Political and Economic Legacies:
Living in the Shadows of Mao and Stalin
(Written for Professor Kathleen Bruhn's Political Science 6 class during fall quarter in my freshman year of college)
To a large extent nationalistic sentiment aided the rise of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Unlike in Russia, where the revolution began with a group of intellectuals who spread communist ideas that took over a decade to win the people, the revolution in China was truly a movement of the masses, united with CCP first to expel the Japanese and then to expel the Guomindang, the "bastards of the Japanese" and the "enemies within the country." After a few years of following the Soviet-style command economy, however, Mao observed the increasing inequality in the USSR due to Stalin's neglect of the countryside and the elite, ruling bureaucracy. Accusing the Soviets of being "revisionist," Mao implemented his own policies and reforms under the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1960. This departure from the Soviet system and the beginning of Mao's Chinese Marxism created the foundation that allowed the return of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 and the reforms that make today's China a more economically successful nation than modern Russia. Following the land reforms, Mao placed the emphasis on the workers in the countryside during the Great Leap Forward, using the slogan, "man conquers nature" with his hard work and physical abilities. Mao also mobilised the peasants toward the nationalistic goal of steel making, and the peasants, empowered, gathered their efforts to collect iron or steel from pots, pans, silverware, bicycles, and various other objects. The effort was largely unsuccessful due to the ignorance of the peasants in the process of making steel, but the reforms gave peasants some control of the land they worked, and mobilisation provided a starting point for Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to redirect the workers' energy to making money by farming for themselves and the market (Goldman 193). By contrast, in the USSR under Stalin the communist social and economic reforms were "imposed by the ruler from above through brutal and oppressive measures" (Mayer 241), so the masses had little involvement in the process. With the empowerment of the peasants in China came the attacks on the establishment, which, according to Goldman, "made it easier [for Chinese reformers] to implement far-reaching reforms because it undermined the party bureaucracy and controls" (193). Russia had a more difficult time; even when Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and launched his perestroika and glasnost policies, he did not believe that he could introduce land reforms before establishing a democracy because he " would have been removed within three days" (qtd. in Goldman 195) had he made the attempt. According to Goldman, Yeltsin also had a hard time privatising the land as "the local rural bureaucracy has continued to resist anything that might diminish its authority" (194). After the assassination attempt on Lenin in 1918, Stalin began the Red Terror and executed thousands of not only potential critics of socialism, but also those who showed enough intellectual dedication to "pure" socialism to be a threat to his power. But in China, it is not surprising that under the fervour of the Great Leap Forward, the "anti-rightist" movement and the denunciation and exiling of "anti-revolutionaries" soon followed. Mao, unlike Stalin, preferred to exile his political threats and potential rivals to the countryside to be "re-educated." This was not out of a respect for their lives; Mao did not trust anyone and felt that there were more enemies than he could eliminate by execution. Instead he drove them into the hands of the peasants, where their educated socialist ideals would be criticised as bourgeois intellectual elitism. Among those labelled "rightist anti-revolutionaries" was Deng Xiaoping. By contrast to the almost religious fervour established during the period of Mao Zedong Thought from 1960-1976, the years after his death left an empty vacuum. People needed an outlet for their devotion, and upon Deng's return people received him as an old martyr for the cause and a true Communist hero. Having eliminated all serious opposition, however, Stalin's status as the leader was supported by his cult of personality alone; even though the system stood after Stalin's death, without his strong character the leaders that succeeded him made the party and government seem weak and ineffective. People lost faith in the ability of the Soviet system to eliminate their social and economic problems, and according to Nolan, political reforms under Gorbachev and Yeltsin only further humiliated the Russian people by acknowledging the failure of their government (19), and the establishment of democracy further unsettled their way of life (20). In China, though, where belief in the moral rule of man is still very strong, Deng, the "hero," was able to justify economic reforms while keeping the old communist system, so, as Nolan pointed out, the Chinese were able to adapt with "only a limited sense of mass psychological disorientation" (15). While Mao's communist China remained isolated from the world and removed from international conflict, the Soviet nation under Lenin and then Stalin had been devastated by wars. Besides the 1918 civil war under Lenin of the Reds against the Whites that had followed the Bolshevik takeover, Stalin had also led the country through the German attacks of World War II. Stalin's offensive tactics were harsh on the soldiers and the peasants. He had demonstrated a willingness to execute any general who dared to surrender or retreat. The peasants, fearing both Stalin and Hitler, whom they knew viewed the Slavic peoples as inferior and had no qualms about killing civilians and starving prisoners of war, could only choose to fight to the death. Unlike in China, where Mao Zedong kept the masses happy with Mao sayings, nationalistic songs, parades, and slogans, the peasants under the Soviet system were aware of their misery. The Chinese mentality was that happiness consisted of other people taking on the burdens of important decisions while the people did not have to think in order to live their everyday lives. In this way the masses were not miserable or even aware of their poverty; they were happy to serve a "moral" leader and did not care about social status if the whole society appeared to be equally poor. In the Soviet Union, however, Stalin commanded the Red Army to carry out the scorched earth policy, so as the peasants evacuated, they saw their burning land as a symbol of their defeat and humiliation. While in China people had not really lost hope in the system, their outrage Mao's deception could be quenched by replacing the image of Chairman Mao with Deng Xiaoping, but in the Soviet Union the cynicism of the people did not disappear with a change of leader. While the world may expect today's Russia to be more economically successful than the Soviet Union as it is now a democracy, the economy is still unstable, and people are neither certain of the role of government in their lives nor clear on the degree of their newfound freedoms. By contrast, China's success is largely due to the fact that most reforms are purely economic, not social or political, and the Chinese people do not have to lose face by accepting the failure of the communist system. Their successful, though superficial, transition allows them to keep their nationalistic pride, which in turn fuels production. While China may be an economic power, it will be years before people can enjoy democratic rights such as the freedom of speech and the freedom to protest, and as the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement demonstrated, true criticism of the government will not be tolerated. Russia, on the other hand, has experienced its economic disasters, but by the year more people understand their rights under the constitution and are challenging laws to exercise them.
Goldman, Marshall. Lost Opportunity. New York: Norton, 1996.
Mayer, Lawrence C. Comparative Politics: Nations and Theories in a Changing World.. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.
Nolan, Peter. China's Rise, Russia's Fall.. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.