Lenin, Mao, and Third World Marxism: The Sino-Soviet Split Over Decolonization

Thiti Jamkajornkeiat

Maoist insurrectional tactics of mass struggle and peasant insurgency, along with Maoism’s communist militancy, define the majority of Third World Marxists’ political praxis. Amilcar Cabral’s The Weapon of Theory and Che Guevera’s Many Viet Nams—two of the most sophisticated Third World Marxist articulations of armed struggle against neocolonialism in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference—argue for the protracted people’s war in the third world whose world-historical mission was to obliterate the global capitalist structure and the imperialist system. This Third-Worldist story of global Maoism, transpiring during the period Chris Connery calls the height of Chinese radical internationalism between 1960 and 1966 (after the Great Leap Forward and before the Cultural Revolution), is enigmatic.1 One sees its products (like Cabral and Guevara) without quite being able to identify the Maoist sources. Colleen Lye’s terminology– “Maoism in the Air” — developed from her reading of Max Elbaum to describe Cultural Revolutionary Maoism in the US, seems apt for also describing the situation of global Maoism in its internationalist offensive phase.2

The Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, a process rather than an event, both radicalized and internationalized Maoism into a global praxis of emancipation. Marxist critiques of Stalinism, such as that of Raya Dunayevskaya, denounced the theoretical differences between the two party-states, both Stalinist variations in her view, as epiphenomenal to their geopolitical contestation.3 Even as Dunayevskaya might be right about these so-called fictitious theories concocted by competing state Marxisms, the implications of these different theories for the third world’s anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles were real beyond what any anti-Stalinism could allow. The Sino-Soviet split became a fierce Sino-Soviet rivalry in the third world. Central to this split and rivalry was the place and urgency of decolonization in achieving a global communist revolution. Different geohistorical-materialist conditions led each communist state to divergent analyses of global contradictions and world revolutionary strategies. Whereas the Soviet Union avoided war for peace and diplomatic struggles, China justified war for the abolition of imperialism and capitalism. Both, however, returned to Lenin in specific moments to formulate their respective Marxist analyses of the world. The paragraphs that follow show and argue for a link from wartime Lenin to global Maoism in Third World Marxisms.4

It is not uncommon to perceive Nikita Khrushchev’s peace struggle as imperialist apologism and capitalist capitulationism, both descriptions that befit another derogative actually-existing Marxist category— revisionism. I suggest a more productive way to understand the split is to treat the Soviet Union and China as a non-antagonistic contradiction among comrades, in Mao’s terms, which could be resolved non-violently by ideological struggle.5 Through this interpretive frame, Khrushchev’s peace struggle was neither simply reactionary nor revisionist, but a protracted and cautionary war of position against imperialism-capitalism. Likewise, Mao’s armed struggle could be called neither ultra-left nor dogmatic, but a combative war of maneuver. More than merely a part of the Cold War lexicon, the idea of “the split” registered a harmfully undialectical approach to this tension and assumed presumptuous ownership of the whole communist movement. A Maoist reading dialecticizes this split into a contradiction.

A probe into different geohistorical-material conditions might be able to better explain this ideological struggle. Emmanuel Wallerstein notes that the Soviet Union and China were two semi-peripheral countries that emerged from the world wars, first and second, respectively, as communist states.6 The almost 30-year time lag between the two communist regimes prompted Mao to think of China as a peripheral communist country materially linked to other anticolonial struggles in the colonized world.7 As the first communist regime (with rocketry technology), the Soviet Union, on the other hand, conducted itself as the fully developed center of an expanding communist world. This center-periphery dynamic, more of time (historical development) than space (geographical location), determined the two regimes’ understanding of primary contradiction at a global scale. Khrushchev subordinated anti-imperialism to the abstract contradiction between, in his words, the capitalist and socialist camps. He conceived capitalism-imperialism as progressively decaying and internally fractionalized, as if the violent system would wither away on its own.8 Mao instead valorized the contradictory pair of imperialist forces and national liberation movements. It was not just because China recently fought for national liberation, but Mao saw capitalist antagonisms being most aggravated in that sphere. Thus, it is clear that there was a geohistorical-material basis for the split irreducible to the realist factor of geopolitical contestation.

China’s own border conflicts with Taiwan (the 1958 Second Taiwan Strait Crisis) and India (the 1959-62 Sino-Indian War), as well as its support for anticolonial struggles in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Black America reaffirmed for Mao the martial—rather than peaceful—nature of capitalist antagonisms and imperialist confrontations.9 These layers of political conflicts, where sovereignty and freedom of the oppressed were at stake, amplified the analytical differences between Mao’s China and Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) waited until Lenin’s ninetieth birth anniversary on April 22, 1960 to launch its collective theoretical effort called, aptly, “The Lenin Polemics,” asserting the relevance of communist militancy and a repoliticization of peace. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) responded swiftly the next day, emphasizing the strategic and exceptional dimension of the peace struggle. Let’s examine this intellectual exchange.

“Long Live Leninism,” the most comprehensive essay in the Lenin Polemics series drafted by the leading CCP ideologue Chen Boda, returned to wartime Lenin for his insights on the connection between class and imperialism, and therefore class war and anti-imperialist struggle. Against the Soviet idea of peace that seemed to sublate all antagonisms, this text pointed out the vigorous persistence of multiple antagonistic contradictions in several domains: the masses and the monopoly capitalists in the imperialist countries; the peoples in the colonies and semi-colonies and the imperialist aggressors; the socialist system and the imperialist system; and the peace-loving people and the warlike imperialist bloc.10 It asked, for example, “Has the armed intervention led by the US imperialists in Asia, Africa, and Latin America become “tranquil?” or “It there “tranquility” on the African continent when the people of Algeria and many other parts of Africa are subjected to armed repressions by the French, British, and other imperialists?”11 The multiplicity and ceaselessness of contradictions, two major interventions of Mao who dialecticized Stalin’s mechanistic account of contradiction, forcefully were manifested here.

Drawing from The State and Revolution, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, and The Military Program of the Proletarian Revolution—or the pre-seizure Lenin– “Long Live Leninism” insisted on the inherent class character of both war and violence. For the former, the document argued that imperialist war was a continuation of imperialist politics. Reactionary imperialists and capitalists—the exploiters—were structurally prone to violence and bellicosity such that they went to war in unjust and aggressive invasions, rather than for self-defense. For the latter, it distinguished oppressive counter-revolutionary violence from emancipatory revolutionary violence.12 As the counter-revolutionaries already possessed oppressive and violent tendencies, the document contended:

In what is called peacetime, the imperialists rely on armed force to deal with the oppressed classes and nations by such forms of violence as arrest, imprisonment, hard labor, massacre, and so forth, while at the same time, they are also prepared to use the most acute form of violence—war—to suppress the revolution of the people at home, to carry out plunder abroad, to overwhelm foreign competitors and to stamp out revolutions in other countries.13

In any circumstances, whether peacetime or wartime, in other words, the reactionary class character of the imperialists and capitalists compelled them to continually wage wars with the oppressed classes and nations.

Flipping the question of peace struggle back to the reactionary class, the document asserted that a class-based Leninist approach would ask “whether the bourgeoisie will accept such a peaceful transformation,” rather than “whether the proletariat is willing to carry out a peaceful transformation.” Another structural tendency compelled the counter-revolutionary class: they would not relinquish power voluntarily without being forced.14 Related to the long quote earlier, “Long Live Leninism” contended that both peace and war were the dual tactics of imperialism in exercising plunder and oppression.15 The reactionary class was immutably violent. Peace, therefore, would become a reality only when the capitalist-imperialist system came to an end. That equally meant the elimination of the reactionary classes and their militarist-bureaucratic machine of suppression—the imperialist army and the colonial state. The document substantiated and politicized the content of peace in peace struggle from meaning something close to pacifism to the abolition of all war conditions.16 The oppressed and exploited masses must abolish the imperialist-capitalist system—the originary cause of war—to achieve a more lasting peace.

The Soviet rebuttal of the CCP’s Lenin Polemics was delivered as a speech by Lenin’s brother-in-arms and the CPSU Presidium member, Otto Kuusinen, entitled “Triumphant March of Lenin’s Ideas” (Pretvorenie v zhizn’ idej Lenina; lit. ‘To Implement Lenin’s Ideas’). Whereas the CCP’s “Lenin Polemics” drew on the wartime revolutionary Lenin of The State and Revolution and Imperialism, Kuusinen’s speech utilized the post-seizure diplomatic and pragmatic Lenin of the 1922 Genoa Economic Conference. Coincidentally, from 1959 to 1964, the CPSU republished different parts of Lenin on the Genoa Conference, just in time to provide a blueprint for the Soviet diplomats in making peace deals with capitalist states.17 If the former’s Lenin vindicated the class dimension of peace struggle, the latter’s Lenin validated its undogmatic and time-sensitive aspects. Kuusinen’s Lenin was the Lenin of the extraordinary time when the Bolshevik government devised its diplomatic strategies in the new post-war world order as the first existing communist state. Lenin’s report about the Genoa Conference, quoted in full in Kuusinen’s text, emphasized its transactional, diplomatic, and pragmatic nature. Lenin asked the Communist “merchant” to suspend his antagonisms and critiques and instead negotiate with the force of economic necessity:

We are going to Genoa not as Communists, but as merchants. We must trade, and they must trade. We want the trade to benefit us; they want it to benefit them. The course of the issue will be determined, if only to a small degree, by the skill of our diplomats.

Insofar as we are going to Genoa as merchants it is obviously by no means a matter of indifference to us whether we shall deal with those people from the bourgeois camp who are inclined to settle the problem by war, or with those who are inclined towards pacifism, even the worst kind of pacifism, which from the communist viewpoint will not stand the slightest criticism. It would be a bad merchant, indeed, if he were unable to appreciate this distinction, and, by shaping his tactics accordingly, achieve practical aims.18

Kuusinen read these directives as Lenin’s authorization for Soviet diplomacy to cooperate, coexist, and compromise with the moderate pacifist faction of the bourgeois camp. The communists can avert war as long as the capitalists (who were the US in the context of the split) agreed to practice disarmament. Peace and diplomatic struggles sufficed. He then turned this strategic interpretation into a principle of Soviet Marxism’s non-dogmatism and dismissed the CCP’s return to the Lenin of the earlier conjuncture as dogmatic. “In order to be true to Marxism,” the document wrote, “it is not enough to repeat the old truth of the aggressive nature of imperialism. … [T]he time when imperialists dominated around the world will never return.”19 Such was Kuusinen’s selective interpretation.

In fact, when one reads Lenin’s whole Genoa report, one might notice that he used the Genoa Conference only as a brief preamble to discuss a more major issue of the New Economic Policy. Lenin was worried that the surrounding violent capitalist-imperialist nations, whose capitalist economic system was exemplified by the Genoa Conference, would infringe on the newborn Soviet communist state before it could develop a mature communist economy.20 The Communist “merchant” practiced “diplomacy” only as a tactical and temporary means to avoid this anticipated capitalist-imperialist infringement.

The CCP’s corrective to Kuusinen’s opportunistic reading of Lenin was already available in “Long Live Leninism”: “[M]ake a concrete analysis of the concrete situation with regard to the overall class contradictions and class struggle, putting forward strictly scientific definitions, and thus bringing the essence of the epoch thoroughly to light.”21 Through ideological struggle, the CCP teaches the CPSU, jokingly, to not quote out of context, and, more seriously, to situate one’s analysis in the capitalist totality where contradictions are multiple and ceaseless. Pace Kuusinen, imperialist domination never returned, not because they were debilitated, but because they never ceased to be so.

The non-antagonistic contradiction between the Soviet Union and China lay in the question of capitalism-imperialism’s structural tendencies (peacefully decaying v. immutably violent). And it was due, this paper suggests, to the different geohistorical-material conditions of each country. The Sino-Soviet split gave the socialist world two, supposedly dialectical, strategies between Khrushchev’s peaceful war of position and Mao’s militant war of maneuver. For the latter, the CCP drew from wartime Lenin to develop its stance, which was, in turn, globalized for Third-World Marxist militants such as Cabral or Guevara. This was the global Maoism that provided theoretical and practical foundations for anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists in the third world.

Thiti Jamkajornkeiat is Assistant Professor of Global Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Victoria (Canada). His first book project is an intellectual history and peripheral Marxist theorization of Indonesian left internationalism in the Long Sixties, with an emphasis on the Left Third-Worldist and minor-communist modalities of internationalism.

  1. Connery, Christopher, 2009, “The End of the Sixties,” boundary 2 (Spring): 198.
  2. Lye, Colleen, 2020, “Maoism and the Air We Breathe,” Commune (Winter) [online]. Accessed by: https://communemag.com/maoism-and-the-air-we-breathe/.
  3. Dunayevskaya, Raya, 2017, Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution, eds. Eugene Gogol and Franklin Dmitryev, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 380.
  4. Readers familiar with the study of Marxism concerning and from the periphery (or what I call peripheral Marxism) would notice my adaptation of this argumentative form from Anderson, Kevin, 1995, Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism: A Critical Study, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  5. Mao, Tse-Tung, 1965 [1937], “On Contradiction,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, vol. 1, Peking: Foreign Languages Press.; Mao, Tse-tung, 1978 [1957], “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, vol. 5, Peking: Foreign Languages Press (27 Feb.).
  6. Wallerstein, Immanuel, 1990, “Marx, Marxism-Leninism, and Socialist Experiences in the Modern World-System,” Thesis Eleven 27: 44.
  7. Bernstein, Thomas P., 2010, “Introduction: The Complexities of Learning from the Soviet Union,” in China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949-Present, eds. Thomas P. Bernstein and Hya-yu Li, Lanham: Lexington Books, 6.
  8. CPSU, 1959, Control Figures for the Economic Development of the U.S.S.R. for 1959-1965, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
  9. Li Danhui and Xia Yafeng, 2008, “Competing for Leadership: Split or Détente in the Sino-Soviet Bloc, 1959-1961,” The International History Review 30, 3: 550.; Alden, Chris and Alves, Ana Cristina, 2008, “History & Identity in the Construction of China’s Africa Policy,” Review of African Political Economy 35, 115 (Mar.): 43-58.; Gao, Yunxiang, 2013, “W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois in Maoist China,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10, 1: 59-85.
  10. The Editorial Department of Hongqi, 1960, “Long Live Leninism! In Commemoration of the Ninetieth Anniversary of the Birth of Lenin,” Peking Review 3, 17: 9-10 (16 Apr.).
  11. Ibid., 9.
  12. Ibid., 16.
  13. Ibid., 14.
  14. Ibid., 19.
  15. Ibid., 15.
  16. Ibid., 22.
  17. Clemens, Walter C. and Griffiths, Franklyn, 1965, The Soviet Position in Arms Control and Disarmament: Negotiations and Propaganda, 1954-1964, Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 83-4.
  18. Lenin, V.I., 1965 [1922], “Eleventh Congress of the R.C.P. (B.),” in Lenin Collected Works, eds. David Skvirsky and George Hanna, vol. 33, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 264 (27 Mar.).
  19. Kuusinen, Otto, 1960, Triumphant March of Lenin’s Ideas: Speech of Otto Kuusinen at the Lenin Anniversary Meeting, London: Soviet Booklets.
  20. Lenin, “Eleventh Congress,” 274.
  21. Hongqi, “Long Live Leninism!,” 10.