CHINA: from internationalism to chauvinism – the Sino-Soviet dispute

For all but the last two centuries of the past 2,000 years China has possessed the world’s biggest economy. The Mongol Khan’s once ruled an empire stretching from the Pacific to the Danube. Today, with a total population of 3.3 billion people, the countries of east and south Asia (excluding Japan) have more than three times as many people as the developed capitalist countries. With China as the world’s fastest growing economy, there are many who see the locus of world power shifting in the coming period from the US and Europe to China and Asia. Hence, Martin Jacques:

‘The growing conflict between an extant America and a rising China will become the dominant fault line of global politics’ (The Guardian, 18 June 2005).

To support his argument Jacques cites China’s economy, ‘immeasurably stronger than the Soviet Union’s ever was…economic strength is the key precondition for global power and influence’, and China’s integration into the global economy, unlike the Soviet Union. FRFI 188 examined China’s transition from the socialist to the capitalist road of development. Here Trevor Rayne explores the Sino-Soviet dispute and its consequences.

In December 2005 a revision of China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measure raised the estimated size of the economy by 16.8% to $1.983 trillion. China overtook Britain and France in 2005 to become the world’s fourth largest economy. China will be an important factor in shaping the next 50 years, but its economy is one-seventh the size of the US economy and a little more than one-third that of Japan’s. The economy of the 25 European Union (EU) countries matches that of the US. China is integrated into the world economy, with combined imports and exports forming 60% of GDP, but its overseas investments are a fraction of those of the US and EU. EU foreign direct investment amounts to approximately 53% of the world total. The determining fault lines of the coming period are not only that between the US and China, but also, and more immediately, between the US and EU, the major imperialist powers. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and socialist bloc inter-imperialist rivalry is growing; its manifestation in the dispute between the US and Britain against Germany and France over the war on Iraq foretells what is to come. However, international capitalism fights its battles to divide and re-divide the world with unscrupulous alliances that are formed and re-formed as self-interest, opportunity and profit dictate. China was long ago drawn into this deadly game.

The Sino-Soviet split
With the triumph of the Chinese revolution in 1949 and the Soviet Red Army’s front line confronting imperialism in Germany, a third of humanity lived under the banners of socialism. The Chinese Communist Party’s victory made the prospects for socialism look favourable. No longer was the Soviet Union isolated: to the west were the new socialist states of central and eastern Europe and to the east China, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and the Vietnamese Democratic Republic led by Ho Chi Minh. Imperialism’s response was to continue the policy of aggression it had waged against Russia since 1917, launching wars on Korea and Vietnam that killed approximately eight million people. It tried to subvert the socialist governments in Europe and turn them against the Soviet Union. In this context the Sino-Soviet dispute, which became open in 1963, was a setback for socialism and oppressed humanity, increasing the manoeuvrability and bellicosity of imperialism. In 1964 the US started bombing Vietnam.

It is noteworthy that in the Age of Extremes: The short twentieth century 1914-1991 the renowned Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, makes only fleeting reference to the Sino-Soviet dispute. He states, ‘Mao’s own knowledge of Marxist theory seems to have been almost entirely derived from the Stalinist History of the CPSU [b]: Short Course of 1939.’ This expression of contempt demonstrates a Eurocentric vision of the fight for socialism, which in the last half of the 20th century was fought out primarily in the oppressed Third World. It is that fight, not concluded, that was initially at the core of the disputes between the Soviet and Chinese Communist Parties. For imperialism, the road to Moscow ran through Managua, Luanda and Kabul.

Joseph Stalin died on 5 March 1953. For three months the Soviet leadership contemplated the prospects for withdrawing the Red Army from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and seeking détente with the imperialist powers. On 16 and 17 June a workers’ revolt against increased work norms and decreased wages spread from Leipzig to Berlin and other GDR cities. The Red Army suppressed the revolt. US radio stations called on Europe to rise against the Soviet Union. The Soviet leadership abandoned any idea of withdrawing from the GDR, fearing that a retreat could turn into a rout across central and eastern Europe. Following the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this is what happened - only the rout went as far as Moscow. In July 1953 the Soviet Minister of the Interior Beria was dismissed as ‘an enemy of the people’, accused of intending to ‘surrender Eastern Germany to world capitalism’. Beria was shot.

Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy and in turn reacts back on to domestic policy. In 1955 the Soviet Union debated the Sixth Five Year Plan, for 1956-60. At issue were the relative merits of investing in heavy and light industry, producer and consumer goods, and the balance between them. Prime Minister Malenkov favoured consumer industries and housing. The pro-consumer group hoped for peaceful overtures to imperialism and a slowing down of the arms race and hence reduction in military spending. The Red Army leadership and heads of the planning agency, Gosplan, opposed the consumer line. Future Soviet leader Khrushchev wavered and then sided with the Army and Gosplan. Malenkov resigned. The following day China indicated its own opposition to imperialism and decreed universal conscription. Khrushchev became Party Secretary.

Since a Soviet debate on socialist construction in the 1920s, the emphasis had been placed on heavy industry as the quickest way to build the economy to catch up with capitalism and to produce the weapons to defend the socialist state. Constant threats and war reduced the resources available for use on consumption, as imperialism intended.

At the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956, before an exclusively Soviet audience, Khrushchev secretly denounced Stalin. Khrushchev said that Soviet foreign policy was based on the Leninist principle of peaceful coexistence and that because of the increased strength of socialism war between imperialism and socialism was no longer inevitable. Revolutions, he said, could be achieved in non-violent ways. Khrushchev also condemned the post-Second World War Soviet deportations of Chechen, Ingush and Kalmyk peoples. Within a year the Chinese Communist Party issued two publications rebutting Khrushchev’s positions: On the Historical Experiences of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and More on the Historical Experiences of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Mao Zedong’s 1957 speech On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People and the launch of China’s Rectification Campaign against bureaucratism, sectarianism and subjectivism were a radical critique of Soviet economic management and methods of government, but Mao did not criticise Stalin by name.

In the Soviet Union in 1957, following a debate with over 500,000 meetings, 25 industrial ministries were abolished and 92 Regional Councils established. State management was to be decentralised and state owned concerns put under the management of the Regional Councils and allowed to trade with each other directly or through the Regional Councils. The Five Year Plan was revised and the housing allocation increased.

Despite the loss of approximately 25 million people killed in the war against Nazism, and economic devastation, the Soviet Union rebuilt. In 1957 it launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. The Soviet Union had developed transcontinental missiles before the US. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin made the first manned space flight. For Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership the demonstration of Soviet military capability increased the likelihood that the imperialists would accept détente, diplomacy and peaceful relations, and the status quo in Europe. Peace would allow the Soviet Union and socialist camp to build their economies, raise living standards and demonstrate to workers in the capitalist countries the superiority of socialism.

When US President Eisenhower visited Rome in 1959 Italian Communist Party members chanted ‘We too like Ike’. Their leader Togliatti had told them to drop the customary ‘Yankee, go home’. The Soviet Union sought to align all communist parties behind its diplomatic effort to reach détente with imperialism. This fitted well with the west European communist parties that had made alliances with social democratic parties and hence imperialism and were advocating, as the British Communist Party did, the Parliamentary Road to Socialism.

At a Moscow conference of 12 ruling communist parties in November 1957 Mao attacked the Soviet interpretation of peaceful coexistence. He said that war between socialism and imperialism was inevitable and that the peaceful road to socialism was the exception and not the rule. In April 1960, on the ninetieth anniversary of Lenin’s birth, the Soviet leadership presented Lenin as the peacemaker while the Chinese leadership had Lenin as the class warrior who insisted that war was inevitable as long as imperialism survived. Khrushchev was soon to describe Lenin’s positions as out of date in the age of nuclear weapons. In August 1960 the Soviet Union withdrew its technicians from China and the following year did the same to Albania that had sided with China in the argument over détente. A November 1960 Moscow conference of the leaders of 81 communist parties saw the Chinese delegation attacking the Soviet Union for underestimating the potential for revolution in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959. Chinese delegates accused the Soviets of curbing revolution, especially in Iraq, Algeria and India and of supporting anti-communist bourgeois leaders like Qasim in Iraq, Nasser in Egypt, Nehru in India and Sukharno in Indonesia. The Soviet leadership argued that the main form of the international class struggle was between the Soviet Union-led socialist camp and the US and NATO.

At the Twenty Second Congress of the CPSU in October 1961 Khrushchev openly denounced Stalin and attacked the Albanians. Zhou Enlai, head of the Chinese delegation, condemned ‘any one-sided censure of a fraternal party’ and laid a wreath on Stalin’s tomb. Stalin’s mummified remains were removed from Red Square and statues to him pulled down across much of the Soviet Union, towns named after Stalin were re-named. The Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with Albania in December.

In 1963 the Sino-Soviet dispute came into the open. The Chinese sent a letter in June to the CPSU entitled A Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement. The Soviets did not publish it and five Chinese people who distributed the letter inside the Soviet Union were deported. Bilateral talks between the CPSU and Chinese Communists in Moscow coincided with Soviet disarmament talks with the US and Britain, also in Moscow. After a fortnight the Chinese delegates Deng Tsiaoping and Peng Chen left. Five days later the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the US, Britain and Soviet Union banning all nuclear tests except those held underground. China and France refused to sign it. China called the Treaty a ‘dirty fraud’ and an attempt by the US and Soviet Union to maintain a nuclear monopoly. China said it was a betrayal of socialism and revealed that in 1959 the Soviet Union had broken an agreement with China on sharing nuclear technology. Khrushchev argued that Lenin’s view that war was the inevitable outcome of monopoly capitalism was wrong.

Communists played leading roles in the struggles of oppressed nations to rid themselves of colonialism after World War Two. For imperialism it was essential to prevent these nations joining the socialist camp. The Sino-Soviet split sowed confusion among anti-imperialist forces.

Korea, Taiwan and Tibet
As US troops pushed north in Korea in December 1950, China sent 180,000 volunteer soldiers to help drive them back south of the 38th Parallel. This was followed by further Chinese offensives. In 1950 US President Truman sent the US Fleet to protect Chiang Kai Shek and the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) on the island of Taiwan, where they had fled from the communists on China’s mainland. The KMT promised to re-conquer all of China. Truman had acted without going to the United Nations for permission. It was later revealed that the US had drawn up plans to nuclear bomb Chinese cities. KMT forces launched raids into China from Burma. In 1949 the US had announced it was ready to recognise an independent Tibet. The following year Chinese forces entered Tibet to reunite it with China. When China manoeuvred its troops to challenge part of the KMT-held territory closest to the mainland in 1961 the Soviet Union accused Mao of being obsessed with Taiwan at the expense of understanding the international situation and of ‘incitement to war’. For China the issue of Tibet and Taiwan was then and remains an internal Chinese matter. In 1961 China was not prepared to allow its strategic interests to take second place to Soviet strategy and diplomacy. As recently as 2005 a senior Chinese general threatened to use nuclear weapons against the US if it used weapons to defend Taiwan against China.

Suez and the Middle East
With the US-encouraged move towards decolonisation in the British and French empires the Soviet Union sought, by diplomatic means and with aid, to increase its influence in the Middle East. When Britain and France, assisted by Israel, attacked Egypt in 1956 for nationalising the Suez Canal Soviet Foreign Minister Shepilov offered to send volunteers to fight the invasion armies. This greatly angered the US, which, as the now dominant imperialist power, was determined to enforce its monopoly over the Middle East, at the expense of Britain and France. Andrei Gromyko replaced Shepilov for threatening the détente.

On 14 July 1958 Generals Arif and Qasim led the Supreme Committee of Free Officers in overthrowing the British installed monarchy in Iraq. The US responded by sending troops into Lebanon, and Britain by despatching a force to Jordan. In Moscow a few thousand people demonstrated their opposition to the US and Britain but with no Soviet leaders present. In Beijing over one million people demonstrated with gigantic meetings across China addressed by Communist Party leaders and Arab envoys.

The biggest communist party in the Middle East was in Iraq. The Soviet Union refused to support a communist offensive in Iraq against the Qasim government. As communist influence grew in demonstrations against Qasim between July 1958 and July 1959 the Iraqi Communist Party was told by the Soviet Union to ally with the Qasim government rather than oppose it. The Soviet Union denounced the Iraqi Communist Party for calling mass demonstrations and allowing its ranks to be ‘swamped by ultra-left extremists’. The Soviet leadership advised the Iraqi Communist Party Central Committee to demote leaders guilty of these ‘deviations’ and to purge its ranks, while acknowledging General Qasim as the ‘national revolutionary leader’. The instructions were carried out and the Iraqi Central Committee published a recantation. The Iraqi Communists were humiliated. China criticised containment of the revolutionary forces.

In October 1959 Ba’ath Party assassins attempted to kill Qasim, but they failed. Their leader was Saddam Hussein. By 1961 the Iraqi Communist Party reported that 286 Party members and supporters had been murdered and thousands forced to flee their homes. Ba’athists pushed the Communists off the streets and in 1963 organised a military coup against Qasim. There commenced the physical elimination of Communists and their supporters. Lists of names of people to be killed were supplied to the Ba’athists by the US CIA.

The Algerian independence struggle took to arms in 1954. In 1959 China recognised the Provisional Algerian government fighting French colonialism, but the Soviet Union did not. The leader of the Provisional government was invited to Beijing in 1961. Khrushchev called on the French people to support French President General de Gaulle and on the Algerians to negotiate with his government. At one point the French Communist Party, allied with the Soviet Union, said the national resistance, the FLN, were ‘paid Nazi agitators’ and called for ‘the ringleaders to be shot’. They later adjusted their position to call for peace, but refused to support the FLN.

With Tibet administered as part of China a Sino-Indian border dispute arose. In 1959 the Soviet Union adopted a neutral position and said the issue was a matter of ‘regret’. China later stated that this was the first example of open criticism of one Communist Party by another. The Indian government used the dispute to justify the disbandment of the communist government in Kerala state and as part of its drive against the Indian Communist Party. The Chinese opposed the disbanding of the communist government in Kerala and saw Khrushchev’s ‘impartial appeal’ as acquiescence in the Indian government’s anti-communist drive. In August 1962 China announced that the Soviet Union had provided India with military aircraft. Two months later the Sino-Indian war was waged. Subsequently, Indian communists split along pro-Soviet and pro-China lines. Many of the pro-Chinese leaders were imprisoned.

On 22 October 1962 US President Kennedy announced a blockade of Cuba and further action if Soviet missiles were not removed from the island. After a week when the world looked to be on the brink of nuclear war Khrushchev accepted Kennedy’s demand in return for a US promise that it would not invade Cuba. The US also removed nuclear missiles from Turkey. Khrushchev’s critics said that Kennedy’s promise was worth about as much as Hitler’s assurances over respecting the independence of Czechoslovakia.

China’s leadership viewed the Soviets as both too adventurous and too timid, of being confused, vacillating and of appeasing imperialism. China’s The People’s Daily said ‘some people…have been guilty of a double error, first the error of recklessness because they use nuclear weapons as a means of retaliation or deterrence, which socialist countries have no need to do at all; and then of the error of defeatism, when, veering from one extreme to another, they succumb to the imperialists’ atomic blackmail and rush to capitulate.’ Mocking one of Mao’s aphorisms Khrushchev retorted ‘The paper tiger of American imperialism has nuclear teeth.’

Communist-led Vietnamese forces defeated French colonial occupation forces at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. There followed a Geneva Conference on Indo-China at which an armistice was signed agreeing the 17th parallel as a demarcation line between the North and the South. North Vietnamese forces would withdraw from Cambodia and Laos and France would be allowed to move its forces into these countries. Elections were scheduled for Vietnam. China and the Soviet Union approved the Geneva agreement. The US then set up the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in the South, in violation of the agreement, so preventing the elections.

With the US puppet regime in the South in danger of collapsing to the patriotic Vietnamese forces the US engineered the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 when it claimed North Vietnamese torpedo boats had fired on US Navy destroyers. The US accelerated the drive to war and commenced bombing North Vietnam. On 15 October the Soviet Union announced that Khrushchev had been released from his state and party posts. The next day China announced its first atomic test explosion. Khrushchev’s roles were filled by Brezhnev and Kosygin. Kosygin visited Hanoi, Beijing and Pyongyang but was unable to reach agreement with the Chinese leadership, who spoke of ‘Khrushchevism without Khrushchev’. China said Soviet appeasement had encouraged the US to attack Vietnam and accused the Soviets of being mean with aid to Vietnam. The Soviets accused China of preventing a united front against imperialism in support of Vietnam and of preventing aid reaching Vietnam. Unlike with Korea, there were no battalions of Chinese volunteers crossing the border to fight with the Vietnamese. In 1974 China invaded and captured the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea from Vietnam. China’s national self-interest prevailed over internationalism and solidarity with Vietnam that was continuing to fight for national reunification.

With the victory of the Vietnamese people and defeat of imperialism in Indo-China the Khmer Rouge or Communist Party of Kampuchea took power in Cambodia in 1975. The Khmer Rouge claimed large parts of Vietnam’s territory and their troops invaded Vietnam in 1977. In January 1979 a joint Cambodian and Vietnamese force removed the murderous Khmer Rouge government. It had killed between 1.5 and 2 million Cambodians, around 20% of the population. A month after the Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia China invaded Vietnam across its northern border to ‘teach it a lesson’. China considered the Khmer Rouge to be a strategic ally and Vietnam to be allied with the Soviet Union. China described Vietnam as ‘the aggressor’ in Cambodia. China’s invasion of Vietnam must rank among the most squalid acts of a communist party-led government. Chinese chauvinism was in command. Revolutionary Vietnamese forces drove the Chinese invaders back into China. Britain and the US continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the government of Cambodia.

Chinese chauvinism
The Sino-Soviet split was a factor in imperialism’s calculations over waging the Vietnam war and it prolonged that war. Imperialism was swift to exploit the division and try to widen the breach between the two socialist states. When the breach became official in 1963 France gave full diplomatic recognition to China in 1964, the first of the imperialist powers to do so. China responded by taking the position that the Soviet Union should not seek agreements with the US, but instead seek out ‘contradictions in the imperialist camp’, and try to break France, Britain and Japan from the US. The Chinese communists developed a theory of Soviet social imperialism, which they said was as big a threat to the world’s workers as imperialism.

In 1971 China replaced Taiwan at the United Nations. The US recognised the advantages of not using its Security Council veto. There was what was called ‘ping pong diplomacy’ with a Chinese table tennis team visiting the US in 1971. US President Nixon visited China and met Mao in 1972. By this time China would support any forces that pronounced themselves ani-Soviet and there were reports in the 1980s of China sharing intelligence with the US, over Afghanistan for example.
If the road to Moscow lay through Managua, Luanda and Kabul, we must recognise that the abysmal capitulation of the anti-imperialist movement in the capitalist heartlands has been critical to imperialism’s ability to undermine the Soviet Union and push China away from internationalism and towards chauvinism. In Central and South America, in Africa, the Middle East and Asia the imperialist countries were united in their fight against the liberation movements of the poor and oppressed. In Britain it has been the Labour Party and Labour governments that defended apartheid in South Africa at the United Nations, that has supported and presided over repeated British military expeditions to the Middle East, Malaysia, Indonesia and so on. Soviet efforts at détente failed to prevent the US from increasing military spending in an effort to break the Soviet Union. Whatever the ideological failings of the Soviet and Chinese leaderships the weakness of the socialist movement in the imperialist counties has been a dominant factor in the global balance of class forces, allowing the capitalist ruling classes to turn back the march to socialism in China and the Soviet Union. Only with the US people’s opposition to their state in the Vietnam war, led by the US’s black people, did a real challenge to the imperialist ruling classes emerge at home.

The Sino-Soviet dispute and the consequent division of the socialist camp undermined the resistance to imperialism in the oppressed nations and ultimately contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China from socialism to capitalism.

A future FRFI article will analyse the changing relationship between China and imperialism today.

FRFI 189 February / March 2006


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