Chinese Analyses of Soviet Failure: Humanitarian Socialism

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 11

President Hu Jintao (L) and Vice President Xi Jinping (R)

The first essay in this occasional series showed the extent to which official Chinese explanations of the disintegration of the Soviet Union stress the failure of the Communist party there to maintain a comprehensive dictatorship. The assumption behind this argument is that if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) avoids the sorts of attempts at change made by Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1931- ) and adheres more to the wrongly-maligned model of dictatorship of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), then its rule can be secured indefinitely. In particular, we noted that official Chinese analysts reject the idea that deeper social causes had anything to do with the Soviet disintegration. The official Chinese position is that the Soviet system was fundamentally stable, but that the Soviet president brought it down by making ultimately fatal changes in an attempt to make the system "humane." What lesson does official China then draw? Do not let a Gorbachev into power (See "Chinese Analyses of Soviet Failure: The Party," China Brief, November 19, 2009).

Indeed, the rumored heir to power in China, Vice President Xi Jinping (1953- ), demonstrated that he was no Gorbachev in a speech delivered March 1 at the Central Party School—the highest institution to train CCP officials. The speech, now published as Strive to Master the Marxist Position, Viewpoints, and Methodology, “requests the Party officials to ‘intentionally apply the ideological weapon of dialectical materialism and historical materialism to transform both the objective world and the subjective world,’ and ‘truly unite most of the masses around the Party and the government’” [1].

Such words might reassure hard-liners in China, were it not for the fact Gorbachev was a believing communist who had joined the party 30 years before he was elected general secretary (Xi joined the party in 1974). Something went wrong with Gorbachev after his promising start, something that Chinese analysts have devoted much effort to explaining. The consensus is that Gorbachev was beguiled by the siren song of “humanitarian socialism” (rendao de, minzhu de shehuizhuyi) [2].

Although regularly persecuted, the idea that socialism is more humane than capitalism, and that once in place it will win universal and un-coerced support, is a core argument of Marxism. Karl Marx (1818-1883) did not envision a society and economy ruled by an indispensable, relentless and iron dictatorship, but rather a utopia of equality and freedom, which he expected to come into being spontaneously as the historical laws of human development worked over time.

Subsequent thinkers have asked how communism might be saved from dictatorship—Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) was criticized for ruling as a dictator. Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) early on stressed the moral basis of socialism, and  throughout the 20th century, rumblings never ceased within the international communist movement over how Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938) might have created a less vicious regime than did Stalin [3].

Such ideas form part of the background for Khrushchev’s celebrated speech, “On the Personality Cult and Its Consequences,” confirming the crimes of Stalin, delivered at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow in 1956 that quickly became known as “the secret speech” [4]. It was a seismic shock. Stalin had previously enjoyed almost god-like status of infallibility, while loyalty to him was the touchstone of communist orthodoxy.

According to an authoritative Chinese text, Historical Lessons of Changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern European Countries, prepared by the Institute of Eastern European and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, at People’s University, and the Chinese Central Communist Party School, both in Beijing, and edited by Zhou Xincheng and Guan Xueliang, the speech marked the beginning of the end:

“This Khrushchev, who had called Stalin ‘my very own father,’ and ‘the greatest genius of humanity, teacher and leader,’ and in order to accommodate the demands of certain unreliable people, made an all-out attack on Stalin in front of a party meeting, calling him ‘a murderer,’ ‘a bandit,’ a criminal,’ ‘a professional gambler,’ ‘an autocrat,’ ‘a dictator, ‘a bloody fool,’ ‘an idiot’ and so forth [hun dan—that’s how Liang Shiqiu (1902-1987), the man who put Shakespeare into Chinese translates it,  but it is far worse, more like ‘bastard’] [5].  The effect was to negate the whole period of Stalin’s rule … Because of this there arose worldwide anti-socialist and anti-communist movements; within the socialist camp, mass revolts were crushed by tanks in Poland and Hungary [both in 1956]. Within capitalist countries, one third of communist party members resigned, which led to a severe crisis in the world communist movement. But at that moment, the Chinese communist party, under the leadership of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) stood up, and powerfully refuted these demented words, seriously criticizing Khrushchev’s mistakes, thus protecting the whole enterprise of world communism. The lessons of that period of history are still fresh in our memories” [6].

The late French historian François Furet (1927-1997) observes that “when the secret report became public, the Communist world lost its bearings rather than entering a new epoch … In his own rather primitive manner, the First Secretary had put his finger on the principal contradiction of Bolshevism … How could ‘socialist’ society and the absolute power of one person, founded on the police and on terror, be conceived of together?” [7].

A dozen years after the “secret speech” came the “Prague Spring” of 1968 in which the pro-Brezhnev (1906-1982) leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party were deposed by Alexander Dubcek (1921-1992) and other dissidents, who for the first half of 1968 put into place a program of “socialism with a human face”: reform, democratization and recognition of the rights of nationalities. This ended abruptly on August 21, 1968 when Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia, taking Dubcek and others to Moscow as prisoners. Reforming movements nevertheless developed wherever Moscow (or Mao) was not directly in charge. Thus, for a while the liberal “Euro-communism” of Roger Garaudy (1913- ) and his associates in France was all the rage.

In the words of Stephen Kotkin, “[A] humanist vision of reform emerged in the post-Stalin years, under Nikita Khrushchev, and it stamped an entire generation—a generation led by Mikhail Gorbachev, that lamented the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring, and that came to power in Moscow in 1985. They believed the planned economy could be reformed essentially without introducing full private property or market prices. They believed relaxing censorship would increase the population’s allegiance to socialism. They believed the Communist Party could be democratized.”

Gorbachev repeated these “errors.” As Xu Xin and Chen Lianbi point out, in a volume published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that they edited, in 1988 Gorbachev was advocating the mistaken idea of “humanistic and democratic socialism,” and thus poised on the slippery slope leading to social democracy. This led to the disastrous theoretical error of perestroika [chuanxin]. From that, in turn, came the idea of division of power and the catastrophic decision to allow a multi-party system in the Soviet Union. The result was that when the party released its grip on society, all sorts of conflicts and disorders arose [11].

According to Zhou and Guan, “The disorders of the 1980s and 1990s in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe all have a conspicuous characteristic, which is that they were all set in motion by negation of and attacks on  ‘the Stalin model’” [12]. Such attacks “opened the way for the humanitarian democratic faction of the party, and provided ammunition for the opposition to attack the communist party and the socialist system … The lesson of the collapse of the Soviet communist party and the Soviet Union is a very sad one. The sudden and fundamental political change was started by criticizing the Stalin model, thereby giving the practice of socialism a bad name” [13].

Mao’s identification with Stalin and his role in protecting his memory mean that in China saying anything negative about Stalin can very easily be understood as criticism of Mao. Even today, Stalin has never been criticized in China. One can still buy his portrait there and walk down streets named for him.

No comparable criticism of either Stalin or Mao has ever been permitted in China. Like the former Soviet Union, however, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a concealed history. An important question for China today is when and how it will be officially acknowledged, and with what consequences?

The Chinese equivalent of the Prague Spring is the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, a thoroughly documented event, the history of which need not be repeated here. Worth noting, however, is that Gorbachev’s reforms and those like them across Eastern Europe were not initially attacked by the Chinese party or media. They were viewed favorably by some; as interesting by others; as a danger probably by only a minority. It was only after Li Peng (1928- ) became premier in April 1988 that the tenor of official coverage began to change [14].

For more than 20 years, the Chinese regime has managed to expunge from history both the democracy movement and the massacre that followed. For more than 30 years, Mao has been largely extolled in official media. Can such long-term management of the historical record succeed? The experience of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe suggests not. Political generations succeed one another. Gorbachev, who was born in 1931, was in his early 20s when Stalin died. His immediate predecessors General Secretary Yuri Andropov (1914-1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1911-1985) were of a different political generation, the one that came to its maturity at the height of Stalin’s power. When the last of them passed from the scene, no one was left to prevent the expression of new ideas long repressed.

In Hu Jintao (1942- ) we have the last Chinese leader personally hand picked by patriarch Deng Xiaoping (1904-1907). We may also have the last of a certain breed of Chinese leaders, whose passing may diminish resistance to truth-telling about history and political change.

Mao is already the subject of public criticism. In spite of reported attempts by the Chinese government to censor him, televised lectures by history teacher Yuan Tengfei on earlier periods of Chinese history have been enormously popular. Yuan’s recently released 110 minute teaching video about the Cultural Revolution, already viewed by millions online, in which he observes, as officially reported in the tabloid Global Times (published by the People’s Daily): "You can go to the mausoleum to see Chairman Mao Zedong, but don’t forget it is China’s Yasukuni Shrine [referring to the Japanese Shinto shrine in Tokyo where World War II dead, including convicted war criminals, are venerated—a regular target of official criticism from China], where a butcher with people’s blood on his hands is worshipped", and, "The only correct thing Mao Zedong did after 1949 was die." He has also criticized Chinese history textbooks as less accurate than their Japanese counterparts, and spoken of the 30 million who perished in Mao’s Great Leap Forward (Korea Times, May 8). That an official newspaper should report such sentiments is noteworthy, as will be the way officialdom deals with them. For Mao is China’s Stalin; discrediting him undermines the founding myths of the party and the state.

Soviet experience has shown that eventually facts will be faced. We do not know that Xi Jinping will become top leader after Hu Jintao, but it is worth remembering that he is the son of Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002), one of the more open minded of his generation, who suffered under Mao. The younger Xi was born after the party had taken power; his formative experiences were of the Cultural Revolution. About this, he once said on state television: "… it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realized, it proved an illusion…" (The Guardian, October 26, 2007).

In his speech at the Central Party School, Xi may have been sharing his innermost thoughts. On the other hand, he may have been seeking to reassure other leaders that he is no Gorbachev. It is a good bet, however, that someone in his generation of leadership will make a Chinese “secret speech” and turn to the ideas of humanity in socialism, even though they are today officially excoriated in analyses of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

[The second of an occasional series on how China views the collapse of the Soviet Union]


1. This is the website for theoretical discussion maintained by the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China. Consulted May 10, 2010. My thanks to
Professor Victor Mair for calling this essay to my attention.  April 1, 2010.
2. Xu Xin, Chen Lianbi, et al. Chaoji daguo de bengkui: (Sulian jieti yuyin tansuo) (Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian chubanshe, March 1999): ch. 1.
3. For example, Stephen F. Cohen Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (New York: Vintage, 1975).
4. The speech was delivered on the night of 24-25 February, 1956. It was obtained from the Yugoslavs and published for the first time by the United States State Department on 4 June 1956. See François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. Translated by Deborah Furet (1995. English edition Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 555, note 12
5. New Practical Chinese-English Dictionary (Taipei: Far East Book Company, 1972) s.v.
6. Xincheng Zhou and Guan Xueliang, Sulian Dongou Guojia de Yanbian ji Lishi Jaioxun (Hefei: Anhui People’s Publishing House, 2000), p. 39.
7. Furet, The Passing of an Illusion p. 451.
8. Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000  (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 3.
9. Xu and Chen, Chapter 2, p. 1.
10. Ibid., Chapter 2, pp. 3-4.
11. Ibid., Chapter 7, p. 4.
12. Zhou and Guan, p. 40.
13. Ibid., pp. 71-72.
14. Arthur Waldron, "The Soviet Disease Spreads to China" Far Eastern Economic Review 172.8 (October 2009): 24-27.