Isaac Deutscher 1964

Three Currents in Communism

Source: Isaac Deutscher, Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (Oxford University Press, London, 1966). Originally published in New Left Review, First Series, no 23, January-February 1964. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Hegel says somewhere that any party is real only when it becomes divided. The idea, far from being a paradox, is simple and profound in its dialectical realism. Any political movement (or any philosophical school of thought) as it grows and develops cannot help unfolding the contradictions inherent in itself and its environment; and the more it unfolds them the richer is its content and vitality. Stalin’s conception of the monolithic party was one of his terroristic utopias, the pipe-dream of an autocrat, frightened to death of any dissension or ‘deviation’ and raising himself in his imagination above the realities of society and history. He managed to ‘eliminate’ contradictions from the Communist movement only by suppressing the movement itself, by crushing the life out of it, and reducing it to an ‘apparatus’. Even so, the contradictions continued to be reflected, as if in a distorting mirror, in his own policy, with its notorious ‘right’ and ‘left’ zigzags. Unreal though the monolith was in the deeper philosophical and historical sense, politically it dominated the Soviet Union and international Communism for several decades; and the consequences of this fact are still with us.

The Soviet – Chinese conflict, coming after the struggle over de-Stalinisation in the USSR and the Hungarian and Polish upheavals of 1956, marks a new phase in the disintegration of the monolith. The international Communist movement has once again become openly divided and to this extent real. Once again it struggles in its own way for its own identity and consciousness, instead of being, as it was in the Stalin era, a pseudo-movement or a para-movement with a merely derivative identity. If this change goes far enough, if the movement is allowed to unfold all its genuine contradictions and finds itself anew, the advantages which may accrue to it from split and disunity are bound to outweigh the immediate disadvantages, on which Communists and anti-Communists alike have fixed their gaze, the former with apprehension, the latter with gleeful hope.


The logic of the situation tends to recreate within Communism the essential divisions between Right, Centre and Left. This is still tendency rather than fact, potentiality rather than actuality. The lines of demarcation are still blurred, intersected by diverse cross-currents, overlaid by a fog of ambiguity. Only conditionally therefore can one speak of these three currents in contemporary Communism: Maoism on the Left, Khrushchevism in the Centre, and a rather shapeless but influential Right represented by Tito, Togliatti and their many quasi-anonymous co-thinkers within the Soviet bloc. Willy-nilly, one recalls the three currents of the 1920s: the Bukharinist Right, the Stalinist Centre, and the Trotskyist Left. After the long interval, Communism appears to come full circle and resume a great ideological debate broken off some thirty years ago. Not for nothing do the parties to the present controversy fling at each other the labels of Trotskyism, Bukharinism and Stalinism. But how genuine is the continuity of the two debates? In so far as the issues and dilemmas which underlay the divisions of the 1920s have retained importance and topicality, the present divisions, if and when they crystallise, should broadly correspond to – and should also develop – the divisions of the 1920s. The old controversies had centred on basic problems of the transition from capitalism to socialism; and these have not yet been solved. The 1920s were a formative period of great anticipatory ideas, many of which, having been banned or confined to oblivion, are re-emerging, and are likely to remain relevant for a long time to come.

However, the continuity of the three trends manifests itself through discontinuity; and for the time being the aspect of discontinuity stands out. So much has changed: the general historic situation; the global balance of power; the social structure of post-capitalist society; the colonial and semi-colonial world; the context within which the Communist parties are acting; and the framework of their own tradition. The threads of the historic development cannot be merely picked up where they had been left in the 1920s because they were not truly left there. The old divisions are reproducing themselves in a new or partly new socio-political substance, against the background of the Soviet Union’s new responsibilities as a nuclear power, of the victory and consolidation of the Chinese Revolution, of the spread of revolution elsewhere, of the progressing industrialisation of all Communist-ruled countries, of collectivisation of farming in most of them, and so on. Some of the arguments of the 1920s would be meaningless now. Bukharin, if he were alive, would hardly advocate a policy favouring the growth of private or capitalist farming either in the USSR or in China. (On the other hand, Gomułka’s and Tito’s policies towards their peasantries are in fact ultra-Bukharinist.) However, what weighs even more heavily on Communism than do these changes in objective circumstances, is the decades of monolithic uniformity. They still determine the character and style of the present controversy.

In every one of its sectors, the Maoist, the Khrushchevite and the ‘Titoist’, Communism is at present reacting against Stalinism; but everywhere, it is reacting in a Stalinist manner; and in every sector it does this in a different way. In the 1920s official Bolshevism reacted against Leninism, while preserving the forms of Leninist orthodoxy. Now, as in the 1920s, we see the movement breaking with its past and tradition. In both cases the nature of the past and of the tradition has been reflected, positively and negatively, in the new phase.

The Leninist tradition had been woven of two main strands: revolutionary internationalism and proletarian democracy. Against Leninist internationalism, Stalin and Bukharin asserted the national self-sufficiency of the Russian Revolution, that is, socialism in a single country. They had to justify their new doctrine in terms of the old one – hence the casuistic manner in which they had to expound it. They superimposed their own brand of national Communism upon the tradition of Bolshevik internationalism. Similarly, the Stalinist conception of the monolithic party, intolerant of any internal dissent, was incompatible with the Leninist ‘democratic centralism’, under which Communist ranks were perpetually astir with debate, and with the early plebeian democracy of the Soviet Republic. All Bolshevik habits of thought and action had to be distorted or destroyed before the party could conform to Stalin’s ideal. Until this happened, the inertia of the old democratic habits was still there: up to the late 1920s the party remained openly divided into Right, Centre and Left; and the division was still accepted as natural and legitimate. Stalin himself did not yet dare to question the legitimacy of the great controversy. So large and vital was even the residuum of inner-party freedom and proletarian democracy that it took Stalinism years to remove it.

The present state of affairs is largely a reversal of the situation of the 1920s. A new Communist internationalism is making its appearance, but it has yet to break through the crusts of national egoism that had grown up under Stalinism. Similarly, a new ferment of ideas is under way, a new propensity to dissent and controversy, a new thirst for inner-party freedom and socialist democracy. But all this is still contained within the Stalinist habits of totalitarian discipline. Nearly forty years after the last great debate in Communism, the renewal of debate has come as a terrifying shock to Communists and appears to them to be quite illegitimate. So heavy is still the burden of Stalinism; and so difficult is it for the Communist parties to free themselves from it! Even while they seem to be becoming real once again, they find it extremely hard to reconcile themselves with their own reality.


It is not easy to sift fact from fiction in the Sino – Soviet controversy, and to disentangle genuine motives from ideological pretences and tactical tricks. It is one of the supreme ironies that Khrushchev, one of Stalin’s chief accomplices and one of the conductors of the Great Purges, should voice the aspiration to free Communism from Stalinist petrifaction; while Mao Tse-tung, whose commitment to Stalinism has been so much more superficial and remote, should have come forward as guardian of the Stalinist orthodoxy.

We are told that the conflict between Peking and Moscow dates back to the year 1958 – ever since, for five long years, it was a secret de polichinelle [1] within the Communist hierarchy. No one who during those years followed the changing ‘ideological’ inflections in the voices of Moscow and Peking had any doubt about it. [2] It is a measure of how deeply the fear and distaste of open debate is ingrained in leaders brought up in the Stalinist school that all this time they concealed their differences even from the Communist rank and file. Only in a movement led by secretive oligarchies was this possible. But what is the result? When the differences were at last officially disclosed, the gulf between the Soviet and Chinese parties was already fixed and well-nigh unbridgeable. Both sides tried to maintain ‘unity’ and the fiction of the monolith; but the fiction could not conjure out of existence a fundamental conflict of interests and principles. The longer the conflict was allowed to simmer under the surface, the more violent was bound to be the eventual explosion. Now even the most gullible Khrushchevite or Maoist must realise that if the controversy had been conducted in the open from the outset, both sides would have had much more chance than they have now to argue in a rational manner and, if not to settle the issues, then at least to define them and clarify them in their own minds.

Even now Khrushchevites and Maoists alike shrink from facing and disclosing the full truth. Both indulge in the debate with something like a shudder, with the sense that they are committing a cardinal sin against their common party canon. Thus, it is only a half-truth that Moscow and Peking have been at odds since 1958. What had started in that year is the present phase of the conflict; but there were many earlier phases, open and latent. The basic antagonism between the Chinese Revolution and the Soviet bureaucracy is four decades old. It began to manifest itself in the middle 1920s, when Stalin and Bukharin pressed the Chinese Communists to stay within the Kuomintang, accept its discipline, submit to Chiang Kai-shek’s orders, give up their own independent revolutionary aspirations, and so prepare the 1927 hara-kiri. It was then that Moscow, already committed to Socialism in a Single Country, sacrificed the Chinese Revolution to its own dubious raison d'état, national egoism and diplomatic convenience. Now, nearly forty years later, after the triumph of another Chinese Revolution and after much de-Stalinisation in Moscow, the core of the conflict remains the same: Moscow still seeks to extort from the Chinese an ideological and political tribute to its own raison d'état.


This is not the place to relate the story of the ambiguous relationship between the post-Leninist USSR and Chinese Communism. Suffice it to recall that throughout the 1930s Stalin viewed Mao Tse-tung with ill-concealed embarrassment, never being quite sure whether to treat him as a glorious ally or as a damnable heretic; that throughout the Yenan period the Chinese Partisans obtained hardly any Soviet assistance; and that even in 1948 it was against Stalin’s explicit advice that Mao decided to carry the civil war in China to a victorious conclusion. Just after the Second World War the Chinese were made to feel the full weight of Stalinist national egoism when Soviet occupation troops in Manchuria seized most of that country’s industrial plant as ‘war reparations’ for the USSR. At that time, after the Japanese had de-industrialised China proper, Manchuria was China’s greatest single industrial base. Then, after Mao’s rise to power, Stalin sought to control and penetrate the Chinese economy by means of Soviet – Chinese Joint Stock Companies. Every one of these measures was a heavy blow to the interests of the Chinese Revolution and to Chinese dignity. Mao and his comrades took these blows in resentful silence: they were too weak to protest. Engaged in civil war, faced with American intervention, anxious to secure whatever Soviet support they could obtain, they assiduously kept up the appearances of Stalinist orthodoxy. In practice, Mao consistently disregarded Stalinist dogma and Stalin’s instructions and pursued his own strategy and tactics. But to avoid excommunication and preserve freedom of movement at home, he and his comrades yielded to Stalin’s constant blackmail and paid due obeisance to the Father of the Peoples.

However, Mao’s pretence of orthodoxy, opportunistic though it was, had far-reaching consequences. The make-believe became part of the Maoist canon and ritual, and thus ceased to be mere make-believe. This showed itself when Moscow embarked upon de-Stalinisation. In his message to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party Mao invoked the apostolic succession of ‘Marx – Engels – Lenin – Stalin’, when everyone in Moscow, even Molotov and Kaganovich, was conveniently forgetting the time-honoured formula. Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’, we are now told, came to Mao as a complete surprise and shock. Yet soon thereafter he and his comrades appeared to make peace with de-Stalinisation. They could not fail to realise that the ‘new course’ in Moscow met their own needs and aspirations: it put an end to Moscow’s rigid supremacy over the ‘socialist camp'; it foreshadowed equality for all members of the camp and promised respectful treatment to the USSR’s major ally.

Mao raised therefore no objection when, in 1955, Khrushchev went to Belgrade to make amends to Tito; and he threw Chinese influence behind Gomułka when the latter defied Moscow in October 1956. Moreover, having lived down the shock of the Twentieth Congress, Mao himself made a bold attempt to carry de-Stalinisation into his own party: he proclaimed that henceforth ‘A Hundred Flowers were free to blossom’ in Communist China. In many respects this remains to this day by far the most radical essay in de-Stalinisation attempted anywhere in the Communist world. Less startling and melodramatic than Khrushchev’s iconoclastic gestures, Mao’s implicit critique of Stalinism went far deeper; and for the moment he ventured much further in disavowing the Stalinist conception of the monolithic party. He outlined a thoroughgoing reform which, if carried out, would have brought China far greater freedom than the Soviet Union had ever known, at least since the end of the civil war. He proclaimed, as Lenin once did, that the workers were justified in resisting their bureaucracy and entitled to back up their demands by any form of industrial action, including strikes. He put a large question mark over the entire single-party system. At that stage Maoism had indeed reached the limit of ‘revisionism’.

We know that soon thereafter the Hundred Flowers wilted, the campaign of ‘rectification’ was launched, and Maoism lapsed back into the posture of Stalinist orthodoxy. What accounted for this change of front? The view, expressed by Western commentators, that the Hundred Flowers Proclamation was a trick designed to deceive the elements of opposition and provoke them to expose themselves so that they might be crushed more easily, is too shallow to deserve serious consideration. The trend of thought reflected in the Hundred Flowers Proclamation was too weighty, too consistent with itself, and consistent also with Mao’s encouragement of Polish anti-Stalinism to be dismissed as mere fraud. [3] Unfortunately, the Chinese themselves have failed to give a frank and convincing explanation of their behaviour. But it is clear that the Hundred Flowers incident had a traumatic impact upon their subsequent policy. Mao took fright at the consequences of his own pledge. He had solemnly invited the party and the nation to avail themselves of the new liberty in the hope that eight years after the revolution the regime was sufficiently consolidated to be able to stand open criticism from below, and even to benefit from it. This hope, which permeated almost every line in the Hundred Flowers Proclamation, may not have been groundless: China had in those eight years achieved economic progress unprecedented in her history; the conditions of life had greatly improved for millions of workers and hundreds of millions of peasants; and the government had done its best to ‘buy off’ even the bourgeoisie and to mitigate their hostility. For a variety of reasons, Mao’s government was in its first few years more fortunate than Lenin’s had been; and it could afford to manage the nation’s economic resources, and to cope with its social classes, more rationally. In Russia at the end of the civil war a wide gulf had already opened between rulers and ruled; and even NEP did not bridge it. No such gulf had appeared in China.

Yet the manner in which the intelligentsia, the peasants and the workers, even party members, reacted to the Hundred Flowers Proclamation (a spate of sharp and often bitterly hostile criticism of the regime came from all sides) led Mao and his colleagues to conclude that the nation was not ‘ripe’ for the freedom just promulgated. Historians may argue whether they did not take fright too soon; whether the spate of criticism really constituted a grave danger to the government; and whether they should not have relied on wide popular support persisting beneath the outward hostility and criticism. In every revolution there occur those critical and tragic moments – in Russia the analogous turns came in the spring of 1921 and the autumn of 1923 – when revolutionary governments become terrified of their real or apparent isolation, decide that they cannot afford to rule democratically, and seek to consolidate their power in an authoritarian fashion. This is what Mao and his comrades decided to do in the summer of 1957; and from then on they set their face against de-Stalinisation.

They have since sought to justify the change of mind by claiming that bourgeois and reactionary elements, not socialist ones, were taking advantage of the new freedom, and that even within the party the Right wing, not the Left, was benefiting. This amounted to saying that the political balance in the nation was, despite all the achievements, heavily weighted against the socialist purpose of the revolution; and in view of the character of Chinese society – the predominance of the peasantry, the weakness of the working class, the conservatism of the old intelligentsia – this may have been, and may still be, true.

The Maoists then concluded that the effect of de-Stalinisation was the same on the international scene as well, and even in the USSR. The civil war in Hungary confirmed them in this attitude. They drew from it the lesson that it was de-Stalinisation that had brought Hungary to the brink of counter-revolution and had played into the hands of Communist opportunists and Right-wingers who, like Nagy, were prepared to abdicate to the Social Democratic and the peasant parties and take Hungary out of the ‘socialist camp’. Simultaneously, in Moscow, Molotov and Kaganovich conducted their attack on Khrushchev along similar lines: de-Stalinisation, they pointed out, was threatening to disrupt the whole Soviet bloc; and it was time to stop it. A coalition between the Chinese and the Russian opponents of de-Stalinisation, old and new, was, or might have been, in the making; and Khrushchev managed to forestall it by calling a halt to ‘liberalisation’, cultivating Mao’s friendship, increasing economic aid to China, promising to develop her atomic power and even to equip her with nuclear weapons. Only after he had defeated his opponents at home did he risk the conflict with Mao, though he did not yet dare to bring it into the open.

Both Mao and Khrushchev have been acting under different and even contradictory domestic pressures, which up to a point compelled each of them to act against his own character. In the USSR the modernisation of society, industrialisation on the basis of public ownership and planning, and progress of mass education had turned the Stalinist method of government into an unbearable anachronism. As totalitarian terror and purges had left no centres of opposition in existence capable of doing away with Stalinism, Stalin’s acolytes had to discredit and renounce his legacy in their own, half-spurious and half-real, manner. It was something of an accident that Khrushchev should have become the mouthpiece of the revulsion against Stalinism; but through that accident an historic ‘necessity’, an overwhelming social and political need, manifested itself.

China, on the other hand, has remained industrially backward. Four-fifths of her population still consist of primitive, illiterate peasants, working with antediluvian tools (as against only forty per cent of the Soviet population occupied in agriculture). The Chinese industrial workers are at present probably on the level at which the Soviet working class was in the early 1930s, when the bulk of it, just recruited from the peasantry, lacked all urban industrial outlook and socialist consciousness. If Stalinism was the combined product of revolution and barbarous backwardness, so is Maoism, with its methods of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’, paternalistic rule and magic-ritualistic ‘Marxism – Leninism’. There is no need to equate Maoism with Stalinism. The differences are obvious: Maoism has not been riddled with all the frightful inner tensions characteristic of Stalinism; it has not been nurtured in the same irrational fears; it has not resorted to the same savage terror and to Great Purges; it has not met popular egalitarian longings with the same hostility; it has not shamelessly falsified its revolutionary origin. Of course, China has not been the first country to overthrow capitalism; and the background of her national civilisation and tradition is different from Russia. If Stalin was the inheritor of Lenin and Ivan the Terrible, Mao has amalgamated Leninism with Confucianism and with habits of thought of the old Mandarin ruling classes.

Yet for all these differences there exist also undeniable affinities between Maoism in power and Stalinism, affinities rooted in the contradiction between the socialist strivings of the revolution and the primitive pre-industrial structure of society. And so, despite all his deviations from Stalinism and a momentary determination to transcend it, Mao has not been able to go beyond Stalinism; and when he attempted to do so, he retraced his steps in a panic, and then came to the fore as the defender of Stalinist orthodoxy. [4]


The present cleavages run between various national parties, between Russians, Chinese, Yugoslavs, Poles, Rumanians and others. Each party, however, is keeping up its own national monolithic façade. Each has its own infallible leader – the Yugoslav party no less than the others. Each is riddled with dissent; but nowhere is open expression of dissent tolerated. None has so far been allowed the privilege of a single open debate on any major issue of policy. Their boasts about the ‘restitution of the Leninist norms of inner-party life’ are hollow – they may be believed only from ignorance of the facts: Lenin was, at almost every party assembly, openly challenged – and sometimes, on major issues, outvoted – by colleagues and the rank and file. So many years after Stalin, the bureaucratic hierarchies remain the only policy-making bodies – the only centres of decision – within the Communist parties. They jealously guard their monopoly, and protect it tenaciously against the rank and file; the infallible leader, their supreme arbiter, is there to safeguard it. Yet at the same time the quarrels and rows between the parties, as they grow in scope and vehemence, stimulate ferment and dissent within each party. The whole question is whether or for how long this dissent can be patched up, subdued or suppressed. And when and how is the international differentiation – the three currents – going to be reflected within each national organisation?

What then are the hallmarks of Left, Right and Centre? The Maoists claim that it is they who represent the Left. We shall see later in what respect their claim is justified. But surely their insistence on Stalinist orthodoxy and discipline is a mark of bureaucratic conservatism rather than of anything else. (It was no matter of chance that the Left groupings in pre-Stalinist Communism were anti-bureaucratic and cried out for ‘proletarian democracy’.) From this point of view, the Khrushchevite de-Stalinisation goes at least some way to meet the needs of any Left elements in present-day Communism. Despite its ambiguity and demagogic tricks, it stirs the rank and file to independent political thinking, arouses their self-confidence, poses new issues, and provokes new questions.

Another criterion in the present division bears on the Communist attitude towards economic privilege in post-revolutionary society. Here, too, the lines of division are blurred. Since Stalin’s death the Soviet party has had to take some cognisance of the egalitarianism of the masses; it has reduced the discrepancies between high and low salaries and wages. The Maoist regime, on the other hand, does not seem to have ever allowed privilege to assume dimensions as shocking as those it assumed in the USSR under Stalin, or to allow even such wage differentials as are still common in the Soviet Union today. About other countries in the Soviet bloc it is difficult to generalise: the Polish economy, for instance, appears to suffer from indiscriminate levelling of wages and salaries as much as from economic privilege. Everywhere, the ruling groups refuse to disclose the social stratification and even to reveal the national wage structures; and no one is as secretive in this respect as are the Chinese. Everywhere the contrasts between the upper and the lower strata of society are evidently too sharp to be exposed to daylight.

Only in one important field, that of the international political strategy of Communism, has the division assumed definite shape: there indeed the Chinese have taken up the position of the Left, while Khrushchev is heading the Centre, and Tito, Togliatti and their co-thinkers in the Soviet bloc stand on the Right. [5] The Maoists attack the conduct of Soviet diplomacy and the Khrushchevite conception of ‘peaceful coexistence’. Their argument has abounded in ultra-radical (or, as the Russians say, ‘adventurist’) overtones: early in the debate they appeared to deny the very possibility of peaceful coexistence, to deny Moscow even the right to pursue it; and they spoke as if they intended to make light of the danger of a nuclear holocaust. More recently, however, they have pruned their pronouncements of such overtones; but they go on slogan-mongering when they decry the Moscow Test Ban Treaty, and, instead of it, demand nuclear disarmament as the sole guarantee against world war. It should be clear that even complete nuclear disarmament cannot provide any such guarantee – world war could still be started with conventional weapons and each of the major nuclear powers could then replenish its nuclear arsenal quite rapidly. The Chinese are therefore inconsistent when they blame Khrushchev for ‘spreading pacifist illusions’ by signing the Test Ban Treaty, while they themselves are fostering an even larger illusion. But just as one may struggle for disarmament, without giving oneself to wishful thoughts about it, so one may welcome the Test Ban, without exaggerating its significance. [6]

The Maoists’ ‘wild talk’, however, is not really essential to their main argument, which is that Khrushchev, in seeking a détente with the West, has been sacrificing the interests of the revolutionary movement in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and that the Communist parties of the West have been guided by Moscow’s diplomatic convenience rather than by principles of class struggle. This, Peking says, is the real sense of Khrushchev’s talk about a ‘peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism’ and of Togliatti’s and Thorez’s ‘parliamentary road to socialism’. This is also why Moscow tells the colonial and semi-colonial peoples that they can achieve full, economic as well as political, independence peacefully, without violent revolution and under the leadership of their ‘national bourgeoisie’. Mao has opposed Khrushchev’s summit diplomacy, suspecting that at the summit meetings Khrushchev was out to ‘appease’ the United States at the expense of the Soviet bloc and of other, mainly the underdeveloped, countries (Iraq, Congo, Algeria, Cuba). Khrushchev – so the Chinese argue – has made needless concessions to Eisenhower and Kennedy, sometimes, as in Cuba, after having offered needless provocation. Has he not told the French people that General de Gaulle is the national leader in whom they should place their trust? Has he not contributed thereby to the demoralising of the French Communists who have done nothing to assist Algeria’s struggle for independence? Has the Italian Communist Party, under Khrushchevite inspiration, not sought to ingratiate itself with the bourgeoisie, the Vatican, and even with NATO? Did Togliatti not order his party to turn out en masse in the streets of Rome to welcome President Eisenhower during the latter’s visit in Italy? And has Khrushchev not sought to impose a standstill on revolution in the Middle East, in Africa and in Latin America, backing Nasser, Kassem and, of course, Nehru, and confounding the Communist parties on the spot?

This is a formidable list of charges. The Khrushchevite answer is that only moderation can secure peace, and that if the USSR were, on Chinese promptings, to encourage ‘imprudently’ every revolutionary ferment and movement abroad, it would heighten international tension and provoke world war. The Chinese point out that the more audaciously Communism acts and the wider revolution spreads, the more will the USA and NATO be weakened, hamstrung, unable to counteract; and the less likelihood will there be of world war erupting. (The obvious counterpart to this argument is the perpetual debate in the West between the advocates of a ‘tough’ policy vis-à-vis Communist governments and the adherents of negotiation and limited agreements.) It is this, say the Chinese, not the desirability or undesirability of peaceful coexistence, that is at issue. Even Khrushchev does not rule out the use of nuclear weapons as a retort to aggression; and there is no reason to assume that Mao (who has no nuclear weapons) is more willing to use them than Khrushchev is. The controversy is rather over the question: which policy is more likely to prevent world war: the self-containment of Communism, as Khrushchev says or implies, or the spread of revolution, as Mao maintains?

Here the controversy does indeed link up with the great debate of the 1920s; the echoes of that debate are constantly mingling with the exchanges between Peking and Moscow. Unwittingly and perhaps even unknowingly, Mao resumes here Trotsky’s argument against Stalin and against the implications of Socialism in One Country for international Communism, while Khrushchev speaks and acts in the Stalinist tradition. Yet each of them stubbornly refuses to acknowledge himself as the echo of the voice he repeats. Khrushchev pretends that he, not Stalin, has originated the policy of peaceful coexistence (which Lenin in his wisdom had barely foreshadowed); and Mao alleges that what he advocates is a straight continuation of Stalin’s line. Both falsify the past; Khrushchev in order to make it fit his de-Stalinisation, Mao in order to suit it to his reaffirmed Stalinist orthodoxy.

The truth is that Stalin initiated and pursued the policy of peaceful coexistence, exactly as Khrushchev understands it, subordinating international Communism to his raison d'état. Stalin’s ‘friendship’ with Chiang Kai-shek; his 1935 pact with Laval, followed by the Popular Front; his determination to keep, through the Spanish Communists and the GPU, the Spanish Revolution within ‘bourgeois-democratic’ limits; his 1939 pact with Hitler; his Teheran and Yalta pacts with Churchill and Roosevelt; and the moderate (pro-Gaullist and pro-Badoglio) policies of the French and Italian Communist Parties – these were Stalin’s main applications of the doctrine of peaceful coexistence. Despite all the changed circumstances, Khrushchev’s variations on the theme are not so different in kind. Even his zigzags, alternating between ‘adventurism’ and ‘opportunism’, follow the Stalinist pattern. (In Cuba he first provoked the United States and then climbed down, as Stalin had done over the blockade of Berlin in 1948.) On the other hand, one needs only to compare the Maoist indictment of Khrushchev with Trotsky’s, Zinoviev’s, Kamenev’s and Radek’s criticisms of Stalin’s conduct of Comintern affairs to find the same motifs here and there – only that Mao is much cruder in argument, has far less knowledge and understanding of the West, and his heavily oriental idiom and accent jar even on those not too numerous pro-Chinese ears that are to be found in the West. [7]


But is this controversy, one is asked, ‘truly ideological’ in character? Does it reflect genuine differences of approach to revolution and international Communism? Or are the Maoists using the cloak of revolutionary internationalism merely for promoting their national ambitions? Is not Khrushchev’s refusal to equip China with atomic weapons the real cause of Maoist hostility? And if so, is it not all an ordinary game of national power politics?

This stark contrast between ‘ideology’ and ‘national ambition’ is rather artificial, to say the least. Of course, all bureaucratic hierarchies are inclined to be nationally arrogant and play power politics. This may be as much true of the Maoists as of their adversaries. Stalinism not merely represented its own brand of national Communism – and it did so twenty-five years before Titoism; it was a school of national Communism for all Communist parties. Even now, every Communist party from the Elbe to the China Sea dreams of its ‘own’ socialism in its own ‘single country’. [8] True, Stalin had harnessed all parties to serve solely his raison d'état. But no sooner had his hand dropped and had the harness loosened, than every party began to show its nationalist proclivities and bents. All were supposed to be part of one international monolith; and all were committed to resist any centrifugal forces in their midst; yet all have carried over into their ‘socialism’ the nationalist feuds inherited from the ancien régime. This again may be just as true of the Maoists as of their opponents – hence their latest hints about China’s inveterate territorial grievances against Russia and possible frontier disputes.

But this is only one part of the truth. What is not less important is that the international position of the Chinese People’s Republic has so far given its leaders very little scope for playing at national power politics, and that the spread of revolution still holds out to them the sole prospect of genuine national security. Ostracised, subjected to blockade, or at best half boycotted by the West, and now hectored and again boycotted by the USSR, they can only look forward to those upheavals in countries near and distant that may sap the imperialist strength of the West, bring new members to the ‘socialist camp’, enlarge the camp, and weaken the Soviet supremacy over it. If nothing else – yet there is much else besides – then national interest alone impels the Maoists some way towards revolutionary internationalism. And their ‘ideology’, even if it cloaks national ambitions, still has its own substance, weight and appeal. How many national ambitions, how many narrow interests of principalities, cities and ecclesiastical hierarchies were once involved in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and in the interminable Protestant splits, all filling the air of Europe with the din of ecclesiastical doctrines and theological canons? Yet, only the crudest Schustermarxist would dismiss as meaningless the ideological terms in which Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, the Popes and the Jesuits conducted their disputes. Ideas, when they get hold of the minds of millions, are a power in themselves. And the Maoists, whatever their ulterior motives and limitations, are impressing ideas of revolutionary internationalism on the minds of millions, as no one has done since Lenin’s days. Therein lies the world historical significance of their stand against Khrushchev.

Having said this, we must still ponder the ‘motives and limitations’. Peking is now censuring the record of the most important Communist parties, ranging back over the whole post-Stalinist decade, and touching even the last of the Stalin era. The gravamen of all their accusations is that Khrushchevism has been working to deprave the Communist movement, that it has imposed a standstill on revolution in the underdeveloped countries, and has encouraged Western Communists, especially the French and the Italians, to make their truce with the bourgeois – imperialist Establishment.

But where, one may ask, have the Maoists been all this time? Why did they keep silence till the summer of 1963? Obviously they could not give attention to these matters while they were fighting their own civil war, seizing power and consolidating it; and perhaps they could not have their say before the end of the Stalin era. But how can they justify their silence in the next ten years? If what they say about the corruption of international Communism by Moscow is true – and much of it undoubtedly is – then their discretion does not seem to have been the better part of their valour. If Khrushchevism has been demoralising the Communist parties all over the world, then the Maoists have through their silence connived at the demoralisation. If Moscow has, for diplomatic reasons, obstructed the revolutionary movements, say, in the Middle East, then they have given it a free hand. Or do they think that they have saved their souls by venting displeasure at occasional conventicles of the eighty parties and in confidential dispatches to the Soviet Presidium? [9]

Peking has come out with the exposure of Khrushchevite opportunism rather late in the day. Much of the revolutionary wave in the Far and Middle East and in Africa rolled over in the first post-Stalin decade, when the Communist parties were banking on Nasser, Kassem, Soekarno and their like. Since then most of the ex-colonial and semi-colonial countries have found relative stability; and nothing foreshadows the imminent rise of a new wave of revolution comparable to that of the past decade. The leaders of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ are in the saddle almost everywhere; and the local Communists who may have had a chance in the struggle for power in the 1950s, are not likely to get another such chance very soon. It is indeed on the ebb of the Afro-Asian revolution that the Chinese have come out with their bold prescriptions for a political offensive of Communism. Like some of the ultra-radicals of the old Comintern, they do not seem quite able to tell ebb from flow.


For the time being the various factions are absorbed in their tactical games, in wire pulling and jockeying for positions. Half a year after the open break between Peking and Moscow they have reached a stalemate. The Communist parties of Asia are in varying degrees backing Maoism (except for the Indian party, which is led by Khrushchevites, though the Maoists have their solid strongholds in the rank and file). In the Communist parties of the West the tide runs against Maoism, although a leftish undercurrent makes itself felt. Non-Communist radicals in the underdeveloped countries reserve their attitude. (Castro, who at one time seemed pro-Chinese but after a visit to Moscow came out with rapturous eulogies for Khrushchev, has placed himself uneasily on the fence.)

That the main line of division should run so straight between East and West (and the ‘West’ includes here the USSR) is in itself a reflection on the nature of the controversy: on one side of the divide are the parties tied to the USSR and those ‘adjusted’ to the Western ‘welfare state’ and its capitalist prosperity; on the other, are those confronted by the unresolved and unmitigated problems of the ‘underdeveloped’ world. One of the dangers of this alignment is that it may develop into undisguised racial antagonism between white and coloured Communists. Neither Peking nor Moscow dares to perpetuate this line of division; and neither has been able to shift it. If Khrushchev hoped to convene an international conference with the purpose of excommunicating Maoism, he has had to give up or shelve the plan. The Communists of Asia have made it clear that they would not endorse the excommunication. What is more, even such staunch pro-Khrushchevites as Togliatti and Gomułka have shown their reluctance. The Communist Right, both within and without the Soviet bloc, fears that excommunications and expulsions may cause the whole movement to slide back into Stalinism; and that a witch-hunt started against the Left might turn against the Right as well. In this unexpected way the division between Right and Centre, the latent division running parallel to the open gulf which separates both these groupings from the Maoists, makes itself felt.

Thus, what was once the supra-national monolith is now split across its middle and along national lines. The Communist parties are no longer bound together by any genuine international ties. The enormous bureaucratic structure, which had its origin in the old Comintern, has dissolved into national fragments. But each fragment outwardly remains a monolith in itself. This state of affairs can hardly last – it may be merely a transitory stage between the ossification of Communism in the Stalinist mould and its re-formation on a new basis. The decisive question is whether the movement can re-form – whether the ferment of ideas is strong enough to break through the national monoliths. The old mechanically disciplined and mute Communist parties fitted naturally within the framework of the Stalinised Comintern and Cominform; they are utterly at variance with the present discordant aspect of international Communism. Will the rank and file, seeing their infallible chiefs at loggerheads with one another, become aware of the deep sickness of the movement and realise that only free criticism and free debate – free within each party – can cure it? To pose this question is to ask how much regenerative power is still left in the Communist movement after decades of bureaucratic corruption. Can the Communist Jekyll still come back into his own after he has for so long been eclipsed by the Stalinist Hyde?

If any party is in a sense real only in so far as it is divided and as it gives free play to – and makes constructive use of – its inner contradictions, then the Communist movement of today is still only half real. But it cannot remain so. It will either attain full reality through further divisions, and recover unity in genuine inner democracy – through uninhibited debate over all its crucial problems, over its past and future. Or else the movement will not be able to break through the moulds inherited from Stalinism; and then it will disintegrate through the work of its own centrifugal forces.


1. Secret de polichinelle – an open secret – MIA

2. Only Western diplomacies, notably the State Department, and Western Sovietologists and Sinologists suspected that the idea of any Sino – Soviet conflict was a ‘canard of Khrushchevite propaganda’ designed to mislead them and to ‘lull the vigilance of the West’. This is how a State Department spokesman described not so long ago one of my many accounts of the Sino – Soviet dispute which appeared in the American press.

3. It was also consistent with Mao’s deeper mental reservations towards Stalinism. The Chinese Politbureau has now revealed that in 1949 or 1950 they forbade the calling of any place or institution by the name of any living Communist leader. This was, and had to be, a highly secret decision: its anti-Stalinist edge was all too keen at a time when almost every other place or institution in the USSR bore the name of Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich or Voroshilov.

4. Yet the ambiguity of the Maoist attitude towards Stalin is by no means dispelled. ‘The question of Stalin... is still a subject of much discussion...’, says Peking Review, ‘it is likely that no final verdict can be reached on this question in the present century.’ And this is said in an article devoted to the glorification of Stalin!

5. Within the countries of the Soviet bloc the Right is very influential, if only because it is up to a point a ‘transmission belt’ for powerful anti-Communist pressures coming from the peasantry, the remnants of the bourgeoisie, and the intelligentsia. But the Right is also unorganised, ill-defined, shapeless; its adherents avoid identifying themselves with it. Of the party leaders Gomułka and Kádár place themselves vaguely between Right and Centre. In the Soviet Union the Right is even more amorphous than elsewhere: its elements obviously prefer to remain hidden, as it were, behind the Centre on which they exercise a constant pressure. (Such approximately was also the relationship between the Bukharinists and the Stalinists in the middle 1920s.) The Right stands for uninhibited, consistent application of the genuinely revisionist conceptions, which the Khrushchevite Centre advances only half-heartedly; it favours a line of ‘peaceful coexistence’ more straightforward than Khrushchev’s diplomatic zigzags; a more determined dissociation of the USSR and of the Soviet bloc from revolutionary movements in the outside world; a ‘bolder’ renunciation of Lenin’s theory of imperialism and of other ‘obsolete’ parts of the Leninist heritage; a frank acknowledgment of the ‘stabilisation’ of Western capitalism in the postwar era; and, consequently, of the need to transform the Communist parties of the West into something like Left-reformist parties. Undiluted national Communism is more congenial to the Right than to the Centre; and this makes it hard and even impossible for the Right to acknowledge itself as an international current in Communism. It is in this context that Togliatti’s ‘polycentrism’ acquires its true meaning, as does also Tito’s refusal to accept the world’s division into blocs and to propagate Titoism internationally. (National-Communist parties cannot form any International.) In so far as the Right elements are implicitly opposed to ‘Soviet hegemony’, they also defy the new Khrushchevite conformism to some extent, and although they make common cause with Khrushchev against Mao, they do it with a mental reservation, for they do not wish to see any international discipline re-imposed upon the movement.

6. Khrushchev’s propagandists of course did exaggerate it grossly and ridiculously. They hailed the Test Ban as the dawn of a new era with all the appropriate drum-beating. But then the drum is the only instrument on which they have ever learned to play.

7. One example of the crude ignorance is Peking’s bizarre insistence that Tito has restored capitalism in Yugoslavia. Or is it sheer malice?

8. This is a formidable obstacle in the way of the integration of Soviet and Eastern European economic planning within the Comecon. Now the Chinese too speak of their economic autarchy. That the Soviet blockade forces them to rely on their own resources is, of course, true. But they seem to make, in truly Stalinist fashion, a virtue out of the bitter necessity, and to discover in China’s old Great Wall the predestined framework of socialism. Against this, Khrushchev dwells on the progressive merits of ‘international division of labour’ within the socialist camp. This idea was anathema under Stalin – it was a Trotskyist heresy then. Khrushchev’s conversion to it would be more convincing, if he did not so often use economic reprisals against recalcitrant members of the socialist camp. Great Russian chauvinism, the bureaucratic whip and international division of labour do not go well together.

9. One wonders what advice the Maoists offer their Indonesian comrades, the leaders of the largest Communist party outside the Soviet bloc, a party reputed to be under Maoist influence. Does Peking urge them to go on backing Soekarno (as Stalin once urged the Chinese to support Chiang Kai-shek)? Or does it encourage them to work for the overthrow of Soekarno’s pseudo-Bonapartist dictatorship and for revolution?