Up close, the USSR in 1956 to Mao seemed to be a glorious experiment, imitable, with prejudice, but also full of danger. The death of Stalin and the XX Congress of the CPSU called for caution, to avoid cracking the Socialist Bloc in the face of Imperialism. Khrushchev’s criticism of his predecessor and his “cult of personality is lost in the wider debate between the still-friendly Communist parties. Nevertheless it is not lost on Mao, or most of the Chinese ruling class, that a new class has been formed in the Socialist world, a product of the path that society has taken. It is not made up of classical Capitalists, who usually control manufacturing but which has been nationalized, but of a “new bourgeois, born inside the party and made up of managers, bureaucrats, and military leaders. They have better access to consumer goods, a more comfortable lifestyle, and legitimize their life of privilege through their roles in the Party itself. The CPSU transformed itself into a watchdog over its own people, pervaded by a mastodontic security apparatus. It was supposed to be a driver for development, the nerve center for change, at the vanguard of all society. To Mao this situation was the fruit of poor decisions, foremost the imbalance of economic development. Even if it gained some success, the political cost was high and likely irreversible. If Stalin escaped blame though the 7-3 formula (the majority being good choices), in just a few years Khrushchev was met with stronger criticism, such as the irreparable accusation of having “started the process towards revisionism.”
It is ostensibly in China’s different social structure that the reasons for its break with the Soviet Union can be found. The USSR – in line with Western theorists – had built a society on the strength of the working class. This political entity, the only one capable of pulling all workers under its vassals, was nevertheless the minority in old Russia (just like the Bolsheviks were the minority in the revolutionary movement). The spark of insurrection only lit in Moscow and St. Petersburg, leaving the conquest of the countryside to the civil war and military victories. Mao saw forced industrialization, the stripping of rural areas, growing metropolises, and the transformation of the Party into an apparatus as a series of consequences of those premises. Instead, China’s rural society was dominant, even exclusive. Years of “red bases,” the odyssey of the Long March, and the long years in Yenan hardened a militant fabric that became its ideological identity. Especially after the failed insurrections in Canton and Shanghai, the CCP had become a peasant party. The fights it joined were against landowners, in addition to military antagonism with the Guomindang and Japanese invaders. In this aspect, the Chinese experiment was not, and could not have been, inferred by the West. In the end, not even the Oriental model, ingrown for decades by the Soviet Union, was applicable. Traditional Russia was certainly more backward than the other half of Europe, its peasant population widespread, but in that very time period the new Bolshevik state was attempting a social experiment full of ambition and energy for change. The entire social structure of the country was being transformed, and the outcomes of the forced industrialization of the 1930’s and ‘40’s were giving respectable results. The social cost that was paid – penalization of agriculture and ensuing famine – were not applicable to China, at least not to Mao’s most loyal leaders.
Even traditional political instruments appeared to be inadequate to describe the adoption of these important models. The demand for balanced development in the USSR and the attention paid to peasant property were the prerogative of the “right” of the CPSU. Bucharin maintained that there needed to be a smycka between field and factory, a dynamic union to sustain the entire economic structure. Rural revenue was not to be penalized, because it would be a consumer of industrial production; leaving only a minimal fraction of the crops to the farmers would have led them to side with the enemies of the revolution. The two macro sectors would therefore have to grow together: “the accumulation of kopeks in the peasant economy will finance the accumulation of rubles in the industrial one.” In China instead the “right” – later identifying superficially with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping – insisted on prioritizing industry, the permanence of economic laws, and the need to accumulate resources to produce revenue. Their ambition was to build a structured country, and therefore unassailable, and able to deflect the threats of the Cold War. The planning of the Soviet style was one to imitate, a valid and effective method. Mao on the contrary thought to emerge from this constriction with popular mobilization, breaking the chains of underdevelopment with ideological weapons, a precious background for social egalitarianism. The convergence of the Maoist option and the battle lost by Bucharin is nevertheless unsustainable. Even though both promote balance, respect for diversity, and constant growth without fits and starts, they envision different, if not antagonist, models. Mao fought the indistinct peasant world, which Bucharin instead sought to repair. An abundance of crops is not the final goal; crucial instead is the way in which it is reached: communes, collectivization of tools and animals, cafeterias, and no room for private property. The enemy was rich landowners that had to be integrated, convinced, or repressed. Bucharin had in mind a controlled rebirth of small private property, the end of the military regime, and a more harmonious building of Socialism.