Chinese Communist Critiques of Soviet Society

Although relations between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of China had always been subject to certain tensions, it was only after Nikita Khrushchov’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th. Congress of the CPSU in 1956 that Mao Tse-tung and the CPC began to publicly criticise the political line of the CPSU and the changing character of Soviet society.

At first the Chinese comrades cautiously welcomed the opportunity to criticise the negative side of the politics upheld by Stalin. In an article by Mao published on 5th. April, 1956 Stalin was criticised although at the same time it was made clear that in the main he and what he stood for should be upheld However it was not so much. Khrushchov’s attacks on Stalin that mainly concerned the CPC but rather the general line of the CPSU on a number of major matters, especially concerning contradictions at the international level.

It was Khruschov’s lines of “peaceful coexistence”, “peaceful competition” and “peaceful transition” which particularly attracted Chinese criticism, first in private and then from 1960 onwards in public. Khrushchov claimed that with the advent of nuclear weapons major war between the socialist camp and the imperialist camp was no longer inevitable. The unthinkable consequences of engaging in nuclear war meant that the struggle between capitalism and socialism would be resolved by peaceful competition demonstrating which was superior. Related to this was the thesis that violent, revolutionary insurrection was no longer necessary in the capitalist countries to bring about socialism which could be achieved by gradual, parliamentary means. The Khrushchov leadership also put forward the line that wars of national liberation were no longer necessary in the colonial and neo-colonial countries and that peaceful progress was being made towards achieving freedom from imperialist oppression and exploitation. Indeed it was held that many former colonies of imperialism had already achieved full independence.

The CPC identified all of this as unqualified revisionism and launched a series of public polemics against it beginning in 1963 with A Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement. The point to be made here is that it was mostly as a result of the Soviet leadership’s external policies towards imperialist countries, towards oppressed peoples, towards other socialist countries – that Mao and some other Chinese comrades began to become critical of the Soviet union. Implicitly their line of reasoning was that if the external policies of the Soviet Union contained serious revisionist deviations then there must be something wrong internally, inside Soviet society and, indeed, it was only after detailed criticism of the CPSU’s external policies had been published that the Chinese comrades published sustained critiques of the Soviet Union itself.

In 1964 the CRC published a pamphlet length critique entitled On Khruschov’s Phoney Communism and Its Historical Lessons for the World. This focused on the political line of the Soviet Union itself that Khrushchov had put forward at the 22nd Congress of the CPSU held in 1961. The article denounced Khrushchov’s claim that in the USSR the dictatorship of the proletariat was no longer necessary and that the CPSU had become a “party of the entire people” and that the Soviet state was now one “of the whole people”. It asserted, contrary to what Khrushchov and co. said, that antagonistic classes and class struggle would exist throughout the entire periodlasting many generations, of socialist transition from capitalism to communism. A “privileged stratum” had arisen in the Party, government, economy and cultural life. They provided the “social basis of the revisionist Khrushchov clique” which had seized state power. This privileged stratum were “the principal component of the bourgeoisie” in the Soviet Union and the Khrushchov clique were its “political representatives”. If the revisionists were to remain in power then a restoration of capitalism would occur in the USSR.

The main emphasis in this article was on the political line pronounced by the Soviet leadership rather than on a concrete analysis of the material basis and ideological superstructure of Soviet society at that time. It was assumed, rather than empirically demonstrated, that a new type of bourgeoisie was emerging from within the Soviet system. Of course, the necessary substantive information on the various aspects of contemporary Soviet society was not in the main publicly available to the Chinese or anyone else. One line of attack was to show the opposition between Khrushchov’s positions on key issues and those of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Another, more concrete, line of attack was to cite cases of corruption by Party and government officials as reported in the Soviet press. However, in and by itself this evidence is not necessarily indicative of a serious threat of capitalist restoration. As the article is at pains to point out, class struggle continues throughout the course of socialist transformation which will last for many generations and so some manifestations of bourgeois behaviour are to be expected and, Indeed, it would be odd If this were not so. Furthermore, the fact that this behaviour was presented in the Soviet press as unacceptable and exceptional implies that normal practices in Soviet economic and political life were not, of this kind. After all, in the Western capitalist countries there is a good deal of corruption and other illegal practices on the part of the bourgeoisie but this is not their normal mode of economic conduct, For the main part, oppression and exploitation takes place in ways which are generally held to be morally and legally acceptable. In fact, the 1964 article makes it clear that “there is a grave danger of a restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union” which implies that such a restoration has not yet occurred.

The next major statement on the character of the Soviet Union came in 1970 with Leninism or Social Imperialism. This article, only six years after the previous one, is emphatic that the restoration of capitalism has definitely occurred when it asks:

How was it possible for the restoration of capitalism to take place in the Soviet Union, the first socialist state in the world, and how was it possible for the Soviet Union to become imperialist?”

Now it is true that from a dialectical point of view there will be a critical point in a process of development whereby an accumulation of quantitative changes suddenly becomes transformed into a qualitative change. In this particular case this means that in a society undergoing socialist transformation and where there are growing bourgeois tendencies, there will come about, unless deliberately prevented, a point in time when the dictatorship of the proletariat suddenly turns into its opposite, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. However I can find no Indication in the Chinese writings of a definite turning point in time when this qualitative change occurred. Implicitly, given the different positions on the character of the Soviet Union advanced in the 1964 and 1970 articles, this change occurred at sometime between these two dates but no particular occasion is mentioned in this literature.

Another problem with these analyses concerns the manner in which capitalist restoration came about, In both presentations mention is repeatedly made of “a handful of Party persons in power taking the capitalist road there, in other words, the result of the usurpation of the political power of the proletariat by the Soviet bourgeoisie”. What is not explained is how it was that the Khrushchov clique were apparently able to seize power so easily. If the dictatorship of the proletariat had really existed in the Soviet Union then how was it that this class, the majority of the people, were so easily dispossessed of their power? The Chinese articles offer no developed explanation.

What they do suggest, following remarks of Lenin’s repeated by Mao Tse-tung from 1962 onwards, is that:

“After the victory of the revolution, because of the existence of the bourgeoisie internationally, because of the existence of bourgeois remnants internally, because the petit bourgeoisie exists and continually generates a bourgeoisie, therefore the classes which have been overthrown within the country will continue to exist for a long time to come and may even attempt restoration.”

No doubt these different elements oppose proletarian rule and yearn for capitalist counterrevolution but the likelihood of them pulling this off in a country like the Soviet Union was does not seem very likely. After all, the Soviet Union defeated imperialist armies of invasion on two occasions, during the Civil War and World War II, and the bourgeoisie were completely dispossessed after the NEP period as were the rural petit bourgeoisie with the collectivisation of agriculture.

It was only in his last few years that Mao deepened his grasp of the process of capitalist restoration in a society undergoing socialist transformation. Only a few months before his death in 1976 he said to his close comrades in commenting on the situation in China:

“You are making the socialist revolution, and yet don’t know where the bourgeoisie is. It is right inside the Communist Party – those in power taking the capitalist road.”

Mao’s position had shifted to one where instead of bourgeois elements external to or peripheral to a socialist country constituting the main danger of capitalist restoration it was distinctly new bourgeois elements thrown up within the heart of the communist movement itself who were the agents of counterrevolution.

This approach had been taken up by Yao Wen-yuan and Chang Chun—chiao in articles published in 1975, On the Social Basis of the Lin Piao Anti—Party Clique and On Exercising All—Round Dictatorship Over the Bourgeoisie respectively. Although primarily discussing the situation in China they make it clear that their analysis applies to the Soviet Union as well. Yao said:

“The existence of bourgeois influence, and of the influence of international imperialism and revisionism, constitutes the political and ideological source of the new bourgeois elements. And the existence of bourgeois right provides an important economic foundation for their emergence.”

The origin of the ideological and political bourgeois influence is still external to the socialist society but now there is posited a significant aspect of the material basis of society which provides fertile ground for the implanting and growth of such influence. Bourgeois right, i.e. unequal rewards for unequal work, which exists in distribution and exchange under socialism can only be restricted all the time commodity production persists. Part of this phenomenon is the existence of collective ownership, as opposed to ownership by the whole people, in the form of the collective farms in the Soviet Union and the communes in China. In so far as the members of these economic units dispose of the produce of their labours, inequalities within society are bound to persist and even increase. So part of the struggle to push forwards towards communism is to increasingly restrict bourgeois right and take further the process of the socialisation of the means of production.

Chang Chun-chiao pointed out that the “new bourgeois elements” usually have an impeccable background:

“These people generally have a good class background; almost all of them were brought up under the red flag; they have joined the Communist Party organizationally, received college training and become so-called red experts.”

What is more, these new bourgeois elements “are being engendered daily and hourly”. A further point made by Chang is:

“we must see that both ownership by the whole people and collective ownership involve the question of leadership, that is, the question of which class holds the ownership in fact and not just in name.”

This Is essentially the same as the distinction made by Charles Bettelheim between de facto and de jure ownership of the means of production. Do the working class and its allies really control the economy or is their ownership purely on paper? Chang goes on to write:

“It is perfectly correct for people to give full weight to the decisive role of the system of ownership in the relations of production. But It is incorrect to give no weight to whether the issue of ownership has been resolved merely in form or in actual fact, to the reaction upon the system of ownership exerted by the two other aspects of the relations of production – the relations among people and the form of distribution – and to the reaction upon the economic base exerted by the superstructure; these two aspects and the superstructure may play a decisive role under given conditions, Politics is the concentrated expression of economics. Whether the ideological and political line is correct or incorrect, and which class holds the leadership, decides which class owns those factories in actual fact.”


This is as far as Chinese communist analyses of Soviet society in particular and the restoration of capitalism in socialist societies in general developed because in 1976 the capitalist roaders in China did succeed in seizing state power. Within a few years the Hua-Deng leadership had ceased to refer to the Soviet Union as “social imperialist” and instead were referring to it as a socialist country. As for the above analyses of Mao and the Four, these were dismissed and rejected.

An important positive aspect of the Chinese analyses of Soviet society is that they came to recognise that the danger of capitalist restoration comes not mainly from external influences or dispossessed bourgeois elements making a comeback but from new social elements generated within the socialist system itself. People such as Khrushchov and Brezhnev were model proletarians specially selected and trained to be the leaders of their class, but who became the leaders of a newly emergent state bourgeoisie. Furthermore the Chinese critique developed to the point where it began to identify the features of the material basis of a socialist society which if left untransformed would give rise to this new type of bourgeoisie. During the Cultural Revolution workers were encouraged to overthrow the system of one—man management in factories and set up Revolutionary Committees to run enterprises. These implemented measures to further transform the relations of production such as reductions in wages differentials and removing the divisions between mental and manual labour. These advances were destroyed after 1976. Also, as its title suggests, the policy of Cultural Revolution places great stress on the need to transform the ideological superstructure, something which was emphasised in the Soviet Union in the early stages of the first Five Year Plan beginning in 1928 but which was quickly abandoned.

Nonetheless the Chinese communist critique of the Soviet Union are schematic and suggestive rather than being substantively developed concrete analyses. They throw up some useful hypotheses for further investigation. Some of the questions arising out of these critiques which need further investigation are as follows:

1. It is interesting to note that the initial Chinese critique was directed at the international policies of the Soviet Union. The international line of the Soviet Union had been predominantly revisionist ever since 1935 with the adoption of the United Front Against Fascism policy at the 7th. World Congress of the Comintern. What is more, the CPC had disagreed with aspects of this line as for instance when in 1945 they ignored Stalin’s advice to form a coalition government with Chiang Kai-shek. On a dialectical view the origins of the United Front policy must be sought in both external and internal factors to the Soviet Union but the internal factors are likely to be primary in explaining its genesis.

Similarly it is interesting to observe that in China the resurgence of revisionism during the Cultural Revolution first became apparent with the putting forward of the Three Worlds Theory and all that implied during the early 1970s. Is this purely a coincidence or is there some common feature here in the process of capitalist restoration which determines that revisionism becomes triumphant first of all in a socialist state’s international policy?

2. Class analysis. There is no clear class analysis of Soviet society in the Chinese critiques. At best some sort of implicit analysis is present with the use of terms such as “new bourgeoisie” but no overall outline is presented. This is essential if the process of capitalist restoration is to be fully understood. The same shortcoming is present in the analyses of Chinese society during the socialist period as put forward by Mao and the Four. They never present an overall picture of class contradictions.

3. The material basis. The Chinese critique of Soviet society offers very little in the way of concrete analysis of its material basis. In his writings on Soviet economic policy, gathered under the title A Critique of Soviet Economics, Mao attacks what came to be called the “forces of production theory”, namely the position which claims that socialist economic transformation is primarily a question of acquiring advanced technology and applying this to production under the direction of technical and managerial specialists. Mao points out that the most revolutionary force of production of all is the proletariat and that the key to socialist economic construction is the unleashing of the masses’ creative energies by means of revolutionary struggle to transform the relations of production. In the Soviet Union the “forces of production theory” can be traced back at least to some of Stalin’s pronouncements in the early 1930s, as for example when in 1931 he called for the creation of a new group of technically expert “economic executives”. Indeed, Lenin himself was far from being free from the same outlook with his endorsements of “scientific management” and “Fordism”, The work of Charles Bettelheim goes into this matter in some detail and should be carefully studied. Also an implicit critique of the Soviet approach is contained in the Chinese attempts to transform the relations of production during the Cultural Revolution.

4-. The ideological superstructure. The Chinese communists did examine this aspect of Soviet life but not in great detail. Some works of art were criticised for their revisionist content, e.g. Some Questions Concerning Modern revisionist Literature in the Soviet Union. but a thorough examination of the ideological superstructure was not made. For example, no sustained analysis of the Soviet education system and the changes it had undergone was carried out, (as far as I know). Again an implicit critique of Soviet policies can be read into the revolutionary policies implemented during the Cultural Revolution. After all, in many important ways Chinese socialist transformation during the 1950s and early 1960s was directly based on Soviet models and these were found to be lacking. In analysing capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union a close look at education, among other things, is very important because the new bourgeois elements such as Khrushchov, Brezhnev and Gorbachov are products of the education system, a system designed in part to produce an elite of highly trained leaders of the proletariat.

 In the case of the Soviet Union these people always had a tendency to look to the imperialist countries as suppliers of advanced knowledge and technology, in their eyes the key to progress, rather than orientating themselves towards the revolutionary mobilisation of the masses. This is hardly surprising given the sort of education they had undergone. The opening salvoes of the Cultural Revolution in China were directed precisely at trying to forestall the development of such an elite in China but since 1976 such people have been bred in profusion as a result of the policies of the capitalist roaders. It is ironic that it is this newly emergent intelligentsia who are the ones who have most openly embraced bourgeois ideology, summed up in the slogan “Freedom and Democracy”, and have turned on the Deng Xiao-ping leadership who gave birth to them. Similarly in the Soviet Union today it is the highly educated intelligentsia who are the most vocal supporters of Gorbachov’s “glasnost” and “perestroika”.

Other aspects of the ideological superstructure of Soviet society must be examined. The role of kinship in perpetuating and reproducing bourgeois relations should be examined. Soviet attempts to transform and abolish the bourgeois family were abandoned by the mid—1930s. One of the criticisms levelled at the thesis of the emergence of a new state bourgeoisie is that the high party and state officials so designated have no means, such as inheritance of property rights, of transmitting their privileges to their children. On empirical grounds this is not in fact true both in the Soviet Union and China but the role of kinship relations In this phenomenon needs to be delineated.

5. The dictatorship of the proletariat. An important omission in the Chinese analysis of the Soviet Union is that there is no explanation as to how the dictatorship of the proletariat could be overthrown so easily by the “Khrushchovite clique”. After all, there is no evidence at all that there was any sort of conscious, mass resistance to the revisionist regime from 1953 onwards. It seems likely that in any real sense the dictatorship of the proletariat had ceased to exist long before then. It might be argued that up until Stalin’s death the political line of the CPSU predominantly reflected the interests of the Soviet workers and peasants but this is not the same thing as them actually exercising real power. The organs of popular power, the Soviets, had been little more than formalities for many years. If the prevention of capitalist restoration rests primarily on the leadership upholding revolutionary policies, and not on the masses exercising real power, then counterrevolution is inevitable sooner or later. Thus investigation of the development of the Soviet state apparatus in this respect is necessary.

Part of this question concerns the character and role of the Red Army. The Khrushchov clique and their successors could not have seized and consolidated power without the support of the military. Certainly the Red Army never opposed the revisionist seizure of state power. On the contrary, in 1957 when Molotov and others tried to outvote the Khrushchov group on the Politbureau they were, so the story goes, “outvoted” by the appearance of Marshal Zhukov with a machine gun in support of Khrushchov. Clearly the Red Army had long since ceased to be a people’s army. The same was true of China in 1976 when the Hua-Deng group staged a military coup d’etat. No sections of the Chinese PLA actively opposed this move. Any lingering illusions that this is still a people’s army were shattered by the recent events in Beijing. Our Peruvian comrades have raised this question and are striving to build a people’s army which cannot so easily be turned into its opposite.

Harry Powell. June 1989.