Two Revolutions: Russia and China

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Pedro Ramos de Toledo*

Commentary on the book by Perry Anderson

Published in 2010 in the magazine New Left Review, an important journal of Marxist theory and analysis, Two Revolutions presented a comparative effort by Perry Anderson to understand the different fates that awaited the Russian and Chinese Revolutions at the end of the XNUMXth century.

In his notes – a very brief introduction that opens his reflection – Anderson highlights the contrast between the mishaps of the States that emerged there: while the USSR, whose birth and trajectory marked the entire 23th century, “(...) disintegrated after seven decades, almost without a shot, as quickly as it appeared”, the People's Republic of China (PRC) “(…) is a driving force of the world economy; the leader in exports whether to the European Union, Japan or the United States; the largest holder of foreign exchange reserves in the world.” (p. XNUMX).

In his effort to explain this contrast, Anderson elaborated four different plans, into which his article is divided: “Matrizes”, in which he sought to identify similarities between the strategies and policies implemented by the victorious agents of both revolutions; “Mutations”, which deals with the historical conditions that determined the reform programs carried out by the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and China; “Brupting Points”, in which Anderson analyzes the consequences of these reforms; and “The Novum”, the final section in which Anderson discusses the long-term legacy of these revolutions and the extent to which they acted as determining factors in the outcome of both countries.

In addition to Anderson's article that gives the title to the work, three texts were incorporated in this edition that are in direct dialogue with the main document: an introduction written by Luiz Gonzaga Belluzzo; a reply to Anderson's article, elaborated by Wang Chauhua and published in New Left Review in 2015; and the afterword signed by Rosana Pinheiro-Machado. As we will see, these additions greatly enrich the reading of Anderson's central text without, however, being reduced to mere notes of his strengths and weaknesses.

In his introduction, Beluzzo presents us with a contrasting view of the economic development of the Soviet and Chinese states. The conditions in which Russia finds itself in the victory of the 1917 Revolution are profoundly restrictive: a violent civil war that pitted the nascent Soviet state against the combined forces of the main imperialist powers and a counterrevolutionary army; the depressed agricultural supply, resulting from the disintegration of peasant life resulting from the war efforts and the enormous casualties imposed on the Russian army (comprised almost entirely of peasant conscripts) during the First World War; and a fragile industrial complex ended up making the reconstruction of the Soviet economy urgent, paving the way for the New Economic Policy (Novaya Economiskaya Politika – NEP), in which, under state control, small private property and profit-oriented state companies would act as the driving forces of development. Without paying attention to the period of Stalinization in the 30s, characterized by the implementation of the five-year plans, Beluzzo goes on to demonstrate the impacts of the Second World War on the political and economic structure of the USSR. The brutal war effort undertaken by Soviet society, added to the irreparable losses that occurred in the conflict, ended up militarizing not only society but the economy itself. The strengthening of the Command Economy and the priority investment in the military-industrial complex prevented – in what Perry Anderson calls “years of stagnation” – the Soviet economy from following the productive and informational transformations that the capitalist world was going through. Growing distortions in economic calculation depressed the production of consumer goods and increased the difficulties of intensive growth of the Soviet economy. By the end of the 80s, the lack of supply was transfigured, on the one hand, into an excess of accumulated money, and, on the other hand, into a growing budget deficit. The price reform imposed by the Perestroika ended up generating hyperinflationary effects and produced disastrous effects on production and employment. The “market shock”, as Belluzzo explains when quoting Peter Nolan, was a clumsy attempt to jump “…from pure and hard Stalinism to the equally dogmatic beliefs of the free market” (Beluzzo, 2018: p. 13).

The People's Republic of China, on the other hand, chose a different route for its reforms, the results of which contrast with the catastrophe of Perestroika. Establishing itself as a new frontier for world capitalism, the PRC embarked in the late 70s on a broad reform of its economy, which allowed the country to jump from a 1% share of world trade in 1980 to 10,4% in 2010. Belluzzo presents us in a synthetic way with an overview of what Deng Xiao Ping defined as “Chinese-style socialism”: the attraction of direct investment; the absorption of technology; establishment of export targets; avian trade balance; control of the movement of capital; fixed exchange rate; and industrial policies that favor national companies. Such measures are based on the existing symbiotic relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the State and the market. Based on a grassroots consultation system, the PCC establishes, with reasonable independence from the interests of economic agents, a set of long-term guidelines, with the State and its executive spheres being responsible for their proper implementation. It is up to the private sector to act as a driving force for technological innovation and ensure a competitive environment among economic agents. Added to this is strict control of the capital market, which makes the economic environment of the PRC a hostile space for the practice of rent seeking, thus guaranteeing direct investment in the productive sectors. The PRC thus combines maximum competition with maximum control through an indicative economic system that relies on the active role of the State in the development of the economy. 

In “Notes”, Anderson's introduction to the article itself, the British historian briefly presents his objectives: to understand, from the contrasting fates that awaited the Chinese and Soviet Republics in the late 80s, the objective conditions and strategic differences of the political subjects involved that collaborated with the deviation of paths taken by States born in the same revolutionary tradition.

In the first chapter of his booklet, “Matrizes”, Anderson discusses the conditions historically received by both revolutionary movements that carried out the Russian and Chinese revolutions and how such conditions provide points of contact and ruptures between the two experiences. When initially analyzing the Russian revolutionary process, the author presents as its characteristic factors the mostly urban insurrectionary character; the small social base of this movement, composed of the young Russian proletariat; the civil war that followed the October Revolution and which was responsible for the almost complete destruction of the country's industrial park; the internationalist character of the victorious movement, weakened already in the 20s by the revolutionary defeats in western Europe. We are presented with a scenario that emphasizes the isolation in which the subjects responsible for the 1917 Bolshevik revolution found themselves, now responsible for the consolidation of the nascent Soviet state in the midst of the ruins of Tsarist Russia and dependent exclusively on its efforts.

The constitutive particularities of the Chinese revolutionary process, on the other hand, are presented by Anderson in a way that contrasts with the description of the Russian case. As the author emphasizes: “The Chinese Revolution, although inspired by the Russian one, practically inverted all its terms” (p.26). Founded in 1921, the PCC carried out a long war of attrition (1926-1949) against the Kuomintang, the Chinese warlords and, later, the Japanese invaders, establishing itself as a dual power based on its wide capillarity in the rural regions of the China. Such capillarity expressed the broad support that the PCC received from the rural social strata, as a result of the broad reforms (cancellation of debts, redistribution of land) that the party carried out in the territories it controlled. Such conditions – territorial control and resistance to foreign invaders – enabled the PCC “… a degree of social penetration that the Russian party never achieved” (p.29).

If such particular conditions separate the birth and victory of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, Perry Anderson identifies converging elements, notably issues concerning the peasantry and bureaucratic frameworks. On the Russian side, the author stresses the disintegrating role that the forced collectivization of lands, from 1928 onwards, played on the Russian peasant class. This “war against the peasantry” ended up producing millions of victims, including dead and exiled, a catastrophe from which Soviet agriculture never managed to recover. With regard to bureaucratic frameworks, Perry Anderson emphasizes the “Yezhovshchina”, apex of Stalinist terror, when all the revolutionary old guard of 1917, including important military names of the Civil War of 1919 and prominent figures of the cultural and political universe of the 1920s, was decimated by Stalin's bureaucratic-police apparatus. The liquidation of old cadres can be explained, for the author, by the impossibility that Stalin found in imposing himself as a revolutionary leader, leaving only the extermination of any dissidence, represented mainly in the heroic generation of the 20s.

China, in turn, ended up encountering similar difficulties. Seeking to accelerate the development of the Chinese economy, Mao Tse Tung launched, in 1958, the “Great Leap Forward” (GSF), a program based on the creation of popular communes and the decentralized diffusion of small light industries. The diversion of peasant labor to these industries, combined with low crop yields and high production quotas, ended up producing a huge grain shortage and a subsequent wave of hunger, causing more than 30 million deaths. Eight years after the failure of the GSF, the Cultural Revolution systematically purged bureaucratic staff from the CCP, in a process that lasted until the death of Mao Tse Tung in 1976. 

 Despite the central role that such paroxysms played in the future reforms that both states went through, Anderson is careful to emphasize that their causes and consequences were radically different. Unlike Russia, whose collectivization was carried out through a declared war on the peasantry and which led to the demoralization of the highest social stratum of the USSR, the GSF did not seek subjection to the peasantry. Its objective was to integrate peasant populations into an ambitious process of industrialization of rural areas without depriving them of the treatment and cultivation of the land. Its failure was mainly due to the lack of reliable data on agricultural income and: “[...] life in the villages, even in the most seriously affected regions, normalized with surprising speed” (p.33). As for bureaucratic frameworks, the causalities are even more contrasting. Although born out of the PCC's internal disputes, the Cultural Revolution did not aim to eliminate dissident groups, but to prevent the PCC bureaucracy from moving towards the formation of a bureaucratic caste similar to the one that consolidated power in the USSR after the years of purge. Without directly using the military-police apparatus, the Cultural Revolution found in Chinese youth the political novelty that, for ten years, shook the bureaucratic structures of the Chinese state. As Anderson points out: “Mao had led the Chinese Revolution to victory, and there was no massacre of the old guard who had fought alongside him.” (p. 35)

In the second chapter, “Mutations”, Perry Anderson deals with the reform projects undertaken by the Soviet and Chinese states, which ended up juxtaposed in the 1980s. explains the particularities followed by each State, which Anderson describes as “the failure of previous reconstruction efforts” (p. 37). Faithful to his method, that is, using the Soviet failure as a negative mirror for Chinese success, Anderson presents the reader with a history of the reforms undertaken by the USSR, from the historically given conditions that gave rise to them to the role that their conduct had in the disintegration of the Soviet State, in 1991. On the one hand, the historian highlights the long period of stagnation between the 60s and 80s, which included the regimes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, caused by the inability that the Soviet state demonstrated in understanding the productive transformations it was going through. post-war capitalism, maintaining a strongly centralized command economy as the basis of its development, concentrated in heavy industry and the war-military complex; on the other hand, the crystallization of a nomenklatura gerontocracy, already long distanced from the principles and virtues of the revolutionary generation of the 1920s.

China, on the other hand, was, at the end of the 1970s, experiencing the hangover of the Cultural Revolution, which paralyzed the country's intellectual life for ten years and produced deep wounds in the bureaucratic framework of the CPC. O tree Asian tigers – notably South Korea, Taiwan and Japan – challenged the Chinese socialist model, which saw the economic abyss that separated it from Asian capitalism widening. It was this condition – the growth of the social-economic gap that separated them from the capitalist powers – that found both states in the late 70s and that made the need for reforms a priority agenda.

In the case of the USSR, the initial conditions were elusively better: an industrialized society that had full literacy rates in addition to a broad scientific community. These advantages, on the other hand, ended up being annulled by a gigantic command economy that had more than 60.000 listed products, whose inertia demanded a gigantic effort to change course. Information technologies, central to the re-elaboration of the planned sectors of the economy, were not assimilated; and capital goods were obsolete, impacting the capital/product ratio. Added to this is the role of the Cold War in this scenario of stagnation, by embargoing resources for the modernization of the economy in favor of the continuous increase in military spending and to the detriment of the sectors of production of capital goods and consumption (Anderson, 2018 [2010 ]: p. 39). Upon ascending to power in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev found a stagnant economy: almost zero growth rate and exchange rate imbalance due to the drop in oil prices. Faced with this situation, Gorbachev sought to reform the political framework (Glasnost) and economical (Perestroika). Perry Anderson pays attention to the emphasis that Gorbachev ends up giving to political reform to the detriment of economic reforms, in which he would prove to be clumsy, producing repeated deficits and hyperinflation. Upon assuming power, Gorbachev began to respond to the political demands of a intelligentsia unified by the criticism of the Soviet regime, which demanded the holding of free elections, the deactivation of the Cold War and the introduction of a market economy. The search for popular support and the resistance of its members to liberalizing reforms resulted in the progressive alienation of the CPSU, separating, in this context, the ruling Party from State power. Anderson points out in this political choice the key point for the disintegration of the Soviet State, since the CPSU was the element that guaranteed the unity of the republics. A perfect storm, derived from the confluence of political and economic blackouts, ended up disintegrating the USSR overnight.

From that moment on, Anderson devoted himself entirely to Chinese reform processes. His starting point is determined by what he considers China's “negative advantages”: a lower level of industrialization that guaranteed more modest production targets; a more malleable planning system, resulting from more entrenched peasant traditions and poorer infrastructure; greater autonomy of provinces and municipalities, guaranteeing greater autonomy to local authorities; and a peasantry that constituted “the cornerstone of the nation”, and from which the CCP enjoyed great support. In the international field, the rapprochement with the USA in 1976 and a policy of non-direct participation in the Cold War endows the PRC with a degree of maneuver unimaginable for the USSR at the time, guaranteeing the first financial aid and strong foreign investment at the first signs of an opening market. As Anderson points out: “[…] there was no deep discontent in the countryside, nor was there a direct imperialist threat from abroad, for the first time in the modern history of the country.” (p 45). These factors, allied to the high popularity of Deng Xiao Ping and the “eight immortals”, allowed China to initiate its reforms in conditions quite different from those found in the USSR. Anderson highlights the role of what he considers an energetic leadership, sensitive to the transformations global capitalism was going through and who enjoyed great popular support as a result of economic success, in addition to conducting succession processes without major bumps.

Anderson identifies as the starting point of the Chinese reforms the transformation of land relations, with a new agrarian reform that deactivated the old communes and parceled out the land among the population, guaranteeing the usufruct of the land and the commercialization of production surpluses, provided that the requirements were met. quotas established by the State. In the industrial sector, there was an easing of regulated prices, allowing managers of state-owned companies, now tenants of their companies, to negotiate surpluses at market prices. Town and village companies were also created (Township and Village Enterprises or TVEs), which benefited from low taxes and easy credit. This model, which transits between private, collective and state property, proved to be highly profitable, taking advantage of the vast workforce available. The third pillar of the Chinese reform program was the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), whose objective was to repatriate masses of capital based on low manufacturing costs, in addition to absorbing technologies. It is from the ZEEs that the PRC equates an ambitious innovation agenda, whose export-oriented production would focus mainly on household appliances and electronic products.

In the last two chapters, “Brupting Points” and “Novum”, Perry Anderson presents his conclusions on the Chinese reforms, both from the perspective of their results, and the possibilities that open up at the beginning of the 1980st century. The success of the reforms implemented in the 1989s enabled the PRC to intensify the implementation of market tools in its economy in the following decade, while at the same time providing the PCC with enormous political capital, which was then used to contain democratic demands and repress dissenting voices. This hiatus between economic and political freedom was evident in 1990, with the brutal repression launched by Deng Xiao Ping against the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, when the People's Liberation Army violently dissolved the movement. This episode represented the reassertion of the CPC's central power, unlike the power crisis that befell the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in the wake of Gorbachev's reforms. During the XNUMXs, China experienced high growth rates, surpassing the previous decade. It was during this period that the PRC reorganized its industrial structure, conserving state ownership of strategic sectors while privatizing a large part of the TVEs and allowing greater autonomy to provincial managers to make use of state companies. It was in this second period of reforms that the PRC made aggressive use of low industrial tariffs to attract large volumes of foreign capital, maximizing profits from foreign trade and consolidating itself as the largest platform for exporting manufactured goods on the planet. China enters the XNUMXst century in full force.

In his final remarks, Anderson summons three of the main interpretative currents regarding the success of the Chinese model: the first of a historiographical nature, which sees links between the rise of the PRC and the imperial past; the second, in vogue mainly among economists, which interprets such success as the late integration of China into the global capitalist system; and, finally, the one that attributes the protagonism of the Chinese Revolution and the fight against Mao Tse Tung to a possible trend of bureaucratic degeneration. Even admitting that such a response involves different elements of the three interpretations, the author clearly leans in favor of the role of the Chinese Revolution and its leaders in leading the PRC to a market economy, highlighting as an example the process of dispossession of the peasantry from the system Houkou, instituted in the Grande Salto pra Frente (GSP), and which guaranteed the segregation of the countryside in relation to the cities, providing the State with control of migratory flows and, consequently, of the process of primitive accumulation resulting from it. Anderson concludes by pointing out some of the challenges facing the PRC, such as rampant social inequality; endemic corruption; the brutality of the relations of production present in Chinese industry; the brutal persecution of political dissidents, concentrated on the left of the Party; and the continuous dispossession of the peasantry, the foundation that sustains the PCC's legitimacy. Its last paragraph is devoted to the fallibility that awaits anyone attempting to make predictions about the fate of the PRC, given the complex nature of such a historical process, which teeters between fascination with the West and Han chauvinism, between a democratic future and paternalism. authoritative in perpetuo: “Towards which horizons the gigantic reed of the PRC is moving, this is something that resists calculation, at least when using the astrolabes now known”.   

The third essay that makes up the work is written by Wang Chaohua, a Chinese intellectual who was among the main leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests. Entitled “The Party and its success story: a response to two “revolutions”, Chaohua sought to provide a counterpoint to the comparative work proposed by Anderson, understanding it as asymmetric in the way it treated the Russian and Chinese revolutions, fitting “[…] to the Russian case to help shed light on the Chinese case”. (Chaochua, p. 73). For Chaohua, Anderson's comparative attempt slips into three fundamental problems: the asymmetric treatment in disfavor of the Russian case; the inadequacy of the essay form when one has to compare long-term processes as complex as the two revolutions; and the periodization problem, caused by the effort to compare reform processes that started synchronously, but whose causes are separated by more than 30 years. Such a discrepancy, according to the author “[…] inevitably generates simplification and misinterpretation of the process in China” (Chaochua, p. 74). In her essay, Wang Chaohua tries to equalize such discrepancies in two movements: in the first, she provides positivity to the Russian mirror, highlighting qualitative elements of that in relation to the Chinese revolution, such as the more sophisticated character of the Russian revolutionary utopia and the broad support of the USSR international communist movements. The second movement is a deeper look at the period of post-Mao reforms, whose development ended up, according to the author, uprooting the CCP from its revolutionary traditions, subjecting all strategies to the Realpolitik in favor of development at any cost. The advance of the economy ended up hiding the internal political contradictions, expressed by succession problems; by the concentration of power in the figure of the president; by the powerful repressive apparatus; the formation of a subproletariat on an unprecedented scale in world history; and emptying of the socialist discourse, whose promises ensured the victory of the revolution in the first place. For Chaochua, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” only serves to mask the opposite of the principles he is supposed to uphold.

The afterword of the work – “Towards and Repression” – was in charge of the anthropologist Rosana Pinheiro-Machado. The author presents us with a set of millennial historical permanencies present in Chinese power structures and the way in which such structures are summoned with the aim of giving legitimacy to the authorities. Respect for traditions and belief in the balance of the universe are some of the elements brought to power practices by the legacy of philosophical systems, such as Confucianism, Taoism and legalism, whose activation provides the foundation for the notion of Xiaokang (economic comfort), a central concept for the development of this afterword. As Pinheiro Machado states: “[…] 'the great Confucian harmony' between the celestial mandate of the rulers and the population only exists with xiaokang” (Pinheiro-Machado, 2018: p. 117). Through the perception of comfort and direction, popular dissatisfactions tend to turn against local powers, thus sparing central powers. The author demonstrates that the Xiaokang configures particular forms of collective action by the Chinese, whose right to rebel should not interfere with stability. His work helps to erode the false myth of Chinese passivity in the face of an authoritarian state: more than 3000 strikes and 200.000 protests take place each year in China. These numbers show a poignant collective life that matches the energetic characteristic that Perry Anderson attributes to the Chinese people, without, however, endangering the governmental apparatus of the Chinese CPC, which brings China to the forefront of scientific and technological production after two decades of “survival developmentalism”, a concept that Pinheiro-Machado uses to explain an export model based on the production of cheap manufactures, intensive work and currency manipulation. Despite the violence of production relations that characterized this phase, the standard of living in the city and the countryside improved. Xiaokang. (Pinheiro-Machado, 2018: p.125)

It is through the Xiaokang that China maintains the conciliation between collective action and repression. Pinheiro-Machado demonstrates how this concept permeates even the most explosive moments of contestation of established powers, such as the CPR. The author shows us that China “...has too much history and too much historical sense to abandon its millenary tics of governing” (p 125) and helps us to look at the “Middle Empire” in a less strange way, and perhaps because of this, with more astonishment.

Perry Anderson does a solid job of synthesis in his essay Two Revolutions, presenting to the reader, in 44 pages, an overview of the development of the Chinese socialist model from the points of contact and rupture between the states born from the two most important revolutions of the 80th century, the Russian and the Chinese. However, it goes without saying that Wang Chaohua's criticisms of Anderson's work are echoed. The asymmetry of treatment that Anderson gives to revolutions in disfavor of the Russian Revolution, serving only to highlight the success of the Chinese Revolution, puts in check the comparative objective that is expected when reading the title of the work. In this sense, Chaohua's reply, before denying it, complements Anderson's comparative effort by outlining socio-political aspects of the Russian Revolution that end up going unnoticed or little treated by the British historian and presents in more detail internal contradictions present in the Chinese model that problematize some simplifications present in Perry Anderson's essay. Perhaps as a result of the methodological model chosen by the author – a comparison reflecting the two revolutions based on their points of contact and rupture – we also miss an “inversion point”: possible similarities between the Chinese reforms in the 2017s and the New Economic Policy (NEP) of Lenin and Bukharin, dating from the heroic years of the Russian Revolution. To what extent did the introduction of the market economy, the right to own surplus production and the encouragement of competition between state-owned companies around the possibility of profit reflect the influence and appreciation that Deng Xiao Ping had for the NEP (HUI, 705 : pp. XNUMX), even as a response to the plastered command economy of the Brezhnevist years? Perry Anderson devotes little space to the NEP, emphasizing only its limited nature. This is an approach that the work leaves open and that echoes the asymmetrical way in which Anderson treats the Soviet and Chinese states. There remains an open question about the fate that awaits the outcome of “Chinese-style socialism”, a riddle that not even the most used futurologists dare to point out. Perry Anderson gives us, from his reading, a glimpse of the plots that cover up such a destiny.

*Peter Ramos of Toledo Master in History from the University of São Paulo (USP)


Perry Anderson. Two revolutions: Russia and China. São Paulo, Boitempo, 126 pages (

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