Why did the two Communist giants part ways in the early 1960s? Realist explanations have concentrated on the problems associated with two powerful states sharing a long border. Other explanations have focused on the efforts of the United States to drive a wedge between Russia and China. Lorenz Luthi, in The Sino-Soviet Split, makes an argument that isn’t exactly counter-intuitive, but that has probably received less attention than it should; the Sino-Russian alliance split because of genuine ideological disagreements over the past, present, and future of communism. To be sure, this isn’t the whole story, but Luthi makes a compelling case that it’s most of the story.
Perhaps the biggest problem that Luthi encounters in making his case is the person of Mao Zedong. This is a methodological problem as much as anything else; if we assert that ideology caused the split, yet acknowledge that on the Chinese side the problematic ideology was centered in the Chairman and contingent upon his battles against domestic opponents, are we really saying that ideology, instead of Mao or the always popular “domestic considerations” caused the split? Luthi doesn’t fully resolve this question, in part because resolution is impossible; the best we can do is try to convey as much as possible of the tapestry of decision. In this case, Luthi makes a compelling argument that Mao had significant ideological difference both with the Soviets (under both Khruschev and Stalin, but especially the former) and with “rightist” elements of the Chinese Communist Party led by Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and, to a lesser extent, Zhou Enlai. In 1958 and 1959, as the disaster of the Great Leap Forward (which the Soviets had bitterly opposed) became clear, Mao began to use ideological tension with the Soviets to highlight his disagreements with Liu and Deng. Eventually, Mao would intentionally exacerbate the split with the Russians in order to forge an ideological weapon against his enemies in the CCP. The two prongs of this ideological offensive were the battle against “revisionism”, in this case the idea that the through the adoption of a centralized bureaucratic economy the Soviet Union had ceased to be a revolutionary state, and the fight against peaceful coexistence; Mao believed (in public, although his private behavior didn’t match) that the socialist world had the advantage over the capitalist, and that nuclear weapons didn’t transform this calculation. The eventual result of this was the collapse of the alliance on the international side, and the Cultural Revolution on the domestic side.
The Soviets, it seems, were largely confused witnesses to this process. Luthi, who had access to Soviet and Eastern European archives, conveys genuine puzzlement on the part of the Soviets towards the Chinese. The Russians had their own internal political problems (Khruschev’s 1956 speech wasn’t the end of internal conflict against the Stalinists), but these conflicts don’t seem to have engaged in the same kind of synergy with the Sino-Soviet relationship as was present on the Chinese side. This is to say that the various combatants in intra-CPSU disputes didn’t use the relationship with China as a cudgel to beat the other side. Rather, the Soviet appraisal of the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party had two rather stable elements; first, the Russians believed that the Chinese were embarking on a series of economically disastrous policies, and second the Russians believed that the Chinese were far too risk-acceptant in relations with the United States. It could be argued that these are both pragmatic rather than ideological concerns, but I think in particular that the Soviet pursuit of “peaceful coexistence” was driven as much by ideology as by convenience. The Soviet response to Chinese aggressiveness and unorthodoxy was a steadily increasing limitation of military and economic aid, combined with occasional bellicosity in ideological organs (although the Soviet anger never came close to matching the Chinese). The big problem was that the Soviet Union was unable or unwilling to bend on either point, and that the Chinese were completely unapologetic in their attack. In spite of the abject disaster that the Great Leap Forward represented, the Chinese attacked the Soviets as “revisionists” for being unwilling to engage in a similar project, yet no one in the Soviet Union was interested in turning the Soviet economy into a bigger basket case than it already was. Similarly, the Soviet leadership was (generally) reluctant to take a more aggressive tack regarding the United States because it was the USSR, after all, that had to pay the greatest costs of superpower hostility. Finally, the Soviets had to keep the Eastern European parties (generally not sympathetic to the Chinese, with the exception of Albania and the partial exception of Romania) in line, which further limited their ideological flexibility.
Personalities often matter, of course, and both Mao and Khruschev possessed enormous personalities that exacerbated the conflict. Khruschev’s theatricality and general unpredictability was unsettling to the Chinese, who had great difficulty determining whether a particular statement or policy was the result of one of Khruschev’s quirks, or was intentional action of the Soviet state. Of Mao there is little more of use to be said; he was a megalomaniac who was happy to destroy not only the PRC’s most important international alliance, but also its economy and the lives of many of its citizens in pursuit of victory in intra-CCP disputes. The CCP bought this problem for itself, of course, by the decision to promote the Maoist cult of personality, which left the party in a very serious situation when Mao really went off the rails from the late 1950s on. Luthi deals with a few counter-factuals, the most interesting of which is (more or less) “What if Mao had died in 1957?”; it’s hard to conclude from his evidence that both relations between China and Russia, and Chinese domestic policy more generally, would have been much, much different.
Luthi details a couple incidents of near-hilarity that the increasingly tense relationship produced. At a 1964 cocktail party, the drunken Soviet minister of defense Rodion Malinovskii joked to the Chinese delegation “I do not want any Mao and Khruschev to hamper us… we already did away with Khruschev, now you should do away with Mao.” The joke, it is fair to say, didn’t go over well. In 1969, frantic efforts by Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin to reach Zhou Enlai in the midst of a border scrum were frustrated when a Chinese phone operator refused to connect the call, instead preferring to yell at the Prime Minister and accuse him of “revisionism”. And of course I also highly recommend the propaganda pamphlets assembled between 1959 and 1963 by the Soviets, the Chinese, and their proxies; on the Chinese side these include such classics as The Differences Between Comrade Togliatti and Us, Long Live Leninism!, and More on the Differences Between Comrade Togliatti and Us. I plowed through most of these for a senior thesis back in 1997, and the best by far is a slow, patient explanation by the Soviets to the Chinese of how nuclear bombs cannot, when dropped on capitalist cities, distinguish between workers and capitalists.
Although it’s tangential to the question at hand, Luthi also reminds us that the Munich analogy isn’t just for George W. Bush:
It was only after the sudden end of the Cuban Missile Crisis that Chinese propaganda went into full swing. a media campaign denounced the withdrawal as “Munich” and blasted Soviet revisionism for “show[ing] vacillation in a struggle and dar[ing]not to win a victory that can be won.” The Chinese leadership staged mass rallies supporting Cuba’s struggle and accusing the USSR of “adventurism” for sending the missiles and of “capitualationism” for withdrawing them.
The lesson is that every country has its neocons, and that they always, no matter what country they’re from, say the same thing: The enemy only understands force; Negotiation is defeat; Compromise is capitulation; The prestige of our nation/people/movement depends on standing fast. The song remains the same, whether it’s being sung by Bill Kristol, Mao Zedong, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.