Isaac Deutscher 1953

Mao and Stalin: Horse Traders

Source: The Reporter, 20 January 1953. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

An extraordinary Chinese Communist delegation arrived in Moscow last August. It was Mao Tse-tung’s entire brain trust, headed by Premier and Foreign Minister Chou En-lai and including an assortment of department heads, the chief managers of the Chinese economy and, perhaps more important, the heads of China’s armed services. All these people did not come merely to pay routine diplomatic compliments to Stalin. Their purpose was to discuss a very wide range of economic, political and military topics and to work out a series of vital decisions.

After a month of negotiations only a brief announcement was published, in which both parties solemnly reasserted their friendship and confirmed the Russo – Chinese pact of February 1950, according to which the Russians were to give up the Chinese Eastern Railway and to evacuate the naval base of Port Arthur before the end of 1952. That is, the part about the Chinese Eastern Railway was confirmed, but it was added that Port Arthur would remain in Russian hands, the Chinese themselves having asked their Soviet ally to maintain a garrison in the naval base.

Shortly after the announcement, Chou En-lai returned to Peking, and nothing more has been heard about the negotiations since. But as recently as November, three months after the opening of the talks, most of the men of Mao’s brain trust, including heads of his armed forces and of his economic ministries, were still in Moscow. Apparently the negotiations were still on. It is not likely that a new public announcement will be made, but it is clear that very important and involved decisions are still being taken and that the relations between Moscow and Peking are being placed on a new footing.

A revision of those relations has been overdue. Much has happened in Moscow and Peking and in the world at large since Mao signed his 1950 pact with Stalin.

Rivals or Partners? Three years ago, Mao, then in the first flush of victory, approached Stalin with great self-confidence, enhanced by the fact that he had carried the war against Chiang Kai-shek to its triumphant conclusion against Stalin’s explicit advice. The alliance with Russia seemed to reinsure Mao’s newly-established regime against any Western intervention, but Mao did not seriously fear such intervention anyway. He took it for granted that the United States had withdrawn for good from the Chinese mainland and would not prevent him from dislodging Chiang Kai-shek from Formosa. He was also confident that Premier Kim Il Sung of North Korea could easily conquer the whole peninsula and thereby cover China’s exposed Manchurian flank.

Mao could therefore well afford a certain independence in his dealings with Stalin during his three-month stay in Moscow. He dwelt on the discredit the Russians had brought upon themselves and on the harm they had done to Chinese Communism when they had appropriated Manchurian industrial plants, dismantled them, and shipped them off to Siberia as war booty. He made it clear that the Russian control of Manchurian railways and of Port Arthur and Dairen reminded the Chinese people only too clearly of the concessions once held by Western imperialist powers. He spoke not only for Chinese Communism but for all the revolutionary movements of the Far East, whose leaders might find that the teachings and strategy of Maoism were more up to date and more relevant to their own situation than were the precepts of Stalinism.

Mao stretched out his hand to Stalin. But it was the hand of a semi-ally and semi-rival, a semi-adherent and semi-heretic.

Stalin nevertheless grasped Mao’s hand. He was wary of provoking Mao into a schism that might have been infinitely more dangerous than the parochial and ineffective Yugoslav heresy. Stalin readily promised to compensate China for all the losses of 1945-46 and to withdraw from Manchuria. He eagerly concluded a Russo – Chinese alliance which opened to him new and incalculable opportunities.

But his distrust of Mao lingered. That was why he postponed the complete withdrawal from Manchuria until the end of 1952, and he insisted that at least Dairen should remain under Russian control even after that. He was noncommittal about the scope of economic assistance which Mao might expect. In the meantime, Stalin’s adherents in the rest of Asia began, ostensibly of their own accord, to undermine the prestige of Maoism.

Since then the picture has changed radically. The Korean War has resulted in China’s increased dependence on Russian aid. The danger of extension of hostilities to Manchuria has constantly been before Mao’s eyes. Not only is he no longer anxious to see the Russians clear out of Port Arthur and Dairen; he now sees the only guarantee of Manchuria’s immunity in their continued presence in those ports.

An alternative guarantee would be the cessation of hostilities in Korea. But this decision no longer depends on Mao, for the grand strategy of the Korean War is now made in Moscow and Washington, not in Peking. So far Moscow has derived many advantages from pinning down American military power in Korea and delaying its build-up in Europe. As long as Western strength is pinned down in Korea, Mao is anxious to tie Russian forces to Manchuria. Chou En-lai’s recent request for the continued Russian occupation of Port Arthur was therefore no mere propaganda stunt. The Russians might, of course, have outstayed their time even without this request, but what could be more gratifying to them than to be begged to stay?

Consequently Manchuria as a whole remains under Russian – Chinese condominium, in fact although not in name. And Manchuria is and will remain at least for the next decade China’s chief industrial workshop. Mao’s ambitious schemes of economic development are based on Manchurian coal and steel and are therefore subject to direct or indirect Russian supervision and control.

The dependence, however, is mutual; a breach between Maoism and Stalinism would be detrimental to both. In the hypothetical case of Mao’s defection, Russia would be able to inflict on China economic blows much more severe than those inflicted on Yugoslavia. But the political and military harm that Mao could do to Stalin would also be immeasurably greater than that caused by Tito’s pinpricks.

At present Russia’s Far Eastern frontier is almost as secure as the United States’ frontier with Canada. China’s inexhaustible manpower is as much a Russian as a Chinese asset. Through Peking, Moscow is in virtual control of all the teeming revolutionary movements of the Pacific area, and without Chinese support, tendencies towards anti-Stalinist Communism cannot even hope to become a weighty international factor in the foreseeable future. The past year has brought many signs of a growing awareness of all this in Moscow and Peking.

The time when Mao refused to foster the cult of Stalin among his people has long passed. Reluctantly, he too has begun to swear by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. The Month of Sino – Soviet Friendship inaugurated in Peking on 7 November was significant mainly as a decisive phase in the wholesale transplantation of the cult of Stalin to China.

On the other hand Stalin has reciprocated by paying Mao honours which he has withheld from any East or West European Communist leader and even from his own prospective successors in the Kremlin. He has almost admitted Mao to the line of direct apostolic succession, and almost coupled Mao’s name with those of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. He has further ordered Bolshevik and Pravda to acknowledge Mao’s allegedly original contributions to the philosophy as well as to the strategy and tactics of Communism, a distinction of which no Molotov or Malenkov can even dream. Stalin does not pay such tributes in recognition of intellectual merit. He can rid himself of his potential rival only by acknowledging him as an ideological confrère.

Stresses and Strains: Underneath the surface not all is smooth, however. There are still unsettled differences and unallayed suspicions giving rise to protracted hard bargaining, not devoid of an element of blackmail. The prolonged presence of the Chinese mission in Moscow is proof of this. Early in the negotiations the heads of the Mongolian People’s Republic were hurriedly summoned to Moscow to be fêted there and to stay even after Chou En-lai’s departure.

In Mongolia, Russian and Chinese influences overlap. Since the early 1920s Outer Mongolia has been within the Soviet orbit. Inner Mongolia has been successively under Chinese, Japanese and once again Chinese domination. The division of Mongolia was justifiable, from the Communist viewpoint, as long as the demarcation line between antagonistic social systems cut across that country. With the establishment of Communist governments all around Mongolia, however, it would seem that the time had come to unite the country into a single republic. There has been no hint of this so far. Unification would raise a question as to within whose orbit the country should come, and neither side seems willing to relinquish its claim.

Similar indications of friction may be observed elsewhere, although it is often difficult to define their precise significance. Some of these indications crop up in the somewhat scholastic doctrinal disputes among Soviet Far Eastern experts, disputes which are never far removed from practical politics.

For instance, Mao and his followers claim for their 1949 upheaval the title of a socialist revolution. But the majority of Soviet Far Eastern experts have so far rejected that claim and emphatically stressed the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ character of the Chinese Revolution. Although Moscow has long recognised all the Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe as genuine proletarian dictatorships, it is still a matter of controversy whether Mao’s government is capable of ‘performing the functions of a proletarian dictatorship’. One may infer from this that Stalin is still advising Mao to delay the process of socialisation.

Town or Country? Nor has the dilemma between Maoist and Stalinist strategies in South-East and South Asia been resolved. The Maoist strategy demands that the local Communist parties build up peasant guerrillas and create ‘pockets’ of People’s Democracies behind enemy lines, with the prospect that one day the peasant guerrillas will converge from their bases on the urban administrative centres of their countries. In Malaya and Indo-China, the Communists have adopted this line. But an attempt to apply it in India failed at the outset, and the Indian party went back to strictly Stalinist strategy. More in line with the Marxist tradition, the Stalinist line gives priority to urban agitation and propaganda, conducted with or without the help of Popular Fronts. But the issue is not yet finally settled. Each school has its uncompromising adherents, but the prevalent attitude is to apply one method or the other empirically according to circumstances.

The difference in ideological climate between Peking and Moscow is still quite noticeable. One curious incident at the recent Peace Congress in Peking has been cited to illustrate this difference. Resembling very much the European congresses of this sort arranged under Cominform auspices, the main purpose of the congress was to denounce American policy in the Far East and to warn the peoples of Asia about the resurgence of Japanese military power. But the Chinese, not the Russians, were the sponsors, and they sent out the invitations. Among those invited were the leaders of the Trotskyist Party of Ceylon, almost the only section of the so-called Fourth International that has managed to gain some mass following.

In Stalinist mythology, Trotskyism is, and must forever remain, deviltry itself, infinitely more wicked and dangerous than any bourgeois or fascist influence. It is impossible to imagine any avowed Trotskyist group being invited to take part in any venture sponsored by the Cominform. It is anybody’s guess whether Mao’s lieutenants invited the Ceylonese Trotskyists through an oversight or whether Mao intended to convey the hint of a threat to Moscow.

Stalin’s Point Four: Behind all these somewhat elusive ideological issues loom grave economic problems. Blockaded by the West and deeply involved in Korea, Mao has been pressing Moscow for assistance more generous than that promised in the 1950 agreements. And in its own interest Moscow seems to have helped Peking much more than it had originally intended. Russian industrial plant and technical assistance have played in important part in China’s recovery after fifteen years of war, although it is still an open question whether all this has compensated China for the war booty to which the Russians helped themselves in Manchuria.

The Russians would obviously like the Chinese to produce their own munitions, including heavy artillery, tanks and planes. But Moscow must also keep an eye first of all on the requirements of its own Five-Year Plan and then on the demands of the other countries within the Soviet orbit. Russia is now avowedly in a much better position to contribute to the industrialisation and armament of China than it was in 1950.

Nevertheless, the margin of resources which Moscow can spare for this purpose is still narrow because of the extremely strenuous pressure of Russia’s continued industrialisation. Stalin is convinced that, in terms of power politics and economics, the returns on domestic investment are quicker and more cumulative than those on investment in China. He therefore favours those forms of economic assistance that are least likely to lead to the dissipation of Russian resources. The emphasis in the Russian programme has been on supplying China with technical skill rather than industrial plant.

For its indubitable realism, this policy has given rise to disappointment among Chinese Communists. They welcome the Russian technicians; they learn from them eagerly; but they would like to get more Russian machinery. The Russians have to go to considerable trouble to explain their attitude.

In justification of that attitude a Russian correspondent in Peking quotes an ancient Chinese tale... A saintly Chinese sage was blessed with a finger which worked miracles. By a touch of this finger he changed pieces of rock into bars of gold. From all the villages in his neighbourhood the poor flocked to his cave in the mountains to ask for help. One day a man came from a very remote place. He begged for help not for himself but for his whole poverty-stricken tribe.

‘But how can I help a whole tribe in a far country?’, the sage asked.

‘Give me your finger’, the stranger replied.

The saintly man was so distressed over the poverty of the man that he readily agreed to cut off his finger. But his finger, when it was cut off, failed to change stone into gold.

The moral of the story is clear: the Sage of the Kremlin will not allow the Chinese to bite off his finger, no matter how long the Chinese wait hungrily in Moscow.