The collapse of the Soviet Union had a profound impact on China’s thinking about political ideology, institutions and development.footnote1 The disastrous consequences for social welfare in Russia arising from the cpsu’s demise reinforced Beijing’s determination to resist external and internal pressure to move towards parliamentary democracy. Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union disintegrate while the Communist Party of China (cpc) was able to survive and strengthen its position? The dramatic divergence in the trajectories of the two Communist superpowers has been of incalculable significance for the global political economy of the twenty-first century, with effects potentially enduring far into the future.

The two regimes had a common point of departure in the political-economic system established in Russia in 1917–21. Its essential features—a monopoly of political control in the hands of the Party, state ownership of the means of production, state control over finance and trade—were devised during the extreme violence and struggle for survival of the fledgling Bolshevik regime during Russia’s civil war. When it was founded in 1921, the Communist Party of China adopted fundamentally the same political structure and the same approach to economic organization. As Xi Jinping put it in 2017: ‘The salvoes of the October Revolution brought Marxism-Leninism to China. In the scientific truth of Marxism-Leninism, Chinese progressives saw a solution to China’s problems.’footnote2

In both the ussr and China, civil war and the struggle for national survival against an invading power—respectively, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—reinforced the centralist, disciplinarian aspects of the Communist Party. In both countries, the period of the ‘New Economic Policy’—in the early 1920s, under Lenin, and the early 1950s, under Mao—temporarily modified the approach to economic strategy, but the philosophy of the ‘whole economy as a single factory’, including the organization of the rural population in collective farms, was quickly re-established as the key to economic organization on both sides of the Amur River. This ‘Stalinist’ economic system, alongside monolithic political control by the Party apparatus, persisted in China up to the death of Mao in 1976 and in Russia until the ascent of Gorbachev as General Secretary of the cpsu in 1985.

However, the common features of the political-economic systems of the two Communist powers disguised profound differences in the nature of their pre-revolutionary regimes. For the cpsu, the ancien régime was the Russian state established from the seventeenth century onwards by the tiny Principality of Moscow through a long series of military conquests. This expansionist polity was ruled by a centralized, authoritarian government equipped with a huge army, necessary in the first instance to hold together a vast, sparsely populated and ethnically diverse territory with strong inbuilt fissiparous tendencies, and which was then tested in fierce struggles with neighbouring countries: the Great Northern Wars with the mighty Swedish state between 1700–21, the Napoleonic invasion of 1812, the Crimean War against France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire in the 1850s, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. The First World War was the last and most devastating in a long series of conflicts between Imperial Russia and its great-power rivals.

In social terms, the upper reaches of the Tsarist military and civil service were staffed by a landlord class dependent on the sovereign for the allocation and protection of its holdings. This layer had been illiterate, by and large, through to the seventeenth century, as was most of the clergy. Russia had a negligible written tradition, with a minimal place for ethical or philosophical thinking about the role of the ruling class. The Orthodox Church was reduced to the position of a subordinate branch of the state, which appointed and paid its priests and high officials. The mass of peasants, foot soldiers for the army, were virtual slaves and remained subservient even after Emancipation in 1861. Although the country possessed a highly developed internal trading system, the merchant class was kept under tight control. The Tsarist regime established state monopolies for merchants, systematically taxed their profits to support the national treasury, and took care to prevent substantial commercial cities from materializing.