Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:41 AM CST – China


Gray Cover Books


How Communism’s most controversial theorist finally found an audience – in China

The cover of Excerpts of Trotsky’s Reactionary Views (1964 edition) PHOTO BY CFP

Marxist classics collected in the library of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, 1956 Photo by XINHUA

Trotsky’s Views was openly published in China in 1980, two years after the country embarked on its ongoing experiment with Reform and Opening-up, and 40 years after Leon Trotsky, who remains one of the world’s most contentious political thinkers, was assassinated.

Its predecessor was Excerpts of Trotsky’s Reactionary Views, compiled by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau and printed by the People’s Press, as one of the “Gray Cover” books issued to a limited number of Party cadres in 1964.

 Gray Cover books were classified into three categories. Category C included books by such European socialist thinkers as Alexandre Millerand of France and Otto Bauer of Austria who attempted revisions to perceived orthodox Marxism. These were generally available to Party functionaries, though banned from public sale. Category B covered more controversial works by figures such as Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, both revisionist leaders of the Second International, and were restricted to higher-level cadres.

Category A covered books published for the exclusive consumption of ranking officials above the ministerial level, and Excerpts of Trotsky’s Reactionary Views fell under this category. The name Leon Trotsky, as it had within the Soviet Union, became synonymous with revisionism in the official ideology of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which, modified by the unique political theories of Mao Zedong, based its core ideology on a Stalinist interpretation of Marxism-Leninism. During Party purges of the 1930s and 40s, branded “Trotskyites” within the Party ranks were purged in their hundreds.

In the early 1960s, the Chinese and Soviet Communist parties began to lock horns over what constituted orthodox Marxism. Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in his Secret Speech in February 1956 was perceived by Mao as both a personal slight and an attack on the legitimacy of China’s own revolution, leading the CPC to effectively sever meaningful ties with the Soviet Union in 1960, though both nations carefully maintained the diplomatic façade of appearing to be close allies.

Both sides of the debate drew on the Marxist-Leninist canon to defame “revisionists” and “reactionaries” such as Bernstein, Kautsky and Trotsky. While the Sino-Soviet split lasted until 1989, Deng Xiaoping would later admit to the visiting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that “both sides did a lot of empty talking.”

The Gray Cover books were part of the anti-Soviet ideological campaign within the CPC, ostensibly printed to allow Chinese officials to “acquaint themselves with the roots of revisionism.” The fact that Trotsky’s works were also lambasted as revisionism within the Soviet Union was largely ignored by CPC ideologues – in their view, his nationality was proof enough of his stranglehold on Soviet thinking.

Inside Man

Editor Zheng Yifan, a researcher at the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, oversaw the publication of the manuscript which would become Excerpts of Trotsky’s Reactionary Views around the start of the Sino-Soviet split. At the time, only 500 copies were printed, and only 50 went into circulation. The rest sat in storage until their re-issue in 1980 under the title of Trotsky’s Views.

In 1955, when relations between China and the Soviet Union were at their most intimate, Zheng Yifan was sent by the Chinese government to the University of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to research the history of the Soviet Union. Graduating in 1959, he returned to China and entered the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau as an editor and translator.  

During his four-year stay in Russia, Zheng witnessed first-hand the transformation that ensued after the death of Stalin. Khrushchev’s Secret Speech led to a widespread backlash against the former leader and the cult of personality surrounding him, and one of Zheng’s Russian teachers even openly attacked Stalin in class. Courses on Marxism-Leninism were revised or canceled because they were based on The Concise Course on the History of the Soviet Communist Party - a book which was compiled under the direct supervision of Stalin and misrepresented historical facts in order to further exaggerate the late leader’s contributions both to Marxist-Leninist ideology and the founding of the Soviet Union.


In Moscow, Soviet leaders claimed Mao was modeling himself on Stalin. Some alleged that Mao’s principles had more in common with Trotsky’s than those of Marx or Lenin. As works by Trotsky had been largely purged both from China and the Soviet Union following his exile from Russia in 1929, few sources existed to contradict such claims. Those few works that survived were kept under lock and key.

In July 1963, at the height of the Sino-Soviet split, then vice-premier Deng Xiaoping told subordinates: “Khrushchev has labeled us Trotskyites. We must come up with a counterattack. Preparations should get underway immediately. The Central Compilation and Translation Bureau may compile a book on Trotsky’s remarks for our writers to refer to.”

Suddenly, materials that had been anathema to China’s propagandists prior to 1963 became hot property, and Zheng’s entire office devoted their working days to tracking down vestiges of Trotsky’s output, with the sole purpose of using the content to discredit Khrushchev and the Soviet Union. Scraps were acquired from libraries, anthologies and cadres’ private collections across China.

Others were located overseas – while Trotsky’s works were banned from publication in the US and UK, some were tracked down in mainland Europe, with a number of complete books acquired in second-hand bookstores in Switzerland. Old editions of Pravda and The Bolsheviks magazine were scoured for articles, editorials and commentaries by the man who was, at one time, a leading light in socialist theory.

Next, researchers turned their attention to the seizures of contraband literature during the anti-Trotskyite purge of 1952, when all Chinese-language editions of Trotsky’s works were confiscated by the Ministry of Public Security. While many would have been destroyed, researchers reasoned that a few might have survived, perhaps in Shanghai, which had been the unofficial headquarters of China’s short-lived Trotskyite movement. Eventually, a moderate cache of Trotsky’s works in various languages was scraped together in the city.


This flurry of activity soon drew attention from China’s few surviving die-hard Trotskyites. One of these was Liu Renjing, participant in the Chinese Communist Party’s first Congress in 1921 and one of the early organizers of the country’s indigenous Trotskyite factions. He had even met Trotsky in person while the latter was living in exile in Turkey, and was presented with a set of his writings as a gift. The two began a correspondence, and Trotsky would mail Liu new editions of his works, before he was assassinated in 1940 by a Soviet agent working for Stalin’s secret police.

In 1963, Liu was working for the People’s Press as an off-the-payroll translator, where he would produce Chinese translations of foreign works on Bernstein, Kautsky and Trotsky. Many of these translations would ultimately end up in Gray Cover anthologies.

Learning that the authorities were looking for Trotsky’s books, Liu was overjoyed, believing that the Party was on the verge of rehabilitating Trotsky and Chinese Trotskyites. He approached Zhang Huiqing, an editor at the People’s Press, telling him that he had retained copies of Trotsky’s books. The People’s Press thus got hold of seven Russian editions of Trotsky’s Selected Works, the most complete set of works discovered since their search began. “Liu might be one of the few Chinese - probably the only Chinese - who ever saw Trotsky in person,” Zhang, now 89 years old, told NewsChina.

These collections ultimately allowed Trotsky’s selected works to be printed in Chinese, many for the first time, as part of the Gray Cover series, including The Revolution Betrayed, The Real Situation in Russia, The Third International after Lenin, The Stalin School of Falsification and The Theory of Permanent Revolution.

Zheng Yifan and his colleagues classified Trotsky’s views and ideas into 15 categories dealing with, among other topics, industrialization, agricultural collectivization, war and peacetime governance. Eventually, these extracts were combined to form the main text of Excerpts of Trotsky’s Reactionary Views.

Publication of Gray Cover books was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which overwhelmingly prioritized the publication of works by Mao Zedong while scaling back that of works by other political theorists. At first, all the editorial staff were limited to the translation of approved Marxist classics until finally they were sent to the countryside to do manual labor along with the majority of China’s cultural workforce.

The Gray Cover project was not resumed until 1972, and Zheng Yifan returned to the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau in 1973. His first task was the publication of Khrushchev’s memoirs and translation of books written by Western journalists and historians concerning the Khrushchev era. He was then to oversee the continued publication of the “collections of chief revisionists’ and opportunists’ views,” including Bernstein, Kautsky and Bukharin. Work also began on the publication of Trotsky’s Views

In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Zheng Yifan gradually came to the conclusion that the historical judgments made upon Trotsky were far from fair. “The claim that he was the mortal enemy of Leninism was unfounded,” Zheng said. In both China and the Soviet Union, the declining importance of dogmatic Stalinist and Maoist ideology led to a reassessment and even subtle rehabilitation of former pariahs. Descriptions of Trotsky calling him “spy” and “bandit” ceased to appear in official literature.

In the late 1990s, Zheng Yifan compiled and edited The Trotsky Reader, though he would wait almost a decade until it was finally published in 2008. In his preface, Zheng writes that “Trotsky was doubtless a revolutionary… None of the labels Stalin slapped on him such as ‘German fascist spy’ and ‘running dog of the imperialists’ had any solid foundation.”  

Over six decades after his assassination, it seems Leon Trotsky, one of the most important contributors to Marxist-Leninist theory, is one of the last to finally come in from the cold. 


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