The Taiwanese Left Was Once Rooted in the Radical Labor Movement
In the 1920s, Taiwan had a radical anti-colonial movement similar to those in other parts of the colonized world — and central to it was a powerful organized labor movement. Today, with a weak and divided left, that memory needs to be recovered.
- Interview by
- Itamar Waksman
On May 1, 1927, workers across Taiwan engaged in the first island-wide strike in history. Six thousand workers, a significant part of the workforce at the time, stopped working to demand better working conditions. This moment was the genesis of a radical labor movement that was central to the island’s anti-colonial struggle, a struggle similar to those found throughout the colonized world at the time. But only seven years later, the Left would be defeated, and today this history and its role in the formation of Taiwanese nationalism has been forgotten.
Chiang Kuo-yu (蔣闊宇) is a Taiwanese doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh studying the history of Taiwan’s labor movement. His 2020 book, Island-wide General Strike, discusses the history of the early Taiwanese labor movement that grew under Japanese colonialism in the late 1920s. This movement was also at the core of the development of Taiwanese nationalism, which today has become a key factor in Taiwan’s political development and tensions with China.
In this conversation, Jacobin contributor Itamar Waksman asked Chiang about the history of Taiwan’s early labor movement, its relation to the development of Taiwanese nationalism, and its continued influence in contemporary Taiwanese politics.
How significant was the 1927 general strike? What were the class structures and contradictions in colonial Taiwanese society that led to this large, coordinated strike?
On that day, around six thousand workers went on strike throughout Taiwan. This might not sound like a large number, but considering that records indicate that there were only maybe 20,000 total industrial workers at that time, it’s a significant portion of the early Taiwanese proletariat.
Those who went on strike were workers in Taiwan’s first modernized industries, especially ironworks industries. Before Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, most manufacturing was small-scale craft production. But the Japanese developed a large, modern sugar export industry, requiring local ironworks to sustain the industry’s needs. Exporting sugar also required infrastructure like railroads, which required modern industry. The workers who went on strike were employed in these productive activities.
The workers went on strike mostly to improve working conditions and their remuneration. Though the number of those participating in the strikes was small, its symbolic importance was much larger. The strikes were the first demonstration of workers’ power, even if workers’ class consciousness was underdeveloped.
The strike is generally seen as the beginning of Taiwan’s labor movement. But it also coincided with the development of a national struggle on the island. What was the relationship between the labor movement and the national movement?
At the time, Taiwan was still a mostly peasant society, and peasants comprised the base of the anti-colonial struggle. The peasants were organized under the Taiwan Peasants Union. These peasants were in conflict with landowners, who were typically Taiwanese, but also with the Japanese who were stealing land. The early proletarians were mostly in conflict with Japanese capitalists, who dominated industry. The Left at the time was based on a coalition between the workers and peasants.
There were also the other classes of Taiwanese society, of which landlords were the most powerful. Landlords had initially benefited from Japanese colonization because the Japanese had reduced the peasants’ rights to the land, giving landlords a greater ability to raise rents and more wealth. But some landlords were against the Japanese and were then able to create coalitions with the workers’ movement against the colonial administration.
Though the anti-colonial struggle was based in the peasantry, because of the popularity of socialist thinking in the leaders of the social movements of that time, it was expected that workers would also play a role. Because of this, workers ended up being important parts of the two major political parties at that time. That’s reasonable, because Taiwan was modernizing at that time, and workers were at the forefront of that progress.
What were the two major political parties at the time, and how were they different?
The two major political parties at the time were the Taiwan People’s Party and the Taiwanese Communist Party. Both of them had some popular base in the trade unions and were seeking to lead the workers.
The people’s party was founded by one of Taiwan’s most important leaders, Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水). Chiang was the leader of Taiwan’s first national organization, the Taiwanese Cultural Association. Our history books talk about Chiang as one of the earliest national figures.
The people’s party itself had a broad coalition and included workers, professionals, and landlords. It also organized the League of Taiwanese Workers (台灣工友總聯盟), the largest workers’ organization at the time.
The communist party was started in Shanghai in 1928 by a group of Taiwanese émigrés living there. It had deep ties with the Communist Party of China but was formally under the Japanese Communist Party because the Third International required one communist party per country. Still, as part of the International, the Taiwanese communists would send reports to the Far Eastern Bureau, and those reports likely made it into the hands of the Chinese communists. Because the communists were competing with the political agenda of the people’s party, they were also trying to construct a general labor union but one that would unite all of the unions on the island.
The communists were also more integrated with the peasant movement, and a significant portion of their support came from peasant backgrounds. That created conflict with Taiwanese landlords.
The communist party eventually faltered because infighting prevented it from consolidating control over the left wing of the labor movement. But the people’s party also took leadership of the labor movement because of a number of factors.
One is nationalism. The people’s party was explicitly nationalist and appealed to different social classes in Taiwan. The political reality was that all Taiwanese were fighting against the Japanese colonists, and that attracted a lot of support to their side. The communists weren’t against the national struggle, but they instead thought that it would be a vehicle for the proletariat’s struggle.
Another is that the people’s party was initially a legal political party. That meant it was a formal political institution with resources stemming from its support by landlords and other social classes. From the perspective of workers, it made sense that you would choose the party that had resources at its disposal to help negotiate with capitalists and realize your demands.
It’s important to note that the landlord class had developed its own political agenda before the labor movement began in 1927. Already in the early 1920s, more nationalist sections of the landlord class were calling for Taiwan’s autonomy and the election of a local legislature. When they saw the labor movement rising, they decided to ally with it against the Japanese, because they saw that the movement was more proactive in its struggle.
In your book, you talk about the right and left wings of the labor movement and how their conflict eventually weakened the movement and led to its demise. Could you talk more about this?
Before 1927, social movements in Taiwan were centered on the Taiwanese Cultural Association. But in 1927, the association was taken over by the Left, which was mostly peasants and radical, anti-capitalist labor organizations. This caused the landlords and other right-wing elements to split off and form the Taiwanese People’s Party.
So, here we see the divide between Right and Left. The right wing was more accommodationist to capital and not aligned with the peasant movement, while the left wing represented a more radical political project. In a sense, the landlords were in competition with the left wing for the leadership of the labor movement, because if they could lead the workers, they could maintain their united front against the Japanese and eventually have the power to push for autonomy.
It was the right wing of the labor movement that led the League of Taiwanese Workers. After its establishment, there were efforts from the left wing of the movement to form a more radical general federation of labor, but infighting prevented it from doing so.
What infighting are you talking about? What eventually led to the left wing’s defeat in the labor movement?
There are a few reasons that the left wing was eventually defeated. The left wing of the labor movement was led by Lien Wen-ching (連溫卿). He was leading the efforts to capture leadership first of the cultural association and then the people’s party, as well as efforts to create a more radical national federation of labor unions. But early on, the left wing was the victim of persecution by the Japanese authorities, especially because of its involvement in peasant organization efforts. Many leaders of the left wing were arrested by the authorities, and their organizations were banned.
But a more important factor was the arrival of the communist party in 1928. They had many disagreements with Lien over tactics and strategy, leading to infighting between both groups. This slowed efforts to form a national labor organization, leading to the left wing missing its chance to lead the workers’ movement. That leadership would go to the Taiwanese People’s Party.
But even the people’s party eventually veered left under Chiang Wei-shui’s leadership, correct?
Yes. The party was dominated early on by Chiang, though the landlord elements didn’t fully support his agenda. This later became problematic when the party moved left as Chiang was organizing more labor actions and adopting more radical ideas into the party charter.
In 1930, the right wing of the party finally split off, forming the Taiwanese Alliance for Home Rule. This alliance was led by important national figures like Lin Hsien-tang (林獻堂) and Tsai Pei-huo (蔡培火). With the right wing’s split from the party, the authorities began to persecute it. Its leaders were arrested, including Chiang, who would then die the following year.
This history shows the internal conflict within the nationalist movement and that class coalitions are unstable.
What was the public’s general attitude toward the labor movement? Did they support it?
What we know from that time mostly comes from newspapers. Some were more pro-authorities, while others were in favor of the social movements. But from this media, we can see that the public was generally supportive of the workers.
For example, when workers would go on strike, peasants and their organizations would send them rice to feed them and their families. Also, when strikers were fired, people would begin selling things in special fundraising drives to support the workers. Even some Taiwanese capitalists were supportive of the movement. There are examples of Taiwanese capitalists giving in to workers’ demands just because they were all Taiwanese.
How was the labor movement finally defeated?
It was not capitalists, but the police and state violence that ended the labor movement. After Chiang Wei-shui’s death, the authorities used a heavier hand in crushing strikes, persecuting organizers, and preventing organizations from doing their work. Strikes continuously failed to bring results to the workers. When added to the infighting on the Left and the dissolution of the united front between nationalist forces in Taiwan, the movement faltered, and by 1934 it was finished.
This increase in state violence was mostly because of Japan’s increasing militarism and fascist turn. While the authorities might have tolerated the Left to an extent before the fascist turn, in the early 1930s the state began integrating Taiwan into its greater war mobilization. That left little space for social movements. We have to remember that the number of workers in Taiwan was still very small, meaning the state could relatively easily crush their organizing efforts.
I want to connect this history to the present moment. How did these class dynamics and the social movements of the late 1920s and early ’30s influence Taiwan’s post-martial-law politics?
First and foremost, modern Taiwanese nationalism can be traced back to that time period. But this nationalism is filtered through our modern situation. For example, Chiang Wei-shui is a central figure in Taiwanese nationalism, and he was a committed socialist who supported labor militancy. But today’s official discourse and materials will show only that he was a doctor and activist in the cultural movement.
The same for the Taiwan People’s Party. In 1930, the party included very radical ideas, admonishing the bourgeoisie and committing itself to representing the workers, peasants, and urban proletariat. Now, we just look at it as the origin of Taiwanese nationalism and democracy.
This sanitization came about as Taiwan was integrated into the Cold War system and turned more anti-communist and anti-left.
What about the influence of the landlord class and their version of Taiwanese nationalism? Is it fair to say that today’s Taiwanese nationalism is mostly connected to this class of people and their political project, considering that the Left was persecuted far more by first the Japanese and then the Kuomintang (KMT)?
I would say that’s partially true. After World War II, the landlord class in Taiwan was mostly liquidated through the KMT’s land reform. Many of the descendants of these disaffected landlords became key allies in the early democratic movement of the 1980s.
But it would be strange to say that modern Taiwanese nationalism is a form of resistance from these disaffected landlords. The destruction of the landlord class was a polarizing event. Some of them became wealthy capitalists, but most became regular farmers, workers, or members of other classes. That means in the 1980s they no longer had a coherent class project.
Still, it is clear that the ideology of the right wing of the nationalist movement remains dominant in Taiwan’s current moment.
What does this history tell us about why Taiwan’s modern left is so weak?
Taiwan’s democratic movement did include some labor-oriented parties, and the labor movement was a part of the forces that pushed for democratization. But all of these parties eventually failed.
The most important part of left politics is the need for a popular base. Taiwan’s labor organizations are organized at an enterprise level. That means they are too small to form the kinds of large labor unions that have the resources to seriously support political parties that align with their agenda. This system is a remnant of the KMT’s rule.
In the colonial era, early labor organizations were organized across various companies, allowing them to pool support behind political parties and making them more difficult to dismantle. The current labor movement is much weaker than the one at that time. Today, we have far more workers but less power.
The final factor is geopolitics. Tensions with China mean that when you come out as a socialist, you will be automatically labeled as a pro-China communist. So, the socialist tradition has become a liability in Taiwan.
The Taiwanese left has been crushed in this situation. I believe that what we must do now is focus on building an organizational base that has the resources and support to eventually enter the political arena and support politicians aligned with its interests. The other factors are out of our control.