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Brothers No More: China & Russia Under Mao and Khrushchev

Introduction

China and the Soviet Union were once the two largest socialist countries in the world, and the early revolutionary efforts in China received substantial aid from the USSR. During Joseph Stalin’s era, Mao Zedong admired and respected Stalin’s theories and practices, endeavoring to implement similar socialist practices in China. The relationship between the two countries resembled that of brothers. However, following Stalin’s death, when Nikita Khrushchev came to power, significant differences emerged between China and the Soviet Union regarding the future of socialism and changes in the global landscape. Mao Zedong’s disagreements with Khrushchev on key political debates led to a deterioration in relations between the two governments. Nikita Khrushchev’s era marked a new era in Sino-Soviet relations, which was markedly different from Stalin’s approach to the critical bilateral relationship.

 

Stalin’s Merits and Demerits

The conflict between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Soviet leaders is often traced back to the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, which many historians view as the conflict’s starting point. Three years later, during the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Khrushchev issued his infamous “Secret Speech” (also known as “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences Speech”) and overturned many of Stalin’s theories of class struggle and violent revolution. Khrushchev accused Stalin of undermining democratic centralism and the concept of collective leadership by putting himself in a position above the Party’s Central Committee and making unilateral decisions.[1] This critique of Stalin was not just Khrushchev acting on a whim; it reflected a broader agreement among the Soviet Union’s new administration. Even before the Twentieth Party Congress, Georgy Malenkov, who served as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, had already suggested a “peaceful economic competition” with capitalist nations, including the United States.[2] This approach was a stark departure from Stalin’s insistence on class struggle and violent revolution.

Khrushchev and the members of the new Soviet leadership primarily focused on the negative aspects of Stalin’s administration when assessing his legacy. In the Secret Report, Khrushchev pointed out the injustices of the Great Purge in 1937-1938, during which many Communist Party members were wrongly labeled as “the enemies of the Soviet people.” Such injustices led to unfair trials, forced confessions, and executions without trial.[3] Khrushchev depicted Stalin as a tyrannical and unstable dictator with a narrow-minded approach. In Khrushchev’s words, “Whoever opposed Stalin’s concept… was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation.”[4] Some historians suggest that Khrushchev did this to align with other political forces to stabilize his position and fill the power vacuum with his ideas as Stalin’s influence waned.[5] The primary reason was during this specific period in time, many other Soviet politicians shared, however quietly, Khrushchev’s fierce criticism of Stalin. At the Twentieth Party Congress, on February 16, Anastas Mikoyan delivered his own sharply critical speech about Stalin’s governance, arguing that Stalin’s 20-year rule “lacked collective leadership,” and his unilateral policies had brought “huge harms to the CPSU and the whole country.”[6]

However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had a totally different view of Stalin and his policies. In a meeting of the CCP Central Committee Secretariat on March 17, 1956, Mao Zedong criticized Khrushchev’s Secret Report, suggesting that while the Soviet Union once highly praised Stalin, they had now “unjustly condemned him.”[7] Later, during a meeting inside the Soviet Embassy in China, Mao again expressed his disagreement with the criticisms; he argued against the claim that Stalin was “treating comrades as enemies.”[8] On December 29, 1956, an editorial in the People’s Daily called for a reevaluation of the historical role of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This article rejects the denunciation of Stalin made at the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU. Meanwhile, the article acknowledged the achievements of the Soviet revolution and the construction of the Soviet state during Stalin’s era. For example, the editorial emphasized that “the existence of the Soviet Union fundamentally shook the rule of imperialism and gave unlimited hope, confidence, and courage to all revolutionary workers’ movements and the liberation movements of oppressed nationalities.”[9] Additionally, it also gently pointed out some of Stalin’s mistakes in his tenure, mentioning the early Soviet Union, which had “experienced famine, economic difficulties, and sectarian splinter activities within the party” because of the inefficient leadership.[10] The CCP believed that Stalin’s mistakes should not be attributed to him alone. Nevertheless, Mao saw the disagreement over Stalin’s legacy as a minor difference, likening it to “nine fingers being the same and one finger being different.”[11] However, this small discrepancy marked the beginning of growing rifts between the Chinese and Soviet communist parties.

 

Fundamental Contradiction in the World

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels expressed the idea that the transition from capitalism to socialism, and eventually communism, is an inevitable part of the historical progression of society.[12] During the Russian Revolution, Lenin viewed imperialism as capitalism’s final, decaying phase, signaling the imminent proletarian revolution.[13] Both the CCP and CPSU shared the belief that capitalism was doomed to be replaced by socialism. However, in the course of development of economic and localized socialism theories, differences in their approaches to the international communist movement became evident. Different views emerged on the interpretation of fundamental conflict in the world. The CPSU focused on easing tensions, known as détente, whereas the CCP stressed the importance of continuing the revolution and class struggle.

Following Stalin’s death, the CPSU posited that the world was transitioning from capitalism to socialism, moving away from Lenin’s idea that imperialism would directly lead to a proletarian revolution. Khrushchev declared at the Twentieth Congress in February 1956 that socialism had expanded beyond a single nation to become a global system, asserting that capitalism could not halt this significant historical shift.[14] Khrushchev thought that capitalism and socialism could coexist peacefully in the world. He believed that the winner between the two would be decided through peaceful competition. In June 1960, the Soviet Communist Party further clarified in a communication to the Chinese Communist Party that the present time was characterized by the shift from capitalism to socialism, with the socialist bloc gaining dominance and the influence of imperialism significantly waning.[15] 

Mao’s CCP held the view that the post-World War II era was still marked by the simultaneous existence of capitalism and the potential for proletarian revolution. Unlike the CPSU, the CCP was not in favor of the idea that the major international conflict stemmed from the ideological differences between socialism and capitalism. Mao Zedong pointed out that the world consisted of different class contradictions. Apart from the clash between socialist and capitalist states, there were significant tensions within capitalist nations between the working class and the bourgeoisie, between oppressed communities and their oppressors, and among different imperialist powers and competing capitalist monopolies.[16] 

The CCP, according to Mao’s view, acknowledges the significant tension between socialist and capitalist systems, viewing it as a clash between two distinct social frameworks. However, they argue that it’s overly simplistic to view all conflicts in the world solely through the lens of the socialist-capitalist divide. According to the CCP, other vital conflicts, such as those within capitalist nations and between oppressed peoples and their oppressors, should neither be ignored nor downplayed. However, under Khrushchev’s leadership, the Soviet government adopted a strategy of peaceful coexistence and competition with capitalist countries. This strategy intended to expand socialism globally through non-violent methods. Differences between the Chinese and Soviet communist parties underscored a significant ideological split, not only revealing contrasting visions for future revolutions within the socialist camp, but also underscoring critical distinction in their perspectives on how to interpret and deal with the threat of capitalism and imperialism.

 

Issues of War and Peace

The differing interpretation of world affairs by Chinese and Soviet leaders not only revolved around contradiction in ideology and class struggle in the future world order, but also extended to their predictions about the likelihood of the outbreak of large-scale war. This contradiction further worsened the already deteriorating relations.

Khrushchev’s report at the Twentieth Party Congress argued that the advent of nuclear weapons had fundamentally changed the nature of war in the progression of history. He pointed out that the immense destructive power of nuclear war acts as a deterrent, reducing the likelihood of war outbreaks.[17] Based on this theory, he concluded that the Marxist-Leninist belief held by the CPSU, which stated that war was an inevitable outcome of imperialism, was no longer applicable in the nuclear era. In the summer of 1957, the CCP concurred with the Soviet view that war could be prevented with nuclear weapons.[18] This stance was particularly appealing to Chinese leadership as it sought a more amicable international environment in which to recover and rebuild its economy after the civil war. This point of view was echoed in a People’s Daily editorial on February 19, 1956, which suggested that “the belief that war is not doomed to be inevitable will inspire thousands of peace defenders to fight for the relaxation of the international situation.”[19] 

After 1958, the changing international dynamics, particularly following Mao Zedong’s initiation of the Great Leap Forward and the tensions in the Taiwan Strait involving Kinmen and Xiamen, led to a shift in Mao’s opinion on war. Under Mao’s leadership, the CCP began to view global events through the lens of class struggle. Mao believed that “as long as imperialism exists and as long as international exploitation exists, war is inevitable.”[20] Mao Zedong’s post-1958 war doctrine closely resembled that of Lenin and Stalin. He cited Lenin’s and Stalin’s words to criticize Khrushchev’s administration for its optimistic outlook on future global wars. Mao quoted Lenin’s critique of imperialist powers’ hypocritical claims of peace in “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” during his speech in the Eighth Party Congress. In this address, Mao describes imperialism as the monopoly stage of capitalism, characterized by the division of the world among international trusts and cartels, leading inevitably to wars for the redivision of influence and territories.[21] Mao also cited Stalin’s statements to support his differing stance from Khrushchev administration, suggesting that the existence of imperialism and capitalism regimes provides “fertile ground for conflict.”[22]

After World War II, the Khrushchev administration shifted from Stalin’s and Lenin’s shared view of inevitable war and revolution towards a vision of peaceful global coexistence between socialist and capitalist blocs. In contrast, Mao Zedong’s CCP maintained a more confrontational stance since 1958, which emphasized the persistent threat of a major global conflict. This approach reflects a nuanced continuation of Lenin’s and Stalin’s revolutionary ideologies, suggesting that Mao’s understanding of war was rooted in traditional Leninist and Stalinist revolutionary thought.

 

Conclusion

Khrushchev’s critique of Stalin’s legacy not only marked the Soviet Communist Party’s abandonment of Stalinist principles but also highlighted deeper ideological differences between the CCP and CPSU. Mao’s adherence to Leninism and Stalinism reflected the enduring spirit of continuous revolution within the CCP during that time and forecasting the continued divergence of Russia and China which enjoyed a period of brotherhood under Stalin.

All in all, the differing attitudes of the CCP and the CPSU on a variety of issues reflected the complexity of socialist ideology and the multifaceted nature of politics within the socialist camp during the Cold War. As the rift in Sino-Soviet relations widened, it became evident to the broader global community that although the governments of China and the Soviet Union both shared a common socialist vision, the approach and methods they employed were diametrical and ultimately incompatible.



ABOUT THE WRITER Jiaheng Lyu is an undergraduate research assistant at The University of Texas at Austin, majoring in international relations and global studies. Since 2022, he also served as a researcher with the Global Disinformation Lab (GDIL). This piece was adapted from the final paper for a Spring 2024 course taught by Dr. Chelsi West-Ohueri.


Notes:

[1] Nikita Khrushchev, “Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, ‘On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,’ Delivered at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” Wilson Center Digital Archive, February 25, 1956, https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/khrushchevs-secret-speech-cult-personality-and-its-consequences-delivered-twentieth-party.

[2] Zhihua Shen, Reviewing and Reconsidering the History of Sino-Soviet Relations (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2016), 141.

[3] Khrushchev, “Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, ‘On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,’ Delivered at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Myron Rush, “After Khrushchev: Problems of Succession in the Soviet Union,” Studies in Comparative Communism 2 no.3/4 (July/October 1969): 79-80, 85-86.

[6] Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan, Memoirs of Anastas Mikoyan: The Path of Struggle (Chicago: Sphinx Pr, 1988), 17. 

[7] Zedong Mao, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Vol 5 (Beijing: People’s Press, 1977), 286.

[8] Ibid, 321-322.

[9] People’s Press Editorial, “Rediscussing the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” People’s Press (Beijing), December 29, 1956.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Mao, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Vol 5, 322.

[12] Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Communist Manifesto (Claremont: Joshua James Press, 1848), 18-22.

[13] Shen, Reviewing and Reconsidering the History of Sino-Soviet Relations, 11-22.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lengxi, Wu, Ten Years Debate: 1956-1966 (Beijing: Central Document Press, 1999), 282.

[16] Mao, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Vol 5, 345.

[17] Shen, Reviewing and Reconsidering the History of Sino-Soviet Relations, 85.

[18] Ibid, 125. 

[19] People’s Press Editorial, “Reaction to Khrushchev's report,” People’s Press (Beijing), February 19, 1956.

[20] Zedong Mao, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Vol 7 (Beijing: People’s Press, 1999), 326.

[21] Zedong Mao, “Speeches At The Second Session Of The Eighth Party Congress,” (Marxists Internet Archive, Beijing, 1958).

[22] Ibid

 

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