Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
ACCORDING to Marxist theory, mankind advances by evolutionary stages along a predetermined historical road. From feudalism the way forward is to capitalism, thence to socialism and finally to Communism. The main theoretical difference between the two last stages is that under socialism each man is to receive "according to his work," whereas under Communism each will receive "according to his needs." Communism in this narrow sense cannot be the immediate goal of a Communist Party when it captures power from a social and political order based on private property, but it must become so when the Party claims to have "built a socialist society." It is the claim of the Russian Communists, announced officially by Khrushchev at the Twenty-first Party Congress in January of this year, that this has now happened in the Soviet Union and that "having built a socialist society, the Soviet people has entered the new stage of historical development in which socialism develops into Communism."
In making this claim, however, Khrushchev was careful to add that the transition was "a natural historic process which cannot be intentionally violated or bypassed." This warning was no doubt in part addressed to "some comrades" in the Soviet Union whom he represented as asking why it was not possible to move on to the Communist society more quickly; but in the circumstances of the Congress, less than six months after the official establishment of communes in China, it could be taken only as an implied rebuke also to the Communist Party of China for trying to create in advance of the Soviet Union a new institution destined to be the "basic organ" of a future Communist society. It is true that Khrushchev declared at the same time that "we are in full and complete agreement with the fraternal Communist Party of China, though its methods of building socialism are in many ways dissimilar to ours," and that Chou En-lai in his speech as Chinese fraternal delegate to the Congress spoke only of "building socialism" in China and made no mention of the wider claims which had been put forward on behalf of the communes. Nevertheless, the establishment of the Chinese communes had raised for the first time a question between the Soviet Union and China, not of any clash of national interests, but of primacy in advance towards the common ideological goal of the two Communist party-states. It also created a situation in which the world had to recognize for the first time that Communist China was set on a course more extreme and more uncompromising towards Western democratic and liberal values than that of the Soviet Union.
When, 32 years after the Bolshevik capture of power in Russia, Mao Tse-tung set up his Central People's Government in Peking, there were many observers of Far Eastern affairs who predicted that the Chinese, with their great national pride, their sense of belonging to the origins of civilization and their awareness of being the most populous nation in the world, would soon dispense with Russian guidance and would strike out on a line of their own in the theory and practice of the faith which they had derived from Europe by way of Moscow. But the assumption usually was that the modification of Marxism-Leninism would be in the direction of making it more moderate, more reasonable and more humane than it had been in its Russian version; it was not anticipated that the Chinese would make of it something even more fanatical, intolerant and ruthless.
For a long time appearances were in favor of the view that the Chinese Communists stood for a relatively mild variety of the doctrine. Their tactics during the prolonged guerrilla phase of their movement in the rural areas caused many people in the West to believe that they were not "real" Communists at all, but mere "agrarian reformers;" later, their temporary benevolence towards the "national bourgeoisie" made them look more like Social Democrats than Bolsheviks. The appalling mass executions of "counter-revolutionaries" in 1952 were an unpleasant revelation of the régime's capacity for rule by terror, but still it could be held that this was a special phase due to the war in Korea, and from 1953 to 1958 there were developments which were generally taken as signs of a relatively liberal trend in Chinese Communism. Collectivization in the countryside was carried out apparently without any of the tension and violence which had marked its enforcement in Russia two and a half decades earlier; private commercial and industrial enterprise was liquidated by methods which seemed to involve a minimum of economic dislocation or hardship to the former owners of property; and the intelligentsia was nominally accorded rights of freedom of speech by the enunciation of the "hundred flowers" principle. Early in 1957 Mao Tse-tung created a sensation by his speech, first made known within the Party and later published, in which he distinguished between "contradictions with the enemy" and "contradictions among the people" which were "non-antagonistic" and should be resolved without the use of coercion.
Yet the year 1958 saw a tremendous intensification of revolutionary zeal in China, with accompanying pressure on the masses of the people in the name of the "big leap forward:" a vast mobilization of labor on military lines, an unprecedented disruption of family life and a vigorous endeavor to substitute "free supply" of food and other necessities of life for the payment of wages in money. This drive for rapid increases in production was accompanied by a deluge of propaganda and exhortation, by reckless inflation both of targets and claims, and by drastic suppression of every sign of opposition or resistance. In foreign affairs the new course was marked by notable manifestations of truculence--in the campaign against Titoism, which went far beyond the renewed hostility of the Soviet government towards Jugoslavia; in the Chinese intervention which thwarted the project for a summit conference on Middle East affairs "within the framework" of the United Nations; and in the military action against Quemoy shortly after Khrushchev's visit to Peking. By the end of the year there had been a certain slowing of the tempo; the published resolution of the Central Committee meeting held in Wuhan had toned down the original program for the communes and rebuked local cadres for exceeding instructions, while the offensive against Quemoy had petered out mainly on account of the Communists' failure to win command of the air from the American-equipped Nationalists. But Communist China remained committed to the communes as a system of economic and administrative organization and to a period of superhuman effort, sacrifice and discipline for the whole Chinese people in the cause of high-speed industrialization. In this situation there also remained an element of discrepancy and potential conflict with the policies of Moscow.
In order to understand how this has come about it is necessary always to bear in mind the difference of generations between Russia and China as Communist-governed countries. The Russian people have been under Communist rule for 41 years since the October Revolution--or for 38 years if the régime is dated from the end of the civil war. Thus the great majority of Russians today are men and women who have grown up under the Soviet system and been educated in its principles, who have never known any other conditions, and take their present environment more or less for granted. The same is true of the Party leaders. The "Old Bolsheviks" are almost extinct; Stalin's purges strongly reinforced natural mortality in wiping them out, and in their place have arisen men of a new generation for whom the Soviet system has always been the established order of things and membership in the Party the one and only road to a successful career. Men who have come to the top in this way may believe in the truth of the doctrine they have been taught, they may have a strong sense of their vested interest in the maintenance of the Party dictatorship, their outlook on world affairs may be conditioned by the basic Marxist-Leninist conception of irreconcilable class struggle, but they cannot be expected to have the revolutionary passion and fervor of those who originally made the Revolution.
Most recent observers of Russia have remarked on the waning of the old fanaticism, the spread of a mood which is not discontented with the régime so much as cynically disenchanted with it. Preoccupation with jobs and incomes is in a truly bourgeois spirit. Khrushchev may talk about the revival of Leninism and the transition to the higher stage of the true Communist society, but there is little sign that the upper and middle strata of the new social order are yearning for a utopia of perfect equality and collective living; they are much more concerned with climbing the ladder of success under a system of quasi-capitalist incentives and getting the good things of life for themselves and their families. Such starry-eyed "idealists" as there may be are to be found mainly among young people who take seriously the faith they are officially taught and who do not see their elders living up to it.
By contrast to this situation, China is still possessed by the ardors and agonies of a genuinely revolutionary epoch. On the one hand, adult Chinese in the greater part of the country have not been under Communist rule for more than ten years; they require a vast amount of persuasion, indoctrination and compulsion in order to make them submit to the purposes of their rulers. On the other hand, among the Communists themselves revolutionary zeal still burns with a hot and consuming flame; most of the top leaders and principal local cadres are veterans of the Kiangsi and Yenan days who shared the hazards and hardships of underground conspiracy and civil war. Chief among them is Mao Tse-tung himself who has been supreme in the Party since 1935 and led it to the final conquest of mainland China in 1949. Communist China is thus governed by men of the original revolutionary generation, not by their successors; the analogy is not with Khrushchev's Russia, but with the Russia of the late twenties.
Similarly, the "big leap forward" of contemporary China corresponds to the Soviet Union's intensive economic effort under the first Five Year Plan, when the Russians, in the words of one foreign observer at the time, were "starving themselves great." The analogy is not a matter of accident; it arises from the inherent need for a Communist régime in an economically underdeveloped country to effect, within a few years of its initial capture of power, a decisive "breakthrough" in the task of industrialization. The further a country's economy has lagged behind the general advance of industrial nations, the greater the effort needed. This effort in a Communist state cannot be left to private capital accumulation, since the bourgeoisie has been either liquidated or reduced to a condition in which it has no incentives for serious saving or investment. Nor can the state rely on international capital investments and loans except from other Communist countries. The task can be undertaken only with funds taken out of current revenue, and this must necessarily involve a period of strain, sacrifice and ill-rewarded work for the whole people.
A Communist government would be ill advised to undertake too grandiose a program of economic construction immediately after it captured power; it needs time for consolidation, administrative reorganization and the training of cadres. Meanwhile it can probably assure some degree of prosperity by the mere restoration of peace and order after a period of foreign and civil war. On the other hand, it is dangerous for a Communist government to postpone its big push for too long, for this will lead either to stagnation or to a revival of capitalism, resulting in discouragement and decline of morale within the Party.
Within about a decade of its initial revolution, therefore, the Party must strive to make the industrial breakthrough. Intensive propaganda is needed to persuade the people of the benefits accruing in the future if sacrifices are willingly accepted in the present. Even so there is bound to be discontent; it must be suppressed ruthlessly. Party discipline must be tightened and among all believers a militant, fanatical enthusiasm must be aroused if the objectives set by the leadership are to be achieved. Collectivization in agriculture is indispensable at this stage, not merely because of the pressure for liquidating private enterprise in all sectors of the economy, but also because of the necessity of extracting food from the peasants for the support of the urban population. What takes place in such a period is a revolution from above, not a popular upheaval; the masses are dragooned rather than led, but the revolutionary élan and militant faith within the Party itself is raised to the highest pitch.
There are two notable differences between the current phase in China and the Russia of 1928-33. The first is that the founder of the Soviet régime died before the Russian Communists had to face the crucial issue of industrialization; had Lenin lived, he might perhaps have been somewhat less heavy-handed than Stalin in collectivizing the peasantry, but the essential characteristics of the early years of industrial planning would hardly have been different from what they were. In China, Mao Tsetung has maintained a continuity of personal leadership from the days of insurrection and guerrilla warfare in remote rural areas to the gigantic nation-wide mobilization, which was intended to transform China into a highly industrial country in the course of a few years. The Chinese Lenin has become a Stalin.
The other difference lies in the fact that the social crisis has come in China, not with collectivization, but with the establishment of the communes. But the contrast here is more apparent than real, because in China it is with the communes rather than with the preceding collectivization that the peasants have been put under the harrow, as they were in Russia at the end of the twenties. Only recently it was regarded as the most remarkable achievement of the Chinese Communists that they had carried out collectivization without provoking the widespread, violent resistance which had been met with in Russia. The Chinese had indeed been far less abrupt than the Russians in introducing the collective farm system; the peasants were pushed along from private ownership to collectivism through a series of intermediate stages, and various inducements were provided to make the collectives initially attractive to those who were being in effect deprived of their land. But this relatively painless expropriation had the disadvantage that it did not sufficiently transform the peasant into what the grand project of industrialization required him to be--a serf working on the land at a minimum standard of living to sustain the vast industrial edifice being built over his head. The final transformation has been accomplished only with the introduction of the communes.
The communes, of course, have gone further than Russian collectivization ever did. With their merging of rural economic units with local state administration, their adoption of a form of military discipline over their members, and their assignment of labor to agriculture, industry or building construction according to the requirements of the planners, China's Communist rulers have achieved a degree of control over their labor force such as not even Stalin was able to attain. Further, the attempt to make distribution in kind the main form of payment to commune members--the system of so-called "free supply"--represents an ambitious move towards the moneyless utopia of pure Communism. Moreover, this occurs at a time when the trend in Russia is in just the opposite direction, toward larger cash incomes for collective farmers.
In all this there has not necessarily been any intention on the part of the Chinese leaders to challenge the Soviet Union or develop policies in rivalry with Moscow. But the emergence in China of forms of Communist practice different from those of Russia, and at least superficially approaching more closely the ultimate Marxist ideal, cannot fail to be embarrassing to the men of the Kremlin and disturbing to their relations with other Communist Parties.
Moreover, the policy of the "big leap forward" in China has been accompanied by an exaltation of spirit which has caused the Chinese Communists to regard themselves as the special guardians of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. This tendency is not in itself disruptive; on the contrary, it leads the Chinese to lay special emphasis on the need for the international solidarity of Communist states and on the Soviet Union's right to leadership of the bloc in world affairs--an attitude which would seem to give the fullest satisfaction to the aspirations of the Soviet rulers. This deference to Russia, however, is conditional on Moscow's adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy as the Chinese interpret it; it is based on the assumption that Russia will actively oppose all forms of heresy, and particularly "revisionism."
The Chinese campaign against revisionism since the middle of 1957 has its origins in domestic politics--the sharp turn against the "bourgeois Rightists" in China after the great proliferation of "poisonous weeds" in the period of relatively free speech. The Rightists were represented as an offshoot of the world-wide heresy of revisionism which had its headquarters in Belgrade. There were certainly admirers of Tito on the fellow-travelling fringe of the Communist Party and even among Party members, so that it was essential in preparation for the "big leap forward" to discredit Titoism and remove all doubts about the wisdom of the course that was being followed in China. It was, however, impossible to make an all-out attack on Titoism without indirectly blaming Khrushchev for the situation which had arisen in the Communist world. Was it not because of his reckless action in rehabilitating Tito without insisting on any conditions for it that the Jugoslav deviation had become respectable, Marxist-Leninist stalwarts thrown into confusion and the all-important line between the true faith and revisionism blurred?
The Chinese Communists had always faithfully followed the Cominform line on Tito since Stalin's break with him in 1948. They also acquiesced--but without enthusiasm--in Khrushchev's move for reconciliation, although they had not been consulted beforehand. When it became clear that Tito would not mend his ways as a result of Russia's forgiveness, the Chinese attitude towards him became increasingly critical. There is some doubt as to the extent of Chinese initiative in the revival of Communist-bloc hostility to Jugoslavia in the spring of 1958, but the Chinese polemic was more violent and uncompromising than the Russian. And although Khrushchev is said to have warned Tito that he would have to attack him politically if he persisted in his attitude to the Soviet Union, it was difficult for Khrushchev to admit that his policy of winning over Tito had failed. Up to the eleventh hour he kept on giving him opportunities for recantation. When Soviet publicity finally turned to denouncing Tito, it seemed merely to be following in the wake of the earlier and stronger Chinese attack on him. Once more the line between orthodoxy and heresy was clearly drawn, and this had the appearance of a victory for Chinese zeal after a period of Soviet opportunism and indecision.
The new campaign against Tito, though involving international relations, was an internal affair of the Communist world not directly involving the relations of Russia or China with the West. But in this sphere also there were signs during 1958 that China was pressing Russia towards a more truculent and bellicose policy than the Kremlin was itself inclined to pursue. At the time of the Middle East crisis in July 1958, the language of Peking was more inflammatory than that of Moscow, and the Chinese threat to send "volunteers" to the aid of the Arabs was not endorsed by the Soviet Union. It could, of course, be argued in explanation that the Chinese, being far away from the scene of action, could afford to talk more loudly than the Russians, whose proximity to Syria and Iraq made some caution advisable if they were not to get themselves into a position from which they could not withdraw without serious loss of prestige.
Chinese bellicosity was not, however, confined to empty gestures of hostility towards the United States and Britain for alleged imperialistic aggression in the Middle East. Hardly had the crisis over Lebanon and Jordan subsided than a new one was created by the Chinese Communist bombardment of Quemoy. This began shortly after Khrushchev's visit to Peking, which, although the reasons for it cannot be known for certain, was most probably occasioned by a Chinese protest at the way in which Russia was proposing to seek a settlement of the Middle East crisis through a summit conference. India was to be included, but not China; and if the Security Council was brought into it, as then seemed likely, the Taipei government would have participated as representing China. It may reasonably be supposed that, in order to placate an angry Mao, Khrushchev promised to support a military action against Quemoy; at any rate, the Soviet government subsequently gave Communist China full diplomatic support on the issue and Khrushchev went so far as to address to President Eisenhower the threatening letter which he refused to receive. The Quemoy fighting did not develop into a major clash. It was, nevertheless, a serious military challenge, for if events had followed the course which seemed likely at the outset, Quemoy would have been entirely cut off from supplies by sea or air and gradually softened up for capture by assault. The United States would then have had to face the critical decision whether to intervene directly to save the island or allow it to fall, with consequent disastrous effects on the morale of the Nationalist Chinese and of other Asians looking to America for protection. That this point of crisis was never reached was due to the unexpectedly effective performance of the Nationalist air force with its new American equipment and the great improvement in the supply convoy system achieved by the Nationalists with American technical advice. It should be recognized, however, that the Chinese Communists were ready to risk hostilities with the United States.
Until we see how the Soviet Union is going to behave on the Berlin issue during the next few months, we cannot say with any assurance that Chinese foreign policy in its current phase is more aggressive than Russian. But there can be no doubt that Peking at present has a greater need than Moscow for external tension as an aid to its domestic policy. Both the Middle East and Formosa crises last year were abundantly exploited in China for working up anti-imperialistic emotions, inducing a sense of national danger and rallying the people behind the government. During the crisis in Lebanon and Jordan, monster demonstrations were organized all over China, and particularly outside the British Embassy in Peking, to protest against Western actions, which were represented as part of an imperialist conspiracy threatening all Asian peoples. After the beginning of the Quemoy crisis the tension was used as a pretext for the establishment of a militia system in all the communes; the theory was to make every man a soldier for local defense against a foreign invader, but in fact the bearing of arms was normally confined to selected groups of young people regarded as politically reliable and charged with coercing recalcitrant elements in the villages. The militarization of the bulk of the peasants consisted mainly in their being subjected to military discipline for their ordinary work; they were summoned to work in the fields by bugles and marched to and fro under orders in military formation. A government decree in September expressly demanded that economic life be combined with preparation for war:
The highest state conference has appealed to all levels of the population for the mobilization of all forces as an answer to the imperialist provocation and intrigues. Our five hundred million peasants must be ready to answer this appeal. They must create at one and the same time a strong agricultural organization and strong militia detachments for the defence of the homeland.[i]
It may be held that the aggravation of external conflicts is so obviously designed to further the ends of domestic politics that it does not afford any real threat to the peace of the world. But the question of Formosa remains of vital importance to the régime because it cannot be secure as long as it continues to be challenged by another Chinese government on Chinese soil. The greater the unrest caused on the mainland by the rigors of the present phase of Communism, the greater the need for Mao Tsetung to destroy the Nationalists in their island stronghold. There are signs of preparations for a new and more formidable offensive against Quemoy, which would certainly be followed by an assault on Formosa itself. Such a move might come at a moment of crisis in European affairs arising out of a deadlock over Berlin. The Soviet government might encourage Chinese military action in the Far East as a diversion and means of disrupting the Western powers, which are much more divided over the question of Formosa than of Europe or the Middle East. But fresh hostilities in the Far East might easily develop further than the Soviet Union intended or wished. Even if the Russians were to counsel restraint, the Chinese might calculate that Moscow would have to back them up in order to avert a defeat which might lead to the collapse of the régime.
On the question of the communes, Russia and China appear to have reached a modus vivendi, but without real agreement on the fundamental issue. The Soviet dislike of the new Chinese venture and its ideological implications was shown during the latter part of 1958 by an eloquent absence of any comment in the Soviet press, but in private or semi-private conversations Soviet leaders expressed their antipathy. Khrushchev told Senator Humphrey that the Chinese communes were "old-fashioned" and Mikoyan on his visit to the United States expanded this theme at a seminar at the University of California. He said that the Russians had tried such communes in 1918 and 1919, but had found that they would not work without an economy of abundance which even the Soviet Union had not so far attained--much less China. To some extent the Chinese Communists themselves have indeed been sobered by experience, as was indicated by the December resolution of the Central Committee blaming some cadres for getting "dizzy with success"--the same words as Stalin used in March 1930, during the crisis of forced collectivization in Russia. The Committee also warned against overwork and excessive interference in family life in the communes. This resolution has been described as "a substantial retreat on two fronts--practically, before the Chinese peasants, and ideologically before Soviet criticism."[ii] The somewhat chastened mood of the Chinese leaders was reflected also in the speech made by Chou En-lai as fraternal delegate to the Soviet Party's Twenty-first Congress; there he said nothing at all provocative towards his Russian hosts. It did not pass without notice that shortly afterwards Peking was able to announce an agreement for the largest amount of economic aid so far granted by the Soviet Union to China, and it may be that this aid was made conditional on the demonstration by China of a proper respect for the more "advanced" social development of Russia. Khrushchev was able to declare at the Congress--without being contradicted--that the Soviet Union was the first country to enter the period of transition to Communism, and he condescendingly attributed the phenomenon of the Chinese communes--without referring to them by name--to China's "peculiarities in historical development." The fact remains, however, that China has established a system of economic and social organization quite different from Russia's and in some respects nearer to the classic Marxist ideal. This constitutes a challenge to the prestige of Russia as the exemplar of the world Communist movement, even if the leaders in Peking have no will to compete with Russia. It makes China a potential center of attraction to just those Communists in all countries who take their faith most seriously. As the Chinese Communists face the need for more adequate incentives to increase production, they may move closer to Russian practice and lose the fire and fury of the original "upsurge." But they can hardly drop the commune system altogether without the most serious political consequences. The decision to set up communes in China was indeed a parting of the ways, and there is no turning back.
[i] New China News Agency, September 9, 1958.
[ii] Richard Lowenthal, in "Shifts and Rifts in the Russo-Chinese Alliance," Problems of Communism, January-February 1959, p. 23.