Isaac Deutscher 1960

Khrushchev, Mao and the Wolf of Chungshan

Source: The Reporter, 4 August 1960. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

A wolf is a wolf, and its man-eating nature does not change. An ancient Chinese fable about the Chungshan wolf tells the story of Schoolmaster Tungkuo, who once found a wolf wounded by hunters and saved it by hiding it in his bag. After the hunters had left, he released the wolf from the bag. Instead of showing gratitude, the wolf wanted to devour him. Fortunately a peasant came along who understood well the man-eating nature of the wolf. He lured it back into the bag and beat it to death, and thus Schoolmaster Tungkuo was saved. (From Hongqi (Red Flag) of Peking)

The controversy between Moscow and Peking can no longer be concealed or explained away: it has stood in the centre of several recent international Communist gatherings. During the latest congress of the Romanian Communist Party, Khrushchev addressed in private a select gathering of Communist leaders from various countries and thrashed out his differences with Mao. What he said in public carried only faint echoes of that ‘secret speech’. How much importance he attached to it can be seen from the fact that he urgently summoned to the gathering Wladyslaw Gomulka, who was then presiding in Warsaw over a session of the Polish Central Committee and was very reluctant to go to Bucharest. But so insistent was the Khrushchev summons that Gomulka had to close the Warsaw conference abruptly and leave for Romania. A fortnight earlier the General Council of the Communist-led World Federation of Trade Unions met in Peking, and the conference was entirely taken up by a prolonged and passionate clash between Khrushchev’s and Mao’s adherents. The debates were more dramatic than those in Bucharest, because the Chinese introduced motions in open opposition to the Khrushchevite General Council and pressed for a formal vote. They were heavily outvoted but not altogether isolated.

This is the first time in thirty-three years that such debates have been allowed to proceed at any international Communist forum. The last time this occurred was when Stalin and Trotsky presented their viewpoints before the Executive Committee of the Communist International and Trotsky was expelled. Thereafter heretics were excommunicated without being given the opportunity to state their case before the Comintern or the Cominform. Bukharin was disposed of in this way in 1928, and Tito twenty years later. Evidently Khrushchev cannot follow Stalin’s example in this respect. He has had to meet heretical challenge with far greater toleration and to produce arguments rather than anathemas.

Caught in a Crossfire: The Communist movement is in fact divided between three distinct currents of opinion and ideology: the Left (or the ‘ultra-Left’), which is represented by Mao; the Right, for which Tito – though not he alone – speaks; and the Centre, led by Khrushchev.

The issues and arguments are clear enough. The Left sticks to what it regards as the orthodox Leninist view of the conflict between imperialism and Communism. It does not believe in the possibility of any genuine détente and considers all talk about ending the Cold War a ‘dangerous illusion’. It suspects Khrushchev of taking his disarmament proposals quite seriously and thereby endangering the security of the Communist bloc. It sees the chances of new Communist revolutions, especially in the underdeveloped countries, as being far greater than Khrushchev cares to admit; and it thinks that Khrushchev compromises these chances in the interest of his diplomacy. Finally, there are the differences over domestic policies, the Chinese communes, the treatment of consumer interests, and political ‘liberalisation’. On the other hand, the right-wing Communists or ‘revisionists’ discarded the Leninist view on imperialism as obsolete long before Khrushchev did so; and they reproach Khrushchev with not being consistent and persistent enough in striving for détente and disarmament.

Caught between two fires, Khrushchev has behaved as the middle-of-the-roader usually does: he has leaned left and right and left again, hoping to meet and silence now one set of his critics and now another. Consequently, Mao is accusing him of being a ‘crypto-Titoist’ and of refusing, to quote the Chinese Red Flag, ‘to draw a clear-cut line of division between himself and modern revisionism which is in the service of imperialism’. At best, Mao looks upon Khrushchev as upon a well-intentioned but hopelessly muddled man, hardly worthy of occupying his high place in the Communist world, as a sort of Schoolmaster Tungkuo, who does not know how to deal with the wolf of imperialism and who can be saved only by the prudent firmness of Mao himself, the peasant of the parable.

The revisionists take a rather unflattering view of Khrushchev for the opposite reason: they say that all too often he allows himself to be browbeaten under the pressure of the doctrinaires and dogmatists of Peking and Moscow.

This controversy has been going on behind the scenes and in muted form ever since 1957. In November of that year leaders of foreign Communist parties came to Moscow to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Revolution, and it was then that they got the first inkling of the discord between the Russians and the Chinese. But a clash of views was not allowed to develop, and a compromise resolution, with ‘revisionist’ and ‘dogmatist’ formulas nicely balanced, was quickly patched up. However, throughout the first half of 1958, Moscow and Peking were at loggerheads. Khrushchev had made his proposals for a summit meeting, and he found that Peking obstructed his climb to the summit. So strong was the obstruction that in July, at the time of the American and British intervention in Lebanon and Jordan, Khrushchev had to go to Peking to see whether the differences could be composed. He emerged from his conferences with Mao to announce that there would be no summit. Once again the disagreement was covered over, but it came back into the open early this year, when Khrushchev was once again making preparations for a summit meeting.

There is little doubt that Chinese objections to Khrushchev’s summitry had something to do with the breakdown of the Paris conference in May. Nowhere was Khrushchev’s Paris performance applauded more whole-heartedly than in Peking. Why then have the Russo-Chinese differences become further aggravated since then? One reason is that now, as in 1958, Khrushchev has not given up the idea that another summit meeting may yet be held. Nor has he altogether abandoned hope for a degree of disarmament that would allow the Soviet government to switch more investment to consumer industries. Even since Paris the Soviet government has indeed increased budgetary allocations to consumer industries; and Peking has, inter alia, criticised precisely this decision.

But what is involved in all this is not merely Soviet diplomacy but the trend of Communist policy at large, which, the Chinese hold, is too much inhibited by Khrushchev’s international games, too timid and too wobbly. On several occasions recently, Mao’s angry contempt for Khrushchev’s policy certainly exploded – for instance when he heard that the Italian Communists welcomed President Eisenhower during his visit in Rome with the chant ‘We too like Ike!’ and when it was reported to him that Khrushchev, during his pre-summit visit to Paris, told Frenchmen that if they want peace they must support General de Gaulle. This to Mao was nothing less than a straight ‘betrayal of Communism’.

Ever since the Paris breakdown, Khrushchev has been busy rallying foreign Communist opinion against Mao; and at Bucharest he was out to demonstrate that he has the backing of the entire Communist movement. On the face of it he has succeeded, but the success may be more apparent than real. The divisions in Communism remain as deep as ever, and some of those who have, for one reason or another, rallied to the Khrushchev line are by no means Khrushchevite middle-of-the-roaders. Right-wing Communism is represented not only by Tito. Inside the Soviet bloc there are also Gomulka and his adherents. They were rather worried by Khrushchev’s behaviour in Paris; they long for the détente and for trade with the West; and, alone among the rulers of Eastern Europe, they have not so far renewed the drive for the collectivisation of farming. Outside the Soviet bloc, Palmiro Togliatti is a right-wing Communist; and during his recent visit to Moscow the Russians must have told him that he was only embarrassing them by showing an excess of zeal for peaceful coexistence.

On the other hand, ‘ultra-left’ and pro-Chinese tendencies have made themselves felt among the Communists of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Albania. In Bucharest the East Germans gave Khrushchev more than the normal dose of adulation, but what they had to say about the international situation came closer to the Chinese line than to the Russian. The Czechs continued to hedge and only the Bulgarians joyfully joined the Khrushchevites. Yet all those assembled in Bucharest were taken aback by the bluntness with which Khrushchev declared Lenin’s teaching on imperialism to be out of date. No one echoed him in this. Meanwhile, Mao is intensifying his bid for the leadership of Asian Communism. Curiously, so far he has been cold-shouldered by his closest neighbours, the North Koreans; but he has succeeded in winning over the Indonesians and in neutralising the North Vietnamese. And last but not least, there is no lack of either Maoists or ‘revisionists’ in Moscow, in Khrushchev’s own stronghold. The alignments are not fixed, and they are likely to shift as the controversy continues.

It’s Habit-Forming: The controversy will continue because neither side is in a position to call a halt to it. Khrushchev cannot afford to excommunicate Mao, nor can Mao pronounce anathema on Khrushchev. Both must, in their own interests, insist on the unity of the Soviet bloc. Paradoxically, Mao insists on it even more emphatically than Khrushchev does, and this is no mere tactical manoeuvre. Ever since the shock of the Hungarian rising, Mao has prompted all Communist parties to re-acknowledge the Soviet leadership of the Communist bloc. He would like to see Moscow exercise that leadership in a manner that would be more tough and uncompromising than Khrushchev’s. He seeks to ‘put teeth’ into Soviet policy, but he does not seek a breach with Moscow.

One obvious consequence of this state of affairs is that Moscow’s foreign policy, exposed to such conflicting pressures, is becoming more unstable and unpredictable than it has been in the last few years. Another consequence, less obvious, affects the Communist movement as such. The growth of controversy, which cannot be concluded with the excommunications that were customary in the Stalin era, shakes the whole ‘monolithic’ structure. Dissent and deviation, reprehensible though they still are in Communist eyes, cease to be counter-revolution and treason. This in itself is bound to cause an upheaval in Communist political habits. If dissent and deviation are no longer cardinal sins, if the leaders of the various parties may engage in controversy, should not dissent and argument also be tolerated within each party? Many Communists in Russia, China and elsewhere will soon ponder this question. What has happened in Bucharest and Peking tends to legitimise controversy in Communist ranks. But once Communists are allowed to disagree and to argue among themselves, the present method of Communist leadership will be shaken. No one can be an infallible and lifelong leader once a minority is allowed to criticise him and perhaps even to persuade the majority.

Thus implied in the present debate is a threat to the position of the whole generation of leaders, which includes both Mao and Khrushchev, who have grown up in the Stalinist school of thought and are accustomed to rule their parties and countries without any challenge either from rivals or from the ranks. Admittedly, this threat is still fairly remote. But it is distinct and large enough to trouble the party machines even now, and to affect the fortunes if not of Mao and Khrushchev, then of their successors. In the years to come, the Communist movement is liable to experience upheavals far greater than those caused by the de-Stalinisation of the 1950s.