wu Jimin's Purgatory: The Chinese Trotskyists' Ordeal and Struggle. This book was published in Singapore in 2008 after being rejected for political reasons by publishers in the PRC. Wu's study introduces us to the birth of Chinese Trotskyism at the Sun Yat-sen University in Moscow in 1927 and traces the story through to the 1980s by means of interviews with survivors of the revolutionary years. The oppositionist survivors of wars, prison, and persecution were few in number since the Trotskyists were persecuted, arrested, and often tortured and killed by a wide variety of authorities: Stalinist, Maoist, Japanese, and colonial.

There are altogether 18 parts and well over a thousand pages in Prophets Unarmed. Just a brief indication of the contents would include: chapters of auto-biography, letters, and studies by several of the main leaders, Chen Duxiu, Zheng Chaolin, Peng Shuzhi, and Wang Fanxi; articles and speeches by Trotsky on the Chinese revolution and the Trotskyists correspondence with him; reflections on Maoism, Stalinism, and guerrilla warfare; literary studies, memoirs, and biographies; and oral histories and obituaries. These are the first English language publications of many of these texts. There are also a small number of contributions by scholars from outside China, including on Chinese students in Moscow, and on Stalin's efforts to persecute Chinese oppositionists in the 1930s. The whole collection is edited and referenced to a very high standard and the English is a pleasure to read. The book will surely remain the definitive collection of texts on the Chinese Left Opposition.

So, why study these events and persons with such...